College instructors are generally taught nothing about teaching before they step into their first class. The result is that most of them either end up learning to teach well (or at least adequately) by trial-and-error or they never learn at all. If you’re like most college graduates you should have no trouble thinking of some of your teachers–maybe lots of them–who were clearly in the second category.
There are better approaches to teaching new college teachers how to teach. One is instructional development, in which guidance is provided to groups of new faculty in teaching workshops and learning communities. Another is mentoring, in which experienced faculty members provide individual guidance to new ones.
For many years, my department (Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at N.C. State University) has introduced its new faculty members to teaching using both instructional development and mentoring. It starts between one and two weeks before the fall term, when the new CBE faculty member attends a four-day orientation workshop given by and for the combined faculties of the Colleges of Engineering and Sciences. The workshop is facilitated by outstanding teachers and researchers in both colleges, and covers effective teaching (2 days) and starting and building a research program and balancing the competing time demands of research, teaching, and personal life (2 days). Information about the workshop is given in references cited below. The rest of this post describes the mentoring.
During the fall or spring term following the orientation, the CBE newbie co-teaches the introductory chemical engineering course with one of a cadre of the best teachers in the department. That course is very well developed, so the burden of creating new course notes and assignments is considerably lower than it would be for a brand-new course preparation. The mentor and mentee teach either one section of the course together or separate sections that meet at different times.
Early in the course the mentor takes the lead, planning lectures, assignments, and tests and doing the lecturing. After several weeks, the mentee gradually takes on more of those responsibilities, so that by the end of the term the teaching is well distributed between the two instructors. The mentor and mentee observe each others’ class sessions throughout the semester, and once every week they meet for a debriefing session that may last anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour, depending on how much they have to talk about that week. The mentor never intervenes during class sessions taught by the mentee, even if the mentee gets into trouble and looks pleadingly at the mentor in hopes of being rescued. Compliments, critiques, and suggestions are shared only in the debriefings.
The formal mentoring relationship ends when the course does, after which the mentee is fully responsible for his or her own courses. However, the mentor frequently serves informally for at least one more term, occasionally observing and commenting on the mentee’s lectures and providing consulting advice on request.
Participation in the orientation workshop and the mentoring are voluntary, but virtually all new CBE Department faculty members for the last decade or so have gone through both. Many of them have won outstanding teacher awards in their first few years on the faculty and they have also been extraordinarily successful with their NSF CAREER Award proposals, which often rise or fall on the strength of their education components. Mentoring has consequently come to be considered a valuable service to the department, and mentors are given lighter course loads and/or relieved from other responsibilities like serving on a committee. Several mentees have gone on to subsequently become mentors.
This approach to helping new faculty members get their teaching off to a good start really works! It’s probably not a coincidence that several years after it was adopted, the CBE department was selected as the best teaching department in the university.
The references below provide additional information on new faculty support programs, including mentoring. (The list isn’t comprehensive–it includes only programs I’ve been directly involved with.) Glance through them, and consider whether the approach described might give your department the same benefits that the N.C. State CBE Department has enjoyed.
 New faculty support programs
- “New STEM Faculty Support: Why Aren’t We Providing It?” A challenge of the traditional university assumption that all new faculty hires already know how to teach effectively, start and build a successful research program, and meet the time demands imposed by teaching, research, and trying to have a life outside their job.
- “Helping New Faculty Get Off to a Good Start.” An article that suggests things administrators and senior faculty can do to help new faculty members become productive in research and effective in teaching early in their careers.
- “Preparing New Faculty Members to be Successful: A No-Brainer and yet a Radical Concept.” A multifaceted program at North Carolina State University to help prepare new and future faculty members for successful academic careers.
- “Mentoring: A Personal Perspective.” An article describing a mentoring relationship between an experienced faculty member and a relatively new one as viewed from both perspectives.
. The N.C. State new faculty orientation workshop for engineering and the sciences
- “New Faculty 101: An Orientation to the Profession.” Detailed description of a four-day workshop that provides guidance to new faculty members on starting and managing a research program, planning and teaching courses, balancing time demands imposed by research, teaching, and the rest of a faculty member’s life, and becoming an effective participant in the campus community.
- “Just-in-Time vs. Just-in-Case: Orientation for New Faculty in STEM Disciplines.” A more recent but less detailed description of the workshop and some evidence of its effectiveness.
- “Turning New Faculty Members into Quick Starters.” Still more details about the workshop and suggestions for making similar programs effective.