Assume someone offered you a million dollars to become one of the great college teachers in the world. Given that much incentive, how would you approach the challenge? Well, my plan would be to break teaching down into all of its many basic components and study each one very carefully – looking for ways to make it better. I think you build a better machine by taking it apart so that you can analyze the individual pieces and try to improve each one. However, over the years, I have never actually had anyone suggest this approach as a way of becoming a better teacher. Improvement in teaching is more often talked about in generic ways.
My thought is that you need to select one specific component of your teaching and then focus on it for a while. How can I do this better? In fact, there have been many semesters over my teaching career where I spent the entire time trying to improve one particular aspect of my teaching. Then, the next semester I would choose some other component to study.
Okay, what brought all of this to my mind?
Andy Litteral, one of my friends and colleagues here at the Robins School of Business, gave a presentation two weeks ago describing a couple of “faculty learning communities” with which he has been involved this year. An informal group of faculty members would meet periodically to discuss a general topic (use of the case-study method, for example). They make presentations and discuss what they had discovered in their own explorations of the topic. They can continue to meet for an indefinite period of time until the topic had been exhausted.
I have long argued that many schools need to create a better forum to encourage faculty to discuss the subject of teaching among themselves. Unfortunately, we often wait for an administrator to form an official committee (which can then turn into a lot of work to accomplish very little). Perhaps the faculty should do this for themselves and forget the administration.
As Andy described it, the faculty learning community basically organizes itself (almost like a club) with the goal of examining a topic of interest and thinking about that topic more deeply. Only people who were interested in the topic would join but each member was expected to be an active participant. These community conversations apparently last until everyone feels that they have accomplished whatever is possible.
To me, faculty learning communities seem like a great idea. Obviously, such communities do not have to be about an aspect of teaching but they certainly can be.
After describing the workings of a faculty learning community, Andy broke the group that was present that day into teams of 5-6 faculty members. He asked each to come up with one potential topic to serve as a foundation for a community discussion next fall. That by itself was a great question – what would be a topic worth discussing? What would you like to explore with a group of faculty members?
Being overly opinionated, I suggested that my group discuss one of my favorite topics: student testing. If you have read this blog for long, you know that I always argue that “the way you test is the way the students will learn.” In my opinion, good testing has a very positive impact on student learning.
But what is good testing? Where do you get your questions? Should you reuse questions from year to year? Should you give essays or problems or multiple-choice questions or a combination? How do you test critical thinking skills? Should you give partial credit? Should you provide answer sheets? Should final exams be comprehensive? How do you handle students who complain that the grading was unfair? What happens if a student misses a test?
To me, those questions are all vitally important to doing our jobs well and I would love to be part of a faculty learning community to simply focus on testing for a year. I think that alone would make me a much better teacher.
But what other faculty learning communities could be set up around teaching? Here is where you can break teaching down into its various component parts and analyze each one so very carefully.
--Everyone says classes should be interactive but how do you get all students (and not just an extroverted few) actively engaged in class conversation?
--Preparation is a key for learning but how do you get students to prepare before they walk into your classroom?
--How does a teacher actually go about preparing for a class? What exactly does that entail?
--I am an accounting teacher. How do I help my students learn to write better?
--Schools are supposed to develop critical thinking skills. What exactly is critical thinking and how does a teacher develop that in a class?
--How do you teach classes of over 40 students? How do you teach online courses?
--Educational technology is becoming more and more prevalent. What works best and what doesn’t work as well?
Okay, I could go on forever. But here’s the point: If you really want to get better as a teacher, could you (yes, YOU) pick one of these topics or a similar topic and create your own faculty learning community at your own school? I would think that if you selected any of these topics and got a group of 3-8 interested teachers together to chat periodically and make presentations of what they have done, the entire group would become better teachers in a relatively short period of time.
Added on May 4, 2013. Someone sent me an article about a law class at the University of Virginia (http://www.law.virginia.edu/html/alumni/uvalawyer/f12/flipped.htm) and I couldn’t help but notice the following sentences about looking at every aspect of teaching the class in order to make each part better: "I put all my materials and my course through an atomizer, and now I'm reassembling the bits in a whole new way," Verkerke said. "I've drawn the guiding principles for this new approach from research on teaching and learning, and from the insights of cognitive psychologists. The overriding goal is to harness the power of 'doing' to promote deeper learning for students."