Facilitator Notes: A Conversation with Lisa Levinson

Lisa Levinson is a facilitator with Faculty Guild. She has taught at the university and community college levels as both a full-and part-time faculty member. The following post captures some of her thoughts.

What is your favorite part of working with faculty members who are participating in a Faculty Guild fellowship?

There are so many favorite parts, from having the privilege of reading faculty posts about their classes to how creative they are to include all students in their classes to how they interact with their fellow faculty in their online circles. I also love how their reflective practice develops from being cursory to thinking deeply about their teaching. It is wonderful to see how, even though they are teaching different content, they love exchanging pedagogical strategies. I often read: “I can use that in my class – what a great way to engage students!”

Seeing faculty grow as teachers and try new strategies, then report on how it worked (or didn’t) to their circle mates, amazes me. Faculty are so dedicated to their students and have such a strong desire to create success for them, that innovating by examining their practice and the practice of others is terrific.

Which of the 20 evidence-based practices explored through a fellowship do you find faculty members routinely avoid?

For some, the supportive theme (which encompasses the tags of caring, community-building, transition to college, inclusiveness and enjoyment) is a stretch. Showing students they care about them by seeking to create a personal connection with each student is not something that is supported, especially in large classes and when the faculty is an adjunct without institutional support. We find that most teachers who join our reflective practice model have not had any formal, or in some cases, informal professional development on how to teach. They are hired to teach specific content, not to support student interaction and connections. So for a number of faculty, the supportive theme is a very foreign one both to them personally and in the institutional culture.

Once they do start to incorporate strategies to connect to students, they report increased student participation. Students also increase communication with the faculty. Once faculty experience the change in their interactions with students, they often will try and build more supportive tags into their planning for classes.

That's interesting. So if faculty avoid "supportive" techniques, are there evidence-based practices that faculty struggle to understand? 

Formative assessment that includes determining baseline knowledge and assessing the learning that took place during class is what faculty members seem to struggle with the most. We are trying to have faculty look at evidence-based teaching: what did students know when they came in, what did they learn, what do they need to relearn or what do they learn next? Relying on Classroom Assessment Techniques and other formative assessment strategies is not something that comes naturally or easily to faculty. Faculty rely on their visual impression of learning instead of measuring actual learning.

Assessment posts such as “I walked around the room and everyone was working” or “my students were smiling so I knew they were enjoying the class” do not get at the actual learning. Since many of our fellows have not had formal teaching courses that include assessment and evidence-based teaching, this is often a foreign and bewildering concept. We have to address the question of why students smiling in class is not useful enough information to inform teaching while collecting a “muddiest point” classroom assessment is using evidence of learning to inform teaching.

Some faculty find it difficult to remember that the tags are about what THEY do as a teacher, not what students do. The benefits of turning the lens to examine their practice and not student activity can take time to sink in. For example, the definition for the "feedback" tag, based on the research-based process to determine the tags, is: Instructors review student work and provide timely, constructive, ungraded feedback in conversation or writing. It resembles coaching and is known as formative feedback. At first, faculty who used this tag to illustrate their work identify activities that solicit student feedback on something in class, not the faculty’s review of student work and the feedback on student progress or learning. After a few reflection posts, most faculty start to internalize the tags and make the transition from describing what students do to describing how faculty teach. 

So then which of the evidence-based practices do you find faculty members instinctively know how to execute, but maybe don't know what its called? 

Faculty instinctively understand that contextualizing content to students’ lives or goals is a good teaching strategy, as is building in multi-modal instruction so classes, especially classes that run 3+ hours, are more interesting and engaging for students. Faculty do feel under pressure to complete the course curriculum and cover everything in the syllabus that their department requires them to teach. So even if they instinctively know how to contextualize content and use multi-modal instruction to vary delivery, when push comes to shove they revert back to a lecture format just to complete the course requirements. Time constraints often severely hamper faculty innovation and follow-through on what they know resonates with students.

Based on your experience working with fellows, what makes them change their teaching practices?

I love this quote from John Dewey: “We do not learn from experience…we learn from reflecting on experience.”

Faculty members change their behavior when they examine their teaching in collaboration with trusted peers. The Faculty Guild circles allow faculty to post what they did in class, ask questions of their circle mates, identify a growth idea to try, and help their colleagues dig deeper into their ability to teach in new ways and in response to what students need. Some examples of this are faculty having students work in groups, using quick technology to assess learning (such as Kahoot), turning office hours into drop-in and chat opportunities and turning learning and teaching over to students. We see faculty getting away from “lecture-only” formats. They borrow freely from each other when a particular learning activity has worked well, and then compare experiences using variations of the activity in their classes. This supportive atmosphere creates an incubator for innovation, new teaching strategies and collegial support. It is beautiful to behold!