Effective Transitioning to College Teaching
In recent years, there has been more attention given to the reality that most PhD programs do not prepare future faculty for college teaching. Even when college teaching is addressed, it is frequently in the context of sharing insights in teaching subject matter from innovators in the various disciplines. So the reality persists in colleges and universities that most PhD graduates are well prepared in their (possibly narrow) subject fields but are ill prepared to teach in the college classrooms of today and tomorrow.
Today’s students are different in their preparation and motivation from the graduates of PhD programs. Students need to be motivated to learn, and teachers need to understand students and their individuality and heritage. This gap between preparation to teach and the real-life environment of classrooms on campuses needs to be bridged by effective campus-based programs focused on transitioning.
How should campuses go about creating their own transition programs. The fundamentals are constant, although some adjustments must be made for beginning faculty or faculty coming from different types of institutions to be effective teaching according to the mission of specific colleges and universities.
First, campuses must make sure that the fundamentals of teacher preparation programs at lower levels (K–12) are made a part of the transition program. This is especially the case as we learn more from brain research and neuroscience about how children and adults learn. These studies make it clear that all knowledge is constructed and based on the learner’s experiences. This means the concept of a blank slate must be rejected.
These studies also note differences in the brain development of girls and boys that affect classroom instruction. One of the most important insights of this literature is the concept and necessity of unlearning that has happened in processing information at earlier ages of the child’s development. Teachers need to actively explore their students’ misconceptions about things related to their disciplines before they can build a solid foundation for long-term learning and understanding. Any successful teacher must learn that students are culturally, socially, and experientially different in what they already know. This will affect what knowledge can be constructed on top of students’ current understandings and beliefs about facts and realities that are quite different from those of the faculty member.
Second, a new teacher must understand the concepts of motivation and acceptance. The work of Marva Collins in The Marva Collins Way (1990) provides a good source for faculty learning. It notes important realities about self-respect being central to student learning as well as immediate feedback and praise for successful learning. To reach their students, faculty must come to learn about students’ drives, motivations, and learning styles. Faculty should ensure that all parts of the curriculum reinforce and build upon previous learning. And faculty must not be hypercritical of students’ errors because excessive criticism of errors demotivates all learners.
Third, there are seven foundations of learning for effectiveness in a global society and information age. They are the following:
- All learning is based on experience.
- Learning occurs best in properly structured environments.
- Learning is most effective when it is based on experimentation and doing.
- Successful future learning depends on achieving learner engagement.
- Enthusiasm expressed by the teacher makes a profound difference in what is actually learned from covered materials.
- Human empathy and the expression of companionship in learning are vital to effective, sustainable learning.
- All students are affected profoundly by the Pygmalion effect. A lack of high expectations for every student’s learning leads to less learning for all students.
Fourth, no matter how well intentioned and no matter how much material is covered, student learning will be severely limited by lack of retention. Retention in learning must be built into syllabus construction and course delivery from the first day of class. A useful guide to have all new faculty read is L. Dee Fink’s Creating Significant Learning Experiences: An Integrated Approach to Designing College Courses (2003). Courses that generate both significant and sustainable learning involve challenging students; using active forms of learning; having teachers who truly care about their subject, students, and teaching and learning; having teachers who interact positively with their students; and creating a good system of feedback, assessment, and grading.
Fink identifies twelve steps in what he labels “integrated course design.” This process of syllabus construction is the opposite of the normal system of beginning with content to be covered and levels of proficiency to be achieved. Instead the process of syllabus construction and course delivery begins with an examination of important situational factors such as the composition of the class and previous learning of students enrolled in the course. It then moves on to defining the most important learning goals and follows that with a critical definition of what kinds of feedback and assessment procedures will be appropriate for the course. The next critical step is the selection of effective teaching and learning activities. According to Fink’s method, the actual construction of the course syllabus is step eleven right before the faculty member’s plan for evaluating the effectiveness of the course and his or her teaching effectiveness.
Fifth, effective teaching is an interactive and dialog-determined experience. This means that colleges and universities should commit themselves to seeing the teaching experience not just from the point of view of the faculty member or his or her colleagues but also in the context of the classroom environment and student reactions. This means that the video recording of classroom teaching is a vital part of the transition experience for new faculty or faculty who are new to a specific institution’s mission and student body. Not all regional universities are the same, nor are all liberal arts colleges the same. By reviewing videos of their classroom performance, faculty will learn much toward enhancing their teaching effectiveness. After the individual faculty member has reviewed videos, having another faculty member selected by the transitioning faculty to review the same videos and offer collegial advice will reinforce and enhance learning toward teaching effectiveness. Every college should create a pool of these consultant teachers who are known for their established effectiveness.
Sixth, an effective transitioning program will use a website, either within the institution or that is nationally recognized, that provides rich resources on teaching effectiveness. It is best to use a national site unless the institution wants to make a significant investment in developing its own materials and assessing their validity. For small institutions, the selection of a national site is absolutely required.
A seventh and final element of an effective transitioning program would be the assignment of a teaching peer mentor for the first two years of a new faculty member’s teaching at the institution. Unfortunately, ineffective habits develop early in teaching and become defining for future teaching. They need to be gently corrected early on in a teaching career just as they are most effectively corrected early in K–12 teaching careers. While sometimes this may involve a member of the faculty member’s academic department, this will often not be the case in small institutions with departments of three or four faculty members. However, the peer mentor consultant needs to be in a disciplinary area that creates some level of credibility for the transitioning faculty member, such as a science discipline faculty member for a chemistry faculty member and a social science discipline faculty member for a political scientist.
A successful transitioning program will continuously communicate some realities about teaching and learning. Teaching is not content or coverage based but knowledge-construction based and focused on key learning experiences to be achieved. Teaching must never stress information exposure versus future use of information relevant to individual learners. Teachers needs to spend a significant amount of time uncovering students’ false understandings and judgments due to previous learning. And faculty members must always remember that effective teaching involves the creation of trust between the learner and the teacher without which retention of learning will quickly deteriorate after the course is completed. To have an overall grasp of these realities of teaching, it would be good for all new faculty to read Parker Palmer’s work, especially his Courage to Teach (1998).
Henry W. Smorynski is a Midland University leadership fellow.