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Evidence-informed approaches to teaching: what's the evidence?

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By Margaret Adolphus


Imagine you are a reasonably successful teacher, who regularly scores well on student evaluation sheets. You recently introduced a new method of teaching on one of your courses which involved students debating online rather than, as is your usual practice, around a table. You put a lot of effort into the online debate, regularly weaving discussions and chasing up lurkers, and the indications are that the approach has been very successful. But, is the experience generalizable? Once you remove your own particular "x-factor", will it succeed elsewhere?

Much of the time with evaluation, you are concerned with a particular course, and with the teacher as much as the approach. But there are times when you need to take a broader view. You may be re-assessing your teaching and learning strategy, perhaps in response to external pressures such as changes to the syllabus, or student body, or a higher teacher-student ratio. In this case, you may want to take a more "scientific", approach to what works, rather than relying on anecdotal evidence.

Not so long ago a university teacher's expertise lay in their research; now they are also expected to be good, and flexible, teachers. The ability to generalize, and repeat in other sessions, is as important for valid teaching as it is for valid research. And research offers a basis for policy: objective evidence that a particular strategy can be effective.

Traditionally, the measure for research has been in publication and citation; while that for teaching has been student evaluations. But is this the most effective form of measurement, if not, then what is, and what constitutes the type of evidence on which policy can be based? Such is the debate going on in most industrialized nations.

There are a number of reasons for this:

  • the huge explosion in student numbers;
  • the greater concern with the testing of student achievement, and the evidence that it reveals;
  • a tendency for students to act more as consumers, and to express vocal dissatisfaction with the education they are receiving; and
  • the knowledge explosion powered by the Internet (Centre for Educational Research and Innovation, 2007).

In addition, there is increasing internationalism, as seen in the tendency for universities to link up to offer international courses and campuses, together with greater standardization in the form of initiatives such as the EC's Bologna Process, which seeks to create equivalence in member countries. And finally, there is the quality agenda: institutions having to provide evidence that what they are doing is working.

All this had led to research and teaching (in many countries considered two different, and at times competing, academic activities) coming together. According to Alan Jenkins of Oxford Brookes University, who has researched widely in the area, national policies and funding for research in both the US and in the UK has led to a "structural separation" between research and teaching, to the detriment of the latter (Jenkins, 2004).

This may now be changing: there is a universal concern for sound teaching strategies based on evidence of effectiveness, and teaching methods which encourage students to think like researchers.