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FALL 2002-03
Volume 46, Number 1

IN THIS ISSUE

Packing up old expectations: When students come home for the holidays

Once and Again: President Boyd returns to help Iowa maintain quality of education

Back to School: Iowa's Center for Teaching inspires and invigorates faculty members

KRUI: The Campus Job that Rocks...and Raps...and Hip-Hops

Untangling the Web: Librarians help students evaluate abundant information resources

UI Campaign has Students' Best interest in Mind

A Voice at the Top: Neala Arnold represents Iowa's students

A brush with local history

Members of the UI Water Ski Team perfect their form

Parent Times Briefs

University Calendar



“We are all teachers, but we were very much students in this class.”

Frank Durham, assistant professor of journalism, is talking about his experience in Writ Large, a class designed to help University of Iowa professors explore the difficulties and delights of teaching writing in a large class setting. A dozen faculty members from disciplines as disparate as nursing, anthropology, counseling, and engineering gathered daily for two weeks in July to discuss the theory and practice of making large class writing assignments efficient and effective.

“Assigning a five-page paper to hundreds of students can be like asking for a hailstorm,” Durham says. “It can be so inefficient. Writ Large provided lots of practical ways for faculty members to support those longer assignments by incorporating writing techniques and short assignments into all parts of the class.”

Writ Large is just one of the courses offered by The University of Iowa’s Center for Teaching. Established in 1995, the center’s goals include supporting and promoting the development of teaching skills, weighing in on policy discussions that relate to teaching excellence, and serving as a symbol of the University’s commitment to teaching.

“We’re here to promote and support anything that enhances instruction,” says Wilf Nixon, a professor of civil and environmental engineering and a parent of three University of Iowa students, who serves as the center’s director.

Incorporating writing assignments into large classes is a challenge for many faculty members. The Center for Teaching’s summer course, Writ Large, provided professors with practical suggestions for doing so. The class is just one of many teaching resources available through the center.

The center offers courses on a variety of topics, from using technology in the classroom to preventing cheating to teaching ethical values and religious traditions in a public university. They provide written materials (including a handbook for teaching assistants and a regular newsletter), regularly scheduled courses (like Tips for New Teachers, offered several times at the beginning of each semester), and one-on-one counseling on teaching issues. They also serve as a resource for any member of the University community who seeks to hone his or her teaching skills.

One instructor who took advantage of the center’s services is Amy Fletcher, a fitness specialist who holds dual appointments in Student Health Service and the Department of Health and Sport Studies.

“I’d taught a few years before I came here, so I naively thought I was pretty experienced,” Fletcher says. “But when my first evaluation didn’t go as well as I’d hoped, another faculty member referred me to the Center for Teaching.”

Fletcher used a number of their services, including one-on-one sessions with Carolyn Lieberg, the center’s associate director.

“She was so helpful,” Fletcher says of Lieberg, with whom she shared her ideas about her course format. “She even had me to come to her house after she’d had surgery, so she could help me with my syllabus.

“Like many faculty members, I’ve never taken a teaching methods course,” Fletcher says. “My contact with the center has helped me get a better grasp on what it is I want to do—create a specific goal for each class period, for example, and ways to keep students involved and interested. ”

Fletcher also took part in another service offered by the center—an in-class evaluation. A staff member of the Center for Teaching comes to the classroom and meets with students in small groups. They ask the students what the instructor is doing well and what they think the instructor could improve. The information is compiled into a report that the Center for Teaching staff member shares with the faculty member.

“The information was very positive and very useful,” Fletcher says. Her evaluation took place mid-semester, so she was able to use the report’s findings that same semester.

Nixon agrees about the importance of evaluations.

“It’s an incredibly valuable experience,” he says. “It gives faculty the opportunity to try something new in their classrooms, and then a way to assess how well students are learning. All my colleagues have an interest in good teaching—teaching poorly wastes both the teacher’s and student’s time.”

While the center’s resources are invaluable, the opportunity to talk teaching with one’s peers is, in the words of Frank Durham, “radical.”

“It’s so unusual for faculty members from across the University to get together to talk about how we teach,” Durham says. “Writ Large created a situation where we couldn’t talk in jargon, because we were all from different disciplines, so we found common goals.”

The “students” in Writ Large learned so much from one another that they plan to attend one another’s classes and meet at the end of the year to discuss how their newly learned techniques worked.

That meeting of the minds is one of the things that Nixon finds so valuable about the Center for Teaching.

“The content of our courses is important, of course,” Nixon says. “But equally important is creating the time and space to sit down and talk about teaching—to share concerns about how best to connect with students.

“Our classes give instructors the chance to share some hard won experience, so everyone doesn’t have to learn the hard way,” he says. “It’s helpful to realize that other faculty members face some of the same struggles you do, and it’s helpful to be able to ask someone who’s been at this a long time, ‘How do you do this?’”

Of course, students are the ultimate beneficiaries of the Center for Teaching’s work.

“Everyone who participated in Writ Large teaches large, general education courses.” Durham says. “This was a conscious effort to help make the first-year student experience at a large university less mysterious and more useful.”

And that’s the motivating force behind all of the Center for Teaching’s activities.

“Faculty members are uniformly committed to student learning and student success,” Nixon says.

by Linzee Kull McCray

 

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