Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Teaching Research Nexus:

Student working on a project
What does it mean to teach at a research institution?   The question was asked of me again a few days ago; the cold reality of promotion and tenure often drives the initial conversation.  However, universities are starting to change the culture.  We know from years of study that adopting new pedagogies that actively involve students in their courses will increase engagement and thus retention.  Yet as a faculty member with a hefty research agenda, how does one do this? 

The University of Michigan just released a study of faculty work-life.  Compared with an earlier study, there was a nearly 40% increase in the number of faculty who valued or highly valued teaching.  As one of the leading institutions in teaching innovation, it is interesting to watch their culture change.  Last year, President Mary Sue Coleman recognized the multiple demands on faculty, pointing to their “record levels of research and discovery,” as well as their “innovative teaching” and “the force of creativity.”  Her phrasing shows how the university has adopted Boyer's model of scholarship.  

How will other research universities answer the call for innovation?  One model is becoming popular: SOTL or the scholarship of teaching and learning.   Researching and then writing about one's class has a certain appeal for faculty, yet it is not a model that works comfortably in all disciplines.  Faculty can also bring research into the classroom, but only if the gap between class content and the research is not too great.  A third option, teaching about the research process, has a lot of positive factors. 

Engineering faculty Prince, Felder and Brent (2007) suggest teaching students about the process itself, using our personal experiences about how we do research:

"What researchers do routinely is confront open-ended and imperfectly defined problems, figure out what they need to know and how to find it out: search out sources of missing information; hypothesize and test possible solutions; arrive at final results; and defend them.  The traditional lecture-based teaching model, in which instructors present perfectly organized derivations and examples on the board or in PowerPoint(tm) slides, and then ask students to reproduce and/or apply the information in assignments and tests, bears little resemblance to the research process.  An instructional strategy that comes much closer to emulating research is inductive teaching."

Inductive teaching is a term that encompasses several strategies: problem-based learning, inquiry-based learning, project-based learning.  Students are given a challenge and asked to solve it; the learning takes place through their attempts to meet the challenge.  We can find examples of this approach across campus--you can visit the PBL (problem-based learning) rooms in the Pendergrass library or BESS 123, and talk to faculty like Tenn TLC Ambassador India Lane (Veterinary Teaching Hospital), and to our Creative Teaching Grantees Elizabeth Cooper (Psychology), Carl Wagner and Nikolay Brodskiy(Mathematics), Cary Staples (Graphic Design) and many others.

For more on problem-based learning: see the PBL Initiative

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