Teaching Impact

A front seat in the Center for Teaching and Learning

Faculty participate in a learning circle on “New Approaches to STEM Education”: (Top L–R) Greg Dillingham, manager of distance learning services; Becca Hale, assistant professor of biology, Melissa Himelein, professor of psychology and director of the CTL, and Susan Reiser, associate dean of physical sciences and lecturer in new media; (Bottom L–R) Paula Willis, adjunct assistant professor of physics; Steve Walsh, director of the NCSU Engineering Program at UNC Asheville; James Perkins, assistant professor of physics.About 30 people sit in rows, listening intently as Professor of Psychology Melissa Himelein introduces the speaker for the day. They don’t look like average UNC Asheville students, but they are just as familiar with the classroom. That’s because the audience is faculty.

The presentation, sponsored by the Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL), focuses on ways to improve teaching and bolster student success, a frequent and popular topic.

“There is a lot going on in higher education,” said Himelein, director of the center. “Students today are different than when most of us were in college. People want to learn about new approaches to teaching and learning to help them address some of those differences.”

The Center for Teaching and Learning at UNC Asheville, founded in 1994, offers everything from orientation and mentoring for new faculty to programs designed to help mid-career and veteran faculty reinvigorate their classrooms, become more effective teachers and balance teaching with scholarship.

Public events such as lunch workshops and small-group discussion circles are among the most visible, but the CTL provides more personal support too. Himelein consults with individual faculty, helps interpret teaching evaluations and peer reviews, and even surveys whole classes face to face to help instructors identify and address their strengths and weaknesses.

“Students today are different than when most of us were in college. People want to learn about new approaches to teaching and learning to help them address some of those differences.” — Melissa Himelein, Center for Teaching and Learning director  

That variety may be a factor behind the high level of participation in CTL programs, which has nearly doubled in the last three years to nearly 65 percent of full-time faculty during the 2013–14 academic year.

The numbers are even more impressive when stacked up against average participation in comparable programs at colleges and universities around the country. According to a recent report from Western Carolina University, only 30 to 40 percent of faculty take part in similar professional development programs nationwide.

Lunchtime Learning

Monthly lunchtime workshops are quite popular and attract faculty from many academic departments. Sophie Mills, professor of classics, said the chance to talk to colleagues from other fields is the biggest draw.

“It gets me out of my office. It gets me out of just engaging with stuff about classics,” Mills said. “It opens up thinking about new ways of teaching, new things that I wouldn’t necessarily have thought of to do myself.”

At UNC Asheville, where exploring the connections between different subjects is considered the cornerstone of a liberal arts education, this kind of cross pollination is especially valuable.

Chemistry Professor George Heard calls the CTL “one of the most interdisciplinary units on campus.”

“You’ll meet people at CTL meetings that you won’t meet anywhere else,” he said. “It’s an opportunity to discuss ideas with faculty in other departments, ideas that I can incorporate into my own teaching.”

Model Teaching

Heard has presented at two lunchtime workshops to discuss a new teaching approach called the “flipped classroom.”

In this model, students access lectures and PowerPoints—traditionally given in class—by computer on their own time and spend class doing work that would ordinarily be take-home assignments. The presentations were so popular they had to be moved to larger rooms, Heard said.

“I said to myself, Wow! People from everywhere want to come talk about this crazy way I’m teaching chemistry and compare it to what they are doing in their classes,” he said. “There’s someone from classics sitting right there, and someone from health and wellness in the back, and biology and economics.”

CTL has recently tackled topics such as universal design practices to increase accessibility for students with physical or learning disabilities, issues facing first-generation college students, and new approaches to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) education that have been shown to improve student learning.

Classroom Colleagues

James Perkins, assistant professor of physics, has attended several lunchtime workshops and discussion circles. One of the most valuable experiences, he said, was a classroom analysis that Himelein did during his second semester teaching at UNC Asheville.

“Melissa gathered a lot of feedback from the students, who were much more open to talking because I wasn’t there,” he said. “She studied the results and wrote a report. We discussed it, so she was able to soften the blow on some of the feedback and point out some of the good things, the successes.”

Because the in-class survey came in mid-semester, Perkins had time to adjust.

“It impacted my teaching in several specific ways,” he said.

“I implemented some things that had come out of the students’ feedback, and that showed up in a bunch of student evaluations at the end of the term.

Perkins, Mills and Heard are generous in their praise for Himelein and credit her with much of the center’s success. But Himelein offers a different explanation for the strong participation in the program she directs.

“I give all the credit to the faculty wanting to learn how to be better teachers,” she said. “I am so highly impressed with my colleagues and how their involvement in CTL programs demonstrates their commitment to teaching.”