‘Team Political Science’ (or) How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Weekly Peer Review of My Teaching

One of the great things about working within the new Vantage College is the challenge we were set to experiment with new ways of teaching and new models for running a class over a semester.  With each topic being taught having their own requirements in terms of optimal class size, pace of learning, number of topics taught,  mode of delivery etc., allowing  instructors to set up their intro courses beyond an ‘orthodox model’ was a great step towards facilitating innovative teaching.  On the Arts side all of the content courses have been configured differently (with traditional lecturing, use of technology, active learning and small discussion groups being used to different degrees and in different ways based on what suits teaching the material best). This has prevented all of us from having to ‘crow bar’ our material into a pre-set template.  It has of course created unique scheduling issues (sorry admin team!).  Sometimes we have been confronted by ‘computer says no’ type  moments[1]  but we’ve overcome those with a great team of administrators and a strong commitment by the college to create the conditions for innovation.

Introducing ‘Team Political Science’

What has been equally great is the fact that the college has provided us with the resources (human and financial) to make these new configurations work.   What I asked for in this regard falls outside the realm of the ‘normally funded’.  I wanted to hire TAs (totally normal) but I wanted to hire several for one section (not so normal) and have them in my lectures with me, to co-teach—not just  to run separate tutorials and do some of my marking (also not so normal).  The result is that on some days I have anywhere from 2-3  teaching assistants in my intro classes  with me, helping with my small group tasks and wider class activities.  ‘Team Political Science’ consists of me, an Academic English Instructor, Senior TAs (MA and PhD students) as well as, uniquely for my home department, Undergraduate TAs. There is a lot I could say about Team Political Science (and hopefully you will hear from some of them on this blog in the future) but for now, some thoughts on my decision to have them teach alongside me every week and some notes on an unexpected set of outcomes.

My decision to have my TAs in classes, teaching and assisting alongside me was initially made based on how much I thought it would help my students. I figured they would have more one on one contact with experienced scholars as we all circulated between groups during break out discussions and activities that are peppered between my mini-lectures.  They would have opportunities to ask questions and explore ideas during class time, when core ideas are first introduced (instead of waiting till a tutorial that might be held up to a week later). Important to remember here is the fact that some members of Team Political Science are Undergraduate TAs, made up of some of UBCs top junior scholars.  Currently in the process of transitioning from apprentice scholars to established scholars they are more able to understand why a student is still grappling with an academic language that for me, after over 15 years of study, has become completely natural.  It is often difficult for me to understand why a student still struggles after doing the reading, attending a lecture, and engaging in a related learning activity.  For the ‘junior members’ of Team Political Science this is less of a problem as they have more recently learned this ‘foreign’ disciplinary language.  I hope to report back on whether any of my hypotheses were correct after reflecting on my ‘experiment’ later in the year.    I suppose the true test will come next semester when I teach the same course in two different formats.  I’m not sure whether one will be better than the other, but I am sure there will be some interesting differences to report.

However, four weeks into term I can confidently report back on at least some the benefits of this decision—and in ways I hadn’t necessarily predicted.  I have found myself asking my team for feedback regularly:  before classes when I send out lecture slides and activity materials to the team, during the sessions themselves (in breaks or when the students are reading activity instructions), and also after class, to get a general recap on what worked and didn’t in that session.  I have gotten incredible insight that is already informing my teaching.  From comments about the clarity of my lecture slides, to reminders to SLOW DOWN when I talk, to TAs writing key terms or diagrams on the board while I teach, to feedback on specific concepts that are not being grasped (despite my best efforts), I am leaving every session with constructive critiques and ideas for improving next week.

Even better is that I am also getting feedback on what is working well.  As a scholar (ahem, human being) in the habit of second guessing myself it has been very good for me to hear back from my team on things that worked well.  Generally teachers have to rely on non-verbal cues from students regarding if they are ‘getting it’ or really engaging with the material.  These cues are not always forthcoming when students are busy concentrating and/or tired. Anyone who has taught can tell you how hard it is to ‘read the room’.  But now I have several objective room-readers. The result?  Some activities that I might have scrapped out of my own subjective reading of classroom dynamics have been saved from the scrapheap based on comments from my team.

As someone who has historically been slightly terrified of feedback (mostly related to the fear of opening dreaded emails from book and journal editors on article submissions), my twice weekly peer review has been surprisingly painless and extraordinarily useful.  I don’t have to wait until the end-of-term student course evaluations to find out what worked and didn’t from students (though this is another way to improve our teaching)—instead, I can make efforts to improve week on week.

Getting your institution or department to grant you the resources  (or more accurately, allow you to shift already existing resources) that would allow you to try something similar might be tricky but please drop me a line if you’d like to discuss how to present a convincing argument to try something similar for yourself.

[1] For any ‘Little Britain’ fans out there.


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