A Terrific and Dismal View of What Influences CS Faculty to Adopt Teaching Practices

September 21, 2015 at 8:59 am 6 comments

Lecia Barker had a terrific paper in SIGCSE 2015 that I just recently had the chance to dig into. (See paper in ACM DL here.)  Here’s the abstract:

Despite widespread development, research, and dissemination of teaching and curricular practices that improve student retention and learning, faculty often do not adopt them. This paper describes the first findings of a two-part study to improve understanding of adoption of teaching practices and curriculum by computer science faculty. The paper closes with recommendations for designers and developers of teaching innovations hoping to increase their chance of adoption.

I’ve published in this area before.  Davide Fossati and I wrote a paper about the practices of CS teachers (based on interviews with about a dozen CS university teachers): how they made change, what convinced them to change, and how they decided if the change worked.  (See blog post about this here.)  The general theme was that these decisions rarely had an empirical basis.

Lecia and her co-authors went far beyond our study.  She interviewed and observed 66 CS faculty from 36 institutions, explicitly chosen to represent a diverse set of schools.  The result is the best picture I’ve yet seen of how CS faculty make decisions.

Lecia found more evidence of teachers using empirical evidence than we did, which was great to see.  But whether students “liked” it or not was still the most critical variable:

On the other hand, if students don’t “like it,” faculty are unlikely to continue using a new practice. At a public research university, a professor said, “You can do something that you think, ‘Wow! If the learning experience was way better this term, the experiment really worked.’ And then you read your teaching reviews, and it’s like the students are pissed off because you did not do what they expected.”

Lecia discovered a reason not to adopt that I’d not heard before.  She found that CS teachers filter out innovations that didn’t come from a context like their own.  Those of us at research universities are filtered out by some teachers at teaching-oriented institutions:

Faculty trust colleagues who have similar teaching and research contexts, share attitudes toward students and teaching, or teach similar subjects. In describing what conference speakers he finds credible at SIGCSE, a professor at a private liberal arts university acknowledged, “I do have the anti- ‘Research One’ bias. Like if the speaker is somebody who teaches at <prestigious public research university>, the mental clout that I give them as a teacher—unless they’re a lecturer—I drop them a notch. When someone stands up to speak and they’re from a really successful teaching college <names several> or universities that have a real reputation of being great undergraduate teaching institutions, I give them a lot of merit.”

The part that I found most depressing (even if not surprising) is that research evidence did not matter at all in adopting new ways to teach:

Despite being researchers themselves, the CS faculty we spoke to for the most part did not believe that results from educational studies were credible reasons to try out teaching practices.

Lecia’s study is well done, and the paper is fascinating, but the overall picture is rather dismal.  She points out many other issues that I’m not going into here, like the trade-off between cost and benefit of adopting a new practice, and about the need for specialized equipment in classrooms for some new practices.  Overall, she finds that it’s really hard to get higher education CS faculty to adopt better practices.  We reported on that in “Georgia Computes!” (see post here) but it’s even more disappointing when you see it in a large, broad study like this.

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6 Comments Add your own

  • 1. carpetbomberz  |  September 21, 2015 at 9:22 am

    It’s unfortunate that bias against “disimilar contexts”. I have always known and appreciated the divide between STEM and Humanities and Social Sciences when it comes to teaching. But I was unaware of the divide between R1 vs. teaching schools. I know that whenever I’m given to the task to “evaluate” practices we’re far too keen on “peer institutions”. I don’t know why that is but it is pervasive.

  • 2. Bonnie  |  September 21, 2015 at 11:43 am

    It isn’t that faculty at teaching universities dislike or distrust faculty at R1’s, which you seem to imply. I think it is more that these studies are run in enviroments that are quite different from the environment at a smaller teaching oriented school. We would like to see the results replicated in environments more similar to ours.

    Faculty who teach at an R1 have
    pretty large lecture sections
    highly prepared and motivated students (at least in the major)
    excellent IT support
    lots of classroom support – graders, TAs, and other support
    a 2 course/semester load

    faculty who teach at a small regional teaching university have
    usually small classes (meaning that strategies designed for large lectures often make no sense)
    often very underprepared students (and yes, that does vary)
    minimal IT support
    no classroom support – we are the grader, the TA,and the IT person all rolled into one.
    a 4 or even 5 course/semester load

    It would be nice to see the results replicated in particular with unprepared students. Studies in K12 have found that strategies that work well in high SES schools often are not as effective in low SES schools. Why wouldn’t it be the same in higher education? As a result, I tend to put weight on studies that have been run on students who are not well prepared academically, in settings with little support for the faculty.

    I also think you would be surprised to see how much active learning is happening in teaching oriented schools, I’ve been using a lot of the methods reported in the studies, and even had an NSF grant for developing active learning methods back in the 90’s. Most of my colleagues use active learning because this is what makes sense with our small classes and unprepared students.

  • […] “It’s the pedagogy, stupid!”  Of course, I agree with Elliot, and it’s why Lecia Barker’s findings are so disturbing.  We have to be willing to change pedagogy to improve […]

  • […]  I’ve posted here about how how education research is mostly ignored by CS teachers (see link here).  Cuban is pointing out that policy makers don’t consider education research (or maybe […]

  • 5. David Klappholz  |  April 8, 2016 at 11:45 am

    I’m one of those who tried a new active-learning approach, recommended by an ed psych colleague, and was taken off the course because the students didn’t like it.

  • […] doesn’t influence teaching much (see blog post), or policy (see blog post), and from the article cited below, not even in our daily […]


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