Learning Communities Provide Ongoing Support for Educators
by Marianna Sharp, CFT Communications Intern
The Center for Teaching hosts a number of learning communities, groups designed for faculty who are interesting in meeting on a regular basis to discuss the craft of teaching and the specific challenges that come with different types of learning environments. I spoke with Dr. Cynthia Brame, CFT Assistant Director, about her experience leading a learning community focused on lab pedagogies.
Now in its third year, the learning community consists of “people who spend at least part of their professional time thinking about how students learn effectively in a credit-bearing lab setting,” said Brame. Because credit-bearing labs are present in such a range of subjects, from physics to biomedical engineering to Earth
and environmental sciences, participants are able to compare and collaborate between, as well as within, disciplines.
Part of this collaboration comes in the form of peer review of teaching. Learning community members are broken into groups with three to five members each in order to observe one another’s lab classes. The host is given a standard observation protocol in order to guide them in demonstrating their teaching techniques. This protocol can be adapted to highlight what they are especially interested in sharing with their colleagues. After each observation, the group discusses what the host did well, and provides feedback on what the host might do differently in order to reach their goals. The idea of these observation and feedback sessions is not to criticize but to learn from one another in a welcoming environment, which Brame emphasizes by calling these groups “circles of friends.” The reciprocal nature, in which each member acts as both host and observer at different points, also helps to create an environment for open dialogue between peers.
“It’s entirely formative,” says Brame. “People are doing it because they care about their teaching and they want to do it better… It feels much safer and you learn from the people you watch as much as you learn from the commentary of the people who watch you.”
Susan Verberne-Sutton, a senior lecturer in the Chemistry department, touched on this idea when she spoke about her experience participating in the group. “It’s really nice to sit in the same room as people who have similar yet different problems,” she said. She enjoyed finding common ground with other educators on the unique challenges faced by those working in a laboratory setting. “The thing that I’ve benefitted from the most is that the hands-on nature of the lab experience is common. [That is how] we’re trying to train them to think like scientists or professionals in their career.”
The lab pedagogies learning community also facilitates lab workshops. Members are able to bring in lab exercises and experiment plans to refine and develop their class designs. The group often works toward goals such as making experiments more about student design or creating exercises that are more inquiry-based. Frequently in academia, professors work alone to design lesson plans, which can be isolating. The collaboration provided by the lab pedagogies learning community provides a space to facilitate growth and development of educational practices.
Brame adds that the group is also a place for members to bring challenges. Many sessions focus on discussions of areas of concern common to lab courses. For example, nearly all of the faculty participants work with teaching assistants (TAs). “Figuring out how to make the lab a learning experience for your TA while also ensuring that the undergraduate students get a really good experience is a challenge,” says Brame. But, she says, you can find joy in overcoming these challenges if you have a supportive community behind you. “This gives people a way to build community around their teaching… That’s part of what’s joyful, discovering new practices and sharing them.”
Veberne-Sutton also discussed the benefits of sharing teaching practices among colleagues. “I think that it helps gain perspective as to what the university as a whole wants to accomplish with our undergrads and the level of training that they want to have. And sometimes it’s nice to see that different perspective to enhance what we’re doing in our department by looking at new strategies that other people are using.”
The lab pedagogies group is just one of several learning communities the CFT is hosting this year. Other groups are centered around podcast creation, coordinating introductory language courses, and the connection between teaching and social class. If you’re interested in participating in a learning community or have a topic suggestion for future learning communities, please let us know.