A springboard for engaging students

New faculty members learn some tips about using the online portal Blackboard from assistant professor of exercise physiology Wesley Smith, during a lunch workshop of the Institutional Academy for Teaching Excellence. Photo: Evan F. Garcia/University of Miami.
By Janette Neuwahl Tannen

New faculty members learn some tips about using the online portal Blackboard from assistant professor of exercise physiology Wesley Smith, during a lunch workshop of the Institutional Academy for Teaching Excellence. Photo: Evan F. Garcia/University of Miami.

A springboard for engaging students

By Janette Neuwahl Tannen
The Platform for Excellence in Teaching and Learning is a concerted effort to elevate the art of teaching at UM so that it becomes as critical as faculty research.

Assistant professor Katlyn Meier did a little teaching as a graduate student, but never had her own class. So when faced with a full schedule of chemistry classes this semester, the new faculty member was a little intimidated.

She was not alone.

Her colleague Luis Ruiz Pestana in the civil engineering department is also teaching his first semester of classes. But both are adapting to their new roles by attending monthly workshops presented by the Institutional Academy for Teaching Excellence. The academy is a tangible new commitment to excellence in student education at UM that started this semester. It introduces new tenure-track faculty to the many educational resources available at the University, and to a cadre of faculty and staff who can help hone their teaching skills.

“Your first semester teaching is overwhelming, so it’s reassuring to be in community of people that can give you pointers,” Meier said. “This is a space to think about teaching at UM.”

The academy is a key element of the Platform for Excellence in Teaching and Learning, or PETAL, an initiative of the University’s Roadmap to Our New Century that is designed to elevate the art of teaching and enhance the learning experience for students.

As Laura Kohn-Wood, dean of the School of Education and Human Development and co-chair of the PETAL Committee, noted, research universities like UM often place more weight and resources on research than teaching. Yet the PETAL committee, which Kohn-Wood and UM’s chief academic technology officer Allan Gyorke were appointed to lead by the Provost, was established last spring to develop initiatives to even that scale.

“In most Ph.D. programs, nobody ever really teaches you how to teach,” Kohn-Wood said. “The programs emphasize helping you become really excellent in your discipline and your research. But being excellent in your profession is also being excellent at disseminating information and helping students think about that knowledge critically.”

Although new faculty are often assigned mentors in their department, the PETAL committee realized that was not enough, said Rebecca MacMillan Fox, dean of the Division of Continuing and International Education, and that the University had plenty of its own faculty and staff experts who could fill in the gaps. 

“We wanted to create a program that would give new faculty access to tools and resources, knowledge about instruction, and connections to people outside their departments to give them a rich experience and make them more comfortable teaching at UM,”  said Fox, who is also on the committee.

Launched in August, the academy offers participants five lunchtime sessions throughout the semester to advance new faculty members' understanding and abilities in a range of teaching methods. In the opening session, Michelle Maldonado, assistant provost of undergraduate education and executive director of the Office of Academic Enhancement, and John Haller, vice president of enrollment management, provided a demographic snapshot of UM students, and discussed how the student body’s diversity impacts both teaching and learning. At October’s session, Meier and other participants learned about technological tools available to them in the library’s Creative Studio from associate professor Vanessa Rodriguez, as well as tricks for using Blackboard, UM's online portal for posting class information, from assistant professor Wesley Smith. Rik Bair, associate dean of the Distance Learning Institute, offered a narrative structure for lectures, and led a separate session about developing online classes. Bair also offers a monthly technology workshop for all UM faculty called EdTech Café.

“It’s nice to hear personally from other educators who have used these in class and can tell you the benefits and drawbacks of each tool,” said Ruiz Pestana.

Regina Ahn, an assistant professor in the School of Communication’s Department of Strategic Communication, agreed. Although Ahn taught for two years at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, she finds the academy sessions useful and informative.

“We’ve gotten a lot of great resources, and all of the presenters here give us their contact information so if a question does come up later, we can reach them,” she said. “These are really valuable connections.”

While the academy’s first semester focused on new faculty, the broader goal of PETAL is to help all UM faculty learn about new, innovative strategies to engage and educate students.

“The ways in which people absorb information has changed so much that the teaching has to change,” Fox said. “Students are coming here prepared in very different ways and from different places, so it makes how you approach them a different process.”

In addition to the academy, the University has a number of other initiatives aimed at helping all faculty pique student interest and engage them in learning in their subject area, said Gyorke, who co-leads the PETAL committee. They include training in discussion-based learning strategies. As part of that initiative, two classrooms, one in Mahoney-Pearson and the other in Dooley Memorial, were retrofitted to better suit the Harkness method, where students sit around a large table and discuss an issue or a piece of writing in detail with the instructor acting as a facilitator. Four more classrooms will be added during the next two semesters.

Gyorke said professors are also being trained in the flipped classroom method, where instructional content is delivered outside of class, so that classroom time can focus on hands-on learning activities. Another group of new faculty is getting training on problem-based learning, where classes focus on an existing societal issue and tackle it from various angles in teams.

“Based on what we know from the research on teaching and learning, these formats are better for creativity, problem-solving, and student engagement,” Gyorke said.
With time, Gyorke and Kohn-Wood hope to expand the academy to include any interested faculty. Kohn-

Wood said she is already working on two events for this spring — partnering with the Miami Business School and the Provost’s office to bring a speaker to campus to discuss teaching Generation Z students, and a workshop about effective teaching strategies that can apply to multiple subject areas. She also would like to develop a program that helps exemplary faculty members and instructional designers provide feedback to novice and experienced faculty on their teaching. 

“There’s a commitment from the top down that we’re going to be a place that innovates and provides the best possible learning experience for students by utilizing the best pedagogy that exists,” Kohn-Wood said. “As a comprehensive research institution with just 10,000 undergraduates, this is the perfect place to excel and value both research and teaching.”