Academic Exchange Quarterly Winter 2011 ISSN 1096-1453 Volume 15, Issue 4

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Collaboration for College Teaching Improvement

Marilyn Lockhart, Montana State University

Lockhart, Ed.D., is an associate professor in the Adult and Higher Education Program at Montana State University in Bozeman, MT.


The majority of faculty working in higher education has extensive knowledge in their disciplines and little education in how to teach. This paper presents collaborative methods used by a university in its faculty education program to improve college teaching. For these activities, faculty read material on teaching and participated in an interdisciplinary discussion.



Workshops and lectures designed to encourage college faculty to improve their teaching are common components of college and university faculty educational development programs. During these sessions, faculty are given information and materials in support of specific teaching strategies (Beach, Henderson, & Famiano, 2008; Sorcinelli, Austin, Eddy, & Beach, 2006). However, many authors writing in the faculty development literature believe that for instructors to change and improve their instruction, they must simultaneously transform their personal views about teaching and student learning as well as apply changes to their own unique situation. They believe that transformation of teaching occurs through reflection and subsequent discussion, and such fundamental change requires more support than these typical faculty development approaches provide (Cox, 2004; Rice, Sorcinelli, & Austin, 2000).


Learning and collaboration communities where faculty engage in in-depth conversations about teaching with other instructors provide opportunities to share experiences as well as explore new approaches (Gillespie, Hilsen, & Wadsworth, 2002; Rice, Sorcinelli, & Austin, 2000; Young & Wilcox, 2010).  Such collaboration communities, even if of short duration, can result in improvements in teaching (Gillespie, Robertson, & Berquist, 2010). Interdisciplinary collaborations may add additional perspectives and depth to discussions as well as remove the intimidation of departmental peer review in the college culture of promotion and tenure (Katz & Martin, 1997; Lockhart, 2004; Young & Wilcox, 2010). 


This paper will share the experiences and results of the endeavor of a northwest higher education institution with an enrollment of 13,000 students to create two ways of building faculty learning and collaboration communities. Participants evaluated the techniques very positively, and it is hoped that others may find the results helpful as they improve their own faculty development programs. We labeled our practices “Reading and Discussion Circles” and “Faculty Book Discussion Group” since these names conveyed what faculty could expect during the sessions. Faculty development at the institution is carried out by a Teaching and Learning Committee with representatives from each college and a representative from the Provost’s office. Primary offerings before these new practices followed the standard format of workshops and lectures on improving teaching. The university’s budget is limited, like that of many other institutions, and these two new methods allowed an economic expansion of activities. Both methods were based upon the assertions of Akerlind (2004) and Kane, Sandretto, and Heath (2002) that in order to make improvements, faculty need to have forums to discuss their teaching practices as well as how the methods would be incorporated into their classes.  


Initially, all faculty at the university received an e-mail asking if they would be interested in participating in discussion groups whose members read material about teaching and then talk about it with others.  New faculty have been added to the list each year. Faculty working in a variety of disciplines—such as math, English, plant sciences, education, and engineering—and with varying years of experience have been members of these discussion groups.


Reading and Discussion Circles

Beginning Fall 2007, announcements of four to six lunchtime discussion sessions per year have been distributed to the list of interested instructors. For each 1-hour session, individuals read and discussed an article about teaching. Volunteers from the Teaching and Learning Committee selected the articles, e-mailed each article to individuals on the list, and constructed questions to guide the discussion. A different article ranging in length from two to four pages was selected for each session and came from journals devoted to pedagogy. The Teaching Professor, an online journal, was found to have especially valuable readings. Articles selected could be described as “quick and easy” reads that highlighted teaching strategies that could be used by faculty in any discipline. Examples of topics chosen include alternatives to grading, incorporating writing into teaching, midterm formative assessments, and posttest analysis. Discussion questions were fashioned to provide opportunities for faculty to share and learn from each other.

Individuals could attend one or all of the sessions. Attendance averaged from 8 to 20 individuals, and conversations were informal and relaxed.  With larger numbers, facilitators often divided the group into smaller groups of six to eight to allow opportunities for all people to contribute.


Participants eagerly shared techniques relating to the discussed approach that they had successfully, and sometimes not so successfully, used in their own classes. In some instances, participants asked others in the session how they thought an idea might work.  In subsequent sessions, some individuals reported meeting with past participants informally over lunch for further conversations about teaching.


Faculty Book Discussion Group

The Book Discussion Groups were similar to the Reading and Discussion Circles except that individuals read a book about teaching, rather than a short article, and then met three times over lunch to discuss the book. In contrast to the Reading and Discussion Circles, individuals were expected to attend all the sessions. The purpose of the book groups was to give individuals the opportunity to read more lengthy material on improving teaching, to critique the concepts of the book, and to discuss it more thoroughly than the shorter term Reading Circles. Deeper self-analysis and reflection could occur with the longer sessions. Book Discussion Groups began 2 years after the shorter-term Discussion Circles were initiated and have been held spring semester for the past 2 years. The first year, 27 faculty joined the Book Group, and 15 joined the second year.  Both years, subgroups were formed in order to give all participants the opportunity to talk.   


For the first year, the group read Stephen Brookfield’s book Becoming a Reflective Teacher, and in the second year it read Richard Light’s Making the Most of College. Members of the Teaching and Learning Committee selected the books and volunteered to be facilitators. Faculty signed up for the Book Group 2 months in advance of the first meeting, and the university furnished the books.   


A questionnaire sent to registrants before the discussions began revealed that they wanted to learn more about topics in teaching, improve their own teaching, and meet and talk with faculty outside their department.  The statement “I want to expand my horizons on campus both academically and socially” from one member expressed a typical response from the pre-discussion questionnaire. Other statements included “I signed up to talk with professors in other disciplines” and “I wanted to see the teaching perspectives of other faculty to enhance my own.”  Their experiences ranged from first-year teachers to those with over 20 years of teaching. For both years of the program, 95 percent of the members were pre-tenure and tenured faculty, with the remaining being adjunct.


Fortuitously, for this method, one facilitator had extensive experience in conducting book discussions in the community and provided guidelines for effective book discussions.   As a result, the sessions were organized and formatted according to principles and guidelines used by book clubs outside of an academic setting.  Since the purpose of the group was to discuss and reflect upon the book rather than teach it, some of the strategies differed from those used in a typical “teach the textbook” approach found in a classroom setting.  The major components of Zauha’s (2010) guidelines for facilitation as well as comments about the effects of using them follow.


The first guideline states that a book discussion goes well if both the leader and the group understand that there is a mutual obligation to read the book, be willing to express thoughts about the book, and be open to others’ ideas, insights, and opinions about the content.  In an academic class of students, this expectation is built in. However, extensive reading as a homework assignment for faculty professional development sessions was a new concept! After reading about this expectation in the announcement, members came to the discussions fully prepared.    

Guideline 2 states that the facilitator should assume various roles during the discussion. He or she should be a leader when beginning the discussion and when keeping the group on track. The facilitator should be more of a moderator when encouraging participants to express their own reactions and ideas. The group organizer role helps participants engage with each other on the topic (Zauha, 2010, p. 1).  Facilitators of our discussion groups worked diligently to incorporate all of these responsibilities and had positive results as confirmed by feedback from members at the end of all sessions.      

Guideline 3 deals with preparing to lead the discussion and advised facilitators to come to the first session with some brief and interesting information about the author and his or her work that is not written in the forward or on the book cover to establish the context.  An Internet search of the author’s name both years of the Book Group yielded sufficient context information and personalized the author.

Guideline 4 advises facilitators to prepare 5 to 10 thought-provoking questions about the material in advance.  The facilitators collaborated on questions and found that the group effort was productive and generated a variety of questions from general to specific. Once the sessions began, questions were not limited to the list; however, they served as way to ensure that the discussion began thoughtfully and continued on-track. Questions that worked best followed general discussion guidelines and were open ended, non-emotion focused, and did not have specific answers but were instead “thinking” questions. Facilitators did strive to ask more specific questions than “What did you think of the book?” Examples of some questions include the following:

·       What was your reaction to the author’s two main points about this topic? Surprised? Agreed? Disagreed?

·       What particular concepts in this reading really struck a chord with you?

·       How might this work positively in your class?

·       What things might work against using this?

·       What concepts in these readings would you especially like your colleagues or administrators to note?  

Zauha’s Guideline 5 provides tips for overseeing a good discussion. These include recommending that facilitators not answer their own questions, that they pause to give individuals time to reflect, recognize that they do not have all the “answers,” read brief passages and ask for reactions, and be up-front about any of their own lack of understanding.  Facilitators recognized the importance of keeping the discussion on track; however, they gave participants opportunities to make wide-ranging connections to their discipline and work. Since everyone in the group had experience teaching, participants had much to share with each other and were genuinely interested in the experiences and perspectives of others. In many instances, the facilitator took a “back seat” while group members asked each other opinions on the topic. Often, faculty became interested in how people in other disciplines handled similar situations. No one appeared reluctant to share experiences and even challenges they may have faced in the classroom.


At the end of all the meetings on the book, participants completed an assessment survey that contained all open-ended questions to provide more depth and detail than a numbered evaluation format.  The survey asked how the sessions turned out for them—as they had expected or differently?—as well as what had the most value to them, and whether anything was puzzling or surprising.


All participants expressed very positive reactions to the sessions and reported learning new approaches to teaching that they had either already incorporated or intended to try in their classes.  Ninety-eight percent of the participants both years reported the interdisciplinary interactions and social nature of the discussions as the most positive elements.  Specific examples of responses include “I loved the discussions—they were quite thought provoking,” and “I liked the opportunity to converse and think together with individuals outside my discipline about teaching. Half of the participants commented that they were surprised at the format—that the facilitators were not “teaching the book.” “We ended up talking a lot about individual experiences and ideas in addition to the book; I found that especially valuable.” One discussant wrote, “I didn’t love the book but I really liked the group. Let’s do another!”


Recommendations for Creating Faculty Learning and Collaboration Communities

The following recommendations are based upon our experiences with Reading Discussion Circles and Book Groups and are intended to create an environment that is collaborative, supportive, and informative.  Learning and collaboration communities may be of varying lengths from a 1-hour session to multiple-hour sessions.

1.     Identify either an article or a book that has the potential to generate thoughtful discussion about college teaching. Consult with faculty at your institution for ideas.  Since faculty are busy with their teaching schedules, the material should be easy to locate. If it is a short article, it can be e-mailed. If it is a book, consider having the college/university purchase it for interested people.

2.     Invite faculty from a variety of disciplines to participate in the discussion. Faculty learn from sharing experiences and talking with those teaching other subjects. 

3.     Advertise the discussion group to faculty well ahead of the start date so that people will have sufficient time to read the material. Make it clear that they are expected to be prepared to talk about the reading during sessions.

4.     Distribute a short questionnaire prior to beginning sessions to determine participants’ reasons for enrolling, length of time teaching, and discipline. Since it is beneficial to have individuals with a variety of disciplines and experience in discussions, the results can be helpful when creating subgroups.

5.     Identify at least two facilitators to lead the discussions. Collaboration between the facilitators before the discussion begins can be a learning experience itself and may result in improved questions posed to the group.

6.     If the registrant group is larger than 8 to10 people, consider dividing individuals into subgroups to give everyone more of an opportunity to voice reactions and opinions. Each subgroup should have its own facilitator.

7.     Use Zauha’s guidelines to create a list of discussion questions.  We found that asking questions following her format yielded critical analysis and application of the readings.  

8.     Schedule the location for discussion. The area should be appropriate to the number of people expected. Too large a room can echo and lack warmth; too small a room may be uncomfortable.

9.     Make arrangements for lunch or refreshments. This simple effort shows that the college values teaching at the institution enough to invest additional money in it. In addition, food creates an informal environment that is more conducive for discussion.

10. Create a welcoming environment when people arrive. Stand by the door and greet people by name when they enter the room. Introduce people to each other as they arrive. Make name tags in advance for faculty that include their name and department.

11. Begin sessions with individuals sharing what classes they teach and why they are interested in participating in the group.  This helps to create an informal and relaxed environment that encourages dialogue among members.

12. Give background information about the author, ask the first prepared question, and begin the discussion. Recognize that it may take a few minutes for the members to warm-up to the experience.

13. Provide ample time for faculty to reflect upon their practices, share experiences, ask questions of each other, and explore new ways of teaching. The purpose of the discussions is not to teach the material but rather to give faculty the opportunity to explore and critique written teaching strategies and to learn from each other.  

14. Have fun! These sessions can be lively, informative, and wonderful opportunities to meet new people.  



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