Office of the Vice President for Global Communications

Monday, May 7, 2012

Center for Research on Learning and Teaching celebrates 50th
Kudos, a little drama and a look ahead highlight anniversary

Higher education leaders from across the nation gathered with the U-M community on Friday in the Michigan Union Rogel Ballroom to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the nation’s first university-based teaching center. Speakers and panelists from the campus and beyond celebrated the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching’s past while stressing the growing importance of its role in meeting the challenges of educating tomorrow’s leaders.

  Educators from around the country view a panel discussion at the Michigan Union Rogel Ballroom, part of an event marking the 50th anniversary of the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching. (Photo by Austin Thomason, Michigan Photography)

Established in 1962, CRLT has supported the work of U-M faculty through grants and awards for innovative teaching, programs for novice and experienced instructors, and shared resources for best practices in teaching.

“Teaching center people are the enablers. We are the facilitators,” said Constance Cook, associate vice provost for academic affairs and executive director of CRLT.

“We don’t make the products you buy — we make the products you buy better,” Cook said borrowing an advertising phrase from chemical company BASF SE. “We operationalize good ideas.”

Among the good ideas mentioned by various speakers was a pilot program CRLT funded and supported 15 years ago for faculty to use electronic response systems (clickers) in class to measure student understanding of the material being presented. Today, this technology is used across campus. This and other programs and projects advanced by CRLT were highlighted on 32 posters spread throughout the ballroom. Participants were able to speak with faculty poster presenters about their projects during a strolling lunch.

In remarks that preceded a panel discussion led by President Mary Sue Coleman on “Enriching Undergraduate Learning at Research Universities” (see related article), Provost Phil Hanlon introduced and thanked the past and current directors of CRLT and highlighted various accomplishments under their tenures.

Hanlon told the crowd that some of the issues facing instructors 50 years ago are still the priorities of today: How to use technology in the classroom, provide support for new instructors and encourage interdisciplinary teaching. But, he noted what he called “a profound change in higher education” today that makes the work of teaching centers even more important.

“Our graduates are entering a world with much more volatility and complexity, (filled with) unprecedented challenges and opportunities,” he said, adding that those who were there to celebrate the anniversary should bask in the accomplishments of the last 50 years today, but “fasten your seatbelts” for tomorrow.

Senior Vice Provost Lester Monts addressed the group, recalling some of the accomplishments since his association with the center began in 1993. These include establishment of programs to support multicultural teaching and learning and administration of U-M’s participation in the national Professor of the Year program, which has been won by two U-M faculty members in the past seven years.

“CRLT has had an impact far beyond the U-M campus,” Monts added.

As the first teaching center, CRLT became a model for other universities that wished to promote innovative teaching and enhance student learning. Currently, more than 1,000 teaching centers exist across the country, Cook said, adding that 52 representatives of centers from 27 different institutions were on hand for the celebration.

Following opening remarks and the panel, another innovative program that has been replicated in other centers took center stage. The CRLT Players — a drama troupe that uses theatre to address issues of teaching, learning and institutional climate — entertained the audience with a musical sketch called “First Class,” a favorite in their repertoire, said Sara Armstrong, artistic director of the Players. “We perform ‘First Class’ each year at orientations for new faculty and new graduate student instructors.”

The sketch opens by showing the first-day jitters of an instructor and students. The subsequent classroom scenarios illustrate instructor concerns about how to relate to students, the impact of cultural differences on student interactions and learning, and the role of technology as a tool and a distraction.

“It tries to get at the differing perspectives of instructors and students that may not be visible at the very first meeting of a class,” Armstrong said.

The troupe has performed for some 29,000 people since its beginning in the year 2000, including 21,000 at U-M, and 8,000 at performances for 50 colleges and universities and 22 national conferences.