The Danger of Best Practice

Implementation matters.

Just because you’re implementing something (an instructional strategy, perhaps?) that is known to be a best practice, doesn’t automatically mean it’s going to have a positive impact.

How you implement the practice matters.

In other words, there’s a difference between doing something, and doing something with quality.

I couldn’t help thinking about this idea of quality over and over again while reading Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work, which argues that research has shown that minimal guidance instruction is not effective for learning, and Teaching for Meaningful Learning, which argues that minimal guidance instruction methods are great. When two articles are making contrasting arguments based on research, I can’t help but wonder about the quality of the experiences the research examined.

In order to make a true and fair argument here, I would have to read all of the research cited in the minimal guidance article, and that’s a bit outside the scope of this blog post. But the article seemed to be painting all implementations of minimal guidance methods with the same brush, and gave no acknowledgement to various factors that affect the success of minimal guidance methods.

According to Teaching for Meaningful Learning, there are five key components of project-based learning: It is “central to the curriculum, organized around driving questions…, focused on a constructive investigation that involves inquiry band knowledge building, student-driven…., and authentic…”. The article also talked about needing to illuminate key subject matter concepts, balance direct instruction with inquiry opportunties, scaffold learning, and more. If we examined 100 classrooms that are using the project-based learning method, I’m sure we would find a least a handful that aren’t doing all those things. But that hardly seems like a reason to decree “project-based learning doesn’t work!”. It seems like a great reason to focus on educating teachers on the key components of project-based learning. 

Teachers are all-important in the success of minimal guidance methods. Despite the fact that the focus isn’t on them as a teacher, they still have an important role to play in design, implementation and assessment. A specific teacher may succeed or may fail in this role, but that doesn’t necessarily reflect that possible impact of the method. The Minimal Guidance Does Not Work article seem to gloss over this fact altogether.

Applying this to Student Affairs

In student affairs, we don’t talk a whole lot about methods of instruction, because we’re typically not instructors. But, in the same way that discovery, problem-based and inquiry-based teaching seem to be held up as gold standards in the classroom, student affairs and higher education has high impact practices. These practices, which include first-year experiences, internships, service learning, learning communities, e-portfolios, undergraduate research, and more, are widely said to result in higher grades and greater student retention and graduation rates.

Research supporting these high impact practices exists, and you’re pretty much guaranteed to find it if you Google the researcher George Kuh. But in 2018, a study came out that basically said the opposite; they found that “high-impact practices are in widespread use across different institutional types but have limited relationships with graduation rates”.

Even back when this article originally was published, I remember questioning the quality of the high-impact practices that the study examined. Similarly to minimal guidance instructional methods, just because you implement a high impact practice doesn’t automatically mean it’s going to have a high impact- how you implement the practice matters.

Kuh (2013) identified eight characteristics of a high quality, high impact practice:

  • Set performance expectations at appropriately high levels, and effectively communicate these expectations to students
  • Encourage students to invest significant and meaningful tme and effort on authentic, complex tasks over an extended period of time
  • Add meaningful interactions amongst students and between faculty and students about substantive matters
  • Challenge students’ ways of thinking, intecrease interactions with individuals with experiences and life experiences different from their own
  • Provide frequent, timely and constructive feedback
  • Increase periodic, structured opportunities to reflect and integrate learning
  • Provide opportunities to discover relevance of learning through real-world applications, or add a real-world/authentic experience
  • Add a public demonstration of competence

Did all of the high impact practices examined in the 2018 article have at least a subset of these eight characteristics? Again, I’d have to investigate the article’s claims much further to be able to soundly make this claim, but I do know that I’ve seen (and probably implemented) programs that don’t, so I have my doubts.

It’s not enough to simply throw together a positive practice and assume it will have a positive effect. You need to implement it with quality for it to truly work. And that’s the inherent danger of best practices.

Featured image by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

Nicole Crozier

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