Why is Workplace Learning Important for Instructors?

We just presented in Budapest our first research paper. It’s about instructor learning. The paper shows how important workplace learning is for instructors. Most trades and professional associations have conferences, workshops, webinars and such. These allow instructors to learn the latest and greatest industry developments. Most Post-secondary institutions have workshops on teaching in general. Such opportunities allow instructors to learn the latest and greatest in teaching and educational technology. However, the paper argues that the intricacies of learning to teach a specific subject need to be learned on the job.

What does the paper show?

Half of the 58 learning episodes reported by our 17 research participants involved learning how to teach a specific piece of their subject matter. They were learning things like:

  • Learning to anticipate the ways in which students interact with the subject
  • Students’ misconceptions regarding the subject
  • The parts of the subject the students might struggle with the most
  • How to make the subject matter relevant to the students
  • The explanations that help most of the students tackle the subject

Unsurprisingly, such learning was most intense when instructors were faced with having to teach a new course. The data revealed a number of strategies instructors use in these situations:

  • Ask colleagues who have taught the course before for advice
  • Use colleagues’ materials
  • Observe colleagues teach
  • Solicit student feedback, to find out what worked and what didn’t
  • Observe students when working independently on course problems
  • Observe students in the lab, to further understand their way of thinking
  • Just try an explanation and improvise, see if it works
  • Take notes on how a lesson went, so future lessons on the topic can be improved

As you can see, instructors and students are important partners in instructors’ learning process. In addition, collegial interactions are crucial for instructors to learn a great deal in a short period of time. Program chairs could support this type of learning, through:

  • Fostering collegiality amongst instructors
  • Discussing challenging and successful teaching strategies in meetings
  • Creating a share drive or online space for sharing instructional materials
  • Being strategic when allocating desk space to instructors, so as to foster informal relations
  • Encouraging instructors to visit each other’s classes
  • Encouraging peer mentoring, for instance by including this in the performance management of instructors who could act as mentors
  • Encourage instructors to collaboration on the creation of course materials and exams

Most importantly, though, program leadership should recognize the importance of such learning processes, and intentionally support it rather than taking it for granted.

Create Opportunities for Learning in Program Meetings

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Meetings can be dull and sleep-inducing, or they can be engaging and provide great opportunities for learning. In my conversations with program chairs, I learned that some departments don’t have meetings during the semester. Some departments meet every two weeks throughout the academic year. One chair told me that, because of the way classes were scheduled, there was never a time during regular working hours for department members to meet. Basically, the way the schedule was organized created one gigantic barrier for instructor mutual learning. By reorganizing the entire teaching schedule of that faculty, the chair removed this barrier. It freed up one hour in which instructors in his program could meet.

In addition to removing barriers, chairs can create opportunities.

Yesterday, I had a conversation with Leanne Telford, chair of the personal fitness trainer program at NAIT. I asked her what opportunities exist in her program for instructor learning. She told me about the staff meetings in her program.

Instructors in the personal fitness trainer program meet bi-weekly for two hours. Their agenda always includes items where instructors can learn from one another. I will highlight three items.

The first item is Best practices in course delivery. Leanne explained how this came about:

In our meetings, we typically start with a positive update. At one meeting, one of the updates was, “I had the best class ever.” So someone asked: “What happened in the class?” And as we discussed that, we were like, you know what? …we should have a standing item where we share what has happened in the classroom. So it kind of organically happened. And now this is on our agenda. We usually spend 10 to 15 minutes on it. We don’t have to share: sometimes no one shares; sometimes everyone does. We can share experiences, and instructors can hear what worked for one instructor and maybe try it as well. It’s now a standing item. And it’s great. Unintentionally, it causes us to reflect on what experiences to share. We share what worked and what didn’t work. Instructors ask each other questions and give each other feedback.

I asked Leanne what a chair could do to motive instructors to share. She suggested:

First of all, a chair could lead by example and share positive and frustrating experiences. Explain how instructor learning might benefit students.  Explain how such a conversation might help instructors to work towards organizational goals. Also, you could identify together what makes your program unique compared to similar programs at other institutions, and that learning together could help instructors to strengthen that uniqueness.

640px-Personal_Training_Overlooking_MelbourneThe second item is Student Updates.

Leanne: At every meeting, we discuss students with poor attendance or participation. By discussing students together, we can further identify students’ needs. It also helps us find out whether we need to call in additional supports from student services.

The third item is Committee membership.

Leanne: All our instructors serve on an institutional committee as part of their corporate citizenship. During this agenda item, instructors share new developments in their committee work. This way, we share information on what’s happening across the institute. It contributes to an understanding of how our work fits within the larger organization. 

*Image of meeting courtesy of Bill Branson. Image of fitness trainer http://www.localfitness.com.au