Teaching innovations are all the rage now. Flipped classrooms, no-talking-heads, experiential learning, MOOCs – they all are ways that educators are trying to innovate ways of teaching students. They each have their benefits, and they each have their disadvantages. They each, therefore, work best in a different type of class. However, if utilized properly, each can increase the learning and skill acquisition that students can achieve as compared to a classical classroom setting. However, for some classes, the traditional big lecture/talking-heads format of the traditional classroom is also the best approach. What an instructor should do in a particular class is to find the best teaching methods possible for the material being conveyed and the skills being exercised in a class.

Some people who are bringing these innovative teaching methods to their classrooms make the argument that this is the reason for grade inflation. Essentially, the argument goes, “my classes are better, students learn the material faster and better, so shouldn’t my grades go up?”

Of course, grades will increase if one is simply bettering the methods of teaching. However, let’s pursue this line of reasoning a little further, just like we did for the question of whether grades should go up if the students are better.

In the first couple of offerings the grades may increase and increase substantially, which is expected if the teaching methods facilitate greater learning and understanding among the students. However, that’s because the course goals and content haven’t changed. Because one doesn’t want to change everything at once, this is appropriate.

When the grades begin to rise because of these new and more effective teaching methods, the instructor should then begin to increase the rigor and depth of material covered in the course and what is expected of the students for analysis. Just as when the students get better, the rigor of the course should increase to match ability of the students to accumulate knowledge and skills being imparted from the course. So over the very short term, grade should trend up, but the course instructor should match this increase in course effectiveness with an increase in rigor.

Now that students are learning more and capable of doing more, expect more of them. So we’re right back where we started with respect to grades. The rigor and expectations should increase so that the best students are getting all the education they can achieve without overwhelming students who will be developing skills and grasping concepts more slowly. So here again, it seems clear to me you know when you’ve gotten it right when you’re not teaching them absolutely everything there is to know in a subject (e.g., advanced courses) when a good fraction of students get A’s, a good fraction get C’s, and the largest fraction is in the middle somewhere with B’s.

Many students and faculty seem to operate on the assumption that academic rigor and innovative teaching methods are antagonistic. I completely disagree with this assessment. Innovative teaching methods and academic rigor go hand in hand. Adapting the style of teaching in a course to better student learning permits more efficient and expansive learning by the students. Think of it this way, in your old teaching style you could cover ten weeks of material and achieve a good distribution. If the new and innovative methods are effective, students should achieve the same level of mastery in less time. So you’ve got extra time in the course. Shouldn’t you teach them more or have the students develop a deeper level of understanding for the material you are covering? Both involve holding students to higher standards of learning and skill outcomes, which means a broader distribution of grades.

In the end, claiming that your grades are rising because you’re a better teacher or your teaching methods are more effective simply means that you are squandering the opportunity you have created to have students achieve more in your course.

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