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MSE Study Shares Insights to Improve Teaching

Whitney McGowan

Teaching improvement doesn’t have to come at the expense of family, hobbies, or health, says Whitney McGowan, a doctoral student in the McKay School’s Department of Instructional Psychology and Technology. Although many university faculty members feel that it is difficult to improve teaching without great sacrifice, McGowan’s recent research, conducted with Dr. Charles Graham and Russ Osguthorpe, Director, Center for Teaching & Learning, proves that it is possible, even simple, to improve teaching.

The study, titled “Factors Contributing to Improved Teacher Performance,” originally completed for McGowan’s masters thesis, states that three simple adjustments can help teachers improve effectiveness and student ratings. An article based on this research has been accepted for publication by Innovative Higher Education.

McGowan’s research is based on information gathered from 300 BYU professors who had experienced a major increase in their student ratings (at least 1.5 points on their online student ratings)—a common measure of teacher effectiveness and improvement. McGowan queried the professors as to what they did differently that could have been responsible for the change.

“The number one factor was active and practical learning,” McGowan explained. “That included doing activities that are relevant to their students’ majors, and to things they would do after graduating.” She highlighted how professors did active learning activities in their classes, involved students in discussions, or even allowed students to teach sections of the material.

McGowan explained that the number two factor that contributed to professor improvement was increasing interaction with students. “A lot of faculty don’t think that this is very important, but it makes a huge difference,” McGowan emphasized. She explained that doing things as simple as learning students’ names and getting involved with their lives made a large impact on students’ learning and involvement.

The third factor McGowan described was professors’ use of clear expectations and learning outcomes. “That includes clearly defining in the course syllabus what the students were expected to learn,” McGowan detailed. “They would explain why they assigned each activity or homework assignment, so the students didn’t see [the assignments] as busy work.” Giving students a sense of purpose behind the curriculum helps them maintain perspective. In addition, McGowan conducted 30 personal interviews with faculty and found that, despite many professors’ insecurities—not being funny, having boring subject matter, having a large class size, etc.—small adjustments yielded major results in every discipline and in many departments.

“The message we want to send to professors is that it is not impossible to improve your teaching,” McGowan urged. “Three hundred professors already have!"

8 June 2009