Jordan Troisi, the newly appointed director of Colby’s Center for Teaching and Learning and a team member since 2020, wants to help liberal arts colleges reflect more deeply on teaching.
Colby faculty excel in their disciplines, and they are dedicated and passionate, Troisi said. Some, though, have had less opportunity to focus on their teaching methods than others. “This is especially true for our newest faculty members,” said Troisi, “who haven’t worked in a teaching-focused environment for very long.”
The study of teaching and learning is its own discipline, with its own body of scholarship. After helping faculty members adapt to teaching during the duress of the pandemic, Troisi, who is trained in psychology, is working with faculty to develop inclusive and active learning environments that draw on this research. The center is continuing its core programs, such as the Course Design Institute and the Learning Assistant Program. But it is also developing new spaces where faculty can give thought to their teaching practices and learn from one another.
What do the core programs involve?
During the Course Design Institutes, “faculty work with the CTL to determine the best strategies for their courses, reflecting themes from the scholarship of teaching and learning,” said Carol Hurney, the CTL’s founding director and now the associate provost for teaching and learning. “There is no one-size-fits-all model for developing effective pedagogical approaches, but there are new ideas we want faculty to consider as they make these choices.”
Active learning, time to reflect
Active learning, in which students engage in small-group discussions in class, is a particularly vital theme, Troisi said. Active learning techniques improve critical-thinking skills. They give students the opportunity to reflect on what they are doing and to make sense of new ideas in the context of what they already know. They also foster fairness, helping build more equitable and inclusive classroom environments.
In the classroom, active learning allows instructors to quickly gauge who has understood what and who might need some more guidance. Oftentimes, a teacher whose focus is on creating an active, inclusive, and supportive classroom community will be more effective than one who is focused solely on communicating information.
Feedback, too, is key. To this end, the CTL arranges mid-semester sessions for students to provide feedback on how their courses are progressing. The center then offers that confidential information to faculty members in reflective meetings. “It gives students a chance to say, ‘Here are the things that are working solidly for us and here are some of the things we could use clarification on,’” said Troisi. It’s an approach that means any necessary changes can be promptly made for the second half of the course.
It’s also important for students to have the opportunity to provide feedback directly to faculty. The CTL’s Learning Assistance Program, now running for five years, facilitates partnerships between student learning assistants and faculty members to conduct course reflections across the semester. Around 50 trained learning assistants sit in on classes. Then, with the instructor and the CTL, they discuss the teaching and learning in the course: what was successful and what could be improved.
Before Troisi joined Colby as senior associate director of the center in 2020, he was a tenured professor of psychology at Sewanee: The University of the South. He loved finding ways to improve his teaching practice, but, eventually, he realized he wanted to have a greater impact. Joining Colby’s Center for Teaching and Learning, he found, was a perfect fit. “If any of the teaching approaches I’ve come across can help not just one teacher, but many, that’s a win for me.”
An intense introduction
Arriving at the center in the middle of the pandemic, though, was an intense introduction. Faculty members were dealing with an unprecedented transformation in the way they taught. Everything seemed uncertain, and there was very little time to adapt classes to remote learning—let alone to learn how to make the best use of the new technology.
The CTL quickly became a lifeline for faculty who felt at sea. In collaboration with Academic Information Technology Services, the center’s staff advised instructors on techniques for remote learning. They helped faculty engage with students who were anxious and distracted. And they lent an ear to faculty who were themselves feeling fraught.
The center leveraged the strong reputation it had formed with faculty during the years before the pandemic. “We were in constant support mode. We tried to keep something happening every week so that people felt like they weren’t out there on their own,” said Hurney. “It felt like our work really mattered.”
Over the last year, the life of the College has settled into a more normal pattern, and Troisi finally has some space to breathe. And faculty has some respite, too.
“The last few years have been a slog, and it’s been hard to think about the joy in teaching,” Troisi said. “I’m not naïve. I know that teaching has always been hard work. But there has always been joy in how professors work with students. I want the CTL to help us bring back the joy.”
The center’s approach seems to be working. Faculty and students are now firmly back in their classrooms, and, with the help of the center, they are reflecting on what is working well and what might be adjusted to improve their experience. And the joy, so crucial to effective learning, is flooding back.
“I think a lot of it has to do with creating a sense of belonging,” said Troisi. “That sense of community that makes us love what we do.”
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