Professors Aren’t Good at Sharing Their Classroom Practices. Teaching Portfolios Might Help.

By
Allison Evans, psychology lecturer at Cal State Bakersfield

At the height of the buzz around MOOCs and flipped classrooms three years ago, Bridget Ford worried that administrators might try to replace her introductory history course with a batch of videos. She agreed that something should change: Drop-outs and failures were high in the 200-person class—at about 13 percent. But the assistant professor of history at California State University at East Bay wanted something less drastic than giving up on live lectures entirely.

Looking through a collection of teaching portfolios by her colleagues helped reassure her that she could redesign her course while preserving what worked about the classroom experience. Plenty of colleagues on other campuses were wrestling with the same question, she saw in the portfolios, and they were finding ways that tried new approaches without throwing out the old completely—call it turning the class on its side rather than making a full flip. For her, that meant reducing the amount of lecture time and spending part of class sessions on team-based projects. “It was helpful to me to see that my field wasn’t an outlier in arriving at a middle ground,” she says.

For a few years the California State University system has had an unusual requirement for professors who win a grant to redesign their courses: They must post a summary and reflection about their teaching in a public Web collection so others can learn from their experiments. Thanks to that requirement, the Cal State system has built a library that has grown to more than 200 teaching portfolios. “It’s the largest portfolio initiative for teaching eportfolios in higher education that’s focused on what am I doing to improve student learning,” says Gerry Hanley, assistant vice chancellor at California State University’s chancellor's office.

Teaching portfolios aren’t a new idea. In fact, there have been bigger attempts to build central libraries of them in the past, such as a 2001 project by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching called the Knowledge Media Laboratory (which is now defunct). A few repositories like the Open Syllabus Project collect syllabi from around the world. And some professors share their teaching tips informally on blogs like ProfHacker. Still, publishing a teaching portfolio, which document evidence of teaching success as well as more informal descriptions of teaching mechanics, is an exception rather than the norm for professors.

That’s a contradiction, considering that professors stress a culture of sharing in their research, says Derek Bruff, director for the Center for Teaching at Vanderbilt University. “We have had a pretty robust citation system for scholarly work,” he says, “but we don’t have anything like that for teaching materials.”

For example, Bruff teaches a statistics course where he uses an infographics assignment that he adapted from Sidneyeve Matrix, an associate professor at Queen’s University, in Canada. “In my assignment description I have a little footnote that gives her credit,” he says. “As scholars, we probably should do something like that. But there’s no standards.”

“It requires cultural change,” says Kathy Fernandes, senior director for learning design and technologies at the CSU office. She says that traditional professional-development leaders might be critical of CSU’s approach, arguing that it puts technology first, rather than stressing the teaching (the effort’s official title is Course Redesign With Technology). But Fernandes argues that workshops on improving teaching don’t draw in as many faculty as ones that stress adapting to 21st century tools, which she says students are calling for (as evidence, she points to a recent survey of students conducted by Educause).

Portfolios have their drawbacks. Some of the ones in the CSU library feel dashed off, says one professor who went looking for inspiration there. And Bruff points out that the process of creating a portfolio might be more helpful to the author than to outsiders. “For someone who’s not in your discipline and doesn’t teach the subjects you teach, what are they going to take from that that may be helpful,” he asks.

And professors have other ways to share their classroom tips: Publishing research about their teaching in peer-reviewed scholarly journals. It has become a discipline in its own right, called the scholarship of teaching and learning, or SOTL. More scholars appear to be jumping in: membership is growing in the International Society for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (or ISSOTL) and other groups.

But such scholarship isn’t taken seriously by some academics. “It’s not really considered pure research, so people in this field try to fight hard to convince people in higher education of the value of this area,” says Sang Nam, communications coordinator for ISSOTL and an assistant professor of mobile gaming at George Mason University. One rub is that few scholars have experience doing education research—so they’re winging it compared to the training they’ve had doing research in their own disciplines.

The Cal State system hopes that the portfolios it’s requiring could turn out to be a rough draft for articles in peer-reviewed journals. It even has a project called Sustaining Success designed to support professors in getting their teaching research published, Fernandes says.

The portfolios often give a sense of both the success and struggles faced by professors in their teaching.

One of the portfolios, by Allison Evans, who has been a lecturer in psychology at Cal State Bakersfield for 18 years, details her process of converting an in-person course on social psychology to an online course. Her key innovation was producing a series of short “mini-vids” to describe key concepts, which she filmed on various locations on campus rather than in a classroom. The goal was to highlight key points from the readings and also give a sense of her personality as a teacher.

“I really had to get over the hangups of looking at myself on a camera,” she says. “That’s my rule about these videos: I’m not going to get hung up on how I look or the weird mannerisms that I had that I realized I had.”

Salem Jenison, a 22-year-old senior at the university who took the course, says the videos made her feel more connected to the class. “It showed me you can still have a personable teacher-student relationship” in an online course, she says.

But in the portfolio, Evans is also frank about the glitches some students faced in watching the short videos she produced.

Ford says her redesigned course also worked for students. The rate of dropout or failure is down from 13 to 5 percent. And she says her attitudes toward teaching have also changed, to focus more on stressing student collaboration and the thinking process of historians.

“These portfolios bring those internal workings out in ways that a syllabus or course evaluations could never capture,” she says.

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