The University Record, June 11, 1996

Day-long retreat focused on improving teaching methods

By Deborah Gilbert
News and Information Services

Michigan is a renowned research university, but soon it may be hailed for its intense focus on teaching and pedagogy. Two conferences in May provide some impressive evidence.

Three weeks ago, the Office of the Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs and the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching (CRLT) co-sponsored a lively, candid and well-attended day-long retreat for faculty on "Enhancing and Evaluating Teaching: Colleagues Helping Colleagues."

The objective was to identify methods to help colleagues improve their teaching through peer reviews and teaching portfolios.

Terrence J. McDonald, associate dean of academic appointments for the College of Literature, Science and the Arts (LS&A) and Arthur F. Thurnau Professor and professor of history, pointed out that at U-M today, "Teaching ability counts. New candidates for LS&A positions are asked, 'Where is evidence of your teaching ability?' They are often surprised by the question. They usually have evidence, but no one has ever asked for it before.

"Also, for promotion in LS&A, candidates must provide documentation of their teaching ability," including portfolios of student evaluations, syllabi, tests, statements of teaching philosophy and goals.

Despite the agreement that good teaching is critical to the mission of the University, peer reviews and portfolios can present difficulties.

The principle concern was fear of being critiqued by a colleague. The key to overcoming that fear is to establish a "community of trust," according to Mark Chesler, professor of sociology.

Departments should spend a great deal of time discussing teaching and pedagogy to de-personalize the issue and to establish a culture that emphasizes that improving teaching is an ongoing process for the entire faculty. Also, faculty doing the assessments should take CRLT's training sessions for "coaches" before they enter a peer's classroom so they can be truly helpful.

Susan M. Montgomery, assistant professor of chemical engineering, emphasized, "We need to think about what we can learn from others---not just focus on what they are doing wrong."

David Ametrano, program manager at CRLT, urged faculty to develop teaching portfolios to help them maintain a focus on pedagogy and to record their efforts.

"A portfolio forces you to reflect on your teaching, particularly when you go over it with another person. It can lead to brainstorming about problems," he said.

"Portfolios also can provide you with some control over future evaluations, if you include videotapes, awards, your curriculum changes, descriptions of special teaching methods, and so on," he added.

Not all faculty were enthusiastic, fearing that the portfolios could become "glossy statements of virtue" rather than "a reflection of one's own personal posture toward teaching and students," as Ralph G. Williams, professor of English, put it.

Chesler stressed again that, as with the peer reviews, the only way to avoid having the portfolios become self-serving puff pieces is to establish genuine trust in the department so that faculty feel safe in mentioning the "problems as well as the joys."

Lincoln B. Faller, associate dean for undergraduate education and long-range planning and professor of English, suggested that departments consider course-based rather than faculty-based portfolios, with syllabi, tests, and methods from all the faculty who have taught the course over the years. "Such a portfolio could be become a resource for everyone," he said.

At the end of the day, J. Bernard Machen, provost and executive vice president for academic affairs, said, "I can't imagine a more productive time than the time we have spent here today, with some of the best teachers on campus. At the U-M, the best things happen at the local level, so be evangelists and continue to spread the word about pedagogy in your departments."