Faculty Development Through Peer Collaboration

April 30, 1997

When planning faculty development opportunities it is easy to overlook the resource we have in our colleagues. My university has sponsored many development opportunities that featured the expertise and leadership of external consultants, and recently it sponsored a program that tapped the expertise of our own faculty. The goal of that program was to stimulate better teaching through the use of peer collaboration. Funded in part by a grant from the Pew Charitable Trust, this development initiative was called the Pew Grant Project. The program was relatively inexpensive to administer and was flexible in the manner in which faculty committed their time to the project.

To begin the project, the grant coordinator issued a call for participation and created teams of three faculty members from those persons who responded. The individual team members were chosen from diverse disciplines, and each team included two seasoned teachers and one faculty member who was relatively new to teaching.

The structure for the program was relatively simple. There were three meetings of all participants: an orientation session, a midyear progress report, and a summary of team progress at the end of the year. Between these group meetings, faculty members pursued their individual projects within small teams and on their own schedules.

During the orientation session, participants listened to presentations that summarized the goals and methods of earlier faculty development initiatives. Some of the earlier projects were: Race, Class, Gender and Ethnicity; Writing Across the Curriculum; Critical Thinking; and Partners in Learning. After the presentations, the Pew Grant Project participants received lists of colleagues who had participated in the earlier initiatives and who were willing to give assistance to any team in the Pew Project. Once the three-member teams were introduced, they caucused to decide their own "plan of action." Each team was encouraged to create a custom program that might contain aspects of any of the earlier initiatives.

Because no one on my team had participated in the Partners in Learning initiative, we decided to focus on two topics derived from that program: the design of course materials, and strategies for improved teaching. To that end, we chose representative courses and exchanged materials. In our team meetings we reviewed the materials in detail and offered each other suggestions for improvement. My colleagues scrutinized my course materials more thoroughly and more bjectively than I could ever expect of my students. Moreover, because of their expertise as teachers, they could give me suggestions that would improve the pacing of projects and the means by which the students determined my expectations of them. With my colleagues' suggestions I was able to make numerous improvements in these materials. Similarly, the two of us who had participated in the Writing Across the Curriculum program shared our experiences with the third person and offered many ideas for improved instruction through the use of writing in her course.

In my experience, many professors tend to see what they do as rather unique. After all, most of us teach within highly specialized disciplines. My team included a Fine Arts professor and an Accounting professor. I teach Music Theory and Composition. We were amused to discover many similarities in our lives as teachers. For example, my colleague from accounting and I discovered that our courses were required of all the majors in our respective colleges, that our departments specified both text and content for the courses, that the courses were the first in a series of courses, and that the courses were perceived as difficult by our students. We discussed strategies of achieving departmental goals while bringing our individual interests and style to our courses as well as ways to motivate our "conscripts" and atmosphere and emphasize practical applications of the theories we taught. The recognition of the congruous nature of our work was liberating and formed the basis of all our discussions thereafter. Other groups reported similar epiphanies.

Many teams included observations of each others' classes. The class visits were followed by informal sessions during which they evaluated each others' teaching and offered strategies for improvements using techniques borrowed from the Partners in Learning program. Most people who volunteered for this faculty development program welcomed this opportunity, but some had to be assured that the evaluations would not be used in any decisions related to promotion. My team wished we could have evaluated each others' presentations but, unfortunately, our classes met simultaneously. Although videotaping might be an alternative to live observation, it fails to capture the intangible atmosphere of the class, inhibits normal interaction between faculty and students, and tends to focus only on the faculty member. Thus, if one were to organize a similar project, it might be a good idea to choose teams whose schedules permit such visits.

During the year all the participants met two more times. At these meetings, each team made a presentation and shared their revelations and strategies with the other participants. Though the project lasted for only one year, it had a significant impact on my teaching. In my opinion, the strength of the program stemmed from its reliance on faculty collaboration. Perhaps the simplicity and the relatively low cost of a project such as this might inspire similar projects in other institutions.

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