Outcomes of a Course Design Institute (#PODHBCU)

I’m at the joint conference of the POD Network and the HBCU Faculty Development Network in Atlanta. I’ve been to several great sessions, and I’ll try to blog about a few of them here.

Documenting Increased Metacognition in College Teachers
Teresa Johnson, L. Clare V. Allen, Laurie Maynell, Gerald Nelms, & Kathryn Plank, The Ohio State University

The OSU team shared results of a study of their “course design institute” for faculty, which is not that different from our course design working group: small, interdisciplinary groups of faculty go through a backward design process to design a new course or redesign an existing one. However, where faculty interest in our working group died away, the CDI at OSU is going strong, with dozens of faculty involved over the last few years.

A while back, the facilitators noticed a trend among the faculty participants in the CDI. Most were resistant to the backward design approach (identify goals, determine assessments, then plan learning experiences) at the beginning of the CDI. However, by the third session in the CDI, those participants warmed up to the process significantly, largely (it seemed) because the process of designing assessments that aligned with goals revealed weaknesses in those goals. This led to faculty revising their learning goals in useful ways, validating the backward design process for them.

The OSU team decided to study the CDI participants to verify this observation and explore other outcomes of the program on participants. They analyzed various documents already generated by the CDI (notes from facilitators, minute papers written by participants, and so on) and also conducted focus groups with a subset of recent participants. Here are a few of the results they shared in their session at the conference:

  • Faculty typically taught the courses they designed in the CDI, and many used the same backward design approach for other courses.
  • Many faculty changed how they thought about teaching, typically focusing more on learning objectives and less on “plowing through content” in their courses.
  • Participants became more reflective about their teaching (the “increased metacognition” in the session title).
  • Faculty tended to become more confident teachers. Some expressed regret over past teaching that wasn’t as effective as their post-CDI teaching.
  • CDI alumni also praised the social aspects of the experience. They discovered a teaching community that cared about student learning, they appreciated knowing other faculty struggled with the same teaching issues, and they particularly liked the opportunity to talk about their teaching with other faculty not in their fields.

On the metacognition point, one instructor interviewed for the project used a clever metaphor to talk about backward design, comparing it to driving with a GPS in that your destination (your goals) determines your route (your day-to-day teaching choices). And as current conditions change–maybe you take a wrong turn–the GPS reroutes you to keep you heading toward your destination. Sounds like agile teaching to me!

What did the OSU team identify as key ingredients of the CDI leading to these positive outcomes? The fact that the CDI featured an interdisciplinary learning community was important, as was having dedicated time and space to work and reflect on course design. And the CDI has a very practical outcome, a plan for a course to be taught in the near future. The OSU team feels that this course design component is critical. They quoted Dee Fink as describing teaching as the combination of course design and student-teacher interaction. Fink says that most faculty struggle with the course design far more than with the student-teacher interaction. As a result, in most cases teaching doesn’t get significantly better without attention to course design.

One of the session participants asked a question that was on my mind: Does a course design experience need a special topic or theme of some sort? Might a course design experience focusing on teaching about sustainability or incorporating contemplative pedagogy into one’s teaching attract and engage more faculty? The OSU team said they haven’t found that to be the case, that their “unthemed” CDI is popular and works well.

As I mentioned above, that’s not what we’ve found. We used to offer a four-session faculty course design working group every semester, but faculty interest dried up and we suspended that program. However, our “teaching about sustainability” course design experienced (the Cumberland Project) was a success, and the course design working group embedded in our junior faculty fellows program has been well received. Perhaps OSU has a different way of publicizing their CDI that we tried with our working group, but it seems to me that in our context, we need some kind of hook to interest faculty in the experience.

Are you involved with a course design experience for faculty? If so, what outcomes have your observed? What ingredients in the experience do you think are key?

Image: “Bide Ride 2,” Michael J. Slezak, Flickr (CC)

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