Peer Review

Supporting Faculty through a New Teaching and Learning Center

Last year, Hampshire College established a new center for teaching and learning (CTL). Since then, identifying areas of focus, designing and carrying out programs, and figuring out how to evaluate our efforts has been tremendously stimulating. The CTL programs target classroom teaching, and it has been rewarding to see that many faculty are eager to learn about colleagues’ responses to challenges we all face and will make time for meaningful discussions. Their willingness to lead and participate in sessions is the foundation for our initial achievements. This article is designed to encourage and offer suggestions to others who are thinking about creating a teaching center—while the original motivations, first steps, and early concerns and successes are still fresh in the memories of the center’s architects. Also, in today’s taxing financial times, the paper may be helpful to colleagues struggling to keep centers they have.

Why We Created the Center

Continuing discussions and better cross-college communication. By their very nature, nontraditional colleges should foster meaningful discussions about teaching and learning. While that is true at Hampshire, these conversations have typically focused on specific concerns such as first-year requirements or preparing students for the senior thesis. As a result, discussion often ended when a decision was made or a resolution voted on. In contrast, a center for teaching could provide opportunity for ongoing, wider-ranging dialogue. Another issue we wished to address with a teaching center was exchange of ideas across the college. Our interdisciplinary schools do foster discussion within the sciences or social sciences, for example, but sustained, cross-college conversation has not been the norm. We recognized that identifying the right topics and format for our faculty was crucial to meeting this goal.

Retirement of senior faculty and new faculty hires. Another key motivation for establishing the CTL was the growing number of new faculty at Hampshire, the result of long-term faculty retirements at a college created in the early 1970s. We wanted a teaching center to address both sides of this issue—loss of senior faculty members’ “wisdom” and the emerging needs of junior teachers. To address the first, we pondered how to make available the extraordinary experience of teaching at Hampshire to the next generation of faculty. Of course, colleges and universities nationwide are experiencing the loss of senior teachers, because a large proportion of faculty are in their sixties and retiring. Amidst the decisions about phased retirements and the like, we did not want to forget that professors with thirty to forty years of experience in the classroom have much to offer their younger colleagues. The second concern—helping new faculty find their way as teachers—seemed more daunting. For one thing, those of us developing the vision of a teaching center were more senior faculty and administrators. What did junior Hampshire faculty identify as their most pressing needs? We were not sure.

Assessment and evaluation.Another incentive was the greatly increased emphasis on assessment and evaluation in higher education during the last decade or so. Like most college teachers, there is much that our faculty know little about, including formative assessment approaches, institutional data (e.g. NSSE), and national debates about the scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL). The questions here were many and interrelated. Where should we start? What would faculty be most interested in and open to? How could we tie the different components of assessment and evaluation together?

Cognition and learning.The last twenty years have brought exciting advances in our understanding of cognition and learning. Since Hampshire was the first college to have a separate department (which we call a school) of cognitive science, applying cognitive research to classroom teaching is of special interest to us. But again, what aspects of the field would be most useful and appealing to faculty? Metacongition? Cooperative group research? Would we find researchers who could effectively integrate cognitive and education disciplines for our faculty?

First Steps

Interviewing faculty. As CTL director, my first step was to interview about 20 percent of regular faculty, with particular emphasis on more junior professors. This, I anticipated, would increase faculty buy-in for the center’s activities and provide essential information about activities in which teachers were more likely to participate. The questions were straightforward: (1) How might a teaching center help you? and (2) What specific topics would you like the center to focus on? The interviews were extremely useful and helpful—and they confirmed that establishing a center now at Hampshire was timely and needed. Faculty were enthusiastic about the idea and senior professors readily agreed to facilitate discussions. Since many identified similar topics (table 1), programmatic focus developed naturally as the interviews progressed. A few issues (e.g. challenges to authority in the classroom), were particular to newer faculty, however, indicating the need for a distinct program for these teachers. Most of these topics are universally important for college faculty although some, (such as writing evaluations and finding coteachers) are more particular to Hampshire.

TABLE 1
Faculty-suggested topics for a Hampshire College center for teaching and learning to address
Writing: assignments that engage and build; how to give effective feedback
Developing interdisciplinary (as opposed to multidisciplinary) courses that deal with pressing questions
Teaching the art of argument; use of
evidence to support claims
Cooperative group work
Leading good discussions
Coteaching: how to find faculty to teach with and integrate disciplines
Conversations between new and veteran
faculty members
Pedagogy: how to develop one’s own
distinctive, effective pedagogy
Multiculturalism: how to incorporate into courses and deal with difficult discussions
Dealing with challenges to authority in the classroom
Expectations and standards (e.g. what to do about late assignments)
Balancing research and teaching
Writing useful evaluations efficiently

Talking to directors of other CTLs. A second essential early step was finding and talking to effective directors of other centers. I had many pressing questions. How can we ensure good faculty participation? How do we make best use of a Web site? How do we find good evaluators? What meetings should I attend? I was fortunate to have a very well-know founder of a teaching center, Mary Deane Sorcinelli, literally right up the road in Amherst, Massachusetts. Hampshire is part of the Five Colleges, Inc., a consortium that includes the University of Massachusetts–Amherst (U Mass). I had already worked with Sorcinelli on a previous project when she ran the award-winning center for teaching at U Mass. (She is now associate provost for faculty development). I recommend that any new teaching center director seek the advice of as experienced administrator such as Sorcinelli, who was very generous with her time (Sorcinelli and Desantis 2007). Another key adviser for me was Michael Reder, who runs Connecticut College’s center for teaching and learning. He offers workshops for new center directors at the Professional and Organizational Development (POD) Network in Higher Education meetings, and his own center serves a small college (Reder 2007). Also giving of his time and very helpful, Reder increased my confidence by letting me know that I was asking the right questions, and he made programmatic recommendations that have worked quite well for us.

As a result of these conversations plus visits to several other teaching centers and consultation with the center’s advisory committee, I decided to: (1) focus on a few efforts initially and do them well, (2) offer one set of discussions for new and untenured faculty only, and another set for all faculty, and (3) give faculty leadership in and ownership of all programs (table 2).

TABLE 2
“Talking About Teaching” sessions for Fall 2008
For each discussion, four to five more senior faculty set the stage with suggestions and questions ;their names appeared on posters. Sessions were 1.5 hours and on different days and times because we have no shared time for such exchanges. At each session, twenty-five to thirty faculty members from across the college attended. Notes and handouts are posted on the center’s Web
site (www.hampshire.edu/academics).
Creating Writing Assignments That Engage and Challenge
The design of writing assignments is a key ingredient in the success of any course. This discussion will consider how to pose assignments that draw students into course content, build the skills necessary for advanced work, and provide insight into the working of various discourses. Faculty will leave with specific strategies they can use in their courses.
Helping Students Reach Your Goals and Their Own Expectations
This session will focus on various ways faculty help students achieve their best in class by developing professional practices, such as coming to class prepared.
Coteaching: Examples of Successful Teaching Relationships
Although Hampshire emphasizes coteaching, for many newer faculty in particular, the nuts and bolts of coteaching seem a little mysterious. How do you find the right people to share coteaching? What aspects are especially challenging and what works? This session features several different coteaching
relationships—some brand new, others long-standing. We will see if common themes emerge.

Working closely with key administrators and creating an Advisory Board. The conception of a Hampshire College CTL emerged from meetings with our president, Ralph Hexter, and dean of faculty (DOF), Aaron Berman. As ideas began to crystallize, I met monthly with Berman, who was essential in the planning process and continues to be a strong presence. The CTL is sponsored by the dean of faculty office. In practical terms this means, for instance, that the Web site can be found on the DOF Web page and Berman sends out electronic invitations to each session. Both signal to faculty that their participation is expected, which is essential support. Creating an advisory board of faculty leaders and key administrators (such as our dean of advising) has also been critical. These faculty act as ambassadors, have excellent ideas, and are ready sources of ongoing support and advice.

Integrating Assessment, Evaluation, and Cognitive Research

As explained above, integrating assessment and evaluation into the center’s activities was a core goal from the beginning. While this is clearly an extensive undertaking, expertise of several key players has been very useful. First, institutional research at the college is well directed by Carol Trosset and Steve Weisler, who work hard to collect and synthesize high-quality information so that faculty understand their students better and make more informed decisions about teaching and learning (Weisler and Trosset 2006). Second, my faculty development work includes helping faculty conduct “scientific teaching” in which faculty ask questions and collect data on student learning (D’Avanzo and Morris 2008). Despite our combined experience, figuring out just how to engage our faculty in meaningful discussion about assessment/evaluation goals and methodology—plus application of research on cognition—has been a real challenge. We are presently using the theme of formative evaluation as a way to tie together essential aspects of evaluation and learning. This includes clearly articulating goals for student learning, evaluating performance based on these goals, examining ongoing student performance, and applying theories about learning to this practice. In addition, we explicitly use institutional research on student learning as the basis for this work. For example:

  • Using Scientific Teaching to Improve Students’ Quantitative Skills and Thinking (QST): Last spring, twelve faculty from the schools of Natural Science and Cognitive Science worked together to identify and study certain quantitative skills they wished to target in first-year courses; this entailed focusing on specific skills/thinking (such as interpreting figures and tables or understanding simple statistics), developing active teaching approaches to help students improve, creating ways to gauge student progress on these skills (e.g. pre/post tests), and reflecting on findings. The motivation for this project was students’ assessments of their quantitative abilities on several surveys. To participate in the QST group, faculty were required to write a proposal outlining their focus and experimental design, attend three workshops over the semester, meet intermittently in small teams to discuss the project, write a final report, and present their work in public meeting. Figure 1 is an example of the type of pre/post data these faculty collected.
FIGURE 1
DAvanzo_Fig_web.jpg
*Data collected by Cynthia Gill in first-year class titled Brain Mechanisms to assess students’ skills with graphs at the beginning and end of the semester. Numbers are class averages. This diagnostic test is not used to grade or evaluate specific students but instead provides information about the efficiency of the class in regard to a set of goals. In addition to quantitative information of this sort, faculty also collect formative input with approaches such as minute papers or concept maps. A minute paper is a well-known formative assessment approach in which teachers ask students to address a question, often at the end of a lecture/discussion, literally in a minute. It is a quick and effective way to assess how well students understood a key point, for example.

A year later, I interviewed these faculty members to assess longer-term outcomes from participating in the project and to learn what was most valuable to them in hindsight. Although none of the faculty had used recognized formative evaluation methods in the past, all but one had incorporated such approaches into their courses as a result of the QST program. Perhaps this is not unexpected, as all were scientists who like collecting and working with data. Still, their application of formative methodology into their teaching was rewarding to see. Aspects of the project they identified as most important included: simply setting aside the time to talk to colleagues about difficult aspects of teaching; hearing others’ approaches to the QST challenge; working in small teams over the semester; focusing on a single set of skills; receiving formative feedback, and writing the proposal. We are in the process of developing plans for engaging faculty more generally in formative evaluation. One approach is to require professors requesting faculty development support to include plans for ongoing assessment of student progress—and to help them develop these ideas.

  • Bringing Research on Learning to Faculty: To help faculty integrate research on learning into their teaching, we are inviting eminent faculty in fields especially interesting to our faculty to give workshops. Sam Wineburg, professor of education and history and director of the History Education Group at Stanford University, was chosen as the first workshop leader. The session will focus on Wineburg’s research about why it is so challenging for students to learn to think historically—and therefore so difficult for faculty to teach. In a “Point of View” piece for the Chronicle of Higher Education, Wineburg (2003) wrote:

… At some point in our lives, each part of the intellectual process demanded our full concentration. But once learned (or, more precisely, once mastered), our mental habits became so automatic that they faded from view. It is that very point that spells trouble in the classroom. For the same aspects of cognition that ease our job as thinkers pose the greatest threat to our effectiveness as teachers. Our familiar mental habits, often overlooked or omitted when we describe our thinking processes to others, can create a gulf between us and our students.

It will take several years before we are able to gauge widespread effects of Hampshire’s new CTL on faculty teaching and student learning—what our advisory committee calls the “holy grail” of such centers. However, positive evaluation of sessions and high faculty participation are encouraging indicators. Faculty run the “Talking about Teaching” sessions, which are based on their interests and concerns; the center is directed by a veteran faculty member, and evaluations and research target specific aspects of student learning of great concern to them. The vital role of faculty, we believe, is essential to our initial success.

Acknowledgement

The Hampshire College Center for Teaching and Learning is supported by a grant from the Davis Educational Foundation.

References

D’Avanzo, C., and D. Morris. 2008. Investigating your teaching: faculty as research practitioners. Academe 94: 40–44.

Reder, M. 2007. Does your college really support teaching and learning? Peer Review 9(4): 9–13.

Sorcinelli, M. D., and J. Desantis. 2007. Faculty priorities reconsidered: Rewarding multiple forms of scholarship. The Journal of Higher Education 78 (6): 723–726.

Weisler, S., and C. Trosset. 2006. Evaluating quality of engagement in Hampshire College’s first-year plan. Peer Review 8(3):11–13.

Wineburg, S. 2003. Teaching the mind good habits. The Chronicle of Higher Education 49 (31): B20.


Charlene D’Avanzo is a professor of ecology and director of the Hampshire College Center for Teaching and Learning.

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