To help professors keep up with a changing educational environment, the Center for Faculty Development (FDC) fosters strong communication among professors through the Open Classroom Project.
The Open Classroom Project encourages professors to learn teaching techniques by observing each other in the classroom. FDC director and psychology professor Ann Johnson said the idea came about partly because she took a French class, and discovered she learned a lot more than language skills.
“I was just blown away by how much I could learn from my colleagues by just sitting in class and watching how they teach,” Johnson said. “Even though we teach very different subjects, I really picked up a lot of good ideas, and it was just very inspiring.”
The Open Classroom Project developed out of this idea. With the majority of teaching taking place inside four walls, Johnson wanted to dispel the idea that teaching is an isolated act.
The FDC has developed a roster of Open Classroom faculty who are using techniques such as discussion groups, active learning and practical simulations. Interested faculty members request a meeting with a professor and set up a time to observe his or her class. The FDC provides the observed professor $10 to go for coffee afterward to facilitate conversation about the experience.
“I’m big on community building,” Johnson said. “St. Thomas has grown so large, and with all of our different schools and colleges, it becomes increasingly difficult to have cross-communication and people actually talking to each other.”
Sociology and criminal justice professor Buffy Smith was asked by Johnson to be part of the project and to invite other professors to observe her teaching methods.
“I agreed to participate because I believe we grow and develop as teachers when we can observe other teachers in the classroom,” Smith said. She said one of her goals in her classes is to create an active learning environment where everyone is learning from each other. To achieve that, she employs the Socratic method, where students engage with big ideas and questions in discussion groups.
Engineering professor Brittany Nelson-Cheeseman thinks the opportunity afforded by the Open Classroom Project is an important expansion of the peer evaluations professors already perform. “I just thought that I learn so much when I [do evaluations] or when I have people give me feedback, so I wanted to expand that to not just once per year, to actually have more interaction between faculty members to expose them to different techniques,” she said.
According to Johnson, one teaching method that has received a lot of attention from faculty members lately is the "flipped classroom" concept. In a flipped classroom, students first engage with the material outside of class, often through video lectures, and then come to class to ask questions and work on the lessons.
Nelson-Cheeseman, an Open Classroom Project professor, uses the flipped classroom method. She films lecture videos, usually about five minutes long, and has students watch a few of them before class. Then students spend class time engaged with the material, watching demonstrations and asking questions.
Nelson-Cheeseman explained that this method allows students to engage with class material multiple times, which helps students remember it better, as well as still providing opportunities to tap into the professor's knowledge.
“It really helps clarify misconceptions and also increases their confidence with their understanding of the material,” Nelson-Cheeseman said.
Francesca Ippoliti ’17, who is taking an engineering materials course from Nelson-Cheeseman, said the flipped format works well for her.
“I think going through example problems in class is very helpful for a better understanding of the ideas introduced in the pre-lecture videos,” she said. She noted that as long as students are prepared for class, she thinks the flipped classroom works.
Accounting professor Matt Stallings, a recipient of an Innovative Course Development Grant to establish innovative learning techniques in his courses, also employs the flipped classroom method.
Stallings’ students watch video lectures outside of class and then complete packets of problems in class. “It allows for a more efficient use of classroom time because I am there to work with [my students] during their active learning. My students are engaged throughout the class period and work hard to understand the material,” he said.
Stallings said the flipped classroom method has increased student performance substantially and is one way of reaching St. Thomas strategic initiatives, including the theme of Excellence in Learning and Student Engagement and the priority of Educating for the Future.
The overarching concept behind the Open Classroom Project, and any classroom innovation, is to help faculty be the best they can be.
“In any profession I think we benefit by talking to our peers and our colleagues in order to become better at what we do,” Johnson said. “So I think any effort toward that end is going to make teaching better, and of course our ultimate goal is to provide the best possible learning environment for students that we can.”