Using Principles to Guide Professional Practice

This post is the first of a series about principles in teaching and learning with contributions by Lené Whitley-Putz and Michelle Pacansky-Brock.

""In early December, Inside Higher Ed published an article on the need for a theory of learning in which the authors, Chew and Cerbin, decried a “buzzword wasteland” and pursuit of “simplistic solutions” in higher education teaching and learning. Comments on the article were fascinating, and I was drawn into a subsequent Twitter discussion. (The Twitter conversation included Michelle Pacansky-Brock, who encouraged me to expand upon my thoughts here.)

The primary concern of Chew and Cerbin is that too few faculty are guided by a “valid theory of learning” informed by cognitive research on how students learn. They acknowledge that a theory meeting this perceived need would be complex, and has yet to be developed. Yet they believe that development of such a theory is a prerequisite for college teaching to become a “coherent set of effective practices.”

Theory vs. Best Practices vs. Principles

As a former K-12 teacher and teacher educator who has been working at the intersection of technology and faculty development in 2- and 4- year institutions for the past 15 years, I understand the desire to see educational practice consistently grounded in some sort of coherent theory. But in my experience, while some college faculty find discussion of the distinctions between connectivism and various flavors of constructivism mildly stimulating, most would prefer to cut to the chase – just tell me what works.

At the other end of the educational development spectrum, this leads to the proclamation of “best practices,” a concept that has origins in regulatory compliance in the business world. Because teaching and learning is affected by many contextual factors, evidence-based conclusions about the effectiveness of pedagogies and technologies can be difficult to reach. Sharing practices that have some evidence of effectiveness is great, but perhaps we could strive for a bit more nuance and contextualization.

For me, the sweet spot in teaching and learning between theory and “best practices” is principles. A good set of principles typically has a coherent theoretical underpinning, as well as at least some evidence of effectiveness. Good principles provide direction without overspecifying implementation. Principles are most effective in faculty development when they are accompanied by a variety of examples in order to illustrate multiple applications in varied contexts.

An oft-heard phrase in educational institutions these days is initiative fatigue. A common language to describe our collective work may help to counter this sense of fragmentation of efforts focused on the latest iteration of identified problems and solutions. At the institutional level, this language often consists of mission and vision statements, shared values, and institutional outcomes. Most institutions have these, but their authenticity and utility varies greatly.

I would suggest that at the classroom level, instructors often experience a phenomenon similar to initiative fatigue. Chew and Cerbin point out the many pedagogical trends and technological “advances” which can overwhelm any instructor wanting to remain current in their practice. It’s my belief that individuals and institutions which adopt and use a common, consistently applied set of teaching and learning principles will have an easier time staying grounded.

Finding Principles that Resonate

So, which principles to follow?

For me, Chickering and Gamson’s (1987) 7 Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education have aged well. Research and experience continue to affirm the simple message that

“Good practice in undergraduate education:

  1. Encourages contact between students and faculty
  2. Develops reciprocity and cooperation among students.
  3. Encourages active learning.
  4. Gives prompt feedback.
  5. Emphasizes time on task.
  6. Communicates high expectations.
  7. Respects diverse talents and ways of learning.”

For the most part, these principles speak to faculty as teachers, informing our teaching behaviors. But faculty, especially in the community college system, are also designers of learning experiences and environments. Some have taken Chickering and Gamson’s principles as starting points to provide teaching and design guidance aimed at online instructors (see examples from VCU and from my own MiraCosta College).

Other useful principles focus on more specific aspects of learning, teaching, and the design of learning experiences and environments.

If you review every link above – good on you. Hopefully you’ll feel inspired and informed, and will start to see common threads that speak to you. Please don’t be overwhelmed. There is no expectation that you must be the master and fulfiller of every principle. As Thomas Angelo says, “It’s up to individual faculty members to determine which principles apply to whom, when, where, and how.”

But I would love to hear if something above has inspired you. Which of these principles could be helpful to you personally? To your department? Your college? And if you have another set of teaching and learning principles you think is worth adding, please share here!


Posted in Articles, Online Teaching, professional development.

Jim works with faculty, administrators, student services professionals, technologists, and students to help MiraCosta strengthen online learning and support services. He especially enjoys the way that MiraCosta views the student experience online as an integral part of access and success for its students. He also appreciates opportunities such as Can-Innovate to learn from and collaborate with folks from around the CCC system. You can connect and learn with Jim on Twitter at @jjulius.


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