If you were to ask a classroom of students at a Canadian University why they are working toward a bachelor’s degree, you would hear several responses.  “A better job” or “better future” might be common, since a university education is an effective method for social mobility. [1][2][3][4][5]. Other students may say “I am interested in the field”. As an instructor, there is an important distinction to be made here. These two groups of students have different motivations, and as a result their optimal outcomes will be different. How do you teach each type of student? This may depend on what you believe the goal of education is.

Today we will review two papers discussing the role of the instructor.


Thing 1

Pratt, D. D. (2002). Good teaching: One size fits all?, New directions for adult and continuing education2002(93), 5-16.

To begin our discussion of roles in instruction, we see Pratt discussing different teaching perspectives or teaching philosophies and how each perspective approaches the instruction of students. Pratt presents and summarizes five teaching perspectives: transmission, developmental, apprenticeship, nurturing, and social reform. In practice, each instructor will identify with and use multiple perspectives; these categories are useful for the purpose of self-reflection.

Those of this perspective believe effective teaching starts with a substantial commitment to the content or subject matter. This requires that both the instructor and learners have mastered the content. As a result, instructors of this perspective guide learners systematically through tasks that lead to mastery of the content. This is one of the most common perspectives in higher education. Instructors of this perspective believe the main goal of education is to transmit information to the student and focus on moving students through the hierarchy of discipline- specific knowledge.

Those of this perspective use the constructivist orientation to learning as the foundation of their teaching philosophy. Social constructivism is primarily focused on the role of collaboration between individuals in the creation of knowledge. They believe a student’s understanding of a concept is the result of merging the student’s past experiences with the instructors explanation [7, 8]. Instructors of this perspective believe education is student centred and focus on developing student abilities to function with the discipline. They will adapt their explanation of concepts to complement the understanding of the student.


The apprenticeship view of teaching should be familiar to academics, as it is the method by which we earn our stripes. The apprenticeship perspective believes learning is facilitated by experiential learning and the use of real-world contexts. Instructors of this perspective believe that a cognitive understanding of the discipline is not enough and that progressing in the discipline needs to be a paired skilled performance.


Those of the nurturing perspective believe “that  long-term, diligent, persistent efforts to achieve come from the heart, not the head. People become motivated and productive learners when they are working on issues or problems without fear of failure.” (pg. 11) Those of this perspective value the development of internal motivation and resiliency. This may be the most difficult perspective to hold in post-secondary institutions as practices promoting the development of internal motivation and resiliency can be seen as opposing the traditional assessment methods used in existing institutional practices. This perspective emphasises the human factors of learning and education, believing that mastery and ability will develop as a result of fulfilling these human needs.  

Social Reform.

Those of the social reform perspective believe their role as instructors is to bring about social change through the dissemination of their ideals and beliefs. The perspective is difficult to describe as it takes on various characteristics:

“The social reform perspective is the most difficult one to describe because it has no single, uniform characteristics or set of strategies. In our research, we found social reform teachers in community development, Native education, AIDS awareness, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, the civil rights movement, environmental education, women’s health, labor union education, religious education, and even within such established occupations and professions as automotive repair and medical education. In every instance, the teacher we met was either a leader or a rebel.” (Pratt, 2002 pg. 12)


Each of the five perspectives is a legitimate approach to teaching, but each perspective also makes assumptions about the student and emphasizes the development of different student characteristics. For example, the transmission perspective emphasizes building a more advanced foundation of content matter, while the nurturing perspective emphasizes the development of more human factors.


Which philosophy do you identify with? Take the survey here.



Thing 2

Wieman, C. (2012). Applying new research to improve science education. Issues in science and technology29(1), 25-32.

In this article, Carl Wieman discusses several applications of educational research to the instruction of science. For our purposes, we will focus on the discussion around novice and expert understandings and ways of advancing students from novice to expert. Wieman (2012) defines experts as individuals with a large body of discipline-specific knowledge and complex mental models used to organize and apply that knowledge.  He identifies four characteristics of experts:

  1. Experts have a wealth of discipline specific background knowledge
  2. Experts have developed pattern recognition schema and organizational models to identify relevant and irrelevant information
  3. Experts have developed sophisticated criteria for application of these organizational models
  4. Experts can check their own work

This has implications on the instruction of novices:  

  1. Instructors should adjust the level of tasks to the knowledge base of the student or develop this knowledge base in students
  2. Lessons and assignments should be designed to demonstrate and communicate discipline specific organizational structures and contrast their advantages
  3. Provide effective and regular feedback to students

Weiman (2012) proceeds to discuss potential institutionalized methods to address the deficiencies in the practice of education in the sciences. An expert’s ability to check their own work seems to be of particular importance as it parallels a quote from Dunning & Krueger (1999):

“In short, the same knowledge that under-lies the ability to produce correct judgment is also the knowledge that underlies the ability to recognize correct judgment. To lack the former is to be deficient in the latter…” (pg. 1121)

It would seem then that the focus of an instructor should be to provide corrective feedback to students, with a focus on the development of discipline-specific organizational models.


Bringing it all together

Instructors want their students to be highly motivated, knowledgeable, and competent in the practice of their discipline. The methods instructors use will depend on the perspective we most strongly identify with, and the student characteristics we most highly value, but our end goal should not change. The instructor’s goal is to assist students in advancing from novice understandings of disciplinary concepts to expert understandings. Under this view, the instructor should not act solely as a fountain of knowledge but also a guiding light. Independent of teaching philosophy, a student’s lack of discipline-specific knowledge and organizational structures hinders their ability to identify errors in judgement and their misconceptions. It is not that students are incapable of correcting their misunderstandings, but if we leave students to self-identify their errors then what role do instructors play?

Examples and resources to improve feedback are available @ .

More on feedback next time.


John Hoang is an Educational Analyst with SciLIFT in the Faculty of Science at the University of Alberta.


[1] Davis-Kean, P. E. (2005). The influence of parent education and family income on child achievement: the indirect role of parental expectations and the home environment. Journal of Family Psychology19(2), 294.

[2] Gregorio, J. D., & Lee, J. W. (2002). Education and income inequality: new evidence from cross‐country data. Review of Income and Wealth48(3), 395-416.

[3] Houthakker, H. S. (1959). Education and income. The Review of Economics and Statistics41(1), 24-28.

[4] Haveman, R., & Smeeding, T. (2006). The role of higher education in social mobility. The Future of Children, 125-150.

[5] Corak, Miles and Lipps, Garth and Zhao, John, Family Income and Participation in Post-Secondary Education (January 2004). IZA Discussion Paper No. 977; Statistics Canada Analytical Research Paper Series No. 210. Available at SSRN:

[6] Kruger, J., & Dunning, D. (1999). Unskilled and unaware of it: how difficulties in recognizing one’s own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology77(6), 1121.

[7] Palincsar, A. S. (1998). Social constructivist perspectives on teaching and learning. Annual review of Psychology49(1), 345-375.

[8] Carless, D. (2012). Trust and its role in facilitating dialogic feedback. In Feedback in Higher and Professional Education (pp. 100-113). Routledge.

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