June 13th, 2008

Facilitating Teaching Excellence in Discipline-Specific Contexts

By:

With regard to formal training events offered by teaching-learning centers at large universities, faculty members are often heard to say that training in pedagogy is useful only when situated within their discipline-specific issues.

How critical are those discipline-specific concerns in facilitating excellence in teaching? If an expert in pedagogy is placed within a faculty to work as a coach and trainer, will it make a difference in the way training programs are designed and utilized to achieve excellence in teaching?

Research still is at a premium as far as tenure and promotion policy structure go in universities in North America. However, the imperatives for excellence in teaching are driven by the changes in student demography, institutional agendas for excellence and global partnerships, and the internationalization of educational climate (Grossen, 2000). Senior administrators at institutional and departmental levels are looking toward excellence in both research and teaching rather than one at the cost of the other.

The epistemological framework of an applied discipline does focus on those aspects of inquiry that facilitate the ability for action—to solve problems, to propose solutions, to move toward a better condition than the current state (Nikitina, 2006). The fact that this discussion is situated among the needs of business educators has a bearing on its shape.

What follows is a critical account of my work as an educational developer, coach, mentor, trainer, and associate between January 2006 and May 2007 within the Faculty of Business Administration at Simon Fraser University. This faculty has eight areas of academic focus with a total complement of 74 full-time faculty members as of May 2007.

Faculty members stated a desire for the following:

  • A resource base with information on logistics for classroom teaching, technology use, and best practices within/among courses
  • Development of a set of master teachers who could offer mentoring and guidance to novice teachers
  • Custom-developed training programs specific to teaching a discipline

Generic skill-based training offered to a university-wide audience does not meet all these needs.

Starting premises

At the outset, I operated according to the following premises:

  • My ability to find common ground with the faculty members in another domain is dependent on their perceptions and acceptance of a teaching facilitator as their academic equal whose domain expertise is meant to complement their own.
  • Teaching development programs must be in correlation with stated needs and also with grounding in the teaching practice within the faculty (as opposed to the generic, skill-based programs offered university-wide).

In order to facilitate excellence in discipline-specific teaching contexts

  • you need to understand the logical structures of an area/discipline AND the context of the instructor,
  • there has to be balance between understanding epistemological dictates and recognizing the value of skill-based training, and
  • the training content and design must encapsulate these in efficient packages.

Given the complexity of these premises, I had to adopt a fluid approach to interaction and programming rather than a well-structured design approach.

Initial expectations from faculty

Here is a summary of the findings from informal interviews with more than 30 colleagues.

Twenty-five percent of the responses focused on improvement in student engagement/learning (particularly in large classes). The key reason cited for this goal was to find strategies to move the students from a “procedural” mindset to “concept learning”–particularly in areas like accounting that are traditionally seen as procedural.

Forty percent of the respondents expressed a need for training events specific to the needs of their teaching. The reasons stated in support focused on the need to feel like a community and on opportunities for collegial sharing of practice.

Thirty-five percent said that the imperative was to improve classroom teaching effectiveness. They cited the following reasons: the need for good student evaluation of teaching; efficiency in preparation/using TAs; use of technology; managing assessment and handling issues such as plagiarism, developmental feedback, and mentoring from classroom observation; and optimal strategies for grading and assessment of student work.

Programming: approach and content

In direct response to these felt needs, I offered a mentoring program for faculty with the purpose of improving classroom teaching effectiveness. I kept the instrument simple. Items focused on a student-centered approach and strategies to teaching. The instrument offered cues for observing effective use (or absence of) of strategies such as questioning, wait time, diagnostic skills, presentation, and communication, as well as clarity and coherence in the content presented.

The initial observation gave room for an iterative cycle of feedback and collaboration in working with specific issues.

Custom training needs to offer a combination of conceptual frameworks, skills, and strategies as well as to offer room for building a sense of community. Co-facilitating seminars with instructors in different contexts offered scope for contextual grounding for topical concerns. These included

  • teaching critical thinking through writing assignments;
  • supporting writing assignments: coaching and assessment (both illustrated through teaching practice in a 300-level course in business writing);
  • interactive components in large classes: a discussion of how and why (illustrated through teaching practice in a 300-level course in organizational behavior);
  • enhancing student engagement: the use of WebCT (illustrated through practice in a 300-level course in human resource management and a 200-level course in management of information science);
  • writing, using, and teaching cases (four-hour workshop); and
  • teaching problem solving in business education (three-hour workshop).

Data from satisfaction surveys indicate that the faculty found them very useful–both in terms of content and as a platform for interaction.

Lessons learned

Early success has resulted from a mindfulness/understanding of context (institutional/faculty climate), clarity and simplicity in design (while working with individuals and small groups), and an effort to “know” the content they are teaching (faculty conceptions of areas/their ideas of “learning”).

Sustaining this trend may well depend on

  • building a repertoire of custom training programs,
  • building a body of collaborative published work to establish a record of teaching excellence,
  • creating a network of interests within and across institution(s) in order to facilitate sharing of ideas/practice, and
  • negotiating for a reward system and formal acknowledgment for teaching excellence.

Additional insights from this experience suggest that the faculty investment (resources, time spent, and sustainability of this effort) must see steady returns–in terms of their own growth as teachers and in terms of student satisfaction.

The sustainability of my position also depends on opportunities for maintaining an active and current profile in my domain of expertise and building a collegial network of teachers and teacher educators in order to keep the work fresh, rich, and rewarding in both epistemological and pragmatic terms in the long run.

References

Grossen, Michele (2000). Institutional Framings in Thinking, Learning and Teaching. In Helen Cowie and Geerdina M. Van der Alsvoort (Eds.) Social Interaction in Learning and Instruction: The Meaning of Discourse for the Construction of Knowledge, London: Pergamon.

Nikitina, Svetlana (2006). Three strategies for interdisciplinary teaching: contextualizing, conceptualizing and problem-centering, Journal of Curriculum Studies, 38(3), 251–271.

Ranga Venkatachary works as teaching enhancement specialist at the Faculty of Business Administration, Simon Fraser University, British Columbia, Canada.