Inspired teaching

Tanya Wideman-Davis has spent most of her adult life as a contemporary dance and ballet artist and educator — she knows how to make a dance appreciation course come to life. But would the same course be as engaging if it were offered online?

Wideman-Davis wasn’t sure how it would work, but she was eager to try something new. “I wanted to see if it were possible to take an art form that is performative and render it into an online format,” says Wideman-Davis, an assistant professor of contemporary dance and ballet at Carolina.

With an internal grant from the provost’s office, Wideman-Davis took her idea to the Center for Teaching Excellence where instructional designer Lydia Frass helped her conceptualize an online version of Dance 101.

“I wanted to keep it a live art form, a participatory thing with performances the students go to see during the semester along with the regular course requirements,” she says.

To accomplish that, Wideman-Davis and Frass secured copyright permissions to include videos of renowned dance companies in the online course, then added journaling components, quizzes and online classroom discussions. The result was a new Dance 101 that brims with cool content and opportunities for engaged learning.

“It’s always great if you can offer something online that’s as rich as you would get in the classroom,” says Christy Friend, an English professor and director of Carolina’s Center for Teaching Excellence.

A culture of learning

Helping faculty members build online and blended courses is only one aspect of the Center for Teaching Excellence, an initiative the university launched 10 years ago as part of a broader effort to enhance student learning by fostering a culture of effective and innovative teaching.

Last year, faculty members participated in more than 110 workshops and seminars at the center, which also provided one-on-one consultations with more than 200 faculty members, administered eight teaching grant competitions and presented 2016 Oktoberbest, an annual symposium on teaching that attracted 200 faculty.

“We take the word ‘inspire’ intentionally,” says Friend, who became the center’s director in 2013. “We’re not a top-down center; this is service leadership aimed at cultivating and fostering the kinds of relationships and community that bring about increased commitment to good teaching.”

You can talk about things in the abstract, but if you have students acting out scenes in a classroom setting, the light bulb comes on.

Peter Duffy, theater professor

The center is a resource for junior faculty and graduate teaching assistants as well as for seasoned faculty who want to try new ideas or simply are committed to the idea of quality teaching and want to help make it flourish. Some come to the center looking for techniques to better engage large undergraduate classes while others seek inspiration to add new twists to courses they’ve taught for years.

Ray Thompson, an exercise science professor, has been teaching at the collegiate level since 2003 and began attending workshops at the Center for Teaching Excellence several years ago, including one that focuses on flipped classrooms, problem-based learning, case studies and other forms of active learning.

He’s planning to create a flipped version of his anatomy and physiology course this summer, with students watching pre-recorded lectures and taking quizzes before class, then drawing diagrams of anatomical structures in class together.

“I draw these diagrams during regular lectures now, and ask them do the same thing,” he says. “My approach forces them to do something other than writing down useless notes — they’re too often trying to memorize facts and pieces of information rather than processes and concepts.”

With a subject like anatomy and physiology, Thompson acknowledges the need for some rote memorization. But he wants students to thrive, not merely survive his courses.

“I want to see my students succeed. I know it’s up to them, but I can show them things they need to do,” Thompson says. “So I encourage them to repeatedly look at the material and find ways to reward them to do it.

“I joke that they think they’re here to learn about anatomy and physiology, but I’m really trying to take them from approaching learning like high school students to engaging with it like college upperclassmen. Learning is not about just knowing something but about understanding what it means.”

Celebrating innovation

Helping students see the big picture in the way that Thompson envisions often requires innovative approaches to teaching, and the Center for Teaching Excellence is a big cheerleader for innovation. That’s why the center established a new teaching award — the Garnet Apple — to honor faculty who have introduced novel twists to their teaching.

The inaugural class of Garnet Apple recipients in 2016 honored seven faculty members, including Tena Crews, an HRSM professor who focuses on improving online teaching and online course design; languages, literatures and cultures faculty Lara Ducate and Judith Kalb, who created an online comparative literature course; and Brie Dunn in pharmacy, who has used educational technology to present case scenarios and educational games in class.

Also honored were history prof Allison Marsh who embraced digital and traditional approaches for two courses; Caryn Outten in chemistry, who flipped a course to turn classroom time into an interactive experience; and Terry Wolfer in social work, who started using decision cases to teach textbook concepts.

“We established the Garnet Apple to recognize teaching innovation that’s work intensive and kind of risky,” Friend says. “There’s no guarantee that any big idea to improve a class will succeed, so you have to pour yourself completely into a teaching innovation. That’s what this new award recognizes.”

Acting out

When the center co-launched its Diversity and Inclusive Teaching initiative, in consultation with the Office of Diversity of Inclusion in 2015-16, the challenge lay in demonstrating to faculty how to make their classrooms more welcoming for diverse discussion — instead of merely talking about the need to do so.

Enter Peter Duffy and Rhonda Jeffries, faculty members in theater and education respectively. Under their guidance a small troupe of student actors took the stage, acting out various scenarios from the classroom.

“You can talk about things in the abstract, but if you have students acting out scenes in a classroom setting, the light bulb comes on,” says Duffy, who joined the theater and dance faculty in 2008.

The students perform a scene, often using details from actual incidents in college classrooms, and faculty participants are encouraged to intervene to defuse the situation or alter its course.

“This is not about micromanaging the language in a classroom, but about the intention of the space we create in a classroom,” Jeffries says. “We’re modeling how to create safe spaces in the class to discuss diverse ideas.”

The center’s workshops challenge faculty members to not shy away from the potential conflicts that can arise in a classroom setting. “We can’t have magical thinking and say, ‘Everyone should just be nice and not say this sort of thing,’” Duffy says.

Jeffries likens the workshops to wakeup calls, pulling the covers back on assumptions that might not be true. “To get people to really uncover things, it takes more than an hour and 15 minute workshop,” she says, “but just to get everyone thinking about these things is a victory.”


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