This post is one in a series of articles about course transformation at Bay View Alliance universities.
by: Mary Huber and Pat Hutchings
Changing teaching practices in a department takes time.
We often think of that challenge as allowing time for changes in teaching practice to take root and spread, but it also means finding time for constructive conversations about teaching and learning. Most departmental committees that oversee undergraduate programs involve only a small fraction of the faculty and deal with bureaucratic necessities like prerequisites and classroom space. Busy faculty–even those teaching sections of the same course, or successive courses in a sequence—don’t always coordinate. As a result, pedagogical innovation and collaboration lack the attention they deserve.
Yet we found an appetite for discussions about teaching in our case studies of four STEM departments in the Bay View Alliance’s course transformation initiative. During our campus visits, we spent two days speaking with some two to three dozen people, including department leaders, faculty with various responsibilities for the undergraduate program, graduate students, undergraduates, and most importantly, instructors involved with courses targeted for redesign. These conversations were instructive in a number of ways, but we did not fully anticipate that our visits would turn out to be rare—and welcome—occasions for participants to engage each other, as well as us, in serious pedagogical exchange.
Notably the most fruitful and creative conversations revolved around teaching particular course topics and designing better curricula, rather than teaching in general. This was vividly illustrated in our meeting with instructors of a required sophomore course for majors in one of the departments we visited. In their hour with us, they had energetic exchanges about whether it would be better to begin with Topic A or Topic B, whether it would be possible to teach the subject without teaching Topic B, and how the course might be reframed as an extended problem-solving exercise to more deeply engage students in the subject. It turns out that this was only the second time (at least in recent memory) that this group of instructors had come together to discuss the course, and their discussion was clearly not over at the end of the scheduled interview session.
As much of the most important work on teaching improvement in the last decade has suggested, how to teach cannot be separated from what to teach. That is one reason course redesign provides such a powerful context for substantive pedagogical change. What to teach is very much where faculty hearts beat most strongly—and where conversation is most important when student learning in a course sequence goes wrong.
In another department we visited, instructors expressed concern about the articulation of topics covered within the sequence of courses taken by all majors, and the problems that gaps in that coverage cause for students. Relatively few students actually fail or withdraw from these courses, they said, but perhaps 20 or 30 students in an 80-person class typically fall in the C- range. These are the students who might leave the field if they don’t succeed or “if they can’t find something they can latch on to,” as one instructor put it. A priority for course redesign, these instructors told us, would be to ensure that students in the earlier courses have ample opportunities to deeply engage with the material needed for subsequent courses in the sequence. This task would require a greater degree of coordination of “learning objectives” (their term) than they have typically had–and perhaps more attention to approaches that help students appreciate the importance of those objectives.
We heard similar stories in all four departments. Perhaps, years ago, when a course sequence was established, things worked OK, but over time the threads tying courses together began to unravel. As one instructor told us about a particular course sequence: “The default is that the new instructor inherits what the previous instructor was doing. There can be moments when there is improvement…but it doesn’t always get communicated or passed on to the next level.” In short, as another told us, “linkages between the different courses are not there because there’s no structure” to attend to such linkages.
Building in such structures is an important but perhaps overlooked aspect to pedagogical and curricular reform. The departments in our case study are experimenting with some promising models. One department is considering designated “course coordinators” for large multi-section courses. We also heard about a new Teaching Development Committee, which could take up questions of coordination. Another department is forming Core Course Teams composed of rotating faculty members who oversee and periodically teach each course. These faculty hope, too, that the different teams can talk to one another, so larger questions about connections among courses come to light. Without such linking structures and conversations, we were told, a course can get “orphaned.”
Such structures can also be an important step toward a culture of more shared ownership of teaching and more collective sense of responsibility for student learning. They can be powerful in large part because they create communities in which members can share ideas, try out new approaches, and learn from one another. These communities are a context in which questions about “what” to teach can lead to questions about “when,” “where,” “why” and “how.” In the end, the challenge of talking about teaching goes beyond simply finding the necessary time to meet. It involves ongoing conversations that change cultural expectations of how people could and should work together as educators in their disciplinary field.