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Team/Collaborative Teaching

Introduction

Experienced teachers often recall team or collaborative teaching experiences as their best and worst experiences in a classroom.  Like any form of collaborative scholarship, successful collaborative teaching integrates the strengths of multiple viewpoints in a synthetic endeavor that no single member of the project could have completed independently. It also provides an expanded number of teaching styles that may connect with more student learning preferences.

At its best, collaborative teaching allows students and faculty to benefit from the healthy exchange of ideas in a setting defined by mutual respect and a shared interest in a topic. At its worst, collaborative teaching can create a fragmented or even hostile environment in which instructors undermine each other and compromise the academic ideal of a learning community and civil discourse. Kathryn Plank, editor of Team Teaching: Across the Disciplines, Across the Academy, describes team teaching as a rough and tumble enterprise. Read Plank’s blog entry about team teaching.

The video below shows one example of team teaching. Both courses were titled “Economic Analyses of the Law” but one was taught to graduate students at the William & Mary Law School and one was taught to undergraduates in the College’s economics department.

Below is a short introduction to how team teaching is conducted at Tilburg University in the Netherlands.

 

Three Models for Collaborative Teaching

There are three models that the CFT describes here for faculty and student consideration as you contemplate collaborative teaching: traditional team teaching, linked courses for student learning communities, and connected pairs of courses meeting at the same time.
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Traditional team teaching involves two or more instructors teaching the same course. The instructors are involved in a collaborative endeavor throughout the entire course. Some team teaching is more like tag-team teaching, in which only one instructor meets the class to cover a segment of the material. Tag-team teaching has its benefits, but it misses out on the benefits of dialogue and the give and take engaged by the team of instructors.

Advantages of this model include potential deep student learning because of exposure to the connections across the disciplines of the instructors, the ambiguity of different disciplinary views, and the broad support that a heterogeneous teaching team can provide during the entire course.

Challenges include the misfortunes that could occur if the team is not well organized and connected. One challenge is determining the amount of credit each of the team members receives for teaching the course. Sometimes an instructor receives only a fraction of the credit that he or she would receive for teaching a course solo, while in reality team teaching usually requires each instructor to engage more work than when being the only instructor.

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The linked course approach involves a cohort of 20 or so students, traditionally but not necessarily first year, together taking two or three courses that are linked by a theme. For example, the theme could be “the environment” with the 3 courses being introductory biology, political science, and English. Once each week the instructors of these linked courses provide a one-hour seminar for the cohort in which the instructors jointly discuss connections, similarities, and differences between the content and objectives of the courses.

Advantages, based on the research on student learning communities fostered by linked courses, include increased student retention—particularly for students academically at risk; faster and less disruptive student cognitive intellectual development; and greater civic contributions to the institution.

Challenges include finding students for the cohort and aligning the student schedules (this is usually undertaken by the student affairs division and the registrar). Another challenge is sometimes the cliquish behavior when the student cohort is embedded in a larger class.

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The third model involves a pair or series of connected courses arranged and connected by the instructors to meet at the same scheduled time so that the classes can meet as a whole when the instructors think it is appropriate. The instructors can illustrate and emphasize the interdisciplinarity of certain topics or approaches appearing in both courses.

For example, a connected pair could be an introductory political science and an introductory biology course where the role of public policy affects the biological environment. There is no student learning community cohort involved, so the support generated by a learning community is not available. Thus the connected instructors should include some community building in their courses and during joint meetings. Forming small groups in each course and then mixing these across the courses could build the needed community.

Advantages of this model include the student encounters with different disciplinary connections and related ambiguity. This model is easier to set up than the student learning community linked course model because there is no cohort to form.

Challenges may include finding a space for the joint class meetings.

 

Cultivating Colleagueship

Finding (or cultivating) a good fit in personality, expertise, and pedagogical philosophy is important to functioning as an effective instructional connection. Strong mismatches in these areas could pose serious obstacles or, on the other hand, provide a variety of learning experiences and opportunities for students. The following questions may be useful as you consider any type of collaborative teaching with a colleague:

  • Do we share a mutual respect for one another?
  • Are we free to disagree respectfully without putting our careers in jeopardy?
  • Are our areas of expertise more likely to complement each other or compete for dominance in the course?
  • Are we both willing to compromise on issues around which we are used to having a high degree of autonomy (eg. grading standards, course content, and classroom management in the case of team teaching)? (These are not of such concern for linked courses.)

Team teaching also cultivates collaboration between teachers and students.  In the article Team Teaching: The Learning Side of the Teaching – Learning Equation, Eison and Tidwell (2003) advocate sharing power with students and including them in some of the decision-making about their own learning. We believe this facilitates critical thinking and students’ ability to see themselves as constructors of knowledge.

 

Constructing Team-Taught, Linked, or Connected Courses

Even the most complementary pairings will find it difficult to be successful if they are not working toward the same overall goals.  Proper course design is a pragmatic step for any courses, but it is particularly important for team-taught, linked, or connected courses.  By exploring individual assumptions about the goals and methods of a course and reaching a consensus, linked or co-instructors dramatically improve their chances of offering compelling, coherent courses.  Conversely, by not working together in such a course design process, linked and co-instructors run the risk of outcomes such as the following:

  • Serial or parallel teaching splits time between two fundamentally different approaches that can leave students confused; moreover, it fails to take advantage of the opportunity for instructors to build community and model rigorous, courteous academic discourse.
  • Linked or co-instructors who improvise policies or assignments independently create an environment that promotes triangulation (students playing one instructor against the other) and inconsistency.
  • If there is a power imbalance involved among the instructors that is not addressed such as between senior and junior faculty, students will recognize the inequality and their learning from one of the instructors may be compromised.

The CFT’s teaching guides on Course Design and its Course Design Working Groups offer advice and resources for instructors as they develop or refine their course offerings.

In addition to the normal challenges of developing course content and procedures, linked and co-instructors must decide how to share the teaching responsibilities.  Two heads may be better than one at modeling academic discourse, presenting ideas in a variety of ways, facilitating student discussions, and evaluating student work, but they also may be prone to replacing student discussion with expert opinions, contradicting one another, and getting caught up in debating minor points to the detriment of student learning.

 

As a part of course design, linked and co-instructors should consider the following questions:

  • What responsibilities will be shared by the instructors?
  • What responsibilities will be divided generally (across the semester) or specifically (on particular days)?
  • What are the responsibilities of the instructor “in charge” of a particular event or assignment?
  • How can the other instructor(s) facilitate student learning by assisting the instructor with the primary responsibility for a given event or assignment?
  • How will instructors handle disagreements about content or procedure without undermining one another or compromising student learning?
  • How and when will instructors meet to discuss the course or linked courses and consider changes to content or procedures throughout the semester?

 

Additional Resources

Web:

Center for Teaching Library:

  • Bess, James L.  Teaching alone, teaching together: transforming the structure of teams for teaching.  San Francisco : Jossey-Bass, 2000.
  • Davis, James R. Interdisciplinary Courses and Team Teaching. Phoenix: American Council on Education/Oryx Press Series on Higher Education, 1997.

 

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