Clear and Organized Teaching
By Charles Blaich and Kathleen Wise
An April 14, 2014 article in the Chronicle of Higher Education referenced data on teaching clarity and organization that we presented first at an AAC&U meeting in January and then at a Teagle Foundation meeting last week.
Some background — Much of the talk about improving college impact focuses on “big changes” and “reforms,” such as increasing the number of high-impact practices that students experience or revising curricula to make them more interdisciplinary. We think that such changes are great. But it is important to be realistic about the fact that they will require considerable effort, can be expensive, and may take years to accomplish. While we work toward these larger changes, it’s important to remember that another way of improving student learning at our institutions would be to improve the quality of teaching within the courses, programs, and curricula that we currently have.
People might argue, “This is what we’re doing every day!” And we know they are. But focused efforts to improve the basic teaching skills of all of our faculty, ranging from our most senior colleagues to adjunct faculty, have the potential to create immediate benefits for our students.
One seemingly simple aspect of teaching is “clarity and organization.” Our data on clarity and organization come from ten questions that we used in the Wabash National Study. We asked students these questions at the end of their first year of college —
Taking into consideration all of the faculty with whom you’ve interacted at this institution, how often have you experienced faculty who
- Gave clear explanations?
- Made good use of examples and illustrations to explain difficult points?
- Effectively reviewed and summarized the material?
- Interpreted abstract ideas and theories clearly?
- Gave assignments that helped in learning the course material?
- Presented material in a well-organized way?
- Came to class well prepared?
- Used class time effectively?
- Clearly explained course goals and requirements?
- Had a good command of what they were teaching?
Students could respond “very often,” “often,” “sometimes,” “rarely,” or “never” to each of these questions. What proportion of the roughly 8,200 first-year students who responded to this question did not answer “very often” or “often” on average?
- 48% of all first-year students
- 63% of African-American first-year students
- 58% of the first-year students at larger institutions
- 41% of the first-year students at smaller institutions
- 25% of first-year students at the institution with the highest average score on teaching clarity and organization
- 77% of first-year students at the institution with the lowest average score on teaching clarity and organization
Clarity and organization, and the lack thereof, has serious consequences for students. Taking into account their major, gender, type of institution, race, parental education, high school involvement, a host of other good practices, and students’ performance on our outcomes measures when they first entered college, clarity and organization has a positive significant relationship with students’
- Critical thinking
- Interest in political and civic involvement
- Interest in socially responsible, collaborative leadership
- Academic motivation
- Psychological well-being
- Interest in reading and writing as a means of learning
- Interest in engaging new ideas
- Moral reasoning
- Interest in engaging difficult intellectual problems
- Interest in interacting with diverse people
- Likelihood of persisting and graduating
College faculty should aim for creating high levels of clarity and organization in the classroom. This does not mean “dumbing down” the class. It means giving clear explanations and instructions, using good examples, being prepared, using time with our students well, and other basic elements of good teaching. It also means remembering that our students are not the disciplinary experts that we are, and that in order to explain even sometimes seemingly basic concepts to them, we must find ways to engage our students where they are, using language and frameworks of knowledge that make sense to them.
We do not claim that this is an easy task. We both have experience teaching, and with the varied backgrounds of our students and the complexities of our ever advancing disciplines and professions, we know that this is challenging work. We also understand that clarity and organization is not independent of the disciplinary and professional ideas we want to teach. The challenge of being clear about Plato’s ideas is different from the challenge of clearly explaining cognitive dissonance or the concept of confidence intervals. The preparation and organization required to engage students in a discovery learning laboratory in biology is different from having students practice focus group interviews for their sociology class. Clarity and organization only seems “mundane” if we think about this aspect of teaching apart from the difficult ideas and methods in which we are trying to engage our students.
Teaching well requires a life-long commitment to developing our craft; we don’t master a set of skills and move on. Developing this craft requires us not only to consider innovative pedagogies, high-impact practices, and engaging the latest work in our fields, but also to refine the basic tools we use in our work—just as athletes, dancers, woodworkers, musicians, and other artisans do throughout their careers. In our view, in order to improve student learning, it is important that our institutions devote the time, facilities, structures, and other resources so that all of the faculty who teach our students can develop their teaching skills. Such efforts need not replace the larger scale improvements that we described above, but neither should they be supplanted by these fancier, higher profile efforts.