Faculty Reflection: Now is the Perfect Time to Try Something New

Brandon Cooper headshot

Brandon Cooper is a Senior Instructional Consultant in the Center for Teaching Excellence at Texas A&M University.

When I committed to becoming a facili-taker – facilitator and participant – for ACUE’s Effective Teaching Practices course, I worried that I may be taking on more than I could handle during an already challenging semester. But I discovered that the ideal time to change my instructional practices is now.

The upheaval that we’ve all experienced these last 10 months has left no arena of our lives untouched, including our learning environments. Indeed, aspects of post-secondary education have been fundamentally altered, some of them for good. So, when I realized that I would be doing a lot of new things this semester (ahem, blended synchronous instruction, ahem), an overhaul of my teaching practices didn’t seem all that risky by comparison with, say, venturing out for toilet paper. Participating in the Effective Teaching Practices course supplied me with a seemingly innumerable supply of new things to try.

Here are a few of my favorite modules so far and a description of some of the practices that I tried and will continue to use going forward (whatever my learning environments look like).

Promoting a Civil Learning Environment

There was so much to glean from this module that I couldn’t limit myself to just one practice to implement. But I believe that what’s done on the first day of class does more to promote a civil learning environment than any number of corrective measures later. For this reason, I opted to use a community-based approach to the creation of classroom norms, guidelines, and netiquette on the first day of class – “syllabus day.”

Naturally, my students and I spent some quality time unpacking key points of my syllabus statement on inclusion and equity. We then segued to small groups so that students could work together to generate proposals for the norms, guidelines, and netiquette that would guide us toward our goal of cultivating an inclusive and equitable learning environment. I used Zoom breakout rooms to create small groups with each group member having a clearly defined role, and the group completed a Google Form to record their proposals. We discussed these proposals as a class before wordsmithing and making decisions about which norms, guidelines, and netiquette we would adopt.

In the past, I’ve simply put this information in my syllabus, but I found that the community-based approach increased student agency and promoted a sense of ownership in addition to other benefits. I’ll make some changes the next time around, but I was very pleased with how this turned out. In fact, I don’t think that I’ve ever had a better “syllabus day.”

Connecting with Your Students

We all agree that meeting one-on-one with students during office hours is beneficial for students and instructors alike. In the past, I have even “cancelled” classes in order to meet with each student individually. But this module encouraged me to require my students to attend one-on-one conferences during the first few weeks of the semester, which I did by using a scheduling app that interacts with my calendar and allows students to set up Zoom meetings with me.

Like many of you, I have been teaching in a blended synchronous context (with students attending in-person and online), so one thing that I realized right away was that this was the first time that my students had ever seen my face (outside of my directory photo and a few random personal photos provided in my Canvas profile). And it was also the first time that I had seen many of their faces. These meetings were informal and focused on getting to know my students, why they chose their major, why they chose our university, and what aspects of the course were “working” for them (and which were not).

Meeting with students one-on-one early in the semester really helped us to forge a personal connection, and it afforded me the opportunity to demonstrate my commitment to their learning. Moreover, I think it helped my students feel less anonymous (especially in an age of social distancing). My impression is that students were more willing to reach out later in the semester because we had already “broken the ice,” and they knew that their success was my priority.

No doubt, in the future I’ll continue to require early one-on-one meetings.

More than Practices

I’ve focused a lot here on teaching practices. But undoubtedly the most beneficial aspect of the Effective Teaching Practices course has been its cohort-based approach. All of us who have built a course know that we must limit ourselves to certain content even though we’d like to cover everything, so only the narrowest of topics can be presented exhaustively. When we place that carefully curated content in front of learners, however, it’s like shining a beam of light into a prism. Discussions inspired by ACUE course content have inspired so many more ideas for enhancing my instructional practices, and the cohort-based approach has connected me with a community of instructors to commiserate, collaborate, and create with. I needed to try something new this fall (like many of you), and my cohort provided a supportive place to experiment and reflect.

Rather than being the worst time to try something new, I have found this present moment to be the best time to do so.

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