You A Scapegoat? Answers to Who’s Accountable For Learning

theweeklydisheasscapegoat_2We all like having someone to blame. Whether it is the state of the economy, security, sanctions (or lack thereof), it just seems to feel better if we can point a finger. Learning is no exception. Educators point fingers all the time. Americans bemoan the state of public education. States experiment with different ways to resurrect dropping exam scores and poor testing results. College faculty often blame high school teachers who often blame middle and elementary school teachers. Teachers also blame parents for not fostering good study habits or disciplining their kids, and blame students for not studying enough. Many students badmouth teachers (take a look at Ratemyprofessor.com for some eye opening commentary). An educated citizenry is critical to a vibrant, successful, forward-looking, and successful America. If we are loosing the battle to other countries or if our students are not learning things will not end well. Who can we blame when students don’t learn? There are many scapegoats, but do we have any real basis to confidently identify the true scapegoats when learning is not taking place?

Yes.

And no, there’s no app for that but just good old fashioned scholarship on teaching and learning. Like any empirical study, perhaps we cannot be 100% certain, but there is empirical evidence to maintain a high degree of confidence. A wealth of research on learning nicely highlights what some of the main factors influencing learning are. Ken Bain wrote about What the Best College Students Do and Beth Schwartz and I summarized large swathes of the empirical literature in Optimizing Teaching and Learning and Evidence Based Teaching for Higher Education. These tomes make for good reading if you have a few days to spare but some of the answers are quick to share.

Of course, there are the usual suspects: Effort, ability, motivation, goals, study habits, mind set. Each of these are the no-brainers of learning. Students need to work, care about the outcomes, have goals, good study habits, and believe that intelligence is flexible and not fixed. Most teachers can generate this list from their experience. Some of the predictors of learning are somewhat surprising: Social support and self efficacy (the belief that you can successfully accomplish something). Teachers may not think of the value of support and rapport enough but it is clearly a key component of successful learning. In a recent Gallup-Purdue study of successful college students, 63% of the over 30,000 students sampled cited having at least one professor who made them excited about learning as being critical to their success. Feeling teachers cared and having a mentor who encouraged them to pursue goals and dreams were also important.

Fine, fine, you may say. I promised some definitive finger pointing so let me get to it. Beyond oodles of research studies in psychology and education that shine the spotlight on different parts of the learning puzzle, there is one granddaddy of them all. John Hattie, then at the University of Auckland, New Zealand (now at the University of Melbourne, Australia) gave us some big answers. Hattie took a close look at over 65,000 studies of student achievement. Studies involved close to a quarter of a billion students. Yes, 250,000,000. He then used a statistical methodology known as meta-analysis where he essentially combined the findings to create a measure of the relative significance of different educational factors. This analysis yielded a metric called an effect size which allows us to get a strong sense of just how important a certain factor is. It lets us allocate blame or praise.

Hattie’s work provides a treasure trove of findings for students, teachers, administrators, politicians, and the public in general. In a recent publication in Scholarship of Teaching and Learning in Psychology (Hattie, 2015), Hattie provides a table listing the top 195 factors influeScreen Shot 2016-03-18 at 12.25.52 PMncing education. Most important factors to blame (with low or negative effect sizes) include depression, television watching, and home corporal punishment. Some important factors to praise (those with highest effect sizes) include teacher estimates of student achievement, teacher efficacy, study skills, and classroom discussion. Class size? Not a big deal. Single-sex schools, gender, or type of testing? Next to no effect.

Wait. It gets better.

Hattie took all the data and calculated the main categories of factors that influenced learning. Carving nature at its joints, he provides a stark vivid picture of just who is to blame. The lion’s share belongs to the student. Evidence from millions of students suggests that close to half, 50%, of what predicts learning is what the student brings to the classroom!! Before teachers enjoy too many sighs of relief and get fingers ready to point, note that the next largest chunk of influence was teacher qualities. What teachers do, their training, their characteristics, accounts for 20-25% of the variance in learning (see Figure below). The rest can be attributed to peers (5%), home factors (5%), and a number of other smaller contributors.

Fifty percent. Half of learning depends on what students do. As someone who has taught for 20 years or so I can tell you that far too often students look to us faculty as keepers of the keys to learning. I show my students a pie chart with each of the percentages described above but without the labels. I ask them to predict who the data says is responsible for 50% of their learning. Without fail, they think it is teachers. If I only had a better teacher they say. They quickly assume that poor teaching is the lion’s share of the issue. We educators become the scapegoats.

I also know that some teachers put the onus completely on the student. When I ask attendees at teaching workshops to guess how much of variance in learning is due to students, they often guess as high as 80-90%. If students only worked harder they say. Hattie’s data is a stark reminder that BOTH students and teachers have to work together to cultivate learning. I work tirelessly to provide the best instruction for my students and I like to inspire my students to similarly be accountable and participate in their own learning too. Yes, there are many skills both students and teachers can adopt, but the message is clear.

There is no one scapegoat for poor learning. Let’s stop pointing fingers and provide students with the skills to learn and teachers the tools to teach well.

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