Does a Dynamic Professor Matter to Student Learning?

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I am waiting for the course evaluations from the students who took my leadership class this past Spring semester. Like most professors, I read these assessments carefully so that I can try to improve my classes in the future. Even after 40+ years of teaching, I know I can get better.

Obviously, it is gratifying when students express high degrees of satisfaction with the course. It is especially rewarding when students say that they learned a great deal and the course met or exceeded their expectations. The word that still disappoints me the most is “boring.”

I was intrigued by a review of an article entitled, “Fluency Can be Deceiving: Instructor Fluency Increases Perceptions of Learning without Increasing Actual Learning.” Published in the Psychonomic Bulletin and Review, the article summarizes the research of psychologists at Iowa State University and Williams College. I found the complete article and found it fascinating.

The research study compared both the perceptions of learning and the actual learning of students who participated in the same lecture. In one case, the instructor “stood upright, maintained eye contact, and spoke fluidly without notes” (i.e., highly fluent). In the other case, the same material was presented by an instructor who “slumped, looked away and spoke haltingly with notes.”

After each lecture, the students were asked to predict how much they learned from the class session. Specifically, they were asked to predict how much of the content they would recall at a later date.

As you would expect, the students in the “highly fluent” class indicated a much higher expectation of learning. Equally predictable, the students in this class rated their instructor significantly higher indicating that the instructor was more prepared and more effective. But while this instructor was assessed as being less boring, “fluency” did not appreciably impact learning.

Students in both classes were subsequently tested on the content of the lecture. The lecture involved a scientific concept that was explained by the instructor. The actual knowledge (i.e. learning) was virtually the same. When these results were shared, the students who had participated in the more interesting and exciting lecture were both surprised and disappointed. They expected to do better.

The only conclusion reached by these researchers is that student perceptions are based more on “lecture fluency” than “actual learning.”  I have never met a student who didn’t want their professors to be engaging, interesting and dynamic. To be labeled “boring” is never a compliment.

But the most important result of teaching is student learning. And this should be the focus of pedagogical improvement. In commenting on this research, Eric Mazur, Balkanski Professor of Physics and Applied Physics at Harvard, wrote, “With a better presenter it might seem like you are taking more in, but it doesn't mean that anything has actually been learned -- it doesn't mean there has been an 'Aha!' moment."  

Mazur is an advocate of teaching through “peer instruction.”   In this method, there is more questioning of students during every class to determine more readily if they are both understanding and learning.

Despite this research, I still do not want to be assessed as a boring instructor. But I will work harder in the Fall to make sure my students actually learn!

(As always, your comments and questions are welcome.)

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Guest Sunday, 20 April 2014