May 20th, 2010

Inquiry into the College Classroom

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Are our students learning? Are they developing? Are we having an impact? These questions are only a small sample of those that faculty ask before, during, and after each course that they teach. Faculty often attempt to answer such questions using the evidence they have—student remarks during class and office hours, student performance on examinations or homework assignments, student comments solicited via teaching evaluations, and their own classroom observations. While these forms of evidence can be useful, such informal assessments also can be misleading, particularly because they are generally not systematic or fully representative.

While many faculty have expertise in exploring research questions, few think of their classroom as an opportunity for study. Classroom inquiry involves having a faculty member explore and evaluate a range of information concerning teaching—measuring the effectiveness of a specific classroom technique or a certain type of assessment, or addressing broader questions related to course structure and emphasis—and assess its impact on student learning. In doing so, faculty move beyond anecdotal or informal measures of inquiry to structured examinations of teaching and of student learning that then cycle back into their teaching and future offerings of a course.

In the past 10 years, we’ve helped more than 200 faculty engage in guided classroom inquiry through a faculty development program. Our experiences suggest that classroom inquiry can promote individual faculty development as well as sponsor institutional innovation and assessment.

Classroom inquiry process
“I’m a biologist, or sociologist, or (fill in the appropriate discipline), not an educational researcher” is a common refrain for faculty when asked why they haven’t formally explored their teaching. But as faculty are introduced to the idea, they begin to see that classroom inquiry is not new—it mirrors the approach one typically applies to disciplinary-based scholarly research. Each requires that an inquiry have clear goals and objectives, that there be adequate preparation, that appropriate methods be employed, that meaningful results be determined, and that there be clear communication. The significant difference with classroom inquiry is that the subject faculty are studying is more personal, because they are examining themselves as teachers and the impact of their decisions and actions on their students’ learning.

Once faculty see the similarities, they often begin to approach challenging questions concerning their teaching with the same critical intellectual energy that they use when conducting their disciplinary research. For junior faculty, such inquiry offers a structured means to develop as a teacher, helping them to decide what does and does not work in their classrooms. For more senior faculty, classroom inquiry often reenergizes their teaching by helping them answer those persistent questions they have about student learning.

In our faculty development work, we emphasize five major steps to carrying out an effective classroom inquiry: formulating an inquiry question, developing an assessment strategy, teaching the course and collecting data, analyzing the data and evaluating its results, and cycling back the conclusions and recommendations into one’s teaching. Faculty use the results of their classroom inquiry in a variety of ways. Some have redesigned components of their courses or developed new ones. Others have used their inquiries as supporting documentation for annual merit review evaluations, teaching award applications, and promotion and tenure packets. From a department perspective, classroom inquiry can be useful for assessing learning outcomes for a program or accreditation review. For example, an English Department revised its major based on the recommendations of two faculty who investigated student learning in the introductory and capstone major courses. Similarly, a Construction Management Department used five classroom inquiry projects to document program outcomes for an accreditation visit.

How to support classroom inquiry
A key component of successful inquiry is faculty ownership. Classroom inquiry is not something that should be mandated, but rather should be nurtured and recognized. Inquiry is most powerful when faculty are supported in defining their own purposes for undertaking it. Administrators can support classroom inquiry by

  • developing opportunities for faculty to talk about their teaching,
  • integrating it into department/academic reward systems,
  • encouraging the use of data/results for documenting the department’s teaching impact,
  • providing resources for faculty to form an inquiry group to support one another’s efforts, and
  • encouraging faculty to share their inquiry via journal articles, presentations, and posters outside their office door.

Linkage to SOTL
We often are asked how classroom inquiry connects to the larger Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL) movement. While faculty inquiry is the foundation for both, SoTL emphasizes a deeper engagement with the literature, and broader emphasis on exploring an issue that will offer insight to faculty at other schools. We have found that while some faculty find SoTL work central to their professional lives, many are content to use classroom inquiry as a basis for being more reflective and structured in their personal growth as teachers and to impact the teaching atmosphere at their school.

Finally, no two classroom inquiry projects are the same. Each is specific to the teacher, the course being taught, the students taking the course, and the inquiry question being explored.

In our experience, faculty who engage in classroom inquiry often find the same joy of inquiry in their teaching that they already experience in other areas of their intellectual life.

This article, which first appeared in the March 2009 issue of Academic Leader, was excerpted from: P. Savory, A. Burnett, and A. Goodburn, Inquiry into the College Classroom: A Journey Toward Scholarly Teaching, Jossey-Bass, 2007.