Is teaching an individual responsibility or a collective responsibility? Based on the reward system, it seems the assumption is that teaching is individual. After all, it is often evaluated in the context of individual classes or during the individual faculty review process. However, from the student perspective, courses are experienced as a “collection”—whether this is explicitly as part of a series or implicitly when competencies gained in one place are expected to be applied in completely different courses.
Additionally, the pandemic has shown us how important it is to work together as instructors. As we all adapted to new technologies and instructional modes, there was a greater emphasis on sharing our experiences (both successes and failures) so that we could learn from each other. A real sense of collaboration developed as we leaned on each other for support, advice, and reassurance.
All of this suggests that teaching is actually a collective responsibility, first at the departmental level and ultimately at the institutional level. With this understanding in mind, some important questions arise. How can we better embrace the idea of teaching as a team effort, and what are the implications of shifting to a collective approach to teaching? While there are many important implications worth discussing, I see the following four as the most significant.
IMPLICATION ONE: When we embrace teaching as a collective responsibility, we are better able to support both student and course success, whereby course success I am referring to the concepts in my previous blog post.
I think that we can all agree that student success in a course is an important goal. However, a student succeeding over their four years at UCI is more important than a student succeeding in a single course. Adopting a collective approach to teaching ensures that instructors work together to create a clear understanding of how courses—even those that may seem dissimilar or focus on different topics—actually rely on skills and competencies gained in previous courses. When these connections are made clear, students will have an easier time understanding how their skills translate, and this makes them more likely to succeed throughout their entire college career.
By looking at our overall course goals and learning outcomes as a collective, we can also determine which are most important for overall student success. Then, we can work together to determine how to structure our courses to best support the development of these skills and competencies. This is a responsibility that we should collectively accept to maximize student achievement.
Additionally, as research reveals new evidence-based teaching practices, faculty and instructors should adjust their teaching styles and courses to leverage these new approaches. Oftentimes, it is difficult to make these changes on an individual basis, as instructors have limited time and different approaches to implementing changes. However, when faculty come together and have open conversations about new practices and agree on the best way to integrate them into their courses, we can save each other time and change is easier and more likely to come to fruition. And as with anything in life, we are more likely to make a change if it is recommended by an individual we trust. So perceived barriers to implementing these practices may shrink as we have these discussions with our colleagues.
IMPLICATION TWO: Approaching teaching as a collective actually encourages a diversity of learning objectives and methods of achieving those. Diversity is meaningful as a collective enterprise that can be leveraged when teaching is viewed as a cooperative exercise.
While it may seem counterintuitive, I argue that adopting a collective approach to teaching actually supports a wider diversity of instructional approaches and styles. I think a natural misconception is that collectively setting learning goals and outcomes for our courses will limit instructional creativity in terms of the content or skills that an individual instructor emphasizes for student learning. We can end up operating under the false impression that because our particular program must instill principles A, B, and C, then each course needs to follow a set of strict guidelines that do not offer instructors much freedom.
However, this model confuses a truly collective approach to teaching with an approach where set expectations are applied to the collective uniformly at the course level.
When we approach teaching from a collective perspective, we become members of a team that is working towards a common goal—graduating students with the skills and competencies they need to find success in their future endeavors. Within a team, diversity becomes more important because we can leverage each instructor’s individual strengths while minimizing the impact of weaknesses or limitations on student success. Success in a collective approach is ultimately seen at the program level, not the individual course level.
For instance, students in many majors need to have a certain level of individual mastery and also use their knowledge to successfully collaborate with others. If each course operates as a separate entity, the instructor then needs to design a course that teaches and assesses individual skills and competencies as well as students’ abilities to work together. Operating as a team allows for a more flexible model.
While instructor A specializes in courses that emphasize group work and team projects, their course may not provide a great way to assess the individual mastery of each student. In contrast, instructor B’s course may do an excellent job of assessing the individual student’s skills and mastery but does not really emphasize the importance of collaboration and teamwork. Taken separately, it’s clear that each course has certain weaknesses. However, when instructors A and B work together and we consider success at the program level, the strengths of course A would offset the limitations of course B and vise versa. While this is a simplistic example, it illustrates how adopting a more collective approach to teaching celebrates instructional diversity while simultaneously ensuring that students maximize benefits of various instruction styles and course designs.
IMPLICATION THREE: To successfully transition to a collective approach to teaching, we need to understand academic freedom and its critical role in providing instructors the freedom to act within the context of the team.
Often, “academic freedom” is used to perpetuate the idea that the individual instructor has complete control over everything connected to their course. However, this is a significant oversimplification of academic freedom. It is worth quoting from UCI’s statement on academic freedom:
“Academic freedom requires that teaching and scholarship be assessed by reference to the professional standards that sustain the University’s pursuit and achievement of knowledge. The substance and nature of these standards properly lie within the expertise and authority of the faculty as a body. ”
Here, it is explicitly stated that teaching should be framed by “professional standards” that are established and implemented by “the faculty as a body.” I’m sure that many faculty dislike the notion of limits being imposed on their teaching, as might be one interpretation of the statement. However, I would like to reiterate that these standards are not arbitrarily determined and imposed by a separate entity—they are decided upon by faculty as a collective. We already understand this and accept a wide range of limits on our teaching, such as when assigned to teach a particular subject, we understand that we can not teach a completely different set of topics!
There will always be significant room for instructors to exercise their academic freedom, even within collective standards. We already see this at work regularly in the research context. There are countless aspects of a course that allow for individual approaches and creativity. We will just be doing this in the context of a team approach.
I would like to add that most faculty already do this. The vast majority of instructors recognize that their primary objective is to find the most effective way to teach their students the concepts and skills they need to master the subject and offer them opportunities to practice and hone their skills. While instructors are free to leverage any of the countless combinations of course content, delivery modes, assignments, and assessments, they already tend to select the combination that they believe will best serve their students. So, asking instructors to do this in the context of collective standards simply makes this process more transparent and the interactions between courses more effective.
IMPLICATION FOUR: Shifting to a collective approach to teaching also necessitates a move to evaluating teaching from a team perspective. This will address many of the inherent problems with individual evaluations of instructors and courses.
If we agree that we should adopt a collective approach to teaching, we also need to develop a way to evaluate teaching excellence at a collective level. Making this change explicitly focuses on the department as a “team” while retaining elements of individual faculty evaluation.
Recent research has highlighted a number of challenges with evaluating teaching at the individual level. These include issues of equity, implicit bias in student evaluations, how to scale peer observations, and even questions of what to evaluate. Beyond these, there is a subtle issue that can create an underlying tension with evaluating individual teaching—our current metrics to evaluate teaching quality are poorly connected with student success in the class. In fact, there are real challenges with defining “student success” at the course level, as there are so many different elements that impact a student’s experience in any given course. Thus, attempting to single out the impact of one individual’s teaching on student success is not really possible. However, if the focus of teaching excellence is shifted to the departmental level, then the connection to student success is easier to understand, as it considers student success at a more aggregated degree.
Additionally, the focus on individual evaluation seems to lead to strange connections between the individual and the department. It always amazes me how often an individual faculty member’s teaching evaluation score is compared to the department average. This guarantees that roughly half the faculty are “below average,” which makes little sense in a department with an overall excellent teaching record! Instead, I suggest that what really matters is the contribution each individual faculty member makes to the department. When we shift to departmental teaching evaluations, the focus naturally shifts from the individual’s performance compared to the department average and instead looks at the individual’s ability to advance departmental teaching goals. Hopefully, it is clear that I am not advocating ending the individual evaluation of teaching. I am suggesting that it be evaluated within the larger context.
Adopting a department-level approach to evaluating teaching also supports the other benefits I’ve mentioned throughout this reflection. First, as we move to a world with a greater diversity of teaching approaches, deliberative discussion at the department level is one of the most effective ways to establish clear criteria for “appropriate” approaches to teaching. Done well, this will improve our ability to evaluate individual teaching, maintain our high standards, and promote creativity and innovation. Second, it helps with the institutionalization of evidence-based teaching practices as it is no longer up to individual faculty to do all the work of implementation. It is now a department responsibility. Finally, it allows us to focus on student success efforts in a more strategic fashion.
I acknowledge that adopting a collective approach to teaching is a significant conceptual and practical shift for many faculty. Making this shift will require considerable discussion, brainstorming, and planning from all faculty and instructors. However, simply sparking these conversations is already a step towards promoting teaching as a collective responsibility!
If the last year has taught us anything, it’s that we are stronger together. Change doesn’t come easy, but when we—united by our dedication to serving our students and empowering their success—work as a team, we can accomplish incredible things. Together, we can ensure that UCI truly lives up to its promise to celebrate diversity and foster a welcoming and supportive university environment.