School navigation

Trading Places

February 08, 2019

As part of the Teaching Excellence Program, undergraduates give feedback to professors on how to improve the classroom experience.

Ben Westervelt, associate professor of history, and Mila Wolpert BA ’19 are faculty-student par...Ben Westervelt, associate professor of history, and Mila Wolpert BA ’19 are faculty-student partners in L&C's Teaching Excellence Program. Credit: Robert Reynolds

On the fourth floor of Miller, in an office brimming with books and papers, a professor and student meet to have a frank talk about how things are going in class.

Are the lectures stimulating? Do the classroom discussions feel interactive? Are the reading assignments relevant? What could be better?

It is the kind of one-on-one conversation that could be happening almost anytime, anywhere at Lewis & Clark. With one exception. In this case, the student is the one quizzing the professor.

“I thought you were doing a good job leading the discussion … the class just wasn’t super talkative that day,” Mila Wolpert BA ’19 explains to Associate Professor of History Ben Westervelt on a recent day as they go over her notes from his most recent Exploration and Discovery class.

Wolpert suggests strategies to encourage more reticent students, most of them first-years, to speak up more. “I remember a class I had freshman year … I was so intimidated I only spoke up twice all semester. And I like to talk!”

Westervelt nods his head in agreement. “My problem—really the problem most faculty have—is talking too much,” he says. “I’m still working toward hearing everybody’s voice every day.”

Ben Westervelt, associate professor of history, and Mila Wolpert BA ’19 are faculty-student partners in L&C’s Teaching Excellence Program.
“I volunteered for the TEP partnership, not because I was struggling, but because after 25 years I wanted to reenergize my practice.”

“The goal is to help make the class a more dynamic space for everybody.”

“My problem— really the problem most faculty have— is talking too much. I’m still working toward hearing everybody’s voice every day.”

“I take a seat in the classroom and observe both the professor and students, noting the tone of voice and reactions of both the professor and the students.”

“Mila’s able to observe the room and notice things I may not be seeing. Her ideas have helped improve my overall organization and sharpen my teaching technique.”

Wolpert, a French and history double major, spent the fall semester sitting in on Westervelt’s class as part of Lewis & Clark’s Teaching Excellence Program (TEP), which aims to support and strengthen the commitment to quality teaching throughout the College of Arts and Sciences.

As a student partner, Wolpert doesn’t participate in class discussions or even pay much attention to the course material. Instead, she takes a seat in the classroom that allows her to quietly observe both professor and students, noting everything from Westervelt’s tone of voice to what he writes on the board to how the students react— or don’t react—to his teaching methods.

The goal, she says, is to help make the class “a more dynamic space for everybody.”

Westervelt, a respected member of the history faculty for 25 years, volunteered for the partnership, not because he was struggling, but because he wanted to reenergize his practice.

“Mila’s able to observe the room and notice things I may not be seeing,” he says, noting that her ideas have helped improve his overall organization and sharpen his teaching technique.

A Focus on Teaching

The Faculty-Student Partner Program is just one element of the wide-ranging Teaching Excellence Program. Funded by a five-year, $705,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, TEP is helping cultivate a more innovative and inclusive approach to teaching.

“Faculty often receive great support and mentoring on academic scholarship, but the input they get on teaching can be hit or miss,” says Jerusha Detweiler-Bedell, TEP director and professor of psychology. “We’re trying to meet the needs of faculty who want more guidance and assistance, as well as new ideas, to improve their instruction.”

The disconnect stems from the fact that professors are seldom taught how to be effective teachers. Their graduate-level training often focuses on their development as researchers and scholars. While they might work as graduate teaching assistants, most receive little to no direct training in basic teaching methods, such as delivering a lecture or facilitating a class discussion.

By the time they are hired as faculty, most are forced to sink or swim in their classrooms. And while teaching, along with scholarship and service, is a critical component of tenure evaluations—especially at schools such as Lewis & Clark, which put a premium on good teaching—they don’t get much feedback. Sometimes they receive nothing more than the class evaluation forms turned in at the end of every semester —a case of too little, too late.

A Multifaceted Approach

Over the years, the College of Arts and Sciences has considered various initiatives to enhance undergraduate instruction. However, these efforts gained momentum when Detweiler-Bedell began conceptualizing a dedicated program to support pedagogy when she served as the college’s interim dean in 2014–15. In many ways, she was a perfect fit for the task.

A graduate of Stanford and Yale, she has drawn kudos for her teaching since coming to Lewis & Clark in 2001. In fact, she was honored as a U.S. Professor of the Year in 2008 by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the Council for Advancement and Support of Education —one of only a handful of Oregon professors to ever receive that recognition.

While Detweiler-Bedell’s research focus is clinical psychology, specifically the promotion of positive mental and physical health, she has always been drawn to teaching. Even as an undergraduate, she would take class notes analyzing her professors’ teaching styles and strategies.

“I tried to be really observant,” she says. “I’d take notes on what the professors were doing to be effective, how they asked questions, when and why they used humor.”

While Detweiler-Bedell has an inherent interest in teaching, she recognizes that there is always room for growth and improvement in the classroom. The TEP program, officially launched in 2016, is designed to work on a number of fronts.

In addition to faculty-student partners, TEP offers a peer mentoring program, run along similar lines, which pairs faculty “fellows” with colleagues to observe them teach and provide feedback.

TEP also sponsors faculty workshops and frequent pedagogy lunches, featuring speakers from the college as well as outside experts, to promote innovative and inclusive approaches to teaching.

Janet Steverson, Douglas K. Newell Professor of Teaching Excellence at Lewis & Clark Law School, as well as the college’s dean of diversity and inclusion, recently ran a TEP workshop on pedagogical transparency to about 30 faculty from a variety of academic departments. The goal was to encourage professors to clearly communicate their learning objectives and expectations so that students are able to focus on doing the work rather than deciphering what they think they’re supposed to do. That approach, she explains, benefits all students, but especially those from less rigorous high schools or less privileged backgrounds.

“In higher education, most of us aren’t taught how to teach, so we may make certain assumptions about what students know or don’t know,” Steverson says. “You have to work to make your classroom accessible and relevant for everyone. You should have high expectations, but you must give students the tools they need to enable them to work hard and meet those expectations.”

Faculty often receive great support and mentoring on academic scholarship, but the input they get on teaching can be hit or miss.” Jerusha Detweiler-BedellTEP Director and Professor of Psychology

TEP also provides classroom innovation and travel grants, up to $2,000 and $1,500, respectively. Faculty have used the innovation grants to purchase instructional software for economics classes, obtain model DNA kits for a molecular biology course, and create videos demonstrating specific painting techniques for art students.

The cumulative impact of these initiatives, Detweiler-Bedell says, is a more vibrant campus culture around pedagogy. She hopes to seed every department with pedagogy fellows, whom colleagues could seek out for informal advice. She also hopes the program stimulates informal “water cooler” conversations among faculty members about what’s going on in their classrooms.

Faculty-Student Partner Program

The Faculty-Student Partner Program may be the most distinctive part of TEP. Although it is based on a program developed more than a decade ago at Bryn Mawr and Haverford colleges—with similar iterations at various other colleges—Lewis & Clark had never tried anything like it.

The partner program is not designed to either evaluate or remediate struggling professors. Participation is strictly voluntary, and faculty members who have volunteered so far are considered sound teachers seeking to improve and reenergize their craft.

The professors have the option to select the students with whom they wish to partner, usually students they know from previous classes. For their part, the students (who are paid for their work) cannot be enrolled in any of the assigned professor’s courses during the same term they do their observations.

Detweiler-Bedell puts student partners through extensive training. They attend their faculty partner’s classes throughout the term, taking detailed notes on their observations. They meet weekly with their faculty partners to debrief, and also convene regularly as a group with Detweiler-Bedell and the other student partners.

The students concentrate on observing teaching techniques, focusing on how the professors are engaging with the class. Their commentary may touch on anything from very specific points—say, how much time students are given to voice opinions—to more general matters—how a syllabus is structured or whether homework assignments make sense to students.

Professors themselves often ask for advice on specific challenges they may be experiencing.

“Sometimes, a class isn’t clicking, and the professor isn’t sure why,” says Detweiler-Bedell. “Or maybe the professor is trying something new and needs input. It’s helpful to get feedback tailored to specific issues.”

Reversing the customary roles of professor and student took some getting used to at first, says Michal Mandil BA ’19, an English and studio art double major, who partnered with Associate Professor of English and Department Chair Rachel Cole.

“I remember thinking, ‘Who am I to tell this professor I look up to so much what I think she’s doing wrong?’” Mandil says. “As time went on, I realized I could actually help in different ways.”

As a mid-career professional, Cole viewed the program as an opportunity to deepen her understanding of the current student generation. Developing a close connection with a trusted student was worth going through a process she describes as “nerve-racking” at times.

“It’s hard to have someone scrutinizing your work,” Cole says. “At the same time, I can see the rules have changed in the way today’s students think about things, especially related to issues of race, gender, and sexual orientation. It’s rare to have such an open relationship with a student, but it has really helped me figure out how my pedagogy reads to a new generation.”

That insider perspective gave Mandil a new appreciation for the work professors do and made her a better student as well. When group discussions in a class she was taking for credit seemed to stagnate, she suggested rearranging tables and chairs in the room—a minor change that she never would have thought about before and that turned out to make a difference.

The Faculty-Student Partner Program launched in fall 2017 and has continued most semesters since. There were five faculty-student pairings in fall 2018, with more lined up into the next academic year.

Key Elements of the Teaching Excellence Program

  • Faculty-Student Partner Program in which students do classroom observations and give feedback to professors
  • Faculty-to-faculty peer mentoring
  • Classroom innovation grants and travel grants
  • TEP Innovation Institute, a year-end workshop devoted to best practices in teaching
  • Pedagogy lunches with readings and discussion
  • Other teaching resources, including a blog written by Molly Robinson Kelly, TEP’s associate director and associate professor of French; visit go.lclark.edu/TEP_blog

Looking Ahead

While TEP is viewed as a success, the program’s future after the grant ends in two years remains in question. Detweiler-Bedell hopes to secure stable funding to build on the work already started and to sustain the campus conversation about what makes great teaching.

“We don’t want to do this for five years and then have it go away,” Detweiler-Bedell says. “The hope is to evaluate and understand what is working for faculty and students, with the goal of institutionalizing those elements over time. Among faculty, I know the demand is there for ongoing teaching support.”

Although Wolpert will be graduating from Lewis & Clark in the spring and preparing for graduate school in the fall, she is grateful to have had the chance to make the college a better place.

“I feel we’re working toward something really great,” she says. “Even a subject that may seem boring can turn out to be really interesting with a fascinating professor. I don’t think of my student partner job as helping the professor. I’m doing this for the students.”

Romel Hernandez is a freelance writer in Portland.

The Chronicle Magazine

Contact Us