Faculty teaching style impedes academic success, students say
James Walsh, an education major at the University of South Carolina at Aiken who’s been recognized for his ability to creatively teach middle schoolers math, has some strong opinions about college teaching: “The notion that everyone learns the same way is ridiculous, but professors tend to stick to what they know and what they have always done.”
Outside of the education program at USC Aiken, nearly all of Walsh’s professors lecture nearly all the time, he says. With one exception—a professor of biology who facilitated lively lab discussions prompted by images—Walsh, a senior, can’t name a single professor who’s used “different teaching styles to engage us as learners.”
Lectures are a “great tool for college courses, but they are just used way too often,” he says. And while the idea that “learning can be fun is thrown out the window once in college,” it can be “just as exciting for us.”
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Walsh’s credentials aside, it apparently doesn’t take a teacher in training to critique faculty teaching styles, or to want more from the college classroom experience: more than half of respondents to the recent Inside Higher Ed/College Pulse survey of 3,004 students at 128 four- and two-year institutions say teaching style has made it hard to succeed in a class since starting college.
This makes a “teaching style that didn’t work for me” the No. 1 barrier to academic success cited by students in the survey over all. The share of students who say this is even larger for key subgroups, including those with learning disabilities or related conditions.
Relatedly, half of students want professors to experiment with different teaching styles. This was the No. 2 response to a separate survey question about which faculty actions students believe would promote their academic success. Only more flexible deadlines was more popular.
Beyond deadlines, some 44 percent of students say they want greater flexibility when it comes to class attendance and participation. This was the No. 3 faculty action students say would promote their academic success.
Impediments to Success
Students see both internal classroom dynamics and external factors as getting in the way of their success.
- Teaching style: As noted, more than half of students say they’re negatively impacted by teaching styles that don’t match how they learn. The share is significantly higher—67 percent—for students with learning disabilities or related conditions (n=649). Some 60 percent of LGBTQIA+ students (n=899) say teaching style has been a barrier to their academic success, compared to 53 percent of straight students (n=2,095).
- Overly difficult materials or exams: One in two students says it’s been hard to succeed in a class since starting college due to overly difficult materials or exams. A larger share of women than men report this to be an issue: 52 percent versus 47 percent, respectively. By discipline, this concern is least prevalent among arts and humanities students (42 percent) and most common in the natural sciences (55 percent). There is a large difference between four-year (n=2,403) and two-year college students (n=597) here, as well: 53 percent versus 35 percent, respectively.
- School-life balance: The third-biggest challenge for students over all is balancing schoolwork and other responsibilities, at 47 percent. Interestingly, this rate is not elevated among students with jobs, who make up more than half the sample. Schoolwork-life balance is apparently a bigger concern for students with financial aid than for those without, however, at 49 percent and 41 percent, respectively. Balancing schoolwork and other responsibilities may be a gendered concern, too, with half of women saying this has affected their academic success, compared to two in five men.
- Unclear expectations: This is a concern for four in 10 students over all, and most prevalently among arts and humanities majors, at 48 percent. By race, some 47 percent of white students say their success in a class has been negatively affected by unclear expectations, compared to 38 percent of Asian students, 32 percent of Black students and 34 percent of Hispanic students. Just three in 10 two-year-college students say unclear expectations are an issue.
- Mental health: Four in 10 students cite mental health struggles as a barrier to success. The rate is significantly elevated—55 percent—both for students with learning disabilities and related conditions and for LGBTQIA+ students. About three in 10 men cite mental health as a barrier to success, compared to four in 10 women. And by field, mental health concerns are most prevalent among arts and humanities students (48 percent). Breaking mental health challenges down by race, 44 percent of white students cite it as a concern, as do 28 percent of Asian students, 38 percent of Black students and 39 percent of Hispanic students. Nearly half of strongly Democratic students say mental health is an obstacle, compared to one in five strong Republicans.
Other Concerns and Considerations
One in four students cite strict attendance or participation requirements as a barrier to success. The same goes for unrealistic deadlines. One in five students cite a professor whose office hours conflict with their schedule, an online course they would have preferred to take in person or inaccessible course materials.
Although sense of belonging is increasingly part of student success discussions, this issue fell lower on the list of barriers noted by survey respondents. Sixteen percent of students say they’ve been negatively affected by the feeling that they don’t belong in their academic program. Among students with learning disabilities or similar conditions, it’s 22 percent.
Relatedly, 14 percent of students over all say their success has been impeded by feeling like they don’t belong at their institution (not just their academic program). That increases for LGBTQIA+ students (19 percent) and Black students (18 percent).
Amy Salazar, associate vice provost for student success at Sam Houston State University, says that even though belonging ranks lower than some other barriers, it remains “troubling to me given that this lack of belonging is reported as more significant for our most marginalized student populations.”
There’s still work to be done to create classroom environments “where every student feels as though they belong and is affirmed in their ability to be successful,” she adds.
Regarding students’ other concerns, Salazar recalls the work of psychologist Ella R. Kahu of Massey University in New Zealand on framing student engagement, which asserts that “lifeload” is a critical factor. (What is lifeload? Kahu described it in one 2013 paper as “the sum of all the pressures a student has in their life,” including college but also employment, finances, family needs and health, among other dynamics.)
That instruction- and classwork-related barriers barely outrank school-life balance and mental health “reminds us that our students are carrying a lot into the classroom, and that is impacting their ability to be successful,” Salazar says. “All of these point back to a generation of students who are coming to college less academically prepared given pandemic learning loss, with more financial concerns and higher rates of mental health needs.”
The next step? “For us as higher education institutions to adapt to the students we have today and not the students we were in prior decades. Our understanding of the college experience has to adapt to the students entering our campuses now that are coming with radically different lived experiences than we had.”
What Students Want From Professors
When asked to reflect on what educators could do to help them be more successful, Student Voice respondents zeroed in on flexibility, variety, clarity and affinity.
- More flexible deadlines: Asked which faculty actions would help them be more successful academically, 57 percent of students say being more flexible about deadlines. This appears again to be a slightly bigger concern to students with financial aid than those without.
- Experimentation with teaching styles: Half of students over all say professors being open to experimenting with different modes of teaching would promote their academic success. Among students who cite faculty teaching style as a barrier to their academic success, two-thirds want to see more variation in teaching styles.
- Flexibility with attendance and participation: Some two in five students say they want professors to be more flexible about attendance and/or participation, with more women than men wanting this (45 percent versus 40 percent). Relatively more four-year college students desire this flexibility than two-year colleges students, as well. By major, this wish is most prevalent among arts and humanities students, at 55 percent.
- Clearer expectations: Two in five students also say they want professors to set clearer expectations, with those at private institutions particularly interested in this. By race, white students are most likely to say they want professors to set clearer expectations, while Black students are least likely to think this is needed.
- Getting to know them: About a third of students say professors taking more of an interest in getting to know them would promote their success. This desire was most common among white students and least common among Hispanic students, and more common among four-year college students than two-year students.
Other Concerns and Considerations
One-quarter of respondents say they want their professors to offer some class sessions online, even for in-person courses. And about one in five students say professors could boost their academic success by being more accessible outside of class hours, by including wellness resources in syllabi or discussing them in class, and by including academic support resources in syllabi.
Few students—less than one in 10—want professors to set higher expectations for them and their peers, with 12 percent of male students and 5 percent of women saying this.
Louis Deslauriers, director of science teaching and learning at Harvard University’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences and senior preceptor in physics, has found that even when students say they prefer learning from lectures over active learning methods, they’ve learned significantly more in the active learning classroom. (This is consistent with many other studies finding that students learn more in class when they’re required to engage with the material via individual or group activities.) Of the Student Voice findings, Deslauriers says he can make some educated guesses about what’s driving certain responses.
On teaching-style concerns, for example, Deslauriers says students might have become “more discerning about effective pedagogies during the pandemic.” Why? It’s hard to forget “the experience of enduring a 90-minute online traditional lecture.”
That students are concerned about flexibility with deadlines and attendance also makes sense, as “many students today juggle multiple responsibilities,” he adds.
Students’ Thoughts on Grading
The Student Voice survey also asked students about their experiences with grading and with asking professors for accommodations that aren’t required (think: a deadline extension for a personal emergency). Some key takeaways:
- Fair and square: Two-thirds of students say they “feel like my professors grade fairly over all.” This sentiment was highest in the arts and humanities, at 72 percent. Just 5 percent say, “I feel like my professors grade too easily over all.”
- That’s harsh: Two in five students say they’ve had “at least one professor who graded too harshly.” About one in 10 students say they “feel like my professors grade too harshly over all,” with this sense elevated—16 percent—among students in the sciences.
- Not cool with the curve: Just 40 percent of students say “I feel like grading on a curve is fair.” By race, the rate is higher for white students, at 46 percent. Just 29 percent of two-year college students agree with grading on a curve. Just 6 percent feel strongly that “grading on a curve is unfair,” however.
- It’s a mystery: Three in 10 students say they’ve had “at least one professor whose grading I didn’t understand.” One in 10 students also says they “often don’t understand how my professors grade.”
- Understood: One in four students say they “usually understand how my professors grade.” By race, 33 percent of white students say so, compared to 22 percent of Asian students, 18 percent of Black students and 22 percent of Hispanic students.
Among students who’ve asked for discretionary accommodations (n=2,196), just over half say the response or responses were positive. A slightly smaller share says reactions were mixed. Just 5 percent report negative reactions only.
Some 12 percent of students taking online courses only report negative reactions, however.
Asked in the survey to share an example of a faculty action that made them feel like they had a better chance of succeeding in a class, students tend to recall actions that illuminate other data points. These include deadline extensions for personal issues, large workloads or mistakes, and professors reaching out or making themselves unusually available to struggling students.
One respondent at Lansing Community College remembers how a professor even gave out his personal cellphone number for after-hours help, and that this made the difference between the student staying enrolled and dropping out.
Here are some additional examples of helpful faculty actions students have experienced:
“One time, I got confused with a deadline and thought an assignment was due at 10 p.m. instead of 10 a.m.,” wrote a student from Louisiana State University. “I raced after my professor, told them about the situation and how I had so much on my plate at the time (school, club, research, grad apps, etc.). They let me turn in the assignment late without penalty and were very understanding. That gesture alone made me more motivated to attend class and do well in the course. I got 10 times more engaged in the material and did extremely well in the class.”
“Not giving multiple assignments during exam week,” says a University of Houston student. “Another good thing that I had a professor do was that they stated that the first midterm could only help your grade. If you scored well, it would be helpful, if you didn’t score well, it wouldn’t hurt your grade. This way I was more enthusiastic and actually learned things instead of being only focused on my grade.”
At Drexel University, a student recalls a professor reaching out when an assignment didn’t get handed in.
“I explained that I was simply behind and not deserving of an extension. My professor said that next time, I should reach out beforehand (not just to her, but to other professors as well) because the professors in my university are generally nice people. This has made me reassured in her class and feel more comfortable with asking questions and requesting extensions.”
Sara Brownell, a professor of life sciences at Arizona State University whose research focuses on inclusive learning environments in the natural sciences, says that some of the anecdotes stand out because they’re “just examples of instructors being compassionate and caring. Students deserve that and instructors can bolster student learning by showing that compassion and caring.”
At the same time, such examples raise potential questions about how students’ needs and expectations may conflict with faculty members’ own needs and expectations in this new era of teaching and learning. (And it’s worth highlighting that not all such actions are desirable to all students. Kathryn Lakin, a sophomore majoring in English at Boston University, who was not part of the survey, tells Inside Higher Ed she’s glad that having a professor’s cellphone number proved helpful to someone else, but that “I am very much against the idea of constant availability. I think being constantly available by phone eliminates important boundaries and creates a work-all-the-time culture we should try to avoid,” in the interest of both student and faculty mental health.)
Scott Freeman, a teaching professor emeritus of biology at the University of Washington who has found that active learning increases student performance across demographics and especially among historically minoritized students, says that individual outreach to students proves especially “tricky” in the kinds of high-enrollment courses he taught. Moreover, he says, “we’re trying to prepare students to be competent professionals and contribute to the to the world. If you work for a company, there may not be a lot of flexible deadlines.”
In any case, he says, “I would love to see more work on all that—when is it positive and supports better student outcomes?”
What would you like to hear more about from this survey? Share your reactions and questions here.