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.

Welcome to a New Academic Year!

Last week, NAIT staff came together during NAIT’s PD Day. What a great way to start the academic year with new ideas and the chance to reconnect with colleagues. I had the opportunity to present a workshop on Supporting Instructor Workplace Learning. After the workshop, I asked participants to indicate what they learned in the workshop. Below, I’ll and elaborate on some of the learning outcomes mentioned.

Share Student Feedback in Class

• “I learnt about best practices after administering a feedback survey to students.”

This participant refers to our conversation about what we should advise instructors to do with the student feedback they receive. We talked about instructors presenting the main points of the feedback with their students and talking about how they plan to address the feedback. These two actions have four positive effects.

  1. Students realize the instructor takes the feedback seriously.
  2. Students will find that the instructor is willing to make changes accordingly.
  3. Students realize that their ideas on how the class should be run might not be shared by the other students.
  4. They see how the instructor juggles the wishes and needs of all students.


On the Value of Peer Learning

• “Good time of the year to realize that learning happens continuously and that I may ask my peers for their thoughts on new ideas.”
• “Other instructors’ help seems to be required for everything.”
• “Reinforcing the idea of lifelong learning – supervisors should encourage instructors to ask questions.”

This last participant likely refers to our conversation about the fact that the learning environment for instructors is co-created by the chair and instructors in the department. In other words, all instructors are a source of and support for their colleagues’ learning. Who knows better how to teach subjects and topics than colleagues who have already taught them? Who knows better about students’ misconceptions regarding difficult topics, and who can provide strategies to help students see the light? Supervisors might allow this peer learning to happen by encouraging instructors to do the following:

• attend each other’s classes
• collaboratively create assignments and assessments
• provide each other with feedback on teaching
• attend formal learning events together
• present examples of their best assignments during staff meetings

My favourite pieces of feedback were:
• “Stop hiding in your office, you’re fabulous.”
• “Thanks for sharing the blog link. I will be following it.”

It’s this kind of feedback that keeps us educators going. Over the next month, I’ll be interviewing program chairs about the strategies for supporting instructor learning that work best for them. I’ll also discuss how different types of instructor learning require different types of support. So stay tuned…

*Picture of the Active Learning Classroom courtesy of Texas A&M University-Commerce Marketing Communications Photography

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

Teaching Excellence: Whose responsibility is it?

In elementary and secondary school, there’s no question about it: teachers learned how to teach before they were hired and are expected to keep learning throughout their careers. By managing teaching performance, the school principal is responsible for ensuring that teachers do a good job. This task is also called ‘instructional supervision.’ Some say the principal should have a top-down approach as an inspector of teaching competence. Others promote a shared leadership model where the role of the principal is to support professional growth in teaching (Poole, 1995). This shared leadership model seems an appropriate model for post-secondary education as well.

However, in post-secondary education, good teaching is often seen as the responsibility of instructors alone (Viscovic & Robson, 2006).  In this blog, we posit that teaching excellence is a responsibility shared by instructors and the organization they work for; in other words, the organization should set the instructor up for success. Program chairs play a crucial role in the organization (Hoekstra & Crocker, 2015). In fact, program chairs can create the circumstances that allow the instructor continuous learning and improvement. However, program chairs should also hold instructors accountable for their teaching performance. Instructors, on their part, should do everything in their power to keep improving throughout their teaching career.

Learning requires willingness and opportunity to learn. Good instructional supervisors:

  1. Remove barriers to learning
  2. Create opportunities for learning
  3. Ignite and cultivate a willingness to learn
  4. Support change

Future blog posts will focus on strategies to make this happen.


Designed for program chairs in post-secondary education, this blog is about creating an environment in which instructors can learn at work, in order to provide quality instruction.

Why does it matter that instructors learn at work? In vocational, polytechnic, and college education, instructors are typically hired because they’re very good at what they teach. They’re good carpenters, social workers, hairdressers, bakers, beer brewers, lab technicians, landscape architects, accountants, and cheese makers. They might or might not be phenomenal teachers; most must learn how to teach by doing it: through trial and error, student feedback, and the occasional course or workshop.

While most institutions offer workshops and courses on how to teach, the real learning happens through practice, day in and day out, during interaction with colleagues and students. This blog is part of a research project, that looks into how this daily instructor learning at work happens and how it can best be supported.

Annemarieke Hoekstra