Teaching Groups: An Emerging Practice

By Brian Schmidt

The greatest reservoir of wisdom and expertise about teaching excellence on campus is neither in the library nor on the internet, but in the minds, hearts and skills of our colleagues. We intuitively sense that a dialogue with our friend down the hall will be more focused and valuable than what we might learn from ‘the literature.’ This approach to professional development is not only common, but a mainstay. In reviewing research on ways to improve college teaching, Keig and Waggoner (1994) conclude that the single most effective approach to improving instruction is to learn from our colleagues.

Teaching groups provide one way to tap this rich resource of instructional expertise. These groups meet on a regular basis for an hour or less and provide instructors of multi-section courses the opportunity to discuss instructional ideas, and receive curricular support. The groups also provide their four to six members a useful forum to discuss teaching challenges or successes, share resources, coordinate instructional planning and occasionally revise curricula.

The new Foundations courses at BYU-Idaho have, by their multi-disciplinary nature, precipitated increased collaboration between faculty members. Several teaching groups have emerged from the original course development teams. Members have found value in continuing their meetings beyond the original course development to draw on each other’s ideas as they prep their lessons and refine the curriculum. Additionally, courses outside of the Foundations Program such as Entrepreneurial Management or Introduction to Philosophy of Education have started teaching groups this semester.

Instructors

 

No one appreciates superfluous meetings, yet interestingly people come willingly to teaching groups. Jason Earl who participates in the Entrepreneurial Management Group explains, “I wouldn’t miss these meetings because they help me discover the ‘gems’ of the case we are covering; the learning outcomes become clear and I know what I want my students to walk away with.” Team meetings help members refine lesson plans, test ideas, and draw on a breadth of expertise. It is helpful to develop instructional activities and refine curriculum as a team. When leveraged effectively, such team collaboration saves everyone time.

Not every teaching group has thrived. I asked nine individuals who participated in four effective teaching groups, what they thought was a key to their group’s success; below are five of the major themes that emerged from their responses:

  1. Humility. Phil Allred explained that “none of us seemed too attached to a particular pedagogical hobby or technique—allowing for free exchange without protectionist concerns.” Richard Openshaw added that no one “tried to dominate the group. In academic settings, the ‘higher degree’ or ‘tenured,’ or even the ‘chairman’ can dominate the group and stifle creativity, free expression, and honest discourse… Someone would have an idea, express that and as we went around the table more was added, some extracted, until we all felt like it would or at least could work. There was give and take…we could see the hand of the Lord working through each of us."
  2. Trust. Jack Harrell was quick to point out that “trust is essential in the group so that people can be forthcoming about their successes and failures.” An environment of respect seems to be essential for group members to share their concerns without embarrassment. Janiel Nelson commented about the security she felt in her group; “I always feel validated in the things that I shared.” She further added, “Some ideas that seemed ridiculous actually turned out to be the best option and vice versa.” Trust and respect develop a climate where sincere questions can be asked and each person’s contributions valued in the search for answers.
     
  3. Organic Nature. Allowing immediate and relevant issues to comprise the agenda appears to be critical in effective teaching group meetings. Doug Ladle said, “Our team leader was good in preparing an agenda and having the topics of greatest importance at the top.” Rob Eaton explained the basic structure of his group’s agenda. “First, we cover what did and didn’t work last week. Second, we share ideas about lesson plans for the upcoming two weeks.” He found that from this simple meeting format, relevant issues emerged around instruction and lesson planning. Addressing authentic ‘real-time’ issues is appreciated by group members.
     
  4. Freedom within a Common Framework. To have an effective discussion on instructional methods, group members need common learning outcomes. Examining a variety of individual teaching strategies for shared content can be facilitated as members prepare and then compare lesson plans. This does not obligate everyone to teach the same way. Rather, comparing lesson plans prepares instructors for a productive discussion on how they might best reach the learning objectives for the day. Richard Openshaw explained that this still left “plenty of room for individual teaching style, emphasis, and technique, etc,” noting that, “a dictated teaching format that is created by a committee only means that it doesn’t work for anyone.”
     
  5. Sharing Resources. “Can you email me that?” seems to be one of the most common phrases at teaching group meetings. The sharing of instructional activities, curricular resources, and tools has proven to be a gold mine for fellow team members. Faculty members have invested significant amounts of time developing all sorts of instructional activities, curricular resources, and tools. Teaching groups provide a comfortable forum where faculty members share their resources with each other.

We are just learning how to tap the potential of teaching groups at BYU-Idaho. Some groups have built on this close association to observe each other’s classes (not to give feedback to their peers, but simply to glean ideas for their instruction). Phillip Allred explained, “It’s invaluable to see others teach because each has something truly wonderful and inspiring to offer. I pick-up something valuable every time I see a colleague teach—it is exiting (and a little scary, honestly) to see what more can be done to improve my teaching.”

Keig, L. and Waggoner, M. D. (1994). Collaborative peer review: The role of faculty in improving college teaching. Washington, D. C.: James Rhem & Associates, LLC..

 

Posted November 13, 2008 Comments (2)

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Doug Ladle

Tuesday, November 25, 2008 4:20 PM

I believe that teaching groups is one of the best ideas for how our university can achieve some of the teaching excellence prophecied for this campus. For years, from Great Teacher Summits in Utah, to Spori Summits in Teton Valley, to teaching groups on campus, the value of this faculty improvement technique has been proven. Hurrah to Brian and all of his peers who are promoting this approach to faculty growth.

Byron Bates

Tuesday, February 24, 2009 5:26 PM

If we attend another class for a semester of someone who teaches similar subject material we can improve in style, content or help students become ready to take the class we will send them to. I've attended 2 full semester classes of other instructors and it is very good cross training.

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