The Value of a Teaching Center

by Constance Ewing and Mary Deane Sorcinelli
(This article appeared in a recent issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education)

These days, the hottest issue in higher education may well be student learning – how to improve, measure, and ensure it. Higher education’s constituents, from taxpayers and parents to legislators and business leaders, demand that colleges and universities educate their students better, and our institutions have responded. As they have accorded more priority to student learning, especially in undergraduate courses, most have offered more teaching support to faculty, usually through a teaching center. During the last 10-15 years, most research universities have created teaching centers; few do not yet have one, and there are increasing numbers at comprehensive universities, liberal arts, and community colleges. The teaching center is a concept whose time has come.

That is why it is especially surprising to have the University of Nebraska at Lincoln eliminate the teaching center it developed 38 years ago, long before most other institutions had created one. Nebraska, facing the same budget cuts as most state institutions, has decided it is cheaper and wiser to move the responsibility for teaching improvement out of a central unit and into separate departments. At first glance, this concept appears to have merit. Because content knowledge differs, teaching issues and approaches often vary by discipline; and faculty may take teaching improvement more seriously when their colleagues embrace it and visibly take leadership in fostering improvement. The old saw that no lasting changes occur on a university campus without faculty buy-in also applies to good teaching.

But any approach that depends on the interest and availability of individual faculty members is an approach with a short life span. Department chairs have too many other responsibilities to assume steady leadership on teaching support, and with decreasing budgets, individual departments will be less able to shoulder responsibility. While respected teachers and scholars may take the lead, they usually lack time to stay abreast of the burgeoning literature on student learning and are seldom given the resources or long-term responsibility for overseeing and guiding efforts that link to other campus teaching initiatives.

Teaching centers occupy a unique place in the structure of an institution because of their mandate to address the needs and interests of the entire academic community in support of the education of students. An effective teaching center plays a key role in creating a campus culture that values and rewards teaching. It takes a systems approach to being a change agent and provides synergy to campus support activities. It provides an overview of campus activities in order to highlight and disseminate instructional innovations and prioritize areas where more support is needed. It offers a guarantee of confidentiality to individual instructors so they view it as supportive, not evaluative. It has the institutional memory to provide continuity in teaching support services as department chairs, deans and provosts come and go. It makes the reward structure more responsive to teaching, for example by consulting on development of teaching evaluation processes and criteria for judging teaching excellence. It is entrepreneurial and coordinates campus involvement in local student learning projects, as well as those offered by foundations, associations, and federal agencies.

Most institutions value interdisciplinarity, and the activities of a central teaching center foster it. Centers facilitate networking, connecting instructors with common interests across disciplines, and organizing events at which faculty come together and share their disciplinary perspectives and strategies. In fact, “getting to know other faculty members and sharing ideas about teaching” is often described as one of the primary benefits of participation in teaching center activities. Faculty conversations within and across disciplines often provide the means for an individual teacher to adapt an idea or strategy for his or her course. A center does not provide all the answers; rather, it serves as a convener to foster collegial dialogue and to showcase faculty expertise in teaching.

Teaching support is most effective when it operates out of a teaching center with a comprehensive program of services – services of many types to reach faculty with varied interests and needs. Among the typical teaching center services are individual consultations, midterm student feedback, and videotaping for instructors; seminars and workshops on teaching methods and issues; orientation programs for new faculty and graduate student instructors (GSIs); administration of grants competitions to stimulate teaching improvements; and publications and websites with both basic and cutting edge information about teaching and student learning. It is impossible to provide services of this kind without an infrastructure of support staff and physical space that is simply cost-prohibitive at the departmental level.

Studies of faculty development programs indicate how vital it is to have an individual with the commitment, time, and talent to take the lead in developing, maintaining and evaluating services. Faculty do serve as directors of teaching centers, and they play other roles as well, such as rotating through as an affiliate (e.g., a faculty associate), serving on a center’s advisory board, or sharing their own expertise at center-sponsored programs. But critical to the success of many teaching centers is a high-quality staff of instructional developers who may or may not come from faculty ranks but are able to position their efforts within the context of the campus culture. Typically, these developers have Ph.D.s in a variety of fields, college teaching experience, and experience working on teaching improvements with colleagues. Some have specialized expertise in instructional technology, evaluation research, course and program assessment, and multicultural education to promote inclusivity.

Many instructional developers enter the profession by serving apprenticeships with a teaching center. There they get practical experience, learn about best practices, and access the rich body of literature on student learning. The community of developers is well-connected, with a national association of 1100 members, an annual meeting, several journals and newsletters, and an active listserv. This network of professionals expands annually as more new teaching centers are established.

The elimination of the teaching center at the University of Nebraska is news because it is so unusual to close a center. Our hope is that Nebraska eventually will reconsider its decision. Apart from changes in the faculty reward system, teaching centers may well be the single best way to improve student learning. One cannot remove a vital organ and expect the body to prosper.

Constance Ewing Cook is director of the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching (CRLT) at the University of Michigan, established in 1962 as the first teaching center in the nation, and is associate professor in the Center for the Study of Higher and Postsecondary Education.

Mary Deane Sorcinelli is associate provost and director of the Center for Teaching (CFT) and associate professor in the Department of Educational Policy, Research, and Administration at the University of Massachusetts. She is current president of the association of instructional developers, the Professional and Organizational Development Network in Higher Education (POD)

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