One of my passions is instructional technique—call it teaching technique, educational interactions, or pedagogy (or more precisely for my work, andragogy, i.e., adult education). The *way* someone interacts with new information—the ways the information is packaged, explored, and practiced—have a profound influence on learners’ motivation, memory, and understanding. This isn’t simply my belief; empirical research supports my claims.
At this year’s I/ITSEC conference, I’m scheduled to give a tutorial on instructional techniques; it’s sort of a crash course in why instructional technique matters (in an objective sense) as well as a high-level exploration of instructional strategies, tactics, and assessment techniques. Here’s an infographic to coincide with my tutorial:
IMO, the most interesting section of this is the bit about instructor return on investment (ROI), i.e., that bit at the top of the infographic. Here’s a breakdown:
Instructor skill has a substantial impact on learning outcomes
Research findings overwhelmingly demonstrate the significant impact instructors have. In fact, “…the most important factor affecting student learning is the teacher” (Sanders, Wright, & Horn, 1997, p. 61). Typical results show that a one standard deviation increase in teacher quality raises student outcomes by approximately .20-.24 standard deviations (Rockoff, 2004); that is, a 35% increase in teacher quality raises student outcomes by about 8-9%. To better understand these numbers, Stanford professor Eric Hanushek (2011) correlated teacher quality to student learning outcomes and then student learning outcomes to students’ lifetime earnings. He found that even a slight increase in a teacher’s quality (i.e., slightly above the mean at the 60th percentile) on average led to a $10,000 increase in lifetime earnings achievement per student. A significant increase in teacher skill (up to the 84th percentile) led to even more earnings—so that one expert teacher, with a class of 20 students, will shift their collective earning potential by $400,000. Conversely, a poor quality teacher will create negative earning potential. A teacher at the 16th percentile, for instance, will create a negative impact of $20,000 per student over their lifetimes (Hanushek, 2011).
Marzano and Pickering (2003), in their popular book Classroom management that works, reinforced these sorts of finding. They reported that students generally mature at about 6 percentile points growth per year, and that poor teachers can encourage 14 percentile points growth (i.e., poor teachers foster about 8 percentile points knowledge/skill growth per year above normal maturation). In contrast, the best teachers foster about 46% percentile points growth per year above normal maturation—roughly six-times as much improvement than their weaker teaching counterparts.
But subject-matter expertise is surely *more* important… isn’t it?
I often encounter a misconception about subject-matter experts. Despite our own experiences (and surely you’ve taken a course with a brilliant—but ultimately unintelligible—professor), people still continue to believe that topical knowledge is paramount. In reality, a sufficient amount of subject-matter knowhow + a strong instructional ability seems the best.
Darling-Hammond (1999), in her review of of the evidence on teaching teaching quality, found a relatively strong and consistent influence of teachers’ educational preparation (i.e., presumably pedagogical/andragogical knowledge) on student outcomes. In one study she discusses (from Ferguson and Womack, 1993), results show that “the amount of educational coursework completed by teachers explained more than four times the variance in teacher performance (16.5 percent) than did measures of content knowledge…which explained less than 4 percent.” (my bolding)
Instructional skill is definable
Instructors’ knowledge and skill in pedagogy (and andragogy) can be formally defined and assessed. For example, the National Teacher Examination (NTE), a standardized measure of basic skills and professional teaching knowledge, consistently demonstrates high reliability and validity, and NTE scores have a large, positive correlation with student performance (Darling-Hammond & Youngs, 2002). For observation-based measures, the Cincinnati Public Schools’ Teacher Evaluation System (TES) is often touted for its high quality. The TES includes four annual peer/supervisor evaluations where the evaluators use a rubric that itemizes the practices, skills, and characteristics of effective teachers (Darling-Hammond & Youngs, 2002).
More subjectively, various inventories (including one I helped develop) exist. Darling-Hammond’s (1999) review offered a nice listing of some of those instructional skills, i.e., the best teachers are those who:
- use a range of teaching and interaction styles
- create and adapt instructional strategies
- structure material, ask higher-order questions, and probe comments
- possess a broad repertoire of approaches (e.g., direct and indirect, experience-based, lecture and small group instructional methods)
Darling-Hammond goes on to offer a great quote about less skilled instructors; she writes:
“Doyle (1986) hypothesizes that since the novel tasks required for problem-solving are more difficult to manage than the routine tasks associated with rote learning, lack of knowledge about how to mange an active, inquiry-oriented classroom can lead teachers to turn to passive tactics that ‘dumb down’ the curriculum.” (my bolding)
Instructional skill is learn-able
Teaching and training may have some elements of “art,” but they also have a strong learning science basis. In other words, instructional skill can be learned. No only does Darling-Hammond’s review suggest this (i.e., with the aforementioned correlation between educational coursework and student outcomes), but another study by Yoon, Duncan, Lee, et al. (2008) specifically examined this question. Across all nine studies, they found that teachers who received professional development saw an increase in their students achievement scores—on average by 21% for students whose teachers were provided professional development.
Instructional quality matters. It can be defined, and measured, and learned. Therefore, we should seriously consider how we’re preparing teachers, trainers, instructors, and other educational guides. The proficiency of these individuals (or technological agents!) profoundly affects learning outcomes.