Initial Publication Date: October 3, 2014

Teaching as Part of a Team

This page was written by Anne Egger (Central Washington University) and Molly Kent (Science Education Resource Center, Carleton College), drawing on discussions and contributions from the 2014 Getting the Most Out of your Introductory Courses workshop.

When done well, team teaching can be a rewarding experience for both instructors and students, but there are hurdles to overcome in order to make it work.

Consider Your Situation

Institutional support will vary from department to department, so figuring out what resources and assistance are available to you is a critical first step. Important questions to consider include: Is team teaching an established practice in your department or are you venturing into new territory? Does your institution offer course or teaching credit for taking on the role of course coordinator? Should you consider writing a grant to support in-classroom research and reform?

One of the greatest strengths of team teaching is the ability to draw on multiple areas of expertise. If team teaching is an established part of your department's approach, talk with the professors who taught the course before you. Are there learning goals in place? Are they being met? If not, what revisions could you make to the curriculum? Or, is there a faculty member in your department who could fill the gap as a team member?

Work Together

Brainstorm Course Goals

This brainstorming technique comes from the participants in the 2014 Getting the Most Out of Your Intro Classes virtual workshop.

  1. Every team member anonymously writes down suggested goals on index cards or sticky notes
  2. The cards are collected and similar goals are grouped together into categories
  3. The categories dictate what goals are considered vital, and which ones could possibly be discarded
  4. The goals are compared to department or institution guidelines to check for alignment and to see if revisions are required.
See more brainstorming tips from inspireUX »

When team teaching, it is vital to actually work as a team from the very beginning. Some key things to consider as you and your team prepare for your course:

  • Appoint a course coordinator, or have the department assign one. This is one of the quickest ways to make team teaching easier. By having a single person act as coordinator, you can streamline logistics and keep everyone on the same page. Consider asking the department to award course or teaching credit to the coordinator if they don't already.
  • Set goals as a group. Many faculty are reluctant to team teach because they don't want to tell anyone else how to do their job - nor do they want anyone telling them what to do. Agreeing on common goals for the course will help everyone get on the same page and give everyone a chance to voice their opinion.
  • Collect evidence, if you believe a course needs to be improved. Local, specific data are the best way to make a convincing case for change. More generalized data from the educational literature may not be enough to convince people to spend more time on teaching.
  • Don't worry about changing everything at once. Small, gradual changes can improve a course and help skeptics see the benefits of active learning without requiring much additional work. Simple techniques like think-pair-share, minute papers, or concept tests are easy to implement and can get students engaged in thinking about how they learn.
  • Play to your team's strengths. One of the greatest advantages of team teaching is the diversity of viewpoints and skills that each team member contributes. Find out what people are good at and knowledgeable about, and assign topics accordingly. Alternatively, if you find that there is a gap in your team's knowledge, consider inviting the appropriate faculty member - including faculty from other departments - to give a guest lecture.

Assess Yourself (and Your Team)

Some faculty can be resistant to assessment, falling back on the idea that if it isn't broken, it shouldn't be fixed. However, even if a course is well-established and considered successful, assessing how and why it is successful can yield valuable insights. And if a course is not successful, identifying its weak points is the first step towards improvement. The Starting Point website houses many resources that can help you evaluate geoscience courses.

Assessment can also provide an opportunity to incorporate new approaches to teaching, such as active learning techniques like think-pair-share, jigsaw, or minute papers. If active learning techniques and best practices are built into the structure of the course, it is much easier for faculty who are unfamiliar with these techniques to begin using them. Most faculty who are reluctant to try active learning techniques are afraid that they will take too much time to develop or implement; handing off a well-developed course can short-circuit this objection and ensures that the next group of students.

Consider Your Successors: Solid assessment data are the best way to convince incoming faculty that you have developed a course that works. The same data can be an effective way to reassure incoming faculty that most of the work has been done for them; you can hand them a well-developed course that they can take over with a minimum of stress.

Write a Grant

Proposing a collaborative grant to revise your course can be a very effective way to get department buy-in or support, and the process of writing the grant is a great way to start the conversation with your colleagues about what you all want the course to accomplish. Often, the process of writing helps focus discussions about pedagogical approaches so that everybody is on the same page. Getting the grant also brings credibility to the author(s).

In writing a grant proposal, don't worry about breaking new ground in terms of pedagogy. Implementing best practices from the literature and assessing the changes that result is a perfectly acceptable outcome for grants from programs like the National Science Foundation's Transforming Undergraduate Education in STEM (TUES) (formerly CCLI).

One of the biggest values offered by grant funds is the ability to pay experts for their time. For example, you may be able to utilize staff from your institution's Center for Learning or College of Education, who can assist with the basic logistics of team teaching and with pedagogy. They can also offer expertise to help break down barriers to spending more time on teaching and pedagogy best practices and implementation. While writing a grant can be a lot of work, the biggest steps forward in professional development usually come through the grant writing and implementation process.

Getting a grant can also give faculty external accountability and permission to spend time developing a course. A grant can also ignite a discussion around assessment, since evaluating the effect of the grant is generally required.

More on Funding your Research »

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