A couple of months ago, I helped form a sort of “teaching club” with some carefully chosen colleagues. The idea originated with a talk by the University of Minnesota’s Dr. Robin Wright, who hosted an excellent workshop on active learning at the University of Oklahoma last spring. A biology colleague and I happened to be in the same group at the workshop; afterwards, we agreed that it was a rare treat to brainstorm and troubleshoot with other colleagues who also care about teaching.
So we decided to invite a select group of biology colleagues to form a discussion group. The idea was to share ideas and experiences during the summer (course planning time) and throughout the school year. We wanted the group to be large enough to offer a diversity of perspectives, but small enough that each of us could talk about our individual issues during each session.
We decided that a group of five would fit the bill; luckily, all of the people we invited accepted our invitation. We also decided to meet in the early evening at a local pub, so drinks and food are available to whoever might want them. The idea is to create a relaxing atmosphere where we can catch up but still make time to talk about teaching.
So far, our club members have chosen to work on the following topics: boosting the quality of student writing in introductory and advanced classes; overcoming the problem of introductory students doing poorly on the first exam (and therefore missing the material that often forms the foundation for the rest of the course); assessing student mastery of fundamental learning objectives; integrating technology like iPads into the lab; and using just-in-time teaching (JITT). We don’t have all the answers, by any means; we just propose, discuss, and refine our ideas.
If you plan to start a “teaching club” of your own, here are a few suggestions:
- Choose enough people so that you can still have a critical mass if not everyone can make it. Our club has had a full house just once. But we have still managed to have productive discussions with those who do make it.
- Choose people who care about teaching and want to use this opportunity to improve.
- Choose people you admire and whose judgment you trust.
- Choose people who will offer their opinions but will not dominate the conversation.
- Choose people with experience at multiple levels, from introductory to advanced classes.
- Decide how often you will meet. I suggest meeting once every few weeks, which enables members to make regular progress without becoming overwhelmed by the club’s demands.
- One member should be the organized type. You know who I mean, the type who will send out reminders in advance and keep everyone on task during the meeting.
- Plan for some chitchat at the start of each meeting, but don’t get so carried away that you run out of time to talk about teaching.
- Consider having each member assign him/herself some “homework” by the end of each meeting – something they hope to have accomplished by the time of the next meeting. If one club member (the organized type?) takes notes, there will be a record in case members forget what their homework was.
- At the end of each meeting, plan the date and time of the next meeting.
Our club has existed since May, and I have enjoyed our meetings very much. Discussing teaching with my colleagues has given me new ideas, affirmed some of what I planned to do, helped me refine some of my half-baked ideas, kept me focused on my classes, helped me plan farther in advance than I otherwise would have, and allowed me to provide input into what others are doing. Plus, it’s fun to get to know each other better.
If you have had experience with collaborative groups, please share what you have learned, the challenges you faced, and how you overcame them.