Teaching Teachers at Penn: Mentoring Programs

by Larry Robbins and Herb Levine

Recent Almanac articles have described important efforts to improve teaching at Penn. The University is clearly interested in creating an environment that promotes effective teaching and learning. One such initiative involves the concept of mentoring.

A mentoring program has existed for over five years at Wharton and has subsequently been extended to SEAS and some departments in SAS. Two and half years ago, the chair of the Economics Department created a departmental mentoring program.

The basic aim of a mentoring program is to enable teachers to observe their own techniques of instruction and to make appropriate changes. The mentoring program has three components: 1) an exploratory conversation about teaching issues important to the instructor; 2) videotaping of a class; and 3) a discussion between mentor and teacher about the videotaped class.

Some of the individuals who participate in the mentoring program believe or have been told that they have some kind of problem. An effective mentoring relationship will certainly deal with problems but should also address some generic issues of teaching: for example, how to create a syllabus that encourages learning within a discipline and how to present intellectual material in a way that stimulates students to think analytically.

The thought of videotaping elicits a negative response from some teachers: "Not only will it be an intrusion in my class, but I'm afraid of what I'll see, and it might be used against me." To counter these fears, a truly effective mentoring program must be completely confidential. The videotape immediately becomes the property of the teacher and will be seen only in the follow-up consultation with the mentor. As for being an intrusion in the classroom, today's students are generally used to the concept of video and do not pay much attention a camera in the back of a room. Those who are aware of the camera usually appreciate the teacher's efforts to improve the learning experience for the whole class. The videotape is a useful tool because it provides an accurate image. Most people are surprised that they "look as good as they do," and if distractions are evident--nervous pacing, too many "uhs" or "oks"--the remedy becomes easier when an individual can hear the "uhs" and see the non-deliberate movement.

While the class is being videotaped by a cameraperson, the mentor takes notes on the process of teaching: how and how soon the class begins, interaction between teacher and class, cross-talk among students, general organization including summaries and transitions, the way the class ends and, of course, presentation skills. When viewing the tape, the teacher is asked to make similar notes, concentrating both on organization and presentation.

The final part of the process is the interview with the mentor. At that meeting, teacher and mentor go over the notes each has made, referring to the videotape for verification. If problems show up, the mentor should directly and forthrightly discuss them and offer suggestions for improvement. A mentor who is too complimentary loses the confidence of the teacher, but one who only finds fault no doubt misses some of the positive attributes of a teacher. With the combination of the videotape record, the mentor's analysis of the class and the teacher's own observations, a plan for improvement should emerge. For maximum benefit, it is often a good idea to repeat the process, if not immediately then in succeeding semesters.

In this model, the mentor does not necessarily have to be an expert in the teacher's discipline. However, departmentally based programs can provide the important dimension of dealing with issues specific to an academic subject. This presents certain advantages but also some disadvantages.

Knowing the field enhances the mentor's ability to comment on how the material is being presented. For example, if the mentor observes that a new assistant professor is drawing too much on advanced techniques recently learned in graduate school, the message might be: "Keep it simple, go for the basics, try to develop an understandable, coherent picture, and then perhaps suggest more advanced problems and scientific disagreements."

Although "speaking the same language" creates a comfortable environment, it also has its drawbacks. When the Economics Department announced its program, most junior faculty responded positively, grateful that someone within the department was interested in them and willing to help improve teaching quality. However, a few in the initial conversation with the mentor were uneasy about exposing their teaching to a member of their own department, worrying that this might have a negative effect on their chances for promotion. Even though the mentoring relationship is confidential, if a teacher is uncomfortable, arrangements should be made to work with someone outside the department.

Mentoring programs, whether internal or external, help teachers identify their own strengths and weaknesses. To be effective instruments of change, mentors themselves must be conscientious in learning how to assist their colleagues in the delicate process of improving teaching. A mentor who says or implies, "do it my way," may do more harm than good because individuals need to develop their own style. Certainly, there are some constants in good teaching--organization and enthusiasm are essential--but each academic discipline has its own way of looking at the world,and each instructor should develop a unique method of communicating knowledge. A mentor, therefore, should concentrate on showing others how to observe their own skills and how to find ways to improve learning.

Our experience has shown that teaching effectiveness can be improved. Yet there are limits to the extent of improvement possible. Neither mentor nor teacher should have unrealistic expectations, for these may lead to feelings of frustration and even failure, preventing potentially good teachers from achieving the level of improvement that is attainable.

The Talk About Teaching series is a joint project of the College of Arts and Sciences and the Lindback Society.

This month's authors are members of SAS and the Wharton School. Dr. Levine is professor of economics and Dr. Robbins is adjunct professor of management and director of the Wharton Communication Program.


Volume 43 Number 22
February 18, 1997

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