For many engineering faculty, the desire to engage intellectually with students and make a difference in their lives provides a strong incentive to be an effective teacher. However, until recently, opportunities for faculty to improve their teaching skills have been rare. In order to provide ongoing professional development, a growing number of engineering colleges and universities are establishing teaching centers that offer a range of services, including instructional consultation, whereby a trained consultant works with an instructor to assess and enhance teaching.
Instructional consultations have consistently been shown to have a positive impact on teaching, and though one factor that influences their impact is the kind of data that guide them, little research has rigorously analyzed this aspect of the consultation. In this study, instructional consultants used either data from a midterm student feedback (MSF) session, videotaped class sessions or student ratings data as the basis of a consultation. The impact of consultation on the instructor’s teaching was then assessed.
Our research shows that the kind of data used in consultations has a significant influence on the impact of the consultation. In general, faculty who received MSF-based consultations had greater gains in student ratings, reported more detailed changes in teaching, and rated most aspects of the consultation at least as high as faculty who had not received such consultations. During an MSF, the instructional consultant observes part of a regular class. Afterwards, the instructor leaves the room, and the consultant confers with students about what is going well and what changes would improve their learning. The consultant prepares a summary report for a follow-up debrief with the instructor.
On the other hand, faculty who had video-based consultations did not have uniform gains in student ratings when analyzed in the aggregate, nor did they consistently report making changes in teaching or rate the experience highly. Consultations informed solely by student ratings data similarly resulted in limited improvement.
Findings from this study also demonstrate that the instructional consultant plays a key role in assisting the faculty member to both interpret the available data and to identify strategies for teaching improvement. Drawing on their experience and professional judgment, instructional consultants had the ability to quickly direct faculty attention to specific teaching practices and avoid overwhelming the instructor with too much information. By contrast, faculty who received feedback data without the assistance of an instructional consultant did not benefit from a trained, neutral third party, and they showed fewer improvements in teaching.
Based on these findings, we offer three suggestions for practice:
Because MSF-based consultations resulted in the greatest overall impact in a variety of engineering settings, MSFs should be offered systematically and proactively for engineering faculty.
Data for other kinds of consultations should be tailored to the individual needs of the instructor. For example, faculty who are able to view their teaching objectively, who can analyze behaviors from a neutral perspective, or who use a range of teaching techniques over the course of a single class session might especially benefit from video-based consultations. Likewise, student ratings data might be particularly useful for faculty with specific, concrete issues (related to class mechanics, for example).
Instructional consultants should be available to collaborate with individual faculty to enhance their teaching. Consultants are instrumental in helping instructors understand available data and identify appropriate strategies for improving their teaching.
Although this project does not negate the value of informal consultations with colleagues and other activities to improve teaching, it does underscore the benefit of having an established teaching center where engineering faculty can enlist the assistance of trained instructional consultants.
Cynthia J. Finelli is an associate research scientist in Engineering Education and director of the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching (CRLT) North, University of Michigan. This article is exerpted from “Utilizing Instructional Consultations to Enhance the Teaching Performance of Engineering Faculty,” in the Oct. 2008 Journal of Engineering Education. Coauthors are Molly Ott, a graduate student research assistant at the School of Education; Amy C. Gottfried, a lecturer in the Department of Chemistry; Chad Hershock and Christopher O’Neal, assistant directors of CRLT, and Matthew Kaplan, managing director of CRLT.