Building faculty learning communities

The Educationalist. By Alexandra Mihai

Welcome to a new issue of “The Educationalist”. This week I would like to start a discussion about peer review of teaching, mentoring and building faculty learning communities. Peer review is common practice in research, but when it comes to teaching, things look slightly different. Teaching tends to be a rather individual endeavour, without much exchange taking place, neither within the same discipline nor between disciplines. With all the various duties and commitments, teachers find it difficult to make time to talk to their peers about their teaching practice. Nevertheless, done in an effective manner, this dialogue can bring about many benefits for all involved. I put together a few tips on how to structure our interactions on teaching topics in order to get the best results. Hope you find this useful and looking forward to your comments!

First of all, why exchange?

In the past few months we have seen more exchanges on teaching & learning related topics that ever before (at least in my memory). This is maybe one of the few silver linings of the Covid-19 pandemic, and I hope also one of its legacies.

The list of reasons to share teaching experiences with our peers is of course much longer, but here are just a few:

  • Talking to our peers is an easy and pleasant ways to get new ideas about teaching without going through pages of specialised literature; often the best source of inspiration is right next to you;

  • Beside being a source of inspiration, our colleagues can also provide us with valuable feedback on our teaching practice; maybe they know a resource that fits very well in our syllabus and we just did not come across yet or maybe they have already tried an activity we are planning on including in our course and can give us some insights to help us avoid potential mistakes; and, more importantly, this goes both ways: drawing from each other’s experience can help us and our peers in many different ways;

  • Closely linked to feedback, exchanging ideas with our colleagues will also gradually lead to the creation of a community, a learning community, or a Community of Practice, as it is called in the literature. This community, mainly based on informal, loosely-structured interactions, plays a very important role in providing overall support in day-to-day teaching but also in ensuring coherence throughout teaching programmes.

Different ways to facilitate the exchange

While the above mentioned benefits can seem rather vague, here are a few ideas on practical ways to structure our exchanges with our peers in an efficient way:

Syllabus review/ exchange: this can be a time-efficient way to get peer feedback on your syllabus without actually setting up a meeting; moreover, it often goes both ways (thus potentially enriching two courses); this exchange could be facilitated and structured in order to provide best results.

Classroom observation: a useful way to get first-hand experience of how your colleagues teach. This can be done informally (auditing one or two classes), but better results are achieved if it is done mutually (in pairs) and in a more structured manner, including short talks and written feedback to support the observation; such activities also contribute to the community feeling mentioned above. Moreover, in the case of online courses this can be done in a more effective and non-intrusive way, e.g by providing access to the course LMS, inviting peers to a live session or sharing recordings and other learning artefacts with them.

Course evaluation exchange: even though this can be a rather sensitive topic, it can be a useful exercise to have a joint look at student evaluations. This can bring about more coherence throughout the programmes and can inspire us to diversify, for instance, assessment methods, in order to provide a rich learning experience for the students.

Working on a joint project: be it co-teaching a course, guest lecturing in each other course or trying out the same method in our courses run in parallel to see the results, it is always a good idea to try to put the ideas we exchange into practice. This will motivate us to continue the dialogue, thus transforming it into a sustainable process. Again, the online environment can facilitate this process, even enabling otherwise impossible collaborations among people from different continents.

Mentoring: this goes a step further and it involves creating a structured process by means of which senior faculty members support junior faculty members. This usually takes place at an informal level, but, like the previous activities, can greatly benefit from a more formal setting, including guidelines for both sides as well incentives to join.

Structured conversations (face-to-face or technology-supported): although this may sound obvious, it is worth remembering that, with very little time at our disposal, it is vital to structure our interactions as efficiently possible. No one wants to spend hours in meetings, so the idea here is to make each interaction worth everyone’s time and attention. To this end, it is important to choose topics that are of interest to the majority of the faculty members, to bring evidence to the topics discussed (e.g. an article or even a quotation that can be the start of a conversation), to encourage reflection as well as prior preparation. Coming back to time and scheduling issues, this process can take place in a more flexible manner via virtual exchanges, using the institutional Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) or other online platforms.

Further reading

If you want to read more about this topic, here are some resources:

Peer Review Strategies that Keep the Focus on Better Teaching

Creating an Effective Faculty Mentoring Program

How to Make our Conversations about Teaching More Productive

Faculty Learning Communities: Making the Connection, Virtually

Building the Ship while Sailing: Faculty Learning Communities and Technology

Please don’t hesitate to share your own experiences!