April 2007
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Minnesota State
One of the signature programs offered by the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning is the community of practice for department chairs.

Faculty Center Fosters Innovation in the Classroom at Minnesota State University–Mankato

When Minnesota State University–Mankato (MSU) founded the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning in 2002, the institution had little prior experience with faculty development. The center was designed to change this, and specifically to help faculty take advantage of the growing body of “scholarship of teaching and learning.” What has unfolded in the five years since is a story of how faculty development staff on one campus—learning from a few mistakes made along the way—have found effective ways to serve the professional needs of teachers.

Today, faculty development at MSU centers on two major programs: faculty communities of practice and the Faculty Teaching Certificate Program. Unlike many faculty development initiatives, these programs involve faculty in sustained dialogue, over the course of an entire academic year, about issues of concern to them. Both programs, moreover, have been unusually successful at attracting faculty—especially new, full-time faculty.

As a result of the center’s work, MSU is developing a more open culture in which faculty discuss teaching across disciplines and learn from one another, says Stewart Ross, director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning. At a university with six hundred full-time faculty and new faculty arriving each year—nearly 80 percent of whom, according to Ross, say that they have never had formal pedagogical training—fostering such a culture is critical.

Creating a Center for Teaching and Learning

A former director of bands who has long been interested in “how faculties teach and students learn,” Steward Ross was appointed as the founding director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning in 2002. His first move as director was to consult with the faculty about how he could best serve them. “What were their problems and concerns? What kind of help did they need to improve their teaching and their students’ learning?” In all, Ross interviewed nearly eighty faculty, and the feedback he received “set the stage for much of [the center’s] success.”

One of the center’s signature programs, the faculty communities of practice, grew out of “book groups” created in Ross’s first year as director. The communities of practice regularly convene multiple groups of faculty to discuss topics of special interest to them. “The goal is to learn more about that topic and then generate new knowledge that can be shared with the university and other colleagues in our cohort,” Ross says. The center currently offers communities of practice for faculty members who are department chairs, for those who are involved in online teaching, and for those who teach general education courses. This spring, funding from the state legislature has also enabled the development of a new, outcome-based community of practice on critical thinking that provides grant support for course redevelopment.

The center launched its other signature initiative, the Faculty Teaching Certificate Program, in the fall of 2004. Consisting of eight ninety-minute sessions, the certificate program has drawn more than fifty participants in each of the past three years. Participants in the program are divided into small, interdisciplinary learning communities to discuss topics such as syllabus creation, active learning strategies, teaching with technology, diversity, assessment techniques, course development and restructuring, and faculty and student portfolios. Participants also receive feedback on their teaching through a classroom peer faculty consultation. At the end of the program, faculty present “capstone” projects detailing a change they plan to make or have already made to a course they teach.

The success of the certificate program has been “way beyond anyone’s expectation,” Ross says. Apart from the pedagogical training and feedback, Ross believes that one of the most significant outcomes of the program is the “breaking down of ‘silos’ and development of trusting relationships throughout the institution.” And because the certificate is a tangible way for faculty to demonstrate “continuing preparation and study as teachers”—a factor that is weighed in tenure and promotion decisions at MSU—many see participation in the program as a “win–win situation,” says Ross.

Stewart Ross leads a session for the teaching certificate program.

Stewart Ross leads a session for the teaching certificate program. Photo by Pat Chistman used with permission from the Mankato Free Press.

Learning from Mistakes

The current success of the communities of practice and the certificate program is built, at least in part, on lessons learned from earlier mistakes. Stewart Ross notes that some of the center’s earliest programs, such as the book groups, scheduled meetings at times when many faculty could not attend and made the mistake of expecting faculty to participate in online discussion forums. Faculty must be given opportunities to work together in groups, he says. And the programs themselves must be driven by faculty needs and be respectful of the many demands placed on faculty members’ time. “One thing you learn early on as a faculty developer is just how busy university faculty are with teaching, research, advising, and on and on,” says Ross. “If you waste their time they will not forgive you.”

Other problems facing faculty developers are less easily solved. At MSU, as at many institutions, adjunct faculty teach some undergraduate courses. Although Ross encourages these faculty to participate in the center’s various programs, he admits that it is not easy to attract adjuncts to faculty development learning communities. “Because they are rarely on campus other than teaching their classes,” Ross says, “it is difficult for them to fit these things into their schedules.” More broadly, “helping them feel like they are part of the campus” is difficult when adjuncts typically do not even have offices on campus.

Another challenge is reaching senior faculty. Participants in the center’s programs tend to be younger professors, although recent initiatives have had success in reaching a wider range of faculty. For example, programs that offer grants—such as the new critical thinking community of practice—are proving more successful in drawing tenured faculty.

One innovative effort that has involved significant numbers of senior faculty is the center’s mentoring program. Created three years ago at the request of the faculty union, the mentoring program pairs new faculty with senior faculty from a different department—an arrangement that addresses a perceived need for faculty members to have “a friend on the faculty who . . . would never be evaluating them,” says Ross. This year, twenty-three new tenure-track faculty are paired with senior faculty as part of the mentoring program. 

Helping Teachers Help Students

In all of its faculty development programs, MSU draws on the scholarship of teaching and learning to help faculty more effectively engage students. According to Ross, the center provides “alternatives for many who come to the university with a default approach: traditional lecture, midterm exam, and final exam.” Sometimes such traditional approaches to teaching are appropriate, Ross says, but in general teachers need to be more “intentional in matching the best possible teaching strategies to the learning outcomes they want for the students.”

Steven Smith, an assistant professor in MSU’s Department of Theatre and Dance, is one of many faculty members who have restructured classes after completing the teaching certificate program. An expert in lighting design who had “never had any formal training in teaching,” Smith looked to the center for help in teaching his large “Introduction to Theatre” class. His work with the center prompted him to incorporate small-group activities, interactive multimedia presentations, and informal assessments into his class. Smith has concrete evidence of success: students are more engaged, average exam scores have gone up, and enrollment has risen by over 50 percent since he changed the format of the class.

Others report similar benefits. Marlene Tappe—an assistant professor of health sciences who has participated in the certificate program and various other programs run by the center—says that she now spends more time reflecting on “practices related to teaching and learning.” Tappe has recently experimented with having students “pair and share” to discuss course concepts, using immediate feedback assessment, and involving students in the creation and revision of scoring rubrics. Patrick Tebbe, an assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical and Civil Engineering, cites the interdisciplinarity of the center’s programs as another benefit. “It’s easy to constantly overlook small things you might improve if you only interact with faculty in your own discipline,” Tebbe says. “When you talk to faculty from outside your field and have to explain how you teach and why, it exposes things you might not have realized otherwise.”

As Stewart Ross and the staff of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning look ahead, they hope to expand some of their most successful programs. Next year, the center will launch a community of practice for those specifically interested in developments in the scholarship of teaching and learning; a community of practice that would explore assessment rubrics is being considered as well. The center also is expanding its communications efforts.

All of this work depends on continued support from the administration, but so far, Ross says, senior administrators have lent full backing to the center’s faculty development initiatives. “I often reflect on how lucky I am to have administrators who not only understand the importance of continued support for faculty,” Ross says, “but also give us the dollars and resources we need to help them.”

More information about the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning is available online. The center’s Faculty Teaching Certificate Program was selected last year as one of seven finalists for the Professional and Organizational Development in Higher Education Network’s annual POD innovation award. The faculty communities of practice are part of a larger project, sponsored by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and Learning, to encourage faculty to become more involved with the scholarship of teaching and learning. 

Visit AAC&U’s Web site for additional resources related to faculty.