Making the Grade

Writer: 
November 30, 2006

On a Wednesday in late September, a handful of faculty and staff members and graduate students gather at lunchtime in a conference room on the second floor of Perkins Library.

Amy Campbell, assistant director of the Center for Instructional Technology (CIT), has posed a provocative question: How can faculty members gauge, with any certainty, their effectiveness as teachers? Participants offer answers that range from pre- and post-semester diagnostic surveys to information-retention studies to peer-review teaching critiques.

By the end of the discussion, it is clear that designing a conclusive, qualitative study to measure teaching effectiveness would be difficult and time consuming, if not impossible. But that doesn't seem to discourage this group. Rather, the members of Duke's Consortium for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (CoSTL) are energized by this discussion of their profession, teaching, at its best.

CoSTL, organized by Campbell and Ahrash Bissell, assistant director of the Academic Resource Center, has been around for two years. Its members—virtually anyone is welcome to join—meet weekly to discuss teaching issues and strategies. The group has hosted speakers on campus, and organized a symposium last spring to solicit feedback directly from graduating seniors.

But CoSTL is not the only program at Duke aimed at exploring, and improving, teaching. Doug James, director of academic support programs at the Graduate School, heads up several initiatives designed specifically for graduate students, including Duke's chapter of Preparing Future Faculty (PFF).

PFF is a national mentoring program funded by the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AACU) and the Council of Graduate Schools, that pairs doctoral candidates at research universities with faculty mentors at neighboring institutions.

The program, which now includes forty-three doctoral-degree-granting universities, was inspired by a pilot program at Duke initiated by John Chandler B.D. '52, Ph.D. '54, LL.D. Hon. '02, then president of the AACU's precursor, the Association of American Colleges, and a member of Duke's board of trustees. Duke graduate students are paired with professors at schools like Elon University, North Carolina Central University, and Meredith College. The PFF program at Duke has grown to thirty-five fellows from just nineteen two years ago.

James also teaches an optional course to graduate students called "Introduction to College Teaching."

In the class, students review inventories of teaching and learning styles, draft a syllabus, and write a teaching statement (something that is required these days for many tenure-track jobs). This year, the Graduate School added a second class for graduate students, taught by Hugh Crumley, an instructional technology specialist at CIT, focused on applying technology in the classroom.

While James says Graduate School-wide programs have been effective at capturing students from a wide range of disciplines—psychology, religion, philosophy, engineering, and environmental studies, among others—Duke also relies on programs specific to certain departments. The biology department awards a Certificate in Teaching College Biology to those who complete a program that includes coursework as well as a mentorship. The history department is in the process of developing a similar certificate program. James says he hopes that these efforts will serve as models for other academic departments.