I was recently browsing articles on Inside Higher Ed, and came across one of their ‘Quick Takes’ pieces, about a report from the American Council on Education, entitled Unpacking Relationships: Instruction and Student Outcomes

Two things struck me as I ‘quickly took’ the content. The first was the opening statement: Student success depends, in large part, on the effectiveness of the faculty members instructing them.


The more cynical reader may think “well, no shit Sherlock”, but there seems to be more to say here than the usual sneer in the face of the bleedin’-obvious-research-outcome. The role of staff here, faculty as our transatlantic colleagues insist on calling them, is not so much to be charismatic entertainers*, but refers to their role in providing the ‘learning environment’, and promoting engagement. They see five areas, “of intersection between instruction and student outcomes, arguing that what faculty do and how instruction occurs matter, and matter greatly”***

Before I reveal these five vital areas, I was struck, as I note some were on Twitter, by this 2017-01-10-13-00-18-2sentence. It is so small, and matter-of-fact, that we might miss that if this is a true finding of a study, we need to wake up and pay serious attention: The most effective methods for ensuring student success are not widely practiced in higher education.****

..the evidence-based practices that we know impact student outcomes and instruction, while widely documented as effective, are not widely used in practice.


The paper claims that there is good evidence, well-documented, as to what is effective in Higher Education – but this is not widely deployed. The issue, we might speculate, is that those who are aware of this evidence, who have it to hand, and are convinced by it, and those who make decisions about University policy, are not always the same people. Maybe.

We could also speculate that many teaching staff are suspicious of innovation – not because they are bad people, but because they are cautious, and know that there is clearly some efficacy in their current practice. Why replace it with untested, modish ways, that may only seem to work – and then be stuck with floundering students. Maybe. [This may not be the place to discuss the CAVE acronym^].

I will cease this pointless speculation briefly, as I want to get these evidence-led practices, as I am sure you do. The report’s executive summary gives us them as 5 core ideas:

• TRANSPARENCY: Students must have a clear understanding of where they are going as well as the criteria by which they will be assessed as to whether they have arrived. Making teaching and learning visible is important for all students, especially in the design and presentation of assignments. Students need clear goals in order to understand their progress and remain motivated. Transparent teaching involves making the implicit explicit for students so they understand why they are engaged in certain tasks and what role the course plays in their learning journey.

• PEDAGOGICAL APPROACHES: There are various pedagogical approaches that are linked to enhancing student learning, involvement, and engagement beyond simply making the coherence of the educational experience clear to students. High-impact practices provide one such mechanism, as do personalized instruction, active learning, and others.

• ASSESSMENT: Students need multiple opportunities to practice learning in a variety of situations in order to facilitate the transfer of knowledge. It is not enough to create supportive learning environments that simply assess students at the end without providing feedback along the way. Students can learn through doing the assessment task, built upon high expectations and authentic assignments, constructed in ways that support integration and intentional learning.

• SELF-REGULATION: Students have an active role in their education and are more likely to persist and graduate when actively involved in the educational process. The active participation of students in their own learning is a necessary component of the relationships between instruction and student outcomes. Reflection and self-regulation have the potential to move students from passive to active learners, and deep learning is achieved through reflection as opposed to experience alone.

• ALIGNMENT: Learning environments are successful depending on the degree to which the various elements are aligned, such as content, instructional design, pedagogical approaches, assignments, and evaluative criteria. Alignment provides a means to counteract incoherence and fragmentation of the college experience. Undergraduate students need strategies in place that reverse curricular fragmentation and connect their learning for increased student success.

I think each of these is worthy of more than just this brief blog spot, and I hope to return to each of them in coming months, but to return to where I began. What is notable is the report claim that these 5, vital, outcome-determining, factors, are under the control of staff. We can do things that matter in relation to them. How much we can do will depend on the regulatory infrastructure we exist within (how long will it take it implement assessment modifications can vary. A lot.), and (perhaps more critically) how much time we have. But I think what is valuable is they give us an evidential-frame to ague within. For example, the section on alignment should really help us think through the extent to which a non-modular, integrated curriculum, can address the need for thinking through how a student experiences a particular stage of their educational progress.

None of these 5 approaches are easy, and I see lots of cases of aspects of them being done to great effect by hugely engaged colleagues, and the phrase ‘learning journey’ upsets my stomach a little, but it may be time to think that from an institutional perspective the ‘I wonder what works’ phase of educational innovation is not as urgent as the actual need to get on with enacting these changes.


* Not that I have anything against that. I will do unarmed combat** with those who want to downplay the important of cultivating an engaging, performatively efficacious persona for class use.

** By which I mean, I will exchange passive aggressive tweets, somehow implying they are not a winner, due to their failure to concur with my wise views. My colleague Dr Large knows, to his endless despair, the depths of sophistry that I am prepared to descend to, in order to achieve hollow rhetorical victories.

*** http://www.acenet.edu/news-room/Documents/Unpacking-Relationships-Instruction-and-Student-Outcomes.pdf p.3

**** https://www.insidehighered.com/quicktakes/2017/01/25/report-professors-role-student-success

^CAVE: Colleagues Against Virtually Everything – I have heard innovative educators use this term: but in reality, although it might feel that way, I can count one the fingers of one hand, in over two decades of HE work, the people who are really against everything… Apparently from a 1990s phrase Citizens Against Virtually Everything, rather like NIMBYism.