October 12, 2012

When Teachers Teach Each Other, Everybody Benefits

Texas A&M is well known for providing an excellent education at an affordable price for its students. What may not be as well known is that it does the same for its faculty, many of whom “go back to school” courtesy of the Faculty Teaching Academy (FTA).

Sponsored by the Center for Teaching Excellence (CTE), the FTA is a unique professional development program that provides faculty members with the opportunity to learn from, and be inspired by, other faculty members.

Already vetted by their peers with prestigious awards for teaching excellence, Texas A&M’s award-winning faculty members volunteer to lead one of six FTA seminars each year. They do it to share their teaching methods, insights and best practices in an open and transparent working session with other faculty members. In its eighth year, the FTA has become the Center’s most popular program, attracting between 60-80 attendees per session.

Sarah Bednarz

Sarah Bednarz

“This year we asked our faculty presenters to focus on a single over-arching theme,” says Ben Wu, associate dean of faculties and director of the CTE. “We chose high impact practices (HIPs) because they are such a vital component of the university’s Quality Enhancement Program (QEP). We thought it would be extremely helpful for our faculty to understand how some of our best teachers successfully incorporate these practices into their teaching.”

High-impact educational practices include providing students with collaborative assignments and projects, common intellectual experiences, writing-intensive courses, learning communities, first-year seminars, service and community-based learning, internships, capstone projects, diversity/global learning, and opportunities for undergraduate research, all of which have been proven to produce highly desirable learning outcomes.

Sarah Bednarz, faculty fellow for the FTA and associate dean of the College of Geosciences, opened the first of the 2012-13 sessions by acknowledging the enthusiasm and willingness of Texas A&M faculty to explore new ways to improve their teaching and meet the QEP goals.

“By attending this series of FTA seminars, you will learn how to use — or enhance your use of — high-impact practices in your classrooms,” Bednarz noted. “As more and more of you incorporate these methods into your courses, Texas A&M will continue to produce graduates uniquely prepared to make a contribution to the state of Texas and the nation.”

The FTA’s first presenter of the year, Luciana Barroso, associate professor, civil engineering, explained how she uses high-impact practices to achieve deep rather than superficial learning.

“The first question we should be asking ourselves when we are teaching is what we want the outcome to be. If we want student learning outcomes such as the ability to work collaboratively, think critically, analyze and synthesize knowledge, apply knowledge and do something with it – if we want our students to become lifelong, integrative learners – then we need to give them the motivational tools to connect their learning not only across their courses, but also from the classroom to ‘real world’ career opportunities.”

In her presentation, Barroso reviewed case studies and successful outcomes from her classes based on providing common intellectual experiences for her students. She described how she breaks her students into groups for project-based learning and stressed the importance of assigning projects that are as close to real life as possible, requiring students to make difficult choices and exposing them to frequent peer and faculty assessment and interactions.

Barroso then opened the floor for an informal question and answer session. Faculty members — both tenured/tenure track and non-tenure track faculty members of all ranks — were eager to ask questions of Barroso as well as to share examples and suggestions with each other in order to improve learning outcomes for their students.

As Wu put it, “Everyone is different and every course is different. But it only takes one good concept to make a significant difference in how you teach. That’s why good teachers want to hear as much as they can.”

The FTA was founded in 2003 by the late Jeff Conant, a Texas A&M University Presidential Professor for Teaching Excellence and popular marketing professor who was committed to the idea of faculty gaining knowledge and inspiration from their peers.

From its inception, the FTA has featured faculty speakers from assistant to distinguished professors from all of the university’s colleges. Among the past speakers, there have been 12 who held University Professorships for Undergraduate Teaching Excellence, 15 Montague-CTE Scholars, 38 AFS Distinguished Achievement Award recipients and 18 Presidential Professor for Teaching Excellence award winners.

teaching

Luciana Barroso uses high-impact practices in the classroom to achieve deeper learning.

Because the FTA is able to call upon such highly respected speakers, the response from faculty members has been extremely positive. As one former participant put it, “These aren’t expert consultants brought in from other institutions; these are my colleagues who can relate to whatever issues I’m dealing with.” Faculty members can connect directly with the FTA presenters.  In fact, one of the perks of attending the FTA workshops is an invitation to go into the speaker’s classroom, a rare opportunity to observe a colleague in action.

In summing up the FTA single-theme series for this year, Bednarz stated, “We wanted to embrace high-impact practices because we know they help students transition from being passive learners to active and productive members of the workforce and of society.”

“The Faculty Teaching Academy has been an excellent engagement opportunity for faculty since its inception,” stated Karan Watson, provost and executive vice president for academic affairs.  “This year the Academy has faculty members learning about high-impact practices from each other and is an illustration of our faculty’s commitment to learning for a lifetime.  These commitments by our faculty members continue to reinforce their and the university’s commitment to the future of Texas.”

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Media Contact: Lynn Paris, News & Information Services at (979) 845-6746

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