Foundations of Teaching and Learning Part 1: Motivation

In collaboration with colleagues at the University of British Columbia’s Okanagan campus, I designed and facilitated, again and again, a series of discipline-specific workshops called “Foundations of Teaching and Learning in X” where X is Health and Exercise Sciences, Digital Literacy, Nursing, Engineering, and others. In this series of blog posts, I describe the motivation, how the content was made discipline-specific, the format of the sessions, the process for organizing the series, and the outcomes. In this post, I describe my unhappy experiences that sparked the idea for Foundations.

It’s a familiar story to anyone who works in a Center for Teaching and Learning. There’s a topic that course instructors want to know about like, say, learning outcomes. (Note: I use “course instructor” for the person doing the teaching,  whatever their rank or appointment.) CTL staff plan a workshop, promote it through all the usual university channels, book a room, maybe even arrange for catering. The workshop facilitator designs an interactive workshop and prepares the resources. When the day comes, they excitedly arrive at the room early, get the presentation set up, arrange the furniture, set out the whiteboards, dry erase markers, clickers, handouts…

(If you can’t tell, I’m writing about my own workshops. And you know what’s coming next, right?)

With the workshop about to begin, they throw open the doors, and jump back out of the way of…no one. Well, except for those two engaged course instructors who attend every workshop, frequently drop into the CTL to chat, and honestly, could probably be facilitating the workshop, themselves.

What went wrong?

The “you can lead a horse to water…” explanation is too simple. Plus, it blames the audience for not coming. After years – yes, years – of facilitating low-attendance workshops, being one of those few participants, and connecting with course instructors, Department Heads, Directors, and Deans, here are some of the reasons why I think course instructors are choosing not to attend:

  1. Generic content: Maybe you’ve witnessed this: the facilitator gives an example of a learning outcome from a History course and the physicist in the room rolls their eyes. And vice versa. For the next workshop, the CTL facilitator anticipates there will be participants from different Departments and Faculties and prepares examples that are sufficiently generic that no one feels excluded, ignored, or unserved. In finding examples that are not meaningless to someone, the examples can be meaningless to everyone. Course instructors come to workshops looking for value, which often means something they can easily adapt and integrate into their own courses. Just as with our students, “far transfer” from generic concepts into the context of their discipline and course is difficult.
  2. Time and place: workshops are often scheduled for a time, and especially place, that’s convenient for the CTL facilitators. If a course instructor isn’t sure if they’re going to attend the workshop, the added inconvenience of having to walk all the way across campus could be what convinces them to skip the workshop.
  3. Who cares: For course instructors, recognition of effort in their annual review, tenure and promotion file, or job applications is important. One more bullet in their CV, “● attended CTL workshop on learning outcomes,” doesn’t draw much attention.

This comes down to value: busy course instructors carefully allocate their time and energy. They spend those resources where the investment pays off.

Key features of Foundations

Here’s the idea behind Foundations: I collaborate with a “local champion” to facilitate a series of six, 90-minute workshops to a cohort of educators from a specific Unit – the Department, School, or Faculty where the discipline lives.

These are features of the series to make it as valuable as possible and to reduce reasons for people not coming:

  1. The topics give people what they’re expecting, a foundation in teaching and learning:
    1. How People Learn: Key findings about how people learn and how instructors can use those findings in the design and delivery of their sessions.
    2. Creating Supportive, Inclusive Learning Environments: Students will not succeed if they don’t feel welcomed and safe. Creating and maintaining that classroom environment requires thoughtful, deliberate, and on-going attention.
    3. Learning Outcomes: The first step to designing and teaching a concept, a lesson, or an entire course is determining the learning outcomes: what must a student be able to do to demonstrate they understand?
    4. Assessment for Learning: It’s one thing to teach a lesson; it’s another thing entirely whether or not students learned it. We’ll explore formative assessments.
    5. Instructional Strategies: There are times when a short lecture is the right tool to share your expertise and model expert-like habits of thinking. The evidence is clear, though, that more of your students will achieve higher levels of success in classes with effective, active learning.
    6. The topic for the last session will be chosen by the cohort. This session could be specific to teaching in the Unit (e.g. group work, small and large classrooms, assessment, active learning, technology etc.) or being a successful educator (education research, teaching philosophies, etc.)
  2. The content is discipline-specific because I work with the local champion to include learning outcomes, assessments, activities, habits of thinking, expert-like skills, demonstrations/artifacts, common misconceptions and difficulties, relevant educational research, and more that are specific to the discipline. This makes the support and resources immediately relevant to the participants. I’ll share more about the “local champion” in the post about process and give examples of tailoring the content to the discipline in the post on the workshop content.
  3. The local champion also give me, and the series, credibility with their colleagues. This isn’t someone from the CTL parachuting in to tell them how to teach. Instead, it’s one of them working with the CTL to provide professional development and to ensure the content stays relevant.
  4. The 6 sessions run every 2 weeks so the entire series occurs during one academic term (when course instructors have a mostly predictable schedule) while giving people enough time to prepare between sessions. The sessions occur at a time that works for the participants (sometimes a Unit has a half day set aside each week for unit meetings, for example) and in a location that’s convenient for them (the local conference room or a classroom in their building, for example.)
  5. The cohort remains when series is over, creating a learning community led by the local champion that’s immediately available in the hallway, in the mailroom, or before and after a meeting to share teaching and learning challenges and successes.
  6. The series is supported by a shell in the LMS that remains open after the series ends, so that all materials are available to the participants. I typically share everything under a Creative Commons CC-BY license which forces me to find copyright free resources.
  7. The CTL provides any documentation, recognition, or acknowledgement the participants need to describe this professional development. Each participants lets me what will be most useful to them.

In Part 2, I’ll give examples of customizing the content to specific units.

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