Evidence-based teaching: my definition

I’ve been thinking lately about what we mean when we say “evidence-based teaching.” It’s a term I’ve used a lot (e.g., the Evidence-Based Teaching Guides feature of LSE that I co-edit with Kristy Wilson of Marian University), but I didn’t really think about the definition until earlier this year, when I ran into some disagreement about the roles of research support, practitioner expertise, and patient preference in evidence-based clinical practice. I had never really considered that evidence-based medicine and nursing have more elements than simply research support, but some of the original definitions very clearly delineate these elements:

“Evidence based medicine is not “cookbook” medicine. Because it requires a bottom up approach that integrates the best external evidence with individual clinical expertise and patients’ choice, it cannot result in slavish, cookbook approaches to individual patient care. External clinical expertise can inform, but can never replace, individual clinical expertise, and it is this expertise that decides whether the external evidence applies to the individual patient at all and, if so, how it should be integrated into a clinical decision. Similarly, any external guideline must be integrated with individual clinical expertise in deciding whether and how it matches the patient’s clinical state, predicament, and preferences, and thus whether it should be applied.” 

D.L. Sackett, W.M. Rosenberg, J.A. Gray, R.B. Hayes, and W.S. Richardson, Evidence based medicine: what it is and what it isn’t. BMJ 312: 71-72, 1996.

My (admittedly pretty slim) reading suggests that there may not be universal agreement on this subject, but as I’m not a clinician and I’m primarily interested in how to think about evidence-based teaching, I find this a useful definition.

Reading this definition brought to mind relatively recent papers on “fidelity of implementation” in the DBER literature (see here and here) and the ‘prescribed change in individuals’ quadrant of change strategies that Charles Henderson, Andrea Beach, and Noah Finkelstein identified in their analytic review of literature on facilitating change in undergraduate STEM instruction, and helped me think about why I have a pretty negative reaction to “prescribed individual change” strategies. I value evidence, but I also think it’s critical for instructors to adapt approaches to fit their students’ and their own strengths and needs.   

So where does that leave me? Right now, my definition is that evidence-based teaching has three components.

  1. Instructional practices should fit within a research-based theory of learning. This means that while a given practice may not have been examined in the literature, the function it serves in promoting learning has support. Thanks to Geoff Petty’s Evidence Based Teaching: A Practical Approach, I discovered Robert Marzano’s Theory-Based Meta-Analysis of Research on Instruction, which I LOVE. [I understand that since he published the meta-analysis in 1998, he’s taken some steps that may estrange classroom teachers, but I ❤ the theory-based meta-analysis.] Geoff Petty summarizes it like this (page 75 in his book):

Marzano then goes through and uses studies that look at instructional practices that have the potential to impact specific elements of this theory. For example, three practices have a significant impact on students’ ability to store and retrieve knowledge:

Practice Effect size Number of studies
Cues, or providing students with a brief preview of the information or sill 1.13 7
Questions 0.93 45
Direct schema activation, or asking students what they know 0.75 83

I used two pieces of this theory (on self-system and on cognitive processes) in my book, Science Teaching Essentials: Short Guides to Good Practice, to help frame why particular practices promote inclusivity or why you would use active learning approaches.

So why do I love this so much? I love it because having a theory (or model, or framework) for learning means that instructors have a basis for choosing and adapting specific practices based on their specific class—which is the second component of my evidence-based teaching definition:

2. Instructor expertise is critical for choosing and adapting practices for a particular context. As instructors, we are all different; I don’t the bravery to dive into different technology tools in the classroom the way my colleague Derek Bruff does, and I’m not the outstanding, contemplative discussion leader that my colleague Stacey Johnson is. I am, however, clear about the learning goals I have for my students, and I love to create and find questions and problems that help them reach them—and choose instructional approaches that help the students support each other and build an inclusive environment while tackling those problems. So as long as I choose practices that fit within a research-based theory of learning, I can and do adapt. [One thing I should say here: while the ‘fidelity of implementation’ language makes me itchy, the idea behind fidelity of implementation is that research should identify the key elements of a particular instructional practice and that instructors can adapt as long as they keep those key elements intact.] As someone who works in faculty development, this is really important to me: I want the faculty I work with to know that I respect their expertise and that I don’t think they need to be fixed—my job is just to help them think through how to adapt practices that support learning for their students. And that brings me to the third component of my evidence-based learning definition: student needs and preferences.

3. Student needs and preferences are key to choosing and adapting instructional practices. Any course we teach—or any learning environment we find ourselves in—has students with varied needs and desires. Part of evidence-based teaching is taking those into account. Have a class with a lot of introverts? Perhaps paper discussions can take place online, where students can think through their comments carefully before committing to them. Have a class with students interested in science communication? Perhaps a paper can be converted from a traditional format to a Scientific American-style review. This is not to say that we have to let go of key learning goals—although Marzano’s meta-analysis and a slew of other work notes that students’ setting goals promotes their learning—but that we consider adapting our practices to allow our students to both meet their goals and to demonstrate their knowledge to the greatest degree. [Note: I’m not supporting learning styles!]

So, this is the definition of evidence-based teaching that I have settled upon. It’s not revolutionary; when you read others’ definitions, you’ll find many of the same ideas, if couched in different ways. It is important to me, though, to identify the importance of the three legs of the stool and to note that the first leg is a theory of learning, not just identification of some supporting paper somewhere. I hope this is helpful for your own thinking, and I’d love to hear about your definitions.  

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