Do Faculty Teacher Training Programs Really Result in Improved Teaching Practices?

As accountability for the quality of teaching and learning in higher education garners increased attention from government, students, employers, professional organizations and society in general, many have argued for providing additional opportunities to train university faculty for one of their most important roles in higher education – teaching. Faculty development programs such as teaching scholars programs (e.g. Steinert, Nasmith, McLeod, & Conochie, 2003; Gruppen, Frohna, Anderson, & Lowe, 2003) and faculty certificate programs (e.g. Hubball & Burt, 2006; Hubball & Poole, 2003) have become increasingly popular across North America. Similar to many established programs in the UK, these initiatives are designed to bring together small cohorts of faculty to explore pedagogical theories, principles and practices, and to foster engagement in research on teaching and learning. Although specific program goals and outcomes vary by institution, most depend on providing an opportunity for faculty to meet intentionally and regularly to actively dialogue, and to provide a sense of reciprocal support and mentorship (Blanton & Stylianou, 2009; Hubball & Albon, 2007; Richlin & Cox , 2004).

Do these programs actually result in improved teaching and student learning? In one of the most comprehensive studies of its kind, Gibbs and Coffey (2004) would argue, “Most definitely!” They studied the effectiveness of teacher training programs at 22 universities in 8 countries, and found that those who had participated in university teachers’ training programs were more likely to adopt a learner-centred teaching practice, that their teaching skills and global teaching effectiveness scores improved, and that student learning was impacted positively by their engagement in these initiatives. Perhaps the most interesting finding was that faculty who did not engage in the teacher training programs actually reduced the extent to which they adopted a learner-centred teaching focus, and actually became more reliant on instructor-centred teaching practices. As learner-centred practices are suggested to promote a deeper and improved understanding of disciplinary knowledge and expertise, this result is especially substantial in its support for providing faculty teaching development programs.

I am a firm believer that most faculty are deeply committed to their teaching practice and to enhancing student learning. Faculty development initiatives provide important opportunities for instructors to develop confidence in their approach to teaching in higher education. They provide institutions with an important opportunity to promote excellence in teaching. And perhaps most importantly, they promote a positive teaching community which supports a common goal of placing the students at the centre of their university learning experiences.

References:

Gibbs, G. and Coffey, M. (2004) The impact of training of university teachers on their teaching skills, their approach to teaching, and the approach to learning of their students. Active Learning in Higher Education, 5(1), 87-100.

Gruppen, L.D., Frohna, A. Z., Anderson, R.M., & Lowe, K.D. (2003). Faculty development for educational leadership and scholarship. Academic Medicine, 78(2), 137-141.

Blanton, M.L. & Stylianou, D.A. (2009). Interpreting a community of practice perspective in discipline-specific professional development in higher education. Innovative Higher Education, 34, 79-92.

Hubball, H. & Albon, S. (2007). Faculty learning communities: Enhancing the scholarship of teaching, learning and curriculum practice. Journal of Excellence in College Teaching, 18(2), 119-141.

Hubball, H.T. & Burt, H. (2006). The scholarship of teaching and learning: Theory-Practice integration in a faculty certificate program. Innovative Higher Education, 30(5), 327-344.

Hubball, H. & Poole, G. (2003). A learning-centred faculty certificate programme on university teaching. International Journal for Academic Development, 8(1/2), 11-24.

Richlin, L. & Cox, M.D. (2004). Developing scholarly teaching and the scholarship of teaching and learning through faculty learning communities. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 97,127-135.

Steinert, Y., Nasmith, L., McLeod, P.J., & Conochie, L. (2003). A teaching scholars program to develop leaders in medical education. Academic Medicine, 78(2), 142-149.

Great Teaching and Great Questions

In a 2009 article published in Peer Review, Ken Bain and James Zimmerman explored how great instructors inspired a deep approach to learning. In comparison to surface learners, deep learners are said to take a superior approach to learning by relying less on memorization, and more on questioning premises, challenging assumptions and considering the implications and applications of the course subject matter (Marton and Saljo, 1976). It is within this learning realm that students more thoughtfully construct an understanding of course material, and perhaps most importantly, where they are more likely to carry their learning experiences forward.

Bain and Zimmerman summarize that, “Human beings are most likely to learn deeply when they are trying to solve problems or answer great questions that they have come to regard as important, intriguing and beautiful.” Students thrive in learning environments which provide them with an opportunity to explore and reflect upon how the course material has both personal and “real-world” relevance, and fundamentally challenges how they see the world around them. It is under these learning conditions that we, as instructors and fellow learners become wonderfully consumed by an inspired sense of curiosity and inquiry that is driven almost solely by the students.

The authors continue by stating, “…the best teachers–and this may be their most profound ability–find ways to link their own disciplinary concerns and interests with those of the students. [They have] the ability to frame questions in ways that would both capture the students’ imagination and challenge some of their most cherished paradigms.” Great instructors engage in a poetic dance between student and instructor, between comfort and challenge, and between the known and unknown – it is a complex dance that may take years to perfect. Yet, the reward is an educational system based on the very premise of providing students with the opportunity to develop the skills necessary to approach the world’s most complex challenges. If I could change one thing in higher education it would be to change our solution-driven quest for learning, to one that encourages instructors to ask and seek great questions that challenge the very basis on which both the instructors’ and learners’ understanding depends. Ask great questions and inspire a whole new generation of great problem-solvers.

Bain, K. and Zimmerman, J. 2009. Understanding Great Teaching. Peer Review 11(2):9-12.

Marton, F. and Saljo, R. 1976. Approaches to Learning. In Marton et al. (eds) The Experience of Learning (pg. 36-55).

Yes Peer Discussion Works!

In a 2009 article published in Science (2009:323) Smith et al., found that when undergraduate students at the University of Colorado-Boulder were posed with a multiple-choice question during lecture, and then were given an opportunity to actively engaged in small-group peer discussion regarding their individual responses, they increased their conceptual understanding of the course material, and were more likely to answer a similar multiple-choice question correctly. Furthermore, the improvements in learning occurred even if none of the learners in the discussion group actually knew the correct answer to the initial question! So, why does peer discussion work? The authors speculate that, “…justifying an explanation to a fellow student and skeptically examining the explanation of a peer provide valuable opportunities for a student to develop the communicative and metacognitive skills that are crucial components of disciplinary expertise” (pg. 124). This study provides further support for the use of peer discussion as a simple and effective teaching strategy to encourage active learning in the university classroom.

Reference:

Smith, M.K. et al. 2009. Why peer discussion improves student performance on in-class concept questions. Science 323: 122-124.

Great TED talk

In a truly inspirational presentation, grounded in an extraoridinarly philosophy that extends much beyond the borders of Ghana, Patrick Awuah speaks of addressing challenge through leadership and a liberal education. He reminds us of one of the most important purposes of a university – to serve humanity and,

“…to train leaders of exceptional integrity who have the ability to confont complex problems, to ask the right questions, and to come up with workable solutions.”

Does engagement in the scholarship of teaching and learning really improve teaching and student learning?

The scholarship of teaching and learning combines the experience of teaching, the scholarship of research, and the dissemination of this knowledge such that the broader academic community can benefit from this scholarly product.  SoTL has been touted as one of the primary methods to increase the quality and value of teaching in higher education.  But, does engagement in the scholarship of teaching and learning really translate into better teaching practices and improved student learning?  Brew and Ginns (2008: 33, 535-545) assessed this very question in a recent article published in Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education. They examined how SoTL initiatives at the University of Sydney impacted teaching and student learning.  The authors measured the association between faculty engagement in SoTL (measured using a Scholarship Index) and the change in undergraduate responses to the Faculties’ Student Course Experience Questionnaire.  The results suggest that engagement in SoTL did in fact improve teaching and student learning, specifically for 5 scales on the questionnaire: Good Teaching, Clear Goals and Standards, Appropriate Assessment, Generic Skills and Overall Satisfaction with Degree Quality.  Although further research is needed to examine which specific SoTL initiatives are most effective in improving teaching and student learning, and how these may vary across disciplines and individuals, these results provide some indication that SoTL may effectively enhance and advance the profession of teaching in higher education.