Workshops Work… Sometimes

EmptyEarlier this week, Matt “Dean Dad” Reed blogged about faculty development workshops, arguing that most workshops don’t work. Since we’re in the middle of some serious strategic planning here at the CFT (with a goal of developing a five-year plan), I have been thinking about workshops lately, so I commented on Reed’s post. I thought I would expand on that comment here on the blog, as a pleasant alternative to yet another post about MOOCs.

[Aside: Hey folks, read the comments, please? And leave some valuable ones? I know there are a lot of trolls out there turning comments sections into wastelands, but hasn’t almost a century of fantasy literature taught us that we need to fight the trolls?]

Matt Reed’s argument wasn’t that workshops aren’t effective for those who attend them; rather, it was that very few people attend workshops. Why the non-attendance?

The problem is that workshops tend to presume a context of awareness in which the usefulness of what’s being offered is already clear.  And most of the time, it isn’t.

This is a very important point, and one we realized at the CFT years ago. Who is going to attend, say, a hands-on workshop about teaching with clickers? For the most part, only those faculty and grad students who have already heard about teaching with clickers and are interested in experimenting with clickers in their own classrooms. Sure, there might be one or two people in the room who had never heard of clickers, read the workshop description in the campus calendar, and thought they would check it out. And if there’s free food, that one grad student from the School of Education who always shows up when there’s free food will be there. But for the most part, a workshop on clickers will appeal to those already aware of and interested in clickers.

How does a teaching center help more faculty and grad students become aware of and interested in particular ideas in teaching? Workshops won’t do the trick, but there’s another genre of come-one-come-all events that can raise awareness. In addition to teaching workshops, we host a number of conversations on teaching throughout the year. These tend to feature panels of faculty members sharing their teaching experiences along with either Q&A with the panelists or more roundtable-style discussion among participants.

Matt Reed suggested in his post an alternative to workshops:

Instead of a single channel or meeting hoping to attract as many people as possible to a relatively passive experience, the way to go is to engage some early adopters, and then encourage viral transmission.  Dave sees what the program can do, and he tells Steve and Jen.  Steve and Jen get on board, and each tell a few friends of their own.

I’ll point out that our workshops are never “relatively passive experiences.” We practice what we preach: active learning. But Reed’s point about relying on faculty to interest other faculty is what powers our conversations on teaching. It’s the faculty panel that draws the crowd, particularly when senior faculty are on the panel.  Certainly, some of the people who come to one of our conversations on teaching are already interested in the given topic. (We had a well-attended conversation last year on leading effective discussions, something that many faculty are already aware of and interested in.) But one of the main goals of our conversations is to generate more interest among faculty and graduate students in various ideas in teaching.

So what about teaching workshops? Should we offer come-one-come-all workshops or shift to the more “viral” approach that Matt Reed suggests? These are questions about which we’ve been thinking during strategic planning in recent weeks. D. Christopher Brooks commented on Reed’s post with some compelling data arguing that workshops can indeed be beneficial to those who attend them. But how many people attend  workshops? Let’s look at some CFT data.

Vanderbilt Center for Teaching Workshop Attendance 2010-13

What have we learned over the last few years regarding workshops?

  • Hands-on workshops focusing on the basics (lecturing, discussion leading) are often popular, as are workshops that have a clear connection to career advancement (writing teaching statements for the faculty job market, preparing for tenure review).
  • Controversy can draw a crowd. Our sessions on banning laptops in the classroom and MOOCs were very well attended.
  • Grad students make up a good portion of our workshop participants, but with the new teaching certificate program in place, many of those potential workshop participants are having their needs met through the program. Thus, we’ll offer fewer teaching workshops in the future.
  • The most important lesson learned? Facilitating workshops at the request of a school or department is often the best way to reach faculty. About a year ago, my senior staff started meeting individually with department chairs, asking about teaching challenges and opportunities in those departments. Many of these meetings have led to CFT-led workshops hosted at the department level. I didn’t include these “liaison workshops” in the table above, but we’ve been doing more and more of them over the last three semesters. Attendance at these events is often on-par with our come-one-come-all events. Instead of drawing 15 or 20 people from across the university to a conversation on teaching, we’ll have 15 or 20 people from a single department participate in a workshop. That’s significant reach.

As we look ahead to the next academic year, we’re planning to offer a couple of teaching workshops on topics not addressed in our teaching certificate program (like putting together a sample syllabus for the job market). We’re also aiming for about three workshops and three conversations centered on a common theme for the year. We’ve never tried a theme year, so this is an experiment for us. But I think we have a theme that’s both broadly interesting and confronts some important challenges in teaching and learning at  Vanderbilt. More on that as we roll out the publicity later this summer! And, of course, we’ll be doing more liaison workshops around campus.

What are your experiences with teaching workshops? How do you go about raising awareness of and interest in teaching ideas on your campus? And how do you support those faculty and grad students who are interested and want to learn more?

Image: “Empty,” by Shaylor, Flickr (CC)

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