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Task force recommends steps to improve teaching

by Richard Veilleux - March 12, 2007

The Task Force on Teaching, Learning, and Assessment has submitted a report to the Provost offering 12 recommendations intended to enhance teaching on the University’s Storrs and regional campuses.

“It’s always been clear that research is the lifeblood of our institution,” says Thomas DeFranco, co-chair of the task force.

“But the committee believes our faculty can be productive scholars and effective teachers.”

Provost Peter J. Nicholls, after accepting the report, has appointed an eight-person oversight committee to begin implementing the recommendations.

The task force was established in fall 2005, reacting to both internal opportunities and external pressures.

The external force came in the form of a report delivered by U.S. Secretary of Education Barbara Spellings, who was calling for more accountability in all phases of higher education, including teaching.

Internally, researchers in the Neag School of Education and the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, under the auspices of a $5 million grant from the Carnegie Foundation, were seeking ways to better prepare future K-12 teachers.

“It was a small jump from there to looking at how to help our teaching efforts too,” DeFranco says.

Veronica Makowsky, vice provost for undergraduate education, says, “The goal of this report is to give faculty what they need to be the best teachers they can be and to make sure they are recognized and rewarded for their efforts and accomplishments in teaching as well as in research. We also know that we need more faculty to bring our student-faculty ratio to a point that makes good teaching feasible for faculty in enrollment-stressed disciplines and departments.”

The task force studied three areas: enhancing the value of teaching; providing opportunities for professional development to improve teaching; and developing methods for evaluating teaching.

Each subcommittee offered four recommendations.

“It’s a constructive, comprehensive approach to help us become better teachers,” DeFranco says.

The recommendations include increasing the visibility of the teaching mission; increasing the importance of teaching during annual performance reports, in the PTR process, and in awarding merit; recommending portfolios for third-year reviews and during the tenure process; encouraging faculty to participate in peer observations; organizing informal monthly sessions to discuss teaching; replacing the current student ratings instrument; and requiring peer teaching observations of professors before the three-year review and again before tenure meetings.

“If a faculty member came up for tenure and promotion and had little or no evidence of the quality of his or her research in grants or publications, that person would not succeed,” says Makowsky.

“We need to use similar evidence-based criteria for evaluating teaching. We need valid student evaluations of teaching, teaching portfolios, and observations by trained observers – fellow faculty and/or professional staff.”

The full report, which has been submitted to the Council of Deans, the Graduate Executive Committee, and the University Senate, is available online.

At that site, using the menu on the left side of the page, faculty can comment on each of the three areas.

There also will be a series of forums, starting next Monday, at which faculty can discuss the various sections of the report.

“It’s critical that faculty and administrators have an opportunity to weigh in on the report,” says DeFranco. “We want to vet the report through a variety of means, then we will collect the information, revise and refine the report, and send it back to the Provost, after which we can begin implementation.”

The faculty forums will take place in Konover Auditorium, beginning on March 19, from 4 to 5 p.m., when DeFranco will deliver an overview of the report.

On March 22, from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., the recommendations of the subcommittee on the evaluation of teaching will be presented by Professor Diane Lillo-Martin, head of the linguistics department; on March 26, from noon until 1 p.m., psychology professor David Miller will lead a discussion on the report from the subcommittee on opportunities for improving teaching; and from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. on March 29, there will be a discussion on changing the University’s culture to value teaching, led by Andrew Rosman, an associate professor of accounting.

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