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Essay on how colleges can encourage professors to innovate in teaching

Rewarding Teaching Innovation

April 18, 2012

Many recent national reports (see, e.g., the Obama administration's 2012 PCAST report on undergraduate STEM education) encourage college faculty to adopt innovative teaching methods in order to address the needs of diverse populations, engage students in critical and higher-order thinking, and help students persist through graduation. 

But an important question remains: in one’s own department or college, how can one build a culture where taking an innovative or downright scholarly approach to teaching is valued and appreciated?  My college has wrestled with this issue over the past decade while undergoing a generational turnover in faculty and a significant expansion of the student and faculty cohorts. 

In this article, I describe some of the strategies that we have found particularly helpful; all are inexpensive, mutually reinforcing and generalizable to other academic contexts. They run the gamut from formal procedures for evaluating and rewarding teaching innovation to grassroots initiatives on collaborative creation of course materials or collective engagement in professional development.

If a department or college believes that innovative teaching is important, then innovative teaching must be rewarded in decisions related to salaries, reappointment, promotion and tenure. Otherwise, it would be more logical for faculty members to spend their limited time on whatever activities will actually lead to raises or promotions.  For instance, junior faculty at institutions that emphasize research often say that senior colleagues have counseled them to minimize their teaching efforts because personnel decisions are based solely on grants and publications.  In the face of such advice, why would they focus on pedagogy?

So if you are a chair or dean who wants to introduce or increase an emphasis on innovative teaching, be prepared to encounter skepticism.  You will need to take very public and explicit steps to demonstrate that pedagogy matters in salary and tenure decisions.  A minimal starting point is to make sure that expectations about teaching are clearly stated in prominent public documents such as faculty handbooks and departmental bylaws. (An example from my college is here.) But this is only a first step:  your larger task is to bring this language to life in the way that personnel decisions are enacted.

Here are some specific ways for a dean or chair to demonstrate that scholarly teaching and pedagogical innovation matter in faculty evaluations:

  • Establish, in collaboration with academic governance, a specific weighting to be accorded teaching in salary and promotion evaluations. Report the outcomes of the evaluations in a way that refers back to that weighting.
  • Ask faculty members to include evidence of innovative teaching in materials they submit for annual evaluations or promotion reviews. (An example from my college is here.)
  • Ask those evaluating the materials to comment on what the evidence reveals about the quality of the faculty member’s teaching.  (See, e.g., suggestions in this article.)
  • Ensure that a faculty member’s annual evaluation includes feedback on how his or her development as a teacher compares to the standards for attaining reappointment, promotion, or tenure.  For instance, the chair could copy the dean’s office on the letter or form the faculty member receives; a sample evaluation form used in MSU’s College of Natural Science is here.
  • When reviewing RPT cases with your unit’s personnel committee, discuss the evidence for how each candidate’s teaching compares to your unit’s standards.  Ask the committee to include teaching as they weigh their votes on the case.
  • In providing post-reappointment feedback to faculty members, include commentary about what improvements in teaching performance will be needed to pass the next promotion review.

Concrete actions like these can establish that teaching counts.

A complementary avenue for rewarding innovative and scholarly teaching is to aggressively nominate faculty for campus teaching awards, especially those that bring public recognition or prize money.  As a department gains experience with assembling nomination packets and the list of winners begins to accumulate, a sense of pride in the collective accomplishment and a sense that being nominated is something to strive for can begin to grow.  

One caveat is that it is important to find a way to make sure all faculty members are fairly considered as candidates for these awards.  For example, our college asks the (elected) annual evaluation committee to suggest nominees; having just reviewed everyone’s files, the committee is well-positioned to make informed recommendations.  Another possibility is to consider as potential nominees all current or recent candidates for reappointment, promotion, or tenure; each faculty member is in that category several times in their career, so all get considered.  Moreover, the chair can draw upon the promotion evaluation file in completing the (sometimes lengthy) nomination forms for these prizes.  Keeping the workload manageable for nominators increases the likelihood that annual nominations will become the norm. 

To reward innovative and scholarly teaching via raises, promotions, or awards, one needs reliable ways to recognize when it is occurring.  Some excellent instruments have been developed to guide both peer and student evaluations of instruction. The Reformed Teaching Observation Protocol (RTOP) cues peer evaluators about what to watch for when observing a colleague’s class. Online training for effective use of the RTOP is available, and going through the training as a group creates a wonderful opportunity for faculty discussions. The Student Assessment of their Learning Gains (SALG) is a customizable survey that asks students to report which elements of a course helped them learn new materials or skills.  This research-validated instrument provides faculty with valuable feedback about the specific teaching techniques they employ.

In fact, our college has found that using peer as well as student evaluations can encourage faculty members to stick with the sometimes-frustrating process of incorporating classroom innovations over several semesters. On the one hand, peers are more likely than students to be aware of and comment knowledgeably on the presence and impact of the innovations. On the other hand, more modern and interactive teaching techniques often require additional work of students (as well as teachers) and this can lead to some negative student responses, especially when the innovations are first being incorporated and all the rough edges have not yet been smoothed out.   

Moreover, a tradition of peer visits to one another’s classes can help establish a culture that is supportive of innovative teaching practices. The teacher being observed receives informed feedback; the observer may discover some new ideas to apply to her own teaching. Both benefit from the chance to talk about teaching, to view it as a shared endeavor and a focus of intellectual inquiry.  

However, if you are thinking of suggesting that your department start a program of peer visits, be prepared for some suspicion and resistance. While some less-experienced teachers may welcome the chance to get feedback and improve, some of those who have taught for many years without being visited may view visits as intrusive. At a minimum, a discussion about how best to implement visits will be needed; in some cases, starting with visits to give feedback to junior faculty or forming a “club” of faculty who wish to visit one another’s classes be a good place to start.

An interesting variation on class visits is inviting colleagues to attend events where students report on course-based research projects. I have greatly enjoyed seeing calculus students run simulations of  virtual rollercoasters, hearing chemistry students present posters on the uses and risks of common compounds, and watching videos produced by students studying public health issues. Along the way, I’ve picked up valuable tips on how to formulate more engaging and relevant projects for my own classes. A steady stream of invitations to such events throughout the year can serve as a tangible reminder that student research has become a common theme throughout a college’s curriculum.

When faculty talk with colleagues about teaching strategies and challenges, it helps to create an atmosphere in which it feels safe to try new methods and take risks as an educator. There are many ways to start and sustain these kinds of conversations. Within a department, faculty who teach a particular course or related set of courses (e.g., introductory statistics or freshman writing) might try meeting to dissect the impact of a recent innovation or brainstorm about future endeavors. 

In my college, such meetings range from weekly chemistry-faculty lunches in a nearby cafeteria to all-day biology group retreats at the end of each semester. If your campus offers a seminar series on teaching, groups of faculty might make an effort to attend together and talk about what they learned afterwards.  Alternatively, your department could join forces with others to host this kind of series; such collaboration both spreads the costs and enables faculty members to meet like-minded counterparts from across campus. At a more ambitious scale, your department could send a delegation to a regional or national conference on teaching innovations and ask them to present a seminar on their return so that everyone interested can benefit. 

Conversations about teaching can be especially rewarding when they involve faculty from diverse disciplines.  For instance, two courses in different departments may tend to have students in common, because students in large majors (e.g., pre-medical, engineering, or pre-law) take predictable clusters of classes. The instructors may find it interesting to confer about topics their courses touch upon from different viewpoints or situations in which one course draws upon methods and ideas from the other class – and they may discover innovative ways to build explicit linkages that help students appreciate the connections.  Faculty in my own college have sometimes found it helpful to audit portions of one another’s courses or to jointly create teaching materials so that students writing up a science lab report will be reminded to incorporate the lessons from their statistics or writing courses.

For faculty who are interested in undertaking research on college-level teaching and learning (either as a primary research area or in addition to disciplinary scholarship), additional means are available for building a sense of community. Some universities and disciplinary societies offer annual fellowship programs that introduce cohorts of faculty to the scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL).  Individuals from one department or campus who have participated in such experiences might form an informal association to discuss issues of common interest and coach future applicants to the fellowship programs. 

In a department where several faculty share a common interest in SoTL, one natural possibility is the nucleation of research teams that collaborate on pioneering and assessing new teaching methods, publishing the results, and presenting findings at conferences. Such teams may even choose to apply for research grants to support larger-scale, multiyear investigations of approaches that have initially proven promising.  A department can encourage these efforts by giving them weight at evaluation time, providing assistance for submitting grant proposals, or offering funds to support the gathering of pilot data to anchor a future proposal.

SoTL research teams can also have a significant effect beyond their own membership. Any given department might include some faculty who undertake SoTL work and some who apply the proven methods others have devised. Communication between these two populations can encourage the latter to keep innovating in their own classrooms.  For example, in my own college, a subset of the biology faculty created, assessed, and published a method of replacing single-week lab exercises by multiweek team-based research projects.  Over time, the new “teams and streams” approach was adopted, with variations, by all of the faculty members who teach our introductory biology courses. This summer the original researchers and those who later adopted the technique are jointly leading an interactive workshop on “teams and streams” at a national biology education conference.

In conclusion, there are many ways to promote and reward innovative and scholarly teaching in academic departments. Those mentioned here range from top-down to grassroots in style and require more time than money to implement.  I would be very interested to hear how others address these issues, what challenges they have encountered and what approaches have proven successful.

Bio

Elizabeth H. Simmons is dean of Lyman Briggs College and professor of physics and astronomy at Michigan State University.

 

 

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