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Best Practice? A BEST way to teaching something to everyone?

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“BEST” Practice?

I personally am cautious of (but not cautious enough to completely avoid :) ) the idea of promoting any particular teaching method in higher education as a “best practice.” My intent in saying this is not to dampen our enthusiasm for sharing our knowledge via the “best practice” blog (nor to be critical of anyone), but to temper it a bit with caution… that some instructors may bristle at particular assertions about “best” practices. Why would they do this? Do they scoff at the idea that there could be a BEST way to teach something to everyone? Please let me explain by sharing an excerpt from Wikipedia and some additional thoughts… A drawing of a chalkboard with the words best practices written on it with cursive script

From Wikipedia:

“A best practice is a method or technique that has consistently shown results superior to those achieved with other means, and that is used as a benchmark. In addition, a “best” practice can evolve to become better as improvements are discovered.

There are some criticisms of the term “best practice.” Eugene Bardach claims that the work necessary to deem and practice the “best” is rarely done. Most of the time, one will find “good” practices or “smart” practices that offer insight into solutions that may or may not work for a given situation.

Scott Ambler challenges the assumptions that there can be a recommended practice that is best in all cases. Instead, he offers an alternative view, “contextual practice,” in which the notion of what is “best” will vary with the context.”

When looking at lists of practices that are asserted to be the “best,” one will see practices that work well for many, but not all, faculty; these practices would more accurately fit Ambler’s description: a “best practice within this particular context.” In these cases, “best” would more accurately be defined, as Bardach does, as a “good” or “smart” practice for those working outside that context.

Calling a method a “best” practice makes sense in the hard sciences where empirical evidence can prove that one method surpasses all others in attaining a particular outcome; practitioners should adopt it because it is a proven, most effective, method. For example, a physician should use the best practice to rid a body of disease; those not doing so could be accused of malpractice. Juxtapose the idea of malpractice with teaching practices and we may get additional insight into why some instructors are really sensitive to assertions of educational “best practice.”

My point is that higher educational methods include a very broad domain of approaches, any of which can and do work well in particular places at particular times. If we define best practice as a scientist might, then we open ourselves up to criticism when we assert, without empirical evidence, that one or another is the “best.”

However, I have learned to re-frame my thinking about the definition of “best practice.” “Best practice,” to me, is a process of trying new-to-me instructional methods, keeping those that work the best for my practice, while eliminating the use of less effective methods. I think the idea we are striving to convey is this one (conveyed by Steve Peha, on his blog Teaching That Makes Sense):

“Best practice is always getting better. The best teaching, just like the best science and the best medicine, is a moving target. And so the process of pursuing best practice is just that: a process, something fluid and dynamic that we should all try to stay actively involved with as much as we possibly can.”

Steve Peha – Teaching That Makes Sense

I tend to use “good” or “smart” when describing teaching methods; or refer to them as useful “principles” that inform practice (similar to Chickering and Gamson’s Seven Principles For Good Practice in Undergraduate Education). I urge us to consider “best practice” as a professional process in which good and smart practices are explored, shared, and improved upon even further. Improving methods assumes that a continuous improvement loop has been established.

Steve Peha goes on to say: “Some practices are better than others. It just stands to reason that of all the different ways to do something in teaching, some ways might be more effective than others. If it’s true that some practices are better than others, then others are probably even better than those, and so on. […] The point is this: there are not only best practices but worst practices, too, and the differences between them, in terms of student success, can be quite dramatic.” [Courtesy to Steve Peha @ www.ttms.org/best_practice/best_practice.htm]

I encourage all of us to determine the effectiveness of the teaching methods we use, weed out the least effective methods from our tool kits, and replace them with good or smart practices; this is “best practice.”

Thanks for letting me share my thoughts.

About Steve Beining

Career Educator with 20+ years experience in K-12 and Higher Education. I'm an early adopter and have used computers during my entire career and the web starting in 1995. more »


There are 3 comment for this article. If you see something that doesn't belong, please click the x and report it.

x by Jeff Pettit 2 years ago

I am reminded of the Faculty In-Service from a few years ago. The speaker (quoting a Nobel Peace Prize winner, I believe) advocated innovation, creativity and experimentation as fragile and essential. I am one who bristles at the idea of “best practice,” and feel it runs the danger of becoming a ceiling for success, not a floor. That being said, I appreciate the perspective that a best practice might offer insight and avenues to improve. I had not considered that redemptive use of the idea.

x by Marc Goodman 2 years ago

Hi Steve,

I never realized that the phrase “best practice” was so loaded, but I see how it can be taken the wrong way. Different instructors teach different materials to different types of students, and what works “best” for one instructor in one course might not be right for everyone. Thanks for that insight.

I like the Quality Matters notion of “continuous improvement” – we’re always working to make our learning resources and our delivery of those resources better and more effective. No course is completely without value, and no course is ever completely “finished.” We’re always trying new things and keeping what works.

On a meta note, I was surprised to see the news item at the top of my D2L homepage when I logged in today, because I’ve never seen it used before. I hope we keep using it!

Marc Goodman, CIS, Sylvania

x by Bryan 2 years ago

Your conception of “Best Practices” as being a journey, as opposed to a set of dictates strikes me as quite perceptive. These ideas should be discussed in some other forum … besides this blog, which people probably ignore or briefly glance at. I would urge you to seek other opportunities if you haven’t — Anderson conference, in-services, TLC events, etc.

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