New faculty are focus of university programs to improve teaching quality
The quality of postsecondary teaching is on the public agenda amid calls for greater accountability for what students learn and how well they learn it. If tomorrow’s teaching quality begins with today’s new faculty, a study on their professional development commissioned by the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (HEQCO) finds reason for optimism, albeit room for improvement.
The Role of New Faculty Orientations in Improving the Effectiveness of University Teaching – Part 1: University Sectoris the first of a two-part study on postsecondary teaching development and explores how 20 Ontario universities currently support their new faculty members at the beginning of their initial teaching appointments. A second study will focus on the college sector, which the authors acknowledge has long embraced mandatory training of academic teaching staff. Yet, while teaching development programs have received considerable investments of time and money, their impact has only rarely been studied or evaluated.
For the university study, a survey was sent to the directors or senior managers of teaching and learning centres at Algoma, Brock, Carleton, Guelph, Lakehead, Laurentian, McMaster, Nipissing, OCADU, Ottawa, Queen’s, Ryerson, Toronto, Trent, UOIT, Waterloo, Western, Wilfrid Laurier, Windsor and York universities. All 20 institutions completed the survey, which probed a number of issues including teaching and learning centres, new faculty orientations and other resources for new faculty members.
Ontario university teaching and learning centres, responsible for improving teaching effectiveness, have varying levels of financial support and staffing. Currently, the four smallest centres operate with only one to three staff members, while the largest centre has more than 15 staff members. Approximately 60 per cent of institutions have had centres for six or more years, 25 per cent for a year or less. Among the most challenging issues for these centres, according to the study, are time constraints on faculty members, limited resources and the perceived lesser value of teaching versus research. (Note: HEQCO will soon publish a related report — the @Issue paper The Evolution of Teaching and Learning Centres.)
New faculty orientations, conducted by all but two of the institutions, vary widely in their content. While some offer a general introduction to the institution and/or a list of local resources, others focus on specific teaching skills and explore a variety of teaching and learning issues and strategies. Less than half of the universities focus on student assessment or course design and only 13 per cent include a panel discussion with students. Participation by new faculty is voluntary for the majority of universities, with attendance ranging from 40 per cent to 85 per cent. The majority of universities include both contract instructors and full-time faculty members in their orientation sessions. The annual cost of these orientations ranges from $1,000 to $35,000.
All of the institutions offer workshops and/or other programs for their new faculty members throughout the year. Seven have teaching certificate programs and eight have mentorship programs pairing new instructors with experienced faculty. None has sessions on designing and teaching fully online courses, which the authors say is surprising given provincial efforts to increase postsecondary online learning opportunities. Most institutions regularly evaluate their sessions and programs by surveying participants, and feedback is overwhelmingly positive in most cases.
Ontario’s teaching and learning centres have done a reasonably good job of offering orientation sessions to their newly hired faculty members, say the authors, although there is room for improvement on the attendance rate and duration of some orientations, which at eight institutions is for only one day. “It is questionable how deeply and extensively it is possible to cover and discuss a broad range of teaching issues in such a limited timeframe,” say the authors, who are nonetheless encouraged that many of the teaching and learning centres offer a variety of teaching topics throughout the year, and that several offer comprehensive teaching certificate or mentorship programs.
Policy implications/Further Research
While there is some consensus on the role of professional academic development for new faculty members in Ontario universities, there are still no common guidelines and expectations about core programs on teaching and learning principles, nor any standards for teaching quality. Common guidelines would benefit the sector and help better prepare academics to teach in higher education. “More needs to be done by academic leaders, faculty members and educational developers in opening a discussion on the potential for establishing university teaching on a more professional basis,” the authors say.
The report suggests more research and data on new faculty programs and the needs of new and future faculty members, as well as improved assessment of the longer- term impact of orientations and other programs on teaching and student learning. “A set of measures and longitudinal studies – possibly even at the provincial level – would move assessment beyond satisfaction surveys,” say the authors. “The lack of appropriate measures and diversity of programs and services in Ontario universities make it difficult to compare them and determine their effectiveness.”
Previous HEQCO research has shown that teaching quality may be more important than class size in effective learning. This new report says that more resources need to be allocated to teaching and learning centres to support a comprehensive, ongoing professional development program for teaching staff “as part of the overall quality assurance system for Ontario’s higher education.”
The Role of New Faculty Orientations in Improving the Effectiveness of University Teaching – Part 1: University Sector was prepared by Carol A. Miles and Dragana Polovina-Vukovic of Carleton University.