Is This Any Way to Go About Teaching and Learning?

by Larry M. Robbins

When a teacher asks a rhetorical question, students often whisper the answer. Is that an opportunity lost or a way to save time in class? Too often we do not think about the process of teaching, thus losing an opportunity to improve learning.

In an effort to help teachers explore the process of education, the School of Arts and Sciences will open a Center for Teaching and Learning on July 1, 1999. Located in Logan Hall, the new center will assist individual faculty members and departments and will provide printed and electronic resources dedicated to teaching.

The goals of the center will be to sustain and improve effective teaching and learning. It will do this by encouraging faculty, doctoral candidates, undergraduate students and administration to create a supportive atmosphere for enhancing the educational process.

One of the center's first projects will be to develop a useful website that will provide current information on teaching. This site will expand on the already existing Teachnet provided by the Office of the Vice Provost for Graduate Education. The current site demonstrates that many institutions already have teaching centers eager to share their experience with colleagues. Some academic disciplines, such as Physics, also publish information related specifically to teaching, information that has general and specific applications. All of this information will be available on the site, along with news, timely suggestions and links to other sites.

The center will serve as a clearinghouse for the excellent resources already available at Penn. For example, the combined office of SAS and SEAS Computing provides assistance on using technology in the classroom, as does SAS Multi-Media and Educational Technical Services and Wharton Computing and Instructional Technology. Faculty should contact these offices directly for immediate assistance, but as the new center develops, opportunities for coordination will be ample.

The desire to enhance teaching and learning is not new at Penn. Of course, the Graduate School of Education has always engaged in research on pedagogy. Wharton has had a Teacher Development Program since 1984, and various departments within SAS (English, Mathematics, Music and Physics to name a few) have had long-standing programs to train doctoral students. SAS sponsors an orientation program for new faculty and a training program for teaching assistants, and some departments have begun mentoring programs for faculty. The Lindback Society has sponsored several initiatives (including Almanac's Talk About Teaching column) for collegial discussions about teaching and sponsors lectures on timely topics. Recognizing the importance of learning in the educational process, the Learning Resources and Academic Support Program works closely with students as well as teachers to improve all aspects of education.

The Center for Teaching and Learning will complement existing programs in several ways. First, and most important, the center will provide individual assistance to faculty. Normally, this assistance will include observation and videotaping of a class. The consultation, which is voluntary and completely confidential, works as follows: the faculty member and consultant will have an initial conversation about individual goals and, in some cases, problems. This initial discussion might include a review of a syllabus or course outline, discussion of ways to motivate students, presentation techniques, and many other issues.

The next step is videotaping the class. The consultant, accompanied by a camera operator, will sit in on a full class, taking notes on the dynamics of the session. After the class, the videotape immediately becomes the property of the instructor, who will review the tape and make notes on all aspects of the class: organization, presentation, interaction, etc. The instructor will then bring the tape to the consultant, and the two of them will compare notes and review relevant portions of the tape. This process can be repeated within a semester or during succeeding semesters.

In addition to individual consultations, the center will participate in new faculty orientation, sponsor lectures and discussions on teaching issues and work with individual departments to enhance teaching within specific disciplines. One type of departmental program will involve mentoring. Since one of the objectives of the center is to help faculty help each other, senior faculty can learn to advise junior faculty on teaching issues just as they do on research. Mentoring can also be peer-to-peer, especially in team-taught courses or in courses with multiple sections. If done well, faculty mentoring will take advantage of the rich resources for teaching already available within departments. The center will help departments develop faculty mentoring programs that will be specific to the needs of a particular academic discipline.

As the center develops, plans call for an advisory committee, consisting of faculty, graduate and undergraduate students and administrators. The committee will monitor the activities of the center, providing advice and preventing overlap with other programs. The committee will monitor the activities of the center, helping it to meet the needs of individual instructors and academic departments. Individuals who interact with the center will be able to evaluate the process by both formal and informal feedback.

To help departments evaluate and improve their teaching, the center can help develop effective methods of internal observation. Although many departments already have curriculum committees, it might be appropriate to add a teaching committee to help coordinate teaching and learning. Students can participate in the process by forming "quality circles" or engaging in other types of discussions to supplement the end-of-semester evaluations. The center can help coordinate these activities.

Since the primary goal of the new center will be to enhance teach-ing, instructors need to know how to observe themselves efficiently. The center can help teachers anticipate and solve problems. It can sug-gest new ways of teaching that will motivate students to learn and help instructors maintain the excitement that attracts them to the profession.

Although the Center for Teaching and Learning represents a new venture, the desire to improve teaching is not new at Penn. Among the goals of the center, therefore, will be to support existing programs, to develop new resources for teaching and to create a collegial and collaborative environment for enhancing the ability to communicate knowledge.

When asked to describe the best attributes of their best teachers, students will often respond: "That's easy. Enthusiasm and organization." One student, however, recently gave a different answer: "My best teachers know when I don't understand what's being taught." Developing the ability to know what is being taught and what is being learned is a goal Penn can achieve.

This essay concludes the fifth year of the Talk About Teaching series, conducted jointly by the Lindback Society for Distinguished Teaching and the College of Arts and Sciences. Dr. Robbins is currently the director of the Wharton Communication Program and the Wharton Teacher Development Program.

On July 1, 1999, he will become the director of the School of Arts and Sciences' new Center for Teaching and Learning. [see front page story]

Almanac, Vol. 45, No. 29, April 20, 1999