What happens when a private university boldly embraces a shift in its teaching culture? According to faculty at Santa Clara University (SCU), the result is a more resilient university able to withstand the unexpected.
As a private, Jesuit school in the San Francisco Bay Area, SCU prides itself on excellence in both research and teaching. Dr. Eileen Elrod, who has spent nearly 30 years at the university, has experienced it first-hand.
“I’m a professor of English, and I have spent the last ten years serving as the university’s associate provost for faculty development, supporting our community of teaching scholars,” Elrod says.
While SCU does not have a designated teaching center, they launched a pilot program – the Collaborative for Teaching Innovation – in 2012 to support innovative and evidence-based teaching practices. As part of that initiative, SCU partnered with ACUE in 2018, offering ACUE’s Effective Teaching Practices program to cohorts of faculty.
As the years progressed, so did the partnership.
“It’s been a rich relationship that has supported a shift in our teaching culture,” explains Elrod. “And it’s been key to our response to COVID.”
Dr. Christelle Sabatier, an ACUE-credentialed senior lecturer in biology and neuroscience, is passionate about bringing evidence-based practices into the classroom to support students and improve inclusive pedagogies. She has worked closely with Elrod in expanding and promoting excellence in teaching across the university.
As the challenges around COVID-19 mounted for institutions of higher education, SCU looked to ACUE for support. In Sabatier’s words, “We recognized the value ACUE could bring to our community in this moment to help us meet the demands of this moment.”
Part of the school’s Jesuit mission, says Elrod, is to educate students in ways that communicate inclusion, diversity and equity, as well as deliberate reflection and connection to the world around them – Jesuit values that resonate well with ACUE’s approach to teaching and learning.
“We exist for and because of students,” explains Elrod. “Faculty work with students is at the heart of our university. Every university, actually. If any institution had forgotten that, or the crucial need to support effective teaching for the sake of students, COVID delivered a powerful reminder.”
Providing Support in a Pandemic
Santa Clara was an early hotspot for the virus. Shutdown was swift and challenging. “Our online programs are limited. Most of us who teach undergrads had no experience teaching online pre-pivot. It was brutal. Students and faculty were working incredibly hard at something few of us knew how to do. Our instructional technology team was amazing – pretty sure none of them slept between March and the end of June. Our team of faculty teaching mentors and coaches – I don’t think they slept much, either,” says Elrod. “Their devotion to students was inspiring.”
Faculty were looking for ways to teach effectively online and to support their students during this tumultuous period. Both Elrod and Sabatier recognized faculty needed to rely on each other more than ever in order to serve students.
“Not only were our students struggling, our faculty was experiencing something new,” Sabatier says. “We couldn’t rely on doing things the way we’d always done them. We needed more tools in the toolbox.”
“As educators, when you enter the classroom, you eventually come to realize that there’s the way you were taught to teach – which is often just whatever you saw professors doing in the classroom when you were a student – and then there are best practices for teaching. Those two don’t always mesh,” Sabatier says. “It’s when you start to deploy evidence-based practices that you begin to see your students’ ability to go beyond what you had ever anticipated. It’s incredible and it feeds on itself. Based on my experience working with faculty in the year-long ACUE program, I recognized that faculty didn’t need to reinvent the wheel to achieve this transformation. They simply needed new tools and strategies grounded in evidence that they could leverage quickly within their own specific contexts.”
And that guided experience was crucial for many faculty as they made the pivot online.
“We knew that our ACUE-credentialed faculty had learned so much, and our team was impossibly stretched. We needed to scale, and ACUE was key,” explains Elrod. “Our provost, along with the generous donor who had made ACUE possible for us initially, were incredible. Their quick decisions allowed us to build a summer program to offer to all interested faculty.”
Santa Clara put together a three-part program: ACUE modules facilitated by experienced SCU faculty coaches, technology workshops to help faculty quickly apply what they learned, and a fall term follow-up with faculty in learning groups based in the disciplines.
“We had what seemed like an outrageous idea – that 250 faculty might sign on. We were asking them to commit to a lot of hours to do this new thing at a moment of fatigue and difficulty. In the end, 400 participated, which is about half of our faculty. Those numbers,” says Elrod, ”testify not only to ACUE, but to SCU faculty commitment to students.”
“The challenges and terrible losses caused by COVID are inescapable. So you look for moments of hope, and positive side effects. One of those is that all of us were put into the position of learners, in solidarity with our students,” Elrod explains. “And we had this community of faculty interested in sharing practices and teaching strategies. I’m not sure how we would have managed this five years ago, before we had a critical mass of ACUE faculty and before we developed a structure for sharing teaching practices with one another.”
“Not only that, but we had a team of faculty leaders who were committed to supporting their colleagues,” she continues. “We have a faculty community of learners working on effective course design, student engagement and teaching practices that promote equity and inclusion.”
The work, she hopes, will allow SCU faculty to continue to respond effectively and thoughtfully to the ever-changing shifts in the larger landscape of higher education – while remaining committed to the success of every student.
Elrod and Sabatier joined ACUE Academic Director Kim Middleton for an hour-long fireside chat at AAC&U’s 2021 virtual annual meeting. Watch the recording of, “Revitalizing a Culture Focused on Student Learning” on our YouTube channel.