June 9th, 2011

Two Lessons Learned at The Teaching Professor Conference


I’m just back from The Teaching Professor Conference. Part of what makes the event so successful is the way it confronts faculty with how much there is to learn about teaching and learning, and how much of that learning can be achieved by working with one another. Each year I am inspired by the insights participants bring to the conference and share freely with others.

Sessions run the gambit but the most popular are those where presenters don’t tell, but let participants learn by doing—a truth that applies equally in conference sessions and classrooms. My colleagues Suzanne Sumner and Mary Rigsby from Mary Washington College in Virginia did a session highlighting two faculty development activities. One the activities, “The Knotty Problem Roundtable,” I’d read about previously, but had dismissed, despite its noble goal of getting faculty to talk about teaching problems they are experiencing. Faculty will discuss generic instructional problems or make oblique references to things that may have once happened in class, but when it’s a discussion of firsthand experience with problems, disclosures tend to be short on details.

Here’s how the activity works. Faculty arrive with a short written description of a specific teaching problem—it might a dilemma, something inappropriate that has occurred in class, a difficult student, or an issue related to performance on an assignment. They are organized into groups of six (we worked in groups of three in the session). One faculty member in the group begins with a 2 minute presentation of his or her problem. The rest of the group listens. No one interrupts; no one asks questions. After the problem has been presented, one of the group members brainstorms solutions for two minutes. No one (including the person with the problem) interrupts, makes comments or asks questions. Each of the other four groups members follows with 2 minutes worth of ideas. After the first person’s problem has been discussed, a second group member follows and receives responses from the other group members following the same rules.

Suzanne and Mary explained the rules, had us form groups, gave us time to make notes about a knotty problem we faced and then had us do it! The first person in my group talked about how her pharmacy students wouldn’t collaborate. I felt the urge to ask her questions repeatedly. The other group member responded first. She suggested an activity that demonstrated the value of collaboration. I was afraid we’d have the same ideas but we didn’t. I presented my problem: how do you get students to ask something other than inane questions like how many words you want in a paper. Suggestions: when discussing something interesting and provocative in class, stop and give them two minutes to write down a question about what you’re discussing. Ask them to recall an interesting question asked in this class or another one. Give them a quiz where rather than answering questions, they write questions (open-ended ones, not multiple-choice). I was writing down ideas as fast as I could.

I could not believe how well the activity worked and apparently the positive results were experienced by other groups in the room. When Mary and Suzanne asked for feedback, there were hands everywhere. The conversation buzzed. Somebody proposed that this would be a great strategy to use when students were reviewing material for an exam. Mary and Suzanne shared the final rule: written descriptions of the problems are shredded on the way out and what was discussed in the room, stays in the room.

I learned two important lessons in that session: first, this way of discussing teaching problems works! The absence of questions and interruptive commentary makes for better listening. It’s nice to be able to just think about what the others are offering without having to respond. Second, you can read about something or somebody can tell you something works, but when you experience it, you, not only know if it works, you are much more likely to understand why. That second lesson is one this old teacher needs to learn, relearn and learn yet again.

Now it’s your turn. If you attended The Teaching Professor Conference, please share one of the lessons you learned, or sources of inspiration.