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Faculty Learning Communities (FLC’s) provide opportunities to focus on teaching

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Having trouble finding time to talk about your teaching with other faculty? When looking at your schedule that is full of meetings, teaching, researching, and advising, saving time to reflect on and improve your teaching can be difficult. Faculty learning communities (FLCs) can be a useful way to set aside time to focus on your teaching. The format of FLCs depends on the needs and preferences of participants.  For example, formal groups may consist of cross-discipline faculty engaging in active and collaborative conversation about the enhancement of teaching and learning complete with frequent seminars and activities.  Informal FLCs can simply dedicate time to talk about teaching.

Two of the formal FLCs at Pitt are Speaking in the Disciplines and Writing in the Disciplines. These two groups have a unique history dating back to 2003 when the Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences initiated a FLC called “Communication Across the Curriculum” where faculty came together from across the university to talk about speaking and writing in the classroom. At that time the seminar was co-facilitated by a faculty member from the English department and a faculty member from the Department of Communication. Since then, the group has broken into two separate seminars that focus on either speaking or writing in the disciplines.

Janet Skupien, a lecturer in the Department of Communication, is the director for Speaking in the Disciplines. The seminar covers a range of oral activities from formal speaking assignments such as presentations to discussion and small-group work.  A particular focus of the seminar is designing activities that “help students practice oral expression in low-stakes but discipline-relevant ways.” The seminar currently has eight participants from across the arts and sciences departments. Faculty meet for two hours every other week to discuss how to incorporate more speaking opportunities for their students into their courses. Each participant also works on a project, either revising an existing syllabus or assignment to incorporate more speaking opportunities or creating a new course that has a particular focus on speaking in the discipline. At the end of the seminar they present their work and get feedback from their seminar colleagues.

Another formal FLC, Writing in the Disciplines, is led by Beth Matway, a senior lecturer in the English Department. As a graduate TA and then faculty member in various English departments, Matway has accumulated years of experience in the teaching of undergraduate writing at the university level and she shares that expertise with faculty interested in incorporating more writing instruction in their courses. For Matway, the purpose of Writing in the Disciplines is to “give faculty in diverse disciplines time to re-think how to teach writing in their own fields.” This seminar is set up so that each meeting the group discusses a difficult problem or issue with writing in the classroom. Some topics include designing good writing assignments, responding to student writing (feedback), peer evaluation, and in-class writing activities. Faculty in this FLC produce a similar final product as the Speaking in the Disciplines group.

Both seminars have received positive feedback from the faculty participants. Matway observes that faculty “comment on the sense of having a community to talk about pedagogy with.”  Faculty get fresh perspectives from colleagues in different fields and begin to realize that there is a lot to learn from faculty in different fields. Skupien states that in addition to discussing their semester long projects, faculty share activities that they are currently implementing in the classroom and get feedback from other faculty in the seminar. The most important part of these seminars is the shared conversation as well as the time set aside to have those conversations. Matway expresses that “there is a shared sense of doing something that everyone cares about… Everyone brings questions, challenges, [and] problems to work on together, and everyone brings insights and experience to contribute.”

Although these two FLCs include interdisciplinary faculty, many faculty also value discussing teaching and pedagogy colleagues in their own disciplines. The School of Pharmacy and the School of Dental Medicine have started their own formal FLC under the direction of ZsuZsa Horvath and Susan Meyer, with help from CIDDE staff Carol Washburn and Erin Kleinman. This group gets together about once every other week for two hours to discuss evidence-based teaching and learning practices and how to apply them to the fields of Pharmacy and Dental Medicine. An important goal of this FLC is to “establish an ongoing, peer-based support system” (as stated in FLC syllabus). Faculty say they enjoy hearing how other faculty in their field deal with certain situations and how they apply evidence-based teaching and learning principles in their own courses.

Faculty who have participated in FLCs generally agree that finding a group of people willing and eager to talk about teaching and setting aside time to have these important conversations is a way to continually improve teaching and advance understanding of the learning process.

By Erin Kleinman, Teaching & Learning Consultant, CIDDE


NOVEMBER 2013

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