It was early in the semester, and Michelle Watson was frustrated. Watson, an instructor in the department of communication at the University of Dayton, had designed her section of an interdisciplinary social-science course to be discussion based. But her students weren’t doing much talking. “I wasn’t getting that energy,” Watson said.
Over coffee, Watson described the challenge to a professor in the anthropology department, who gave her some advice: Give students points for participating, using a rubric. Watson put the tip into practice, and it “changed the participation in my class” this past spring, she said.
Creating a culture of collaboration around teaching is a goal on many campuses. But achieving it can be difficult. Teaching-and-learning centers, where they exist, provide resources, but using them tends to be optional. At many colleges, serious conversations about teaching are confined to departments, or else happen when instructors from very different disciplines co-teach a one-off course.
What’s happening at Dayton is a bit different. Several years ago as part of a broader curricular reform, the university began requiring all students, typically during their sophomore year, to take
the interdisciplinary course
Watson was teaching. It’s meant to provide an “introduction to what the social sciences do, and what they’re for,” said Jackson A. Goodnight, an associate professor of psychology and the course coordinator.
Each section of the course shares common learning outcomes, but is otherwise quite distinct. Instructors choose a theme to focus on and three disciplines to use to explore it. Goodnight, for instance, has used parent-child relationships as a theme and brought in perspectives from economics and sociology as well as his own field.
For professors, teaching the course can be “overwhelming” at first, Goodnight said, and not only because they have to provide a crash course in other disciplines. Because all students are required to take the course, professors can’t assume that everyone in the room sees a clear purpose in being there, and they may have to work extra hard to foster engagement — the challenge Watson ran into.
On top of that, students come to class with very different levels of background knowledge, Goodnight said. Some might have taken an Advanced Placement social-science course in high school or a specific discipline’s introductory course in their first year. For others, this is their first real exposure to a whole new way of seeing the world.
Given these challenges, instructors get a lot of support. Professors teaching the course for the first or second time attend two workshops as they prepare, covering topics like backward course design and assessment. They meet as a group a few times during the semester. They also participate in a midterm instructional diagnosis, observing one another’s teaching and providing formative feedback. All of this is required, and instructors receive a stipend their first two times teaching the course. This structure, and the simple fact of teaching a common course, can also lead to more informal collaboration, like the conversation Watson had with her colleague in anthropology.
That adds up to much more professional development in teaching than professors typically get. And such training can benefit students taking the professors’ other courses. “At least in my case,” Goodnight said, “I think it’s helped me as an instructor.”
Have you taken teaching advice from a professor in a different field? What does your college do to facilitate such discussions — or how do you make them happen on your own?
– Beckie Supiano, Teaching Newsletter: The Chronicle of Higher Education