On the Chopping Block: Efficiency vs. Effectiveness in the Classroom

I’m still reading posts about flipping, and in the most recent post I read, a specific point of comparison in a chart that compares the lecture model with the flip model really resonated with me. This point of comparison is efficiency vs. effectiveness. As the director of a program that helps faculty incorporate more active and collaborative activities in their classes, I hear this concern voiced quite often. The concern usually sounds like this: “These activities take up too much class time, and I have so much content to cover.” It’s a fair concern, especially when one’s course is a prerequisite or part of a disciplinary series. Sometimes this comment is the faculty members’ way of saying, “No sell.” These folks are bound, either by preference or departmental necessity, by efficiency.

But sometimes the comment is followed up with a question: “How can I make my class more active and collaborative and still cover all of the required content?” These folks see the possibility in balancing efficiency and effectiveness; they recognize the necessity to cover “all the things” of their course while still providing a participatory and student-centered learning environment. They realize that something must be sent to the chopping block in order to create a more effective learning experience for their students. These folks are okay with sacrificing material that has very likely become a significant part of their identities as teachers and scholars. This sacrifice in the name of effective teaching is not always an easy one to make.

Efficiency vs. effectiveness concerns the ubiquitous tension of quantity vs. quality. This tension is recontextualized in the world of teaching as surface learning vs. deep learning. I think all educators would agree that deep learning is preferable, but is it always possible?  A more provocative question might be: Should deep learning always be the goal?

Please share your thoughts on these questions or any other insights you have on balancing course efficiency with teaching effectiveness. I look forward to a lively conversation!

6 thoughts on “On the Chopping Block: Efficiency vs. Effectiveness in the Classroom

  1. Its a new way of teaching and learning. Faculty who are developing courses or integrating these activities into an existing course need to learn how to develop activities, that would be in class and replace the standard lecture. By this I mean that they will need to design activities that reinforce the out of class lecture delivered via the “flipped classroom.”

    These are exciting initiatives, faculty need to ensure that students are still meeting the outcomes of the course are programs, how they deliver the content and assess this learning will change.


    • I agree that the flipped classroom is the best way to balance effectiveness and efficiency with the least amount of content sacrifice. Unfortunately, so many professors are used to using the “sage on the stage” approach, so such a pedagogical shift may also require some classroom personality adjustments, since the active classroom requires significant student-teacher interaction. But, as we tell our students, you can’t improve or learn if you stay warm and cozy in your comfort zone!

      Thanks so much for your comment!

  2. In hgher ed in particular I think the effectiveness of the flip depends on some things though, students’ willingness to change their schemas for learning being a biggie. The content and meeting times for the classes matter too. I am teaching a 2-week block course right now (just started today: 3 hours a day for 10 class periods) in a full flip, though rather than watch videos the students will read and complete an initial reading annotation as homework, then do activities in class. The condensed format of this block class really demands such a structure because 30 hours of lecture packed into a 2 weeks is simply not effective. That said, it’s “new” for the students, who expect and know what to do in a lecture class, thus the format and demands of keeping up with the reading will take some getting used to on their parts in order for the course to work. The point is that all parties – teacher & students – have to buy-in and engage for a course to work. On that note, some lecture classes can be effective IF students are actively engaged and doing their part to follow and ask questions, etc. With that in mind, in a regular semester, where classes meet twice or three times a week, and where material is extremely abstract, I don’t think a full flip is always the best idea. This coming spring I’ll be trying out a partial flip in my Intro Psy class (75 students) and as with my current class, I know the effectiveness will depend as much on whether the students choose to engage than on whether I lecture more or less. It all boils down to student-faculty rapport and student engagement. Good rapport can lead to effective engagement in a number of formats.

    • You’re absolutely right: student buy-in is crucial. And, yes, the content and structure of the course is important are important, as well. I teach writing, so I’ve always considered my courses to be flipped, in the sense that students do all their reading and information gathering outside of class to prepare for in-class writing practice and peer evaluation. When the goal is for students to master a skill rather than content, it’s much easier to achieve an engaging and active class because there’s no other way to teach a skill and students expect it. Understanding the many possibilities for creating flipped classes is crucial for faculty to recognize. Indeed, it’s about more than making video lectures! With the internet, students can easily access a good amount of the information we would present in a lecture, so having students find and bring this information to class would be an effective alternative to a lecture video. Sharing the information via small groups would ensure student engagement. I think this issue is the reason that a discussion on how to grade class participation is so popular on LinkedIn right now!

      Alas, sometimes you just have to lecture–there’s no getting around it. But, as you say, the lecture can also be engaging when it is transformed into a discussion. Students just have to be encouraged to ask questions and make comments. I became more successful with the collaborative aspect of my class the semester that I started having my students work in groups from the very beginning. That, along with the description of group work in my syllabus, sets the tone for the semester and there has been no resistance or backlash since. With that said, one way to promote student engagement might be to address it on the first day through discussion: What keeps them from asking questions and offering comments in class? Do they prefer lecture to a more active classroom experience and why? What are their feelings about working in groups? Etc. Their feedback would help professors approach this instructional method in a more informed way, and the discussion would be an immediate step toward establishing rapport with one’s students. When students feel like their opinions matter and that they have a hand in creating their learning experiences, they will be supportive of our efforts.

      Thank you so much for your insights and for the details of your situation. I’m sure there are others who have similar situations and will benefit from your ideas.

    • I’m so glad you raised the issue of student buy – in. I have seen too many cases of instructors IMPOSING these kinds of innovations ON students, instead of including them in the process. We need to remember that students are savvy enough to know what works for them (and their learning) and what does not. Making them part of the process means that they are invested in its success…

      • Thanks so much for your insight, Jenny. I recently read a post by a “class flipper” that touches on the issue of student buy-in. She discovered that telling her students she was experimenting with a new way of teaching backfired on her. Because of the way she presented the new method, the students who didn’t do well in the class had her experimentation to blame. This situation is further evidence that involving students in the process is instrumental to successful experimentation. Just be sure not to use that word or others like it!

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