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UM News
December 20, 2012

MISSOULA

Megan Stark now knows what kind of teacher she is. Paul Silverman has figured out how to invite students to take responsibility for their own learning. Joel Iverson has found solutions he didn’t know he had.

All three University of Montana faculty members have participated in UM’s Pedagogy Project. Now marking its fourth year, the faculty-led initiative brings instructors from across the University together for focused conversation and reflection on teaching. Since its inception, the 25 fellows in the program have conducted more than 75 mid-semester evaluations in one another’s classes and engaged thousands of students in discussions about the most effective ways to enhance learning in the classroom.

UM history Assistant Professor and African-American Studies program Coordinator Tobin Shearer launched what would become the Pedagogy Project after coming to UM from Northwestern University in 2008. Shearer had worked with the Searle Center for Teaching Excellence at Northwestern, and wanted to begin the conversation about teaching among UM faculty.

After running a sort of pilot program with another professor during his first semester of teaching, Shearer shopped the idea around to different faculty and the Pedagogy Project was born.

“I think none of us are going to be able to maintain a cutting-edge teaching performance if we’re not constantly having a conversation about teaching,” Shearer said. “The best way to do that is simply open a conversation among faculty.”

Fellows in the program commit to conducting a mid-semester evaluation in one to two other classes. They then review the results with the other instructors and attend a discussion with the other fellows to share insights gained from the process across departments and disciplines.

The mid-semester evaluations, which take 20-30 minutes, consist of the visiting fellow asking the students to discuss three questions in small groups: What aspects of the course enhance learning? What could be improved to better enhance learning? What could you as students do to enhance your learning? Students rank their top comments on the questions, then rank how much they agree with the top comments.

This process, which the Pedagogy Project has conducted in small and large courses, offers faculty relevant feedback they may not receive in written course evaluations. Because students are encouraged to discuss their thoughts and consider others’ comments, the evaluation goes through its own trial.

After their first year, project fellows can invite another participant in the program to observe them teaching and offer feedback, as well as help plan and facilitate the campus wide faculty development series the program offers each autumn semester. To date, the Pedagogy Project has organized micro-talks with titled such as “Teaching Naked vs. Digitally Adorned: Using Technology in the Classroom” and “Office Chair vs. Therapist’s Couch: Your Role as Faculty During Students’ Emotional Crises.”

The cross-disciplinary nature of the project allows faculty to engage in conversations about their passion for teaching, rather than their specific areas of expertise. Shearer said his favorite thing about engaging in the project is working with faculty across campus and learning techniques and ideas they’ve developed over the years.

Mansfield Librarian and Davidson Honors College Instructor Stark said the benefit of the project doesn’t just influence the student-teacher relationship.

“Whenever I felt unsure of my teaching, I would fall back on imitating the habits of teachers I admire,” she said. “In particular, I relied too heavily on humor that wasn’t characteristic of me. Thanks to the feedback I received in the Pedagogy Project, I realized that the students learned more and responded better to me when I stopped trying to be someone else and instead shared with them my love of the culture of books and reading.

“They actually became more engaged the more I acted like myself. Perhaps this sounds obvious, but it deeply impacted my confidence in the classroom and continues to shape who I am as a teacher.”

Likewise, others have learned how to better support students through the Pedagogy Project. Silverman, a psychology professor, now asks students what he can do to support them in their efforts to do the readings, participate in class discussions and invest more in assignments. Communication Studies Associate Professor Iverson reflected on his own experiences as a first-generation college student to address problems such as the temptation for students to drop out and stop short of earning a degree.

“Once I realized that I could use my experience to help students not just stay in college but thrive here, I had a whole new set of solutions to offer,” Iverson said.

Over the past few years, the project has grown and incorporated better practices based on feedback from students or faculty. The mid-semester evaluations are streamlined and offer tangible advice to professors, so they’re not a drag on valuable class time. Even experienced faculty members have seen how they can grow and continue to learn as instructors, proving that the Pedagogy Project isn’t just for teachers who need help.

Faculty members are learning how to think differently to solve problems, big or small, and Shearer said the intent of the project – and the key to improved teaching and learning – is communication. Discussions such as how to improve grading rubrics to help students better understand assignments, how to switch to inquiry-based lectures or respond to a student who dominates class conversations all help UM faculty advance their skills.

“We come together not because we have to, but because we want to,” said Pedagogy Project Co-Coordinator Amy Ratto-Parks. “It is the voluntary nature of our time together that makes our collaboration effective.”

For more information about the Pedagogy Project, call Shearer at 406-243-6225 or email tobin.shearer@umontana.edu.

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Contact: Tobin Miller Shearer, assistant professor of history and UM African-American Studies Program coordinator, tobin.shearer@umontana.edu, 406-243-6225.