College professor with students. September 7

Learning to Teach: Are We More Like Our Students Than We Think?

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How did you learn how to teach? By trying to teach like those who taught you? Through trial and error? By looking for feedback on course evaluations? As an experienced educator, what methods do you now rely to continue your growth as a teacher? Do you read articles and blogs? Talk to colleagues? Attend workshops?

Let’s get specific about some of these approaches to developing ourselves as teachers. Say you’re attending a workshop on some new pedagogical approach. The presenter moves through the slides quickly and you don’t quite see how the examples could work in your field or large intro course. Some concepts are familiar; others aren’t. Some of the central ideas—metacognition or pedagogical content knowledge—are new and it’s not clear how they relate to each other. A group activity is announced but what you really want is time to think on your own. You were looking back through your notes and not listening to the instructions, so you aren’t exactly sure what the group is supposed to do. Someone in your group tells a long story. The discussion wanders around. The presenter’s debrief doesn’t really clear up your confusion. In the end, you learned a thing or two but you leave the session disappointed.

Or perhaps you’re not big on workshops and prefer to stay current and learn new approaches by reading. An article with an intriguing idea captures your attention. Maybe it’s on using clickers to check conceptual understanding, cold calling to increase student participation in discussion, or some other teaching technique that the author swears is nearly foolproof. You skim the piece during a lunch break. It gives you the germ of an idea, which grows into an outline of an activity. You spend some extra time to prep the details. You’re enthused about what you’ve put together but worry about how much content won’t get covered. You think about asking a colleague, but you’ve left the prep to the eleventh hour and there’s no time to bounce ideas off someone. Besides, sharing a new strategy before you use it feels rather risky, so you test it out in class. The activity goes pretty well. Students don’t jump in with great enthusiasm but by the end they’re engaged, even your most quiet ones. You tell yourself to remember to give clearer instructions in the future and persuade yourself the other rough spots will smooth out the second time around.

Or here’s one of my learning experiences. I was working with two younger colleagues who suggested modifying a course the three of us teach. We all thought we could be more intentional in teaching students how to use primary literature. My colleagues were eager to try something they’d read about; I was eager to support them. However, committee assignments kept me from participating as fully as I would have liked. After several meetings, one of which I missed, my colleagues presented a model for the project. I didn’t entirely understand it, but since I missed a meeting I simply went along. I expected that with my long-time experience I could make it work. I couldn’t. My students were confused; I was confused. Conversations with my colleagues helped me figure it out, but I still wasn’t happy with the quality of my students’ work. In the end, I wished I’d understood the proposed model more deeply before launching the assignment.

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faculty mentoring June 13

A Case for Coaching in Faculty Development

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I recently spent a rainy afternoon watching the semi-finals of the Madrid Open and noticed how often one of the players looked to his coaching box for reassurance about his strategy. Coaches are not just for players trying to make it into the big leagues; “even Rafael Nadal has a coach. Nearly every elite tennis player in the world does. Professional athletes use coaches to make sure they are as good as they can be.” (Gawande, 2011)

If coaching is a proven strategy for ensuring that athletes perform at their best and is used at the highest levels in the business world, why shouldn’t faculty turn to coaching to ensure continued growth and peak performance? In a piece in The New Yorker magazine, renowned surgeon Atwal Gawande recounts his experiences in hiring a retired surgeon to coach him to even higher degrees of professional excellence than he had achieved on his own. Rather than coasting at mid-career on his accomplishments, Gawande stretched his skills further, reduced his complication rates, and concluded that “coaching done well may be the most effective intervention designed for human performance.” (Gawande, 2011)

Coaching as a professional development strategy is beginning to take hold in the education sector. In the preface to his text, “Instructional Coaching” Jim Knight recounts an experience all too familiar to those of us working in faculty development in higher education. At the conclusion of a workshop, he invited participants to send him an update after they’ve had a chance to experiment with some of the evidence-based instructional strategies discussed during the session. “At the end of 2 years, I had not received one postcard. The reality was, I suspected, that inservice sessions just did not provide enough support for most people to implement what they had learned.” (Knight, 2007)

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Professor with small group of students. March 15

Mid-Career Faculty: 5 Great Things About Those Long Years in the Middle

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I’ve been thinking here lately about that long mid-career stretch where there is no clearly defined beginning or ending. You’re no longer a new faculty member, but aren’t yet an old one. From a pedagogical perspective, what makes that time window unique? In a recent post on tired teaching I identified what I think is the major challenge of those years—keeping your teaching fresh and keeping yourself engaged, enthusiastic, and instructionally moving forward. On the other hand, some special opportunities are afforded by that long stretch in the middle. The question is whether we’re taking full advantage of them.


professor with students May 29, 2015

Taking Risks in Your Teaching

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Often in workshops when I’m speaking about the process of implementing change—deciding what to change and how to change it or considering whether to add a new instructional strategy—the question of risk lurks in the choices being considered. When attending a workshop or program that offers a range of instructional possibilities, teachers typically respond to some favorably. I see it—they write down the idea, nod, or maybe ask a follow-up question to be sure they understand the details. Not all the ideas presented get this favorable response. Occasionally, the response is overtly negative. But more often there is no response. The idea doesn’t resonate.


November 21, 2014

Six Things That Make College Teachers Successful

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1. Study the knowledge base of teaching and learning.

You have chosen to teach in higher education because you are a subject-matter specialist with a tremendous knowledge of your discipline. As you enter or continue your career, there is another field of knowledge you need to know: teaching and learning. What we know about teaching and learning continues to grow dramatically. It includes developing effective instructional strategies, reaching today’s students, and teaching with technology. Where is this knowledge base? Books, articles in pedagogical periodicals, newsletters, conferences, and online resources provide ample help. Take advantage of your institution’s center for teaching and learning or other professional development resources.


November 5, 2014

What Can We Learn from Accidental Learning?

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“I just stumbled onto this. . .” I heard the phrase a couple of times in presentations during the recent Teaching Professor Technology Conference. Faculty presenters used it to describe their discovery of an aspect of instruction that worked well, such as an assignment detail or activity sequence. Since then I’ve been thinking about accidental learning and the role it plays or might play in the instructional growth of teachers.


September 2, 2010

Keeping Teaching Philosophy and Instructional Practice on the Same Page

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“Conscientious pedagogical reflection is necessary to produce a complete, well-developed teaching philosophy. The absence of pedagogical reflection can result in daily instruction that fails to reflect an instructor’s teaching philosophy or instructional belief system accurately. In particular, an underdeveloped teaching philosophy may translate into a teaching style full of inconsistencies, characterized by poorly coordinated and designed instruction.” (p. 182)