Mark McKellop, Professor of Psychology at Juniata College, leading a Lakso Center event in September 2017.
As a small college in a rural setting, Juniata College has worked hard to differentiate itself with high quality teaching and learning in the liberal arts. Faculty leaders and senior administrators were committed to ensuring that Juniata faculty drew on the research literature on effective teaching practices in their own classrooms and contributed to the scholarship on teaching and learning. They sought a structured, systematic, and cost-effective way to help faculty grow as expert teachers.
At larger institutions, it is not uncommon to have centers for teaching and learning with significant staffing, budgets, and space dedicated to engaging faculty, but such an intensive allocation of resources is not possible at smaller institutions. A three-year grant made in 2008 put Juniata on the path to establishing a financially viable and well-utilized center for teaching and learning, in part by rethinking what a ‘center’ means.
Establishing a Center for Teaching and Learning
Juniata has now established the James J. Lakso Center for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning. With a program budget of $25,000, the Center attracts more than two-thirds of Juniata’s faculty annually and supports 6-8 competitive summer grants for faculty to undertake their own research projects on effective teaching practices. The Center organizes biweekly lunches featuring Juniata colleagues or outside experts sharing innovations in teaching grounded in evidence. It also runs a learning community for untenured faculty where participants meet on a monthly basis to reflect on common readings and how to apply them in their own classrooms and support each other as they move through the tenure process. Unlike most centers for teaching and learning, the Lakso Center carries out these activities without dedicated staffing.
Impact on Student Learning
Faculty observed measurable gains in student learning by intentionally drawing on the research literature and studying their own teaching practices with an eye to improvement, as the three examples below illustrate. Presently, Juniata is embarking on general education reform and is drawing on the impact of interdisciplinary curricula that foster different ways of knowing in its change efforts; the considerations of scholarship on teaching and learning to shape major institutional decisions underline the impact of the Lakso Center on campus culture.
Juniata requires its students satisfy a quantitative reasoning course for graduation. Students in the sciences easily satisfy this requirement in the course of their studies, but students pursuing other majors are expected to satisfy a requirement that they may otherwise avoid. The quantitative reasoning course for non-majors offered by the Mathematics department is taken by more than one-third of each graduating class. Mathematics faculty sought to strengthen student engagement and learning in the course. They began the redesign by including “performance tasks” modeled on the Collegiate Learning Assessment so students can apply and demonstrate what they are learning in authentic and real world situations. For instance, students in the course apply quantitative reasoning skills to evaluate a mock state ballot measure to eliminate artificial sweeteners by drawing on a mix of sources that offer information of varying relevance and veracity. The instructors found that simply incorporating performance tasks, though established as a good teaching practice in the literature, had mixed results, and what was more effective was the combination of performance tasks coupled with a reframing of the course with more explicit emphasis on critical thinking skills.
The Juniata psychology department has embraced the undergraduate level student learning outcomes set forth by the American Psychological Association, which includes fostering critical thinking skills. With support from the Lakso Center, the department has developed measures of critical thinking skills in the context of psychology. For example, students complete a set of performance tasks where they evaluate behavioral claims in the popular press, evaluate the research design for a study, and critique a peer-reviewed research article. These tasks may be embedded in an individual course (with pre/post testing at the beginning and end of the semester) or throughout the curriculum (to test student growth over time). Through a process of curriculum revision, undertaken not for external accreditation but as a matter of internal program improvement, the department has had demonstrable impact on psychology students’ critical thinking skills over time.
Faculty from the earth and environmental sciences department assessed the spatial visualization skills of undergraduate students in a variety of disciplines and found that geology, fine arts, and physics students had the highest average spatial test scores even after controlling for gender and grade point average. The findings suggest that students can develop transferable geospatial skills; for instance, fine arts students may enhance their skills in this area while satisfying a general education requirement in the natural sciences. Alternatively, students could be discouraged from taking courses that build the same cognitive skills as their major courses, so that they are exposed to different ways of thinking or methods of analysis.
Sustainability: What Helped?
Juniata has modeled how to nurture a campus-wide faculty-driven culture that promotes the scholarship of teaching and learning in a manner that is replicable for other institutions. Juniata faculty captured major lessons in establishing their center on a “shoe-string” budget here; some of the factors that contributed to their success are summarized below.
The program has active champions. An on-campus workshop on the link between pedagogy and student outcomes in 2006 sparked a broader discussion about the importance of drawing on evidence-based practices to inform and rejuvenate teaching. With support from the provost, a core group of faculty decided to build on that energy with a biweekly lunch series that subsequently was institutionalized as part of the Lakso Center’s roster of activities.
The program has the staffing it requires. The Lakso Center is run by a rotating and self-renewing board of three faculty members who each serve for three years. The board consists of the current director, the past-director, and newest member, the director-designate. The director is responsible for planning and facilitating the Center’s activities, acting as a consultant for faculty researching effective teaching practices, and monitoring the budget. The past-director helps guide the Center’s decision making while the director-designate focuses on learning the ropes of running the Center. All three members are expected to develop and disseminate teaching-as-research projects to model scholarship on teaching and learning for the campus community. The structure of the board allows new ideas and emphases to be introduced seamlessly while maintaining continuity in operations. In addition, it promotes campus-wide ownership for the Lakso Center because it is not associated with a particular department or group of individuals.
The program has a solid financial base. Juniata embedded the Lakso Center in its strategic plan and leveraged its Teagle grant to raise $820,000 as part of an endowment to support faculty professional development. The income stream generated by the endowment goes towards the programmatic budget for the Center. The director has a half-time course release from their typical teaching load while the past-director and director-designate each receive one-course teaching release; the personnel costs with running the center are therefore variable depending on whether the board members are assistant, associate, or full professors. The courses releases are paid for through an existing operating line in the provost’s budget.
There are incentives for participation in the program. Faculty come to Lakso Center events because they help them strengthen their teaching in the short term but the campus offers other tangible rewards for participation as well. The faculty handbook at Juniata has now been revised to expand the definition of faculty professional development for tenure and promotion to explicitly include scholarship on teaching and learning. The scholarship of teaching and learning is often not valued in the same way as disciplinary research in the promotion and tenure process even at teaching intensive institutions, and not all departments weigh such scholarship in the same way when considering tenure cases. However, its provision in the faculty handbook sends a clear signal of institutional support for engagement in the scholarship of teaching and learning.
The program is embedded in the culture. As many have observed, breaking bread helps bring people together and foster collegiality. Organizing the sharing of scholarship on teaching and learning over lunch twice a month ensures a consistent audience for Lakso Center events. In 2008, such events attracted 20 faculty; today, 50-60 faculty (out of a total of 120) gather at each event on a regular basis. The strong participation is just one indication of how the scholarship of teaching and learning has become a part of the institutional fabric at Juniata.