This week:

  • I share readers’ examples of how colleges are providing faculty development beyond the traditional workshop.
  • I pass along one reader’s caveat on letting students drop a low test score.
  • I remind you to send in questions you’d like to pose to our expert panel for the final installment of Talking About Teaching.

Workshop Alternatives

Overburdened professors don’t seem very interested in attending teaching workshops these days. I shared that observation, from JT Torres, who directs the teaching center at Quinnipiac University, in the newsletter last month. It resonated with a number of readers who work in faculty development, who wrote in to share what they’re noticing among their professors, and how they’re responding.

Cyndi Kernahan agreed that “people are tired and burned out.” Kernahan, who directs the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at the University of Wisconsin at River Falls, compared notes with her counterparts in the Wisconsin system at a recent meeting. “We are all focusing more on creating spaces for people to talk to each other rather than to be talked at,” she wrote, like building cohorts and hosting book discussions.

Perhaps the starkest example of professors’ uninterest in workshops came from Calli Shelton, who leads Enterprise & Education Technology at Paul Smith’s College.

“Over the years,” Shelton wrote, “we’ve seen a dramatic decrease in the number of participants in our workshops” as professors’ workloads have increased. “The culmination of this was the attendance at the 11 workshops we put on over the course of the 2020-21 academic year: 3. Not 3 per workshop. Three total attendees.”

At the same time, Shelton said, “it’s not unusual to get calls from faculty who are, quite literally, in tears because they’re overwhelmed by yet another problem using a system or piece of classroom hardware. Most times it’s user error that’s causing the issue; I know that’s because the faculty haven’t been properly trained to use the systems and equipment.”

It was clearly time for a new approach. Starting this semester, Shelton’s team is “focusing on short, targeted interactions with individual faculty or small groups.” To that end, they’ve asked departments to set aside 10 minutes during their meetings for them to “share a single fix, tip, or feature.”

There are early signs of success, Shelton wrote, but nothing is an easy fix. “I think it takes time,” she wrote, “to build trusting relationships with people who are barely treading water.”

Kris Baranovic described a change he’s made to the training he offers at Southeast Missouri State University, where he’s an instructional designer. Before the pandemic, Baranovic gave traditional workshops, he wrote, focused on a single topic and structured like a conference presentation. That format “was one-way, not immensely interactive, exactly what faculty requested, and boring for everyone involved.”

When the pandemic began, Baranovic moved his workshops to Zoom. He noticed, as we’ve heard from other faculty developers, that attendance went up. The sessions also became more interactive.

Baranovic then shifted to moderating panel discussions among professors representing a variety of disciplines. “The questions,” he wrote, “would focus on how faculty encountered this topic, what they liked, what they didn’t like, what they did not expect, and what they would recommend for someone just trying this out.”

Baranovic can’t imagine returning to the old model: He’s sticking to panels in Zoom. Among the benefits, he says: “This arrangement breaks institutional silos, allows faculty to talk more about their experiences, shares effective practices from sources faculty trust (their peers), creates a stronger sense of community, makes it easy for panelists (they receive the questions ahead of time if they want to prepare, but because they’re speaking to experience, they don’t really have to prepare), and creates a form of support that works like therapy but doesn’t feel like therapy.”

Next, Baranovic hopes to turn the panels into a podcast format for professors unable to attend in real time.

Make-Ups Matter

During our most-recent Talking About Teaching virtual event, the panel discussed small changes professors could make in grading and assessment. Among them: Allow students to drop their lowest test score.

I got an interesting response from Rebecca Torstrick, senior assistant vice president for University Academic Affairs and director of Completion & Student Success for the Indiana University system. Torstrick, also a professor of anthropology at the South Bend campus, pointed out that this policy can have an unintended consequence, if professors aren’t careful in how they structure it.

Sometimes, she wrote, professors let students drop their lowest score — but don’t allow make-ups if students are absent during a test.

That introduces a number of problems — especially if students miss the first test, and especially if they’re first-year students, as Torstrick elaborated in an interview. Students who miss a test obviously lose their chance to drop an actual low score. But they also miss the learning opportunity that the test presents.

And that learning entails more than recalling and applying the content, she said. It’s also about how assessment is going to work. “When you take your first exam, you begin to learn what kinds of questions they’re going to ask you, how strictly do they stick to what they tell you they’re going to do, are you seeing material you’ve never seen before, are you being asked to apply the material instead of just simply parrot it back?”

A better policy? Let students drop a low score, but also provide make-ups. Yes, this is more work for professors. Torstrick recommends starting from the assumption that you won’t have perfect attendance on exam day and creating two versions as a built-in contingency.

Burning Questions

Speaking of Talking About Teaching, the final session in our series is coming up: Friday, April 29. We plan to spend the whole hour on audience questions. You can ask yours here, and the same link will allow you to register for the session and watch previous ones on demand. If you’d rather send a question via email, write to me at beckie.supiano@chronicle.com. Hope you can join us!

Thanks for reading Teaching. If you have suggestions or ideas, please feel free to email us at beckie.supiano@chronicle.com or beth.mcmurtrie@chronicle.com.

— Beckie

Learn more about our Teaching newsletter, including how to contact us, at the Teaching newsletter archive page.