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UALR workshop explores teaching

It promotes methods beyond lecture by Ryan Anderson | May 21, 2023 at 4:56 a.m.
Mark Baillie (right) talks during the Mobile Institute on Scientific Teaching workshop on Wednesday, May 17, 2023, at University of Arkansas at Little Rock. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Thomas Metthe)

Though the regular academic year is over at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, several faculty members stuck around last week for a workshop to learn more about how they can better engage students.

The Mobile Institute on Scientific Teaching uses evidence-based best practices so teachers can better instruct students and "there's a whole band of evidence this works," said Mark Baillie, an assistant professor of chemistry. Baillie has spearheaded the effort at UALR and led similar workshops in locations around the globe. Though professors are masters of their content, they don't always know "how to teach, and this workshop teaches them how to teach."

The workshop is tied into a nearly $2 million, five-year grant from the National Science Foundation for teacher training and development, which -- among other things -- provides a stipend for 75 STEM faculty to attend the Mobile Institute on Scientific Teaching workshop over five years, according to Angie Faller, UALR news director. The foundation is collecting data from some faculty who participate in the workshop to see if teaching practices or classroom environment improve.

Peer feedback is paramount to improved teaching, and this past week's workshop detailed strategies for providing it.

For example, start positive, then be specific and constructive with suggestions and critiques, said Scott Woolbright, an assistant professor of biology, who helped lead the workshop. Feedback providers can also employ the TAG model of "tell something that worked, ask clarifying questions and give advice on something to change."

Instructors need to ask themselves whether they're devoting class time to things students could or should do on their own, he added. "Does it warrant [valuable] class time?"

Feedback providers need to consider how input will be received, too, said Baillie, STRIVE program director in the STEM Education Center. "Think of ways [...] that will help other faculty grow and move in a positive direction."

UALR is currently the only higher education institution in the state that offers this workshop, which emphasizes active, student-centered learning because studies show that students are more likely to pass classes in active learning environments than those that employ only traditional lecturing, according to Faller. Since UALR began offering this workshop in 2019, more than 100 people have been trained, the vast majority of whom are faculty, but also several graduate teaching assistants.

Li Poirot was a graduate teaching assistant when she participated in this workshop last year, and she found it so valuable she returned again last week to absorb the content from a new perspective -- that of a recent graduate hoping to become a chemistry instructor.

She initially wanted to participate because she was "inspired" by professors in action who had been involved with the workshop, she said. They created active learning classrooms, which she would have appreciated more than the lecture-heavy courses she took in her younger years.

"I'm actually not that good at memorizing things," so active learning techniques "work better for my brain," she said. By taking information apart and breaking it down to learn "what it really means, you remember more than if you'd tried to memorize it."

Even better for Poirot, the workshop facilitators practice what they preach by executing active teaching techniques, rather than lecturing to their group, she said. "They use what they teach in the workshop."

The workshop has unlocked new teaching strategies for Poirot beyond traditional lecture, a technique she's uncomfortable with anyway, and has emphasized the value of giving students time to absorb information, she said. "Time to think makes such a difference in learning."

UA-Fayetteville chemistry education researcher Zephaniah Greenwell made the trip south for the workshop after Baillie presented at his university because he wants to reach chemistry students in his classes who might be "on the outskirts."

"I feel [they're struggling] because the class is not a good match for them, and I want them engaged," he said. "These techniques help you draw students in, and I'm going to use some of the specific questions [we've discussed in workshop] in my classroom."

"I'm learning things, and we're making good use of our time here," he added. "It's a lot at once, but I feel like I'm accomplishing so much."

Going forward, assistant professor of philosophy Megan Fritts will ask her students "what they expect to get out of the class and correct any misconceptions," she said. "Another thing [from the workshop] I think will be helpful will be doing pre- and post-tests to gauge information uptake."

Though the workshop is more STEM focused, she believes instructors in other disciplines -- including philosophy -- can benefit from the materials, she said.

Michelle Malone, library specialist for digital learning, hopes to share the knowledge she's gaining in the workshop with other faculty and staff.

"The focus on active learning is really exciting to listen to and learn from," she said. "It's exciting to get students engaged in learning."

On Wednesday, part of the workshop was devoted to data collection, which benefit faculty in two ways, said Michael Moore, one of the workshop's facilitators. Data provides insights faculty can use to improve, but they can also use it to publish research.

Moore, director of undergraduate research and mentoring at UALR -- "I teach undergrads how to teach" -- first joined this workshop as a participant before becoming one of the facilitators, he said. "I wanted to do it because I have a passion for helping others build connection and community in their classes."

A biologist by trade, he values faculty from many disciplines gathering together to share techniques and strategies, he said. "We never run out of new ideas [in this workshop], which keeps me coming back each year."

A critical piece of this effort -- also funded by the NSF grant -- is the Learning Assistants program, students who aid others in classes and help facilitate classroom discussions, Baillie said. Baillie, Moore and others are intent on having diversity in the ranks of Learning Assistants so students being helped can "see people who look like them," which contributes to a more inclusive environment.

Learning Assistants are part of the "reach every student in every way movement," and more than 40 Learning Assistants served 450 students in science courses during this latest semester at UALR, said Moore, who directs the Learning Assistants program. Professors have to apply to receive a Learning Assistant in their class, and professors need to have taken this workshop to even be eligible.

Rising sophomore Maria Waite found a Learning Assistant in a chemistry class very helpful, which spurred her to become a Learning Assistant, too, she said. "I didn't expect it to be this much fun and this enjoyable," though.

Rising junior Cole Dwyer wishes he would've had access to a Learning Assistant in that same general chemistry course, he said. "It's a lot less intimidating to ask a question you feel might be stupid, or a waste of class time, to a Learning Assistant" rather than to a professor during a class, especially a class with dozens of other students.

Learning Assistants can share fresh learning strategies with their charges, because they too have recently learned the material, Dwyer said. "You get to use their expertise."

Both Dwyer and Waite plan to continue as Learning Assistants, as beyond helping others, they've found benefits for themselves.

For example, Waite had been "nervous" to speak in front of others, but her first semester as a Learning Assistant has reduced that anxiousness, she said. She has also cultivated a sense of community, interacting with her classmates and building a "bridge" between them and the professor.

The experience has also "built social skills" for Dwyer, but, more importantly, it "changed my life's trajectory," he said. His three semesters as a Learning Assistant have been "work, but didn't feel like work," and he's discovered a passion for teaching, which "is the track I'm on now."

And he's already learned a valuable teaching lesson as a Learning Assistant.

"Keep your patience [with students], and don't [show] frustration," he said. "Keep pushing bit by bit -- explain the relevance -- and they will come out of their shell."

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