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Sharing is Caring: The Effects of Teaching Conversations

Title: Context and content of teaching conversations: exploring how to promote sharing of innovative teaching knowledge between science faculty

Authors: A. Kelly Lane, Brittnee Earl, Stephanie Feola, Jennifer E. Lewis, Jacob D. McAlpin, Karl Mertens, Susan E. Shadle, John Skvoretz, John P. Ziker, Marilyne Stains, Brian A. Couch & Luanna B. Prevost

First author’s institution: University of Minnesota

Status: Published International Journal of STEM Education, 2022

How do you determine who you share your knowledge with? As an educator, you’re not just sharing knowledge with your students, you also share knowledge with your peers and coworkers. When we share what we know, we help others (and ourselves) gain a greater understanding of the subject matter. We are also able to improve our teaching practices to better help the students. This qualitative study looks at how knowledge of teaching practices was shared among faculty.

The researchers interviewed 19 faculty members for this study. The faculty came from three different research universities that have incorporated instructional changes on campus and the authors described them as “innovative instructors”. The researchers defined innovative instructors as “faculty who had participated in some part of the instructional change initiatives at their institutions”. The participants held various positions within their departments, either biology, chemistry, or geoscience. Through the interviews, the researchers aimed to answer the following questions:

  1. What characterizes the relationship between knowledgeable STEM faculty members and their discussion partners?
  2. What types of knowledge are shared between faculty during teaching-related conversations?
  3. What are the perceived impacts of these teaching conversations on faculty, courses, and students?

Overall, the authors found that “close discussion partners have a greater perceived impact on faculty through conversations on practical aspects of teaching as well as by providing validation of teaching approaches or struggles”. They defined “close discussion partners” as people they talked to the most frequently about teaching.

To reach that conclusion, the researchers conducted two-part interviews. The first part helped determine who the faculty member discussed teaching with.. The second part characterized the conversations held with different people within this network, focusing on context, perceived impact on teaching, and the nature of it. Each interview ranged from 30 minutes to 2 hours.

To determine the personal network of the participants, interviewers asked them to “name three to five people with whom they discussed teaching in the previous year” and sorted them from who they talked to the most to who they talked to the least based on the participants’ definition of “most”.

Afterward, the interviewers selected people from this network to ask the interviewees about the conversations they had with them. The “close discussion partner” was the person in their network the faculty member talked about teaching to the most often while the “far discussion partner” was the person in their network that they talked to the least.

Most of the interviewees had close discussion partnerships with people they co-taught with or taught the same or similar courses as them. They would frequently discuss course delivery, course synchronization, and sometimes even “vent” to them. They would also go to their close discussion partners for help and feedback on their teaching, thus having a greater impact on their teaching practices as well. As we can see in Figure 1, most of the participants discussed these topics with their close discussion partners and very few of them said that these discussions had no impact on their teaching.

The researchers also found faculty tended to talk about how they felt about themselves and their teaching with their close discussion partner. The researchers called this“instructor affect.” Instructors are human and need validation too, and they mostly received said validation from their close discussion partners. It reinforces the fact that yes, they’re doing good things by using innovations in teaching and the work is worth it. It motivates them to keep trying and to continue doing good things.

Figure 1 Perceived impacts of teaching-related conversations. Bars represent the number of interview participants (n = 19) whose interactions with close (dark gray) and far (light gray) partners included discussion and information sharing related to the given category. Discussion pairs could share more than one impact type (Figure 5 in paper).

In comparison to their close discussion partner who had a greater impact, the far discussion partner had a smaller impact. Some of the interviewees mentioned going to their far discussion partner for help or advice if they know they have done a certain teaching technique before. They would also meet with their far discussion partners less frequently.

Another aspect the authors wanted to look at was how the sharing of teaching knowledge affects student learning. Based on the discussion of impact during the interview, it turns out that there isn’t much. At least, it wasn’t discussed directly. Instructors did talk about student-focused impacts, like engagement and expectations, but not learning outcomes. Therefore, more work needs to be done to see the relationship between sharing teaching knowledge and student impact.

Given that sharing teaching knowledge can have positive impacts on instructors, the researchers suggested facilitating ways to increase the number of close relationships in the department to help promote the sharing of knowledge. Formal structures like co-teaching or teaching teams can help build that relationship between faculty where they could discuss ideas and share resources.

Figured used under CC BY 4.0. Header used under CC BY 1.0

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