Sunday, January 18, 2009

Are University Centers for Teaching and Learning Necessary?

(Cross-posted at BlogHer)

Last summer, Historiann wrote a post that has been nagging me all these intervening months. In it, she asks if the centers for teaching and learning that have been popping up on college and university campuses over the past four decades really are necessary. As someone who works as a teaching consultant and program coordinator at just such a center, it's probably not surprising that I can say, unequivocally, yes, they are essential.

Now, are they essential for every instructor, as the article she cites seems to suggest? No. But what Historiann doesn't address in her post is the difference in experience between scientists and humanists in graduate school, and the way those differences play out in scholars' first tenure-track teaching jobs.

Here's what I (and others I work with) have noticed: While there certainly are plenty of people in the humanities who struggle with teaching, most humanities faculty hit the ground running because they had plenty of experience to teach--as teaching assistants and frequently as instructors--during grad school. In fact, teaching is the way that most humanities graduate students (attempt to) make ends meet during graduate school. On the other hand, the "most successful" graduate students in science are rewarded with research jobs in labs or in the field. In the view of many of these junior scientists, teaching is something to be avoided at all costs, as it interferes with the research and publication that will determine whether or not they get plum university jobs.

When large universities hire science faculty, they're almost exclusively looking for researchers who have a proven track record in, well, research rather than teaching. As liberal arts colleges place more emphasis on faculty research, increasing numbers of scientists who lack all but the most rudimentary teaching experience are getting jobs that require them to teach. And in very short time, these faculty find themselves teaching what may be very large courses, and they run into a wall. They tend to turn to lecturing as a solution, which isn't surprising, since they themselves likely learned much from lectures as undergraduates. After all, these are the people who were successful in a system that doesn't value or encourage (in the sciences in particular) good teaching. They have succeeded despite the widespread dearth of quality teaching because they were motivated learners.

So while at my university's teaching center we do consult with a fair share of humanities and social science faculty who are looking to enliven their teaching or who have received disappointing evaluations from students (and possibly a nudge from their department chairs), much of the work we do is aimed at science faculty who are navigating the waters of undergraduate teaching and learning for the first time. (I don't mean to paint science faculty with too broad a brush; after all, there are faculty across the disciplines, but in physics in particular, who are very plugged in to what it takes to get students to actually learn both the material and to think creatively and critically.)

Our workshops--which are infrequent but usually at least half a day long, and as long as a week during the summer--are very well-received by faculty from across the disciplines. A huge part of this success can be chalked up to the work of faculty who are willing to volunteer their time to share their successes and even mentor one another, both within and across disciplines. Our teaching center facilitates these connections as well as makes grants available to faculty who want to push the pedagogical envelope.

I encourage you to poke around the websites of teaching and learning centers (often called "centers for excellence in teaching and learning") to see what resources they have to offer, especially regarding alternatives to lecturing, the effective use of technologies beyond course management systems, new thinking on assessment and evaluation. (There's a partial list of such centers at Shifting from Teaching to Learning.)

Historiann isn't alone writing about these centers. Other bloggers have chimed in, too. Here are a few:

The Religion in American History blog serves up some skepticism about workshops and assessment initiatives.

Instructional designer Christina Hains explains what an instructional designer does in the context of a teaching and learning center.

At the Tomorrow's Professor Blog, Michael Reder points out that "good teaching does not happen naturally":


. . .and when I say good teaching I mean effective teaching: the types of intentional pedagogical practices that lead to significant and deep student learning. In the past decade or so, higher education as a whole has spent a great deal of time and energy thinking about student learning and, in the case of the ever-growing pressure for accountability, how to measure the effect of the education we offer our students. Most of the recent movements in higher education are centered on improving student learning: the use of technology inside and outside of the classroom, experiential learning, information fluency, learner-centered teaching, community learning. The Association of American College and Universities' focus on liberal learning outcomes, civic learning, diversity, global education, residential learning, general education, and critical thinking echo this current trend of concentrating on student learning.


Microbiologist Sandra Porter explains why scientists tend to be unfamiliar with the literature on science education.

Constance Ewing and Mary Deane Sorcinelli explain the value of a teaching center.

What are your thoughts and experiences?

2 comments:

historiann said...

Leslie, I've got something for you at Historiann.com. Thanks for the link!

Karina said...

Yea Quakers!