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November 20, 2008

Teaching Excellence Fair: Students as teachers

Pitt’s eighth annual Teaching Excellence Fair, held Nov. 5, included presentations from winners of 2007-08 innovation in education grants and conversations on teaching methods and techniques with faculty, as well as workshops and technology demonstrations led by Center for Instructional Development and Distance Education (CIDDE) staff. The event was sponsored by the Provost’s Advisory Council on Instructional Excellence and coordinated by CIDDE.

This year, many of the sessions were recorded in webcast form. Those webcasts are posted online at

About 40 School of Arts and Sciences undergraduates are discovering how the classroom looks from the other side of the podium as participants in the Office of Experiential Learning’s First Experiences in Teaching program.

Four of them offered their insights as part of a presentation by OEL director Peggy Heely at last week’s Teaching Excellence Fair.

Heely said the program, launched in 2005 as a companion to OEL’s First Experiences in Research program for undergraduates, gives students an opportunity to discover whether they would enjoy a career in teaching. The experience can benefit students with other career paths as well, because some teaching is involved in any profession, Heely said.

For now, the program is offered in fall, although Heely said there are plans to expand it to accommodate courses that aren’t available during the fall term.

Students in the program aren’t involved in regularly conducting class sessions or grading assignments, but they undertake a project under the mentorship of a faculty member, either for credit or as a federal work-study job assignment.

They also meet as a group every other week. “A lot of projects involve interaction with small groups, so we focus one of our cohort sessions totally on how do you facilitate discussion and small-group interaction,” Heely said. Among the other sessions are ones covering the use of technology, and how research informs teaching practice.

Participants are familiarized with the same three-part paradigm presented to new faculty: a triangle that illustrates the interaction among goals and objectives, learning strategies, and outcomes and assessment.

Since the program’s inception in 2005, 67 percent of the 72 classes with First Experiences in Teaching participants have been in the humanities with 18 percent in natural sciences and 15 percent in social sciences — the opposite of the First Experiences in Research program in which 58 percent of the experiences are in natural sciences, 28 percent in the humanities and 22 percent in social sciences.

Feedback from faculty last year indicated overwhelmingly that the students exceeded their expectations and that they would be willing to participate again, Heely said. This year, 35 faculty are mentoring 41 students through the program.

Faculty seeking to mentor a First Experiences in Teaching participant in their classroom can identify a student among those who have completed the class successfully or who have a background that makes them knowledgeable about the course material. Professors can contact the students themselves or have OEL’s data team provide a list of prospects for professors to consider interviewing.

Students have pursued a wide range of projects through the program and gained numerous insights.

Deirdre Ruscitti worked with English professor Paul Bové in his Great Books class, lecturing the class on “The Histories” by Herodotus. Among the things she learned was how to ask better questions to facilitate classroom discussion, she said.

Terence Sperringer is working with computer science professor Alexandros Labrinidis in a project-based class on Web 2.0. Sperringer works primarily with lab projects and is drawn to the informal non-lecture-based environment, which he enjoys. “It’s an excellent way to go about teaching a class,” he said.

Katelyn Litterer has been assisting in English professor Lois Williams’s introductory poetry writing class. For the past several years, Litterer has been researching how writing pedagogies influences composition. During this term, she has been talking with the professor and observing her methods. At the end of the term, she plans to review her field notes with Williams to provide the professor with an external view on her teaching as well as yield data for Litterer’s own research.

Nicholas Malaspina worked with anthropology professor Emily Fujita to adapt class material from a smaller discussion-based course to be used in a more lecture-oriented format.

Among the challenges he faced was recognizing the wide range of student work. Class materials needed to be tailored using a variety of methods to help ensure student success. “There’s no one way that will get the information across to every student,” he learned.

Malaspina said the program gave him a good first experience. “[Teaching] is ultimately what I’d like to do after leaving graduate school in the field. This is a great way to get into it in an introductory level,” he said.

—Kimberly K. Barlow

Filed under: Feature,Volume 41 Issue 7

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