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Two women working together in a library at a table. One has a laptop and the other is using a digital tablet to share information.

Full-time faculty members at Sacred Heart University can participate in peer coaching, giving and receiving feedback on teaching and course instruction.

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Research shows effective teaching has a direct impact on students’ course performance but few professors complete pedagogical training prior to teaching. Many colleges and universities offer professional development workshops and mentoring to new instructors, but peer coaching can help established faculty members enhance and reimagine teaching and learning.

At Sacred Heart University in Connecticut, leaders created a faculty peer coaching program to provide additional support to faculty members looking to improve instructional practices.

Since launching in 2020, one-quarter of full-time faculty members at the university have participated in coaching, gaining insight into their own pedagogy and learning from their colleagues in practical ways.

What it is: Peer coaching is a method of faculty instructional development, according to a research article published by Sacred Heart faculty.

Instructors who are paired in coaching relationships are more likely to try different skills and strategies with greater frequency than their peers who work alone and are more likely to use these strategies for longer periods of time.

Many higher education instructors complete a peer review in the tenure and promotion process, but peer coaching at Sacred Heart is different because it is reciprocal and not tied to evaluation.

“Peer coaching, at least in the ways in which we define it, is not evaluative and is confidential,” explains Kristin N. Rainville, associate professor in the educational and literacy department at SHU and co-leader of peer coaching. “Peer coaching is a process; the participants decide what matters of instructional improvement they wish to engage in.”

How it works: The program is hosted by the university’s Center for Teaching and Learning and facilitated by Rainville and David G. Title, who is also a professor in the educational and literacy leadership department.

Full-time faculty members are each paired with someone from a different department at the university for semesterly classroom observations. Pairings are also based on how long individuals have been at the university and in higher education in general, location on campus and their reason for participating in coaching.

The goal is for pairings to be of equal colleagues, but with varying experiences and fields of study to make the focus of observation less on content and more on instruction and student engagement.

Prior to starting coaching, all participants attend pre-launch workshops. “These workshops help to create a common set of practices and a shared understanding of teaching and learning in higher education classrooms,” Rainville explains.

Before and after the observation, the pairings have a discussion. Then, after each round of observations have been completed, the pair meets in a small group to debrief what they learned—a peer coaching community-of-practice meeting. Later in the fall, pairs hold another round of observations and a final debrief at the end of the term

The small group meetings produce an optional mid-year workshop for participants, pulling topics from emerging themes to put into practice.

“By sharing collective experiences, faculty not only learn additional ways to improve their instructional skills, but also develop professional relationships with and learn from colleagues across the university,” according to Sacred Heart’s website.

Overall, the program requires around 20 hours each semester, including a one-hour overview session, learning sessions and a wrap-up session, as well as the peer observations and debriefs.

Faculty members can participate over multiple terms and also serve as facilitators of a cohort group. New this year is a cohort focused on diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging in the classroom, which has a specific focus on establishing inclusive and equitable teaching practices.

The impact: This year, 48 faculty members at Sacred Heart are participating, making up four cohorts.

In total, 87 instructors have completed the program, or 24 percent of SHU’s full-time faculty members. Faculty members in their first year of participation receive a stipend, but many continue without funding for years after, Title says. Participants say they learn more effective instructional practices, enjoy the time reflecting on their teaching and enjoy connecting with faculty from across campus.

Leaders have created program evaluation methods and are in the middle of a research study, collecting survey data and other qualitative and quantitative information.

An initial article found participation in peer coaching boosted faculty’s sense of belonging and connectedness to colleagues, validation of effective teaching practices, implementation of new instructional practices and better student engagement and learning.

In the future, Title and Rainville see opportunities for this work to be modeled on other campuses, whether housed in a center for teaching and learning or within a college or department.

“There is no limit to how far this initiative could reach, because whatever improvement a department, college or university is trying to make, peer coaching can accelerate that improvement,” Title says.

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