Intentional Teaching with Derek Bruff

Agile teaching in high-structure courses, more Intentional Tech, and a soapbox or two

Published 2 months ago • 5 min read

Towards Better Evaluation of Teaching

Regular readers will know that I keep coming back to Beth McMurtrie's Chronicle of Higher Education September 2023 article "Americans Value Good Teaching. Do Colleges?" The article details the ways that colleges and universities don't seem to invest in teaching, while laying out a roadmap for institutions who want to take their teaching missions more seriously:

  • How can we better prepare and support faculty for what is, in most cases, their primary professional responsibility?
  • How can we improve the labor conditions within higher education so that instructors have the time and resources to teach well?
  • How can we improve the evaluation of teaching in ways that promote good teaching?

This week in the Chronicle, McMurtrie tackles that third question with a new article titled "Teaching Evaluations Are Broken. Can They Be Fixed?" McMurtrie not only details the problems with existing evaluation systems (biases in student evaluations, perfunctory peer observations, valuing of research over teaching, and more), she talks with faculty and administrators at a variety of institutions that are trying to do something to address those problems. While she didn't report on initiatives at Penn State or Boise State (like I did in a recent podcast episode), she did cover the TEval initiative, which includes work happening at CU Boulder, UMass Amherst, and the University of Kansas.

I have lots of thoughts about the article, but for now I'll just respond to a couple of passages. Here's the first:

Some professors felt that the increased oversight was an attack on their academic freedom and feared these new protocols would be used to tell people how they should teach... And while faculty members could decide what criteria they wanted their evaluator to focus on, "'no criteria' was not a defensible position. That is not the same thing as academic freedom," [CU Boulder history professor Phoebe] Young says. "We are scholars. We do peer review as part of our research. And we have criteria upon which we judge whether your research is valid or not.” Teaching, in short, should be no different.

While there is no single definition of academic freedom, I'll quote the one used by the American Association of University Professors: "Academic freedom is the freedom of a teacher or researcher in higher education to investigate and discuss the issues in his or her academic field, and to teach or publish findings without interference from political figures, boards of trustees, donors, or other entities." The AAUP goes on to say that with regard to teaching, instructors have the "freedom to discuss all relevant matters in the classroom." It does not violate one's academic freedom to have structures in place from one's department, college, or university to help instructors pursue effective teaching practices. Academic freedom has a lot to say about what you can say in your classroom, but it shouldn't be used as a justification for disengagement with one's professional community of educators.

Here's the second passage:

"We had so many faculty that were investing time and energy into transforming their courses to bring in evidence-based, inclusive methods, active learning, collaborative learning focused on assessing student learning," says Andrea Follmer, who leads the TEval effort and heads the university’s Center for Teaching Excellence. "And then they were finding that in the annual evaluation or P&T evaluation process, that work was largely invisible. That was really disturbing."

I have long felt that if a college or university actually values teaching, then that should be evident in their promotion and tenure (P&T) processes. Going up for tenure and promotion to associate professor? Then your dossier should show that you have adopted evidence-based teaching practices in your courses. Going up for full professor? Then your dossier should show that you have contributed to teaching efforts outside your own courses, perhaps by mentoring junior colleagues in teaching, leading curricular redesign efforts at the course or program level, or sharing your evidence-based teaching practices with colleagues at other institutions. "The faculty member's student evaluations are sufficient" shouldn't be the benchmark at an institution that values effective teaching.

Like I said, I have lots of thoughts about this article! What are your thoughts on how institutions should evaluate teaching more meaningfully?

Teaching and Generative AI with James Lang (and Me)

OneHE provides quality microlearning about teaching for higher educational professionals. I've put together a couple of short courses for them, one on active learning instruction and one on self explaining, which are available to OneHE subscribers. OneHE also makes resources available to the open Web, including this recent conversation I had with James Lang about the currents state of generative AI and teaching in higher ed. It's short, just 15 minutes, but we cover some ground, including the use of generative AI for practice and feedback, choices around when generative AI can aid learning and when it might shortcut learning, and why I don't think "prompt engineering" will be a thing. You can watch our whole conversation on the OneHE website.

Agile Teaching in High Structure Courses with Justin Shaffer

As part of the slow read my book Intentional Tech, I'm preparing new resources each week to go along with the week's reading, available on the Intentional Teaching Patreon. This week we're reading chapter three of the book, which is all about using technology to make visible "thin slices" of student learning. For this week's bonus resource, I reached out to past podcast guest Justin Shaffer to ask more questions about how he uses technology both in and out of the classroom to learn more about his students' learning.

Justin Shaffer is a teaching professor of chemical and biological engineering at the Colorado School of Mines, where he also serves as associate dean of undergraduate studies. We talk about Justin's high structure approach to course design and how he uses educational technology to be a more agile instructor. You can listen to the interview with Justin on the Intentional Teaching Patreon.

Intentional Tech Slow Read Week 4

The slow read continues next week (the week of February 12th) as we read chapter four ("Knowledge Organizations") together. Here's the teaching principle for chapter four:

Providing students with visual ways to organize their knowledge can help them remember and use that knowledge.

And here are the discussion questions for chapter four:

  1. If you asked your students how they organize their knowledge in your courses, what would they say? What might they show you?
  2. What discipline-specific visualization tools might be useful to your students as they learn in your courses? Do you teach these tools to your students? If not, why not?
  3. Visualization tools like synthesis maps and debate maps can help many students see the big picture in a course, but these tools aren't always accessible for students with visual impairments. How can you build flexibility into your knowledge organization activities to make them more accessible?
  4. Some of the examples in this chapter feature knowledge representations that students return to over time to revise and refine. How do you go about helping students circle back to course material in light of new learning?
  5. Google Jamboard is a fantastic digital whiteboard useful for all kinds of informal, collaborative mapping activities. It's also going to be shut down by Google in October 2024. What are some alternatives to Google Jamboard useful for these activities?

You are invited to discuss these questions wherever you'd like, but especially on the Intentional Teaching Patreon. Becoming a Patreon supporter is just $3 US per month, and it helps defray costs for the Intentional Teaching podcast and newsletter.

Thanks for reading!

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Intentional Teaching with Derek Bruff

Welcome to the Intentional Teaching newsletter! I'm Derek Bruff, educator and author. The name of this newsletter is a reminder that we should be intentional in how we teach, but also in how we develop as teachers over time. I hope this newsletter will be a valuable part of your professional development as an educator.

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