GLCA Faculty Survey: Concerns, Strengths, and Directions for the Future

Gregory Wegner, Co-Director, GLCA/GLAA Consortium for Teaching and Learning
Contact at: wegner@glca.org

In October 2017 the GLCA/GLAA Consortium for Teaching and Learning (CTL) distributed a survey via the CTL Campus Liaisons to faculty members of the GLCA’s 13 colleges. In all we received nearly 200 responses to the survey, over 9 percent of the GLCA’s 2,200 faculty members across its member colleges. If the sample size is not large enough to provide a definitive basis for policy decisions within individual institutions, the responses do provide an interesting opening to the interests and concerns of faculty members at our member colleges, and a basis for better understanding certain characteristics of the faculty respondents.

As Figure 1 indicates, the responses came from a fairly well-balanced distribution of faculty members across the natural sciences, social sciences and humanities/arts. As illustrated in Figure 2, the respondents represented a good spread among faculty in terms of the number of years they have taught.

 

 

Statements of Interest/Concern

Perhaps the most important aspect of the survey is that it can help us identify areas in which the Consortium for Teaching and Learning could usefully direct its resources to enhance individual colleges in supporting faculty members in their teaching. Indeed, one of our key purposes in designing the questionnaire was to discover where, in terms of teaching, the faculty thought they could use the most help. The analysis presented here focuses on the responses we received to this question in particular:

What aspect/s of your teaching do you think would benefit from more help, feedback, or consideration?

The responses fell into nine broad categories, presented by the percentage of total responses they received as matters of faculty interest or concern. Figure 3 illustrates this distribution, and then we dig a bit deeper into each area:

  • Pedagogy: 24%
  • Student Academic Grounding: 24%
  • Discussion leading: 18%
  • Engaging Students 5%
  • Assessment 7%
  • Difficult Conversations: 8%
  • Equity and diversity: 3%
  • Technology: 4%
  • Other: 7%

 

 

Pedagogy

Concern with elements of teaching well is one of two themes that emerged significantly in the responses. It is clear that faculty members have an interest in teaching well and improving in areas where they feel less effective than they might be, particularly in four categories:

Active learning. Some expressed a desire to combine traditional teaching techniques with methods that allow students to engage more directly in the subject of the course.

  • Active learning/flipped classrooms    
  • Different pedagogies      
  • I lecture too much and integrate other forms of teaching/learning too little
  • Type and timing of assignments, more active learning in intro classes
  • Integrated learning. Relating course content and my discipline to students’ lives
  • Interactive teaching techniques. Proven pedagogies that work for diverse student populations
  • Community engaged learning
  • Incorporating extra circular opportunities internship service, etc.
  • Incorporating service learning projects and managing them

Class activities. Another clear component of pedagogical interest was to conceive ways of structuring time in the classroom to allow students to work collectively, allow for greater peer-to-peer interaction, and to enhance learning through the communal expression of thought and ideas.

  • Class activities, group work, innovative learning tools
  • Class discussions of papers; student research papers
  • Constructing meaningful in-class group work
  • Effective group work; effective peer leadership opportunities
  • Good in-class activities: engaging, focused, and assessable
  • Managing/teaching good group work

Course Development. Many respondents expressed an interest in getting advice and assistance in the design of courses, often described in terms of achieving a balance between content delivery and more effective course design:

  • How to teach a certain class
  • How to balance depth and breadth
  • General education specific content
  • Improving efficiency in course planning/grading
  • Incorporating non-Western, non-Eurocentric, Indigenous pedagogies in ways that expand what education can be without appropriating the cultures of those who have historically been excluded from academia
  • Introductory classes
  • Just general – hearing different ways of teaching
  • Incorporating new pedagogical perspectives; rethinking student assessment
  • Interdisciplinary teaching
  • Learning approaches from other disciplines
  • Lesson planning and content
  • More training in social science pedagogies for humanities courses
  • Creating effective discussion questions that engage students
  • Framing questions in a way that students are prompted better to answer correctly
  • Critical reading – identifying the deeper meaning of a text
  • New pedagogical approaches
  • Small group discussions
  • Teaching to non-majors/non-minors
  • Deciding on how much to “flip” my lecture periods
  • Moving more towards at least some aspects of the “flipped classroom” design in terms of expecting students to have done reading, prep, thinking prior to class

Teaching writing. While expressed less often, some identified the ability to teach students to write effectively emerged as clear need:

  • Teaching writing skills
  • In-class writing workshops
  • Scaffolding writing assignments for non-majors
  • Teaching writing, teaching to Generation Z

Student Academic Grounding

No less pronounced than the interest in pedagogical methods and course development was the concern that faculty respondents expressed about the changing nature of the student body – and more specifically, in the broader range of experience that students bring to college and their courses. The GLCA/GLAA Consortium for Teaching conducted a Town Hall Meeting on this topic in December 2017. A recording of this video discussion can be found here, a written summary here, and several responses here. A general theme that informed many of these responses was the difficulty that faculty members encounter teaching classes where the students’ academic preparation varies widely. Many expressed the opinion that it has become difficult to find a common grounding for engaging the subject matter to the class as a whole. Some responses in this category express a frustration at the challenge of being effective teachers in this circumstance; others convey that blaming the students is not the path toward a solution:

Teaching to mixed-level classes. This phrase was offered as one of the options on the survey itself, and almost half of responses indicated that they could use more help, feedback, or consideration addressing the issue. The pronounced differences in the knowledge or experience different students bring to class creates a divide that faculty members find very hard to bridge.

Prior academic experience. Some of the reflections suggest that the problem often has less to do with students’ innate ability to learn than with the nature of prior schooling they have received:

  • Working with diversely prepared students
  • Addressing lack of basic academic skills
  • Dealing with poor HS preparation – provision of helpful on-ramp courses
  • Dealing with unprepared students, particularly with respect to writing
  • Teaching to students at different skill levels
  • Strategies for teaching classes when students have a wide range of academic skills (i.e., A-D
  • The ability to differentiate instruction to the students’ needs

Range of experience and engagement. The fact that students bring different kinds of academic experience and different levels of engagement to the classroom can impact the teaching of a course in different ways. Courses may include majors and non-majors, first-year students and seniors. Similarly, some responses indicate a feeling on the part of faculty that some students, regardless of background, are not engaging deeply in the course, or are not inclined to apply themselves to their full ability, thereby making it harder for the class as a whole to achieve its course learning goals.

  • Experienced majors and inexperienced non-majors in the same class
  • Teaching to mixed level class especially department courses which have majors and non-majors
  • Teaching to mixed-level classes, especially in courses that require mathematics but not all students have the pre-requisite skills
  • Teaching to a changing student population
  • Dealing with students who aren’t engaged
  • Teaching a generation of students who lack patience and don’t want to read
  • How to deal with students who miss classes to the extent that when they return, you’ll have to teach 2 classes – 1) One to get them up to speed and 2) The rest of the class
  • The ability to differentiate instruction to the students’ needs

Instilling liberal arts values and goals: beyond blame. While the catalog of challenges to liberal arts educators can seem dispiriting, there was nonetheless an awareness that all students, regardless of social background, previous academic grounding, or disposition, can and should benefit from a liberal arts education. Often responses conveyed a continuing commitment to prepare their students to achieve success in school and beyond and the importance of avoiding seeing students from a “deficit” perspective.

  • Teaching introductory courses with a relatively large enrollment and diverse interests and skill-levels
  • Teaching students to raise important questions themselves, lead discussion themselves
  • Working with students with weak reading/writing/studying skills
  • Understanding today’s students
  • Teaching “underprepared” students; how to not be an “underprepared” instructor; diversity, microaggressions, stereotype threat, and the like

Engaging Students

The survey also revealed how faculty are looking for ways to help students become more engaged in their courses. These expressions may be regarded as statements of optimism, offered in the belief that teaching strategies can be identified and adopted that draw in students who initially demonstrate little interest in a subject. Their tone differs somewhat from those who identify the problem as students who are underprepared or lack self-discipline. Consider the following:

General wish to increase engagement:

  • Getting students excited about a topic they find boring
  • Keeping students motivated and engaged

Helping students achieve course learning goals:

  • Encouraging investment in class, using numbers in a math-fearing population
  • Engaging students, in-class activities, creative projects with students
  • Evoking more student participation in questions and discussion
  • How to motivate students better. How to create a more inclusive classroom.

Spurring engagement in light of particular considerations:

  • Engaging students with mental health issues
  • How to deal with students who don’t respond to feedback, emails, any encouragement on my part
  • Maybe helping students make connections between academic learning and the “real world”

Leading Discussions

One of the questions asked respondents to describe their pedagogical approach – the methods through which they engage students in the act of learning. Of the responses to this question, 53 percent identified “Active Lecture” (combination lecture and discussion) as their prevailing method of teaching. Another 20 percent said that their method was “mostly discussion,” and 12 percent wrote that their courses were “mostly lecture.” (See Figure 4)

Clearly, a substantial amount of pedagogical practice across GLCA’s member colleges consists of class discussion. In answering the basic question regarding what aspects of teaching “would benefit from more help, feedback, or consideration,” 18 percent indicated “leading discussions.” A few responses elaborated on the particular elements or contexts of leading discussions that would be most helpful:

  • Discussion leading in gender studies
  • Discussion leading. I teach a variety of theory courses, so class discussion days may not always work for my classes
  • Discussion leading; discussion of issues re: race in the classroom
  • Leading better conversations on common readings
  • Leading discussions in the sciences

Difficult Conversations

Eight percent of responses indicated that they would benefit by more discussion of how to handle difficult conversations, certainly an indication that this issue has become increasingly fraught over the past few years. Among the responses of those looking for guidance around specific topics are the following:

  • Anti-racism; difficult conversations
  • Difficult conversations; engaging students
  • How to handle difficult subject matter like race issues in jazz,
  • Managing the line between personal politics and factual inaccuracies expressed by students (e.g., “Racism isn’t really a problem because we’re pretty much equal now”)

Equity and Diversity

This set of responses speaks to concerns similar to the previous set of replies on difficult conversations. In each case, those who indicated this as topic of interest or concern described a particular aspect of equity:

  • Equity and diversity in classroom environment
  • Inclusive practices/overcoming stereotype threat
  • Best practices for how to reduce the impact of stereotype threat, bias, and messaging
  • Inclusivity for students of different backgrounds
  • Teaching across disciplines and departments, teaching as a female faculty of color, organizing courses to maximum effect

Assessment

The topic of assessment does not register strongly in the answers to the survey, suggesting that there are many who regard assessment as an imposed measure of accountability more than as a source of feedback and reflection that can improve student learning. Those who indicate this topic, however, convey a genuine desire to learn best practices for incorporating assessment into their course design, both to improve student learning and to provide feedback that they can apply to gauge the impact of their own teaching methods.

Assessment in general:  

  • Assessment
  • Assessment strategies
  • I’m always looking for new ideas for assessment and classroom activities

Design of courses:

  • Setting priorities for learning outcomes and assignments/assessments
  • Moodle quizzes– particularly sharing questions across instructors or finding external sources of questions

Grading strategies:

  • Better grading strategies (crafting and using effective rubrics), active learning in class and how to convince the students its worthwhile
  • Finding graded assignments that are easier to grade for me and less pressure for the students
  • Grade inflation/student expectation
  • Grading papers; providing meaningful feedback

Assessment of writing

  • Assessments, feedback on writing
  • Grading rubrics for writing assessments
  • Responding to student writing

Technology

A few responses expressed an interest in learning more about the potential of technology to enhance learning in the classroom and other contexts. Some of the replies described a general interest to learn about technology, while others noted a particular way that technology could be beneficial:

Technology as a general interest:

  • Keeping up with digital stuff
  • Use of digital resources

Technology for particular purposes:

  • Use of technology in math classroom
  • Using student technology (laptops/phones/tablets) to enhance learning

Other

Responses in this group include expressions of a wish to be better informed about aspects of students’ lives, making possible a deeper understanding of how such factors as financial circumstance or mental well-being can impact student learning. Others describe the range of responsibilities that constitute the faculty role and a desire to achieve a more productive and satisfying balance in their professional lives.

Recognizing challenges of some students:

  • How to be a better advocate for students who do not have the financial means to purchase supplies
  • Mental-health informed teaching
  • Psychosocial factors in day to day teaching

Achieving balance:

  • Active recruitment by the college for students in ALL disciplines; lack of morale among the faculty; over-dependence on faculty for administrative and committee work
  • Balancing teaching (a focus on my courses) and other responsibilities (committee work, writing, etc.)
  • Balancing work load, efficient grading/assignments
  • I think all of the examples offered above go together into something like Classroom Ethos, and while I feel adept at each, I don’t always feel like I get the balance right: one Good is sometimes a casualty of fostering another Good. But my sense is that each new group of students provides the best help in figuring out how to improve
  • Just having time to stop and reflect would be a huge asset
  • Managing workload
  • Out of class responsibilities

Coda

We have developed this analysis of the 2017 GLCA Faculty Survey to provide an indication of topics that faculty members of our liberal arts colleges express as subjects that they encounter in their teaching and professional lives. This overview has combined simple numerical representations with particular expressions of interests or challenges in respondents’ own words. Our hope is this combination can help to identify issues that have bearing on liberal arts teaching and learning. In some cases, topics that comparatively few respondents identified may nonetheless express important issues for liberal arts education and the faculty of our member colleges.

More particularly, we hope the presentation of responses can help answer the questions:

  1. What topics as identified in these responses are best-suited to be addressed on the individual campus level?
  2. What are the areas in which a broader collaborative program – such as the GLCA/GLAA Consortium for Teaching and Learning – could significantly enhance the efforts of individual colleges to support faculty in their teaching and improve the learning of students in liberal arts colleges?

This essay is one of the sources to inform thinking at the GLCA/GLAA Consortial Colloquy, which takes place February 9-10, 2018 in Arbor, Michigan.

We welcome feedback on these questions and on other elements of this survey analysis. Please respond to Greg Wegner (wegner@glca.org) or Steve Volk (steven.volk@oberlin.edu) with questions or comments.

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