By Kevin Walsh
After wrapping up her position as leader of the first CELT Faculty Fellows Seminar at Tufts University, Molly Mead finally had some time to reflect.
“I thought it went fabulously well,” Mead said. “Many of the faculty referred to the seminar as an oasis, a place where they could pause and reflect openly and honestly about their teaching. It is wonderful that Tufts has made the commitment to provide such a place for even the most seasoned faculty to become better teachers.”
During the Spring 2007 semester, a group of 12 Faculty Fellows met once a week for three hours to explore topics related to teaching and learning. The 2007 Fellows represented a diverse group of Tufts professors, coming from the university’s Medical School, Friedman School of Nutrition, Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, Fletcher School of Diplomacy and International Relations, the School of Arts and Sciences and the School of Engineering.
Despite the range of schools, subjects being taught and students in their classrooms (ranging from college freshmen to Ph.D aspirants) the faculty discovered that they had more in common than not. In the end each wrestled with the same fundamental question: “what do I do in my teaching to ensure students learn?” The diversity of student learning styles, Mead noted, is one of the biggest challenges to coming up with a satisfactory answer to that fundamental question. It is a challenge facing not just Tufts professors, but all educators across the country.
“Given enough time, we could successfully teach any of our students Chemistry, for instance,” Mead said. “But you have the time constraints of the semester, coupled with diverse learning styles, and it makes for quite a challenge.”
But, before any solution can be found, one must first become aware that there is even a problem, and Mead noted that the CELT Faculty Fellows seminar allows for “open and honest discussion” about specific challenges professors face each day.
For most of the sessions, the seminar would begin with one of the Fellows describing a specific situation that they felt challenged their approach to teaching; for instance, teaching biostatistics to a group of students that included both Mathematics majors and those with little-to-no background in statistics. The group would then collectively discuss the ways in which each professor might approach the situation. It was this focus on concrete problem solving, and the open nature of the seminar, that Mead said was a great strength of this type of tight-knit gathering.
While there were certainly differences in teaching styles, Mead said the group quickly established an ability to see other points of view. The Fellows tackled topics ranging from ‘teaching to different cognitive abilities’ to discussing the pros and cons of the various assessment possibilities available to teachers, all while exploring the more existential question, “What does it really mean to be a teacher?”
With all the constraints of the semester, it isn’t everyday that faculty are able to gather with their peers and really explore the different ways to get students to analyze deeply, think critically, and ask good questions, Mead said.
“The amount of time we were able to spend together, three hours a week, was a huge strength of this seminar,” she said.
In the end, Mead said she probably learned as much about herself as the Fellows did about teaching, by being able to engage in spirited discussion with such a diverse and talented group of Tufts faculty members.
“We had the most thoughtful people,” she said, “and what they learned here will influence them for years to come.”