Evidence-based teaching: when evidence is not enough
Gregory J. Crowther, PhD
Everett Community College

On June 23, Dr. Chaya Gopalan of Southern Illinois University spoke at the APS Institute of Teaching and Learning on the topic of “The Flexibility of Using the Flipped Classroom as a Virtual Classroom During the COVID-19 Pandemic.” The presentation was great — full of empirical data, practical tips, and audience participation.

One of the questions that arose was, assuming that one is flipping a class with video lectures, how long should those video lectures be? I can’t remember what Chaya said about this at the time, but many others used the chat window to weigh in. They mostly argued that shorter is better, with 10-12 minutes being a commonly prescribed upper limit.

The author droning on during a long video lecture.

I had heard this “shorter is better” mantra many times before, and believed that it was well-supported by the literature. Still, I had resisted any impulse to shorten my own videos. I was already generating one video per chapter per course — 50 videos per quarter in all. If I divided each video into four shorter videos, that would be 200 videos per quarter to manage. Couldn’t my students just hit “pause” and take breaks as needed?

Thus, the video-length issue was making me increasingly uncomfortable. I think of myself as an evidence-based teacher, yet I seemed unwilling to go where the evidence was pointing.

Having battled myself to an impasse, I decided to email Chaya. I wrote:

…If you — as an expert flipper who has read the literature and published your own papers on this — were to tell me, “Come on, Greg, the evidence is overwhelming — for the good of your students you just need to make your videos shorter — stop whining and do it!” then I probably would comply. So … what do you think?

Chaya declined to respond with an ultimatum, but she did note that her own videos vary greatly in length — from 8 minutes to an hour! A lot of this variation is topic-specific, she said; some “stories” need to be told as a single chunk, even if it takes longer to do so.

Chaya’s point about chunking the material according to natural breakpoints was exactly what I needed to hear. While the idea of shortening videos because “shorter is better” did not itself inspire me, the idea of finding those breakpoints and reorganizing the material accordingly seemed utterly worthwhile. Maybe this would help my students more easily track their progress within each chapter. And off I went — I was finally ready to shorten my videos!

So, what lessons can be extracted from this bout of navel-gazing?

The thing that jumps out at me is this: my long-held resistance to a fairly mild idea (“make your videos shorter!”) was suddenly overcome not by conclusive new research, but by a subtle shift in perspective. When Chaya made a particular point that happened to resonate with me, I now wanted to make the change that I had been guiltily avoiding for months.

This was — for me, at least — a valuable reminder that, while evidence-based teaching is undoubtedly a good thing, behavior is rarely changed by evidence alone. There’s just no substitute for direct conversations in which open-minded people with shared values can stumble toward a common understanding of something.

It may be slightly heretical for me to say so, but I’ll take a good conversation over a peer-reviewed paper any day.

Greg Crowther teaches human anatomy and physiology at Everett Community College (north of Seattle). He is the co-creator of Test Question Templates, a framework for improving the alignment of biology learning activities and summative assessments.

2 thoughts on “Evidence-based teaching: when evidence is not enough”

Well said Greg!

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