Three days that can change your life in the classroom

by Barbara Black

Teaching your fellow professors is the cerebral equivalent of taking a shower in public. It requires courage. That's why the six teachers taking the Instructional Skills Workshop last week wanted to be anonymous for this article.

"It's a humbling experience," one of them admitted. Seeing themselves teaching on video makes them wince, as they catch the things their peers have gently pointed out to them -- a distracting mannerism, or a monotonous tone of voice. However, they plunge into the simulations with enthusiasm, and offer one another generous support.

Instructional Skills Workshops -- three consecutive days of intensive pedagogical support squeezed into the periods between courses -- are offered four times a year by the university's Centre for Teaching and Learning Services (CTLS). Participation is voluntary, and the groups are limited to only six participants. These workshops are so popular that there are waiting lists.

At the beginning of the third day of a recent workshop, it's confession time. "I applied what we talked about yesterday in my class last night," one professor told the group. "At first, it was awful. I asked them to form into four groups, and they just sat there and looked at me. It's like chewing on the right side when you're used to chewing on the left -- it tastes the same, but it feels awkward."

"It's a real paradigm shift," agreed CTLS Director Olivia Rovinescu, who led the workshop. "You're trying to move from a teacher-centred classroom to a student-centred one. It involves fear of losing control."

"The Instructional Skills Workshop works at all levels," said Computer Science Professor Peter Grogono, an award-winning teacher who has acted as a facilitator at these sessions. "Some issues may be superficial, but they can also be important: Do you address the class or the blackboard? Do you know what's on the next slide?

"Other issues go deeper. Do you feel respect or contempt for the students? Does it show? Are you worried about whether the material is covered or whether the students are learning it?"

One of great benefits of the Instructional Skills Workshop is that it brings teachers together from across the university. The difference in teaching styles across disciplines is a surprise to everybody, and the content of their 10-minute lessons is almost invariably fascinating to their listeners.

Rovinescu remembers a breakthrough that was made at one session last year, when one professor couldn't get across a concept basic to computer programming. "Try to find a metaphor," Rovinescu suggested. The teacher came back the next day to talk about programming in terms of baking a cake, and everyone in her "class" understood.

Accounting Professor Maureen Sterling took the workshop, and is enthusiastic. "For me, this workshop defined what excellent teaching is," she said.

"As you know, those of us who finally obtain PhDs have spent over a decade in universities. Most of us spent a lot of that time complaining to our peers about the terrible quality of instruction. I have taken at least 70 courses, and can remember only two instructors who were excellent at conveying difficult content in an understandable way. My teaching goal is to be one of the instructors my students remember as excellent.

"The workshop showed me a variety of means whereby I could eventually achieve that goal. In my own department, I was assigned a 'graveyard' course to teach, so called because a lot of instructors' teaching evaluations for this course have buried them."

Thanks to the workshop, Sterling was able to construct her course content and pick up innovative instruction methods that translated into excellent evaluations from her students. She even took the ideas and made them into a course enhancement in the form of a cartoon.

"I submitted my proposal to the CTLS and received seed funding to produce a CD-ROM based on digital animation," she said. "To my knowledge, this imagery approach to teaching has never been applied in this specific setting. When I previewed the somewhat unfinished product to my students, their unanimous response was positive and enormously encouraging."

A good workshop includes a mix of the young and not-so-young, Grogono said. "Fresh PhDs obtain nuggets of hard-earned wisdom, and the older profs pick up a few ideas.

"The Instructional Skills Workshop is what you make of it," Grogono concluded. "Some people are convinced that they are already good teachers and resist change; others enthusiastically embrace the opportunity to learn. But the workshop is structured to draw you in. The resistance fades away as the benefits of the workshop appear. Even the crustiest old profs realize that they have something to learn."

The next Instructional Skills Workshop will be given just before the fall term. For more details, please call the CTLS at 848-2495.


Copyright 2000 Concordia's Thursday Report.