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How attending an interdisciplinary college teaching conference immediately impacted my classroom practices

As a scientist and science education researcher, I never expected to find innovations and strategies for my classroom from diverse areas such as sociology, physical geography, education and community studies.  Now I realize, why look for teaching ideas practiced only within my discipline? Interdisciplinary college teaching conferences provide an opportunity to explore different ideas and apply them somewhere new.


While academia is traditionally partitioned into disciplines, research interests (for example, sustainability) are becoming increasingly interdisciplinary.  Additionally, the scholarship of teaching and learning has made great advancements in recent years.  The focus on educational outcomes and active learning techniques is taking center stage, and the advent of discipline-based educational societies has created a number of supportive, collaborative communities within the sciences. However, cross-talk often appears limited.  Beyond the organized societies and learning communities on campus, how often do we “talk shop” with faculty outside of our area?


As a participant in Miami University’s New Faculty Teaching Enhancement Program, I had just that opportunity, talking all semester with faculty across various disciplines.  Even casual conversations inspired me with new teaching strategies and innovations. Through the teaching program, I gained registration to attend the Lilly Conference.  This conference had a profound and immediate impact on my teaching practices, perhaps more so than even a discipline-based education conference would.


Here are some examples of insights from other disciplines:


From the writing and languages faculty:

Science students write—whether research papers, lab reports, or open response questions, they express their thoughts through writing.  I attended talks about academic writing by faculty from literature and writing departments, which focused on how to create engaging writing assignments and how to provide worthwhile, realistic feedback.  Going beyond the regurgitation of information, the writing faculty provided insights on creative ways to inspire students to write and improve their writing.  These talks, directly or indirectly, discussed the cognitive demands of writing.  Basically, this encourages students to try out non-traditional, engaging writing styles and provide real-world feedback on their products.  Overall, who would be better to help improve science students’ writing than writing faculty presenting their best practices?  These techniques are helping me to transform writing assignments from classroom learning experiences into professional development opportunities.


From education and community studies faculty:

How do you teach inquiry?  How do you teach an experience?  Experts in teaching future educators and practitioners showed insights on the processes used to engage students in their disciplines.  These talks about science teacher education and field experience classes gave theoretical background and practical classroom activities.  One key lesson, for example, was helping students observe and ask questions of the world around them.  Now, I have more ways to spark students’ interest and help them understand the process of inquiry.  These ideas are translating well especially to community engagement lessons.  Questioning, active listening, and self-reflection follow many of the structured ideas of field experience classes in other disciplines.


The process of reflecting on teaching:

Attending a conference towards the end of the semester made reflecting on the teaching process particularly relevant.  Presenters from sociology and physical geography discussed strategies for reflecting on a course and revising it for next time.  Focusing on specific reflective tasks at different time scales for reflection (daily, unit, and end-of-course), provide unique looks at how to improve the process of teaching and learning.  I already knew that I should actually be writing down my thoughts on what to modify or improve for next time.  Going far beyond this, I now have several concrete plans for collecting anecdotal data on what worked and what didn’t for next time.  These plans focus on my reflections and my students’ observations at specific points during the semester.  These points center on key concepts and important stages in the course sequence.  Building a more focused structure within my reflection is already facilitating the upcoming course revision timeline.  With these plans, I am creating action items which I hope will improve both my teaching and my students’ learning.


Online education:

As more university-level education moves to the online environment, teaching and learning strategies that can be adapted for or used in online classrooms become increasingly important.  Talks about experiential online learning and discussions pondered such nuances as student-generated content, the discussion timeline, and expectations.  These talks explored the cognitive demands for students creating materials and taking on an instruction-like role in the dialogue.  The perspectives from online education in other areas (here, pharmacy and education) showed the common ground amongst our fields.  Regardless of content area, we are seeking to implement activities that help our students develop competencies and skills.  In this case, the delivery method – online – united individuals representing vastly different disciplines.


Generalizable lessons from the sciences:

While the majority of the talks I attended were from faculty from other fields, broadly applicable talks from the sciences were also represented. For example, one discussed how to adopt a process for helping students read scientific literature.  Importantly, reading scientific literature is a skill that can be developed with practice.  Unfortunately for most researchers, our practice was so long ago that we’ve forgotten what it’s like.  Another group, representing the disciplines of geology, molecular biology, and botany, talked about students’ metacognition and behavioral science implications.  These talks inspired ideas, not based on disciplinary content, but instead on widely applicable competencies and skills that unite different fields of study.


Considering teaching strategies and practices from other fields has inspired changes that I’m implementing this semester in the classroom.  In general, adopting teaching strategies from different disciplines may facilitate more rapid innovation in the classroom.  Open communication drives innovation in departments on every part of a campus.  Thinking outside of your own subdiscipline – or even field – through participation in an interdisciplinary university teaching conference might inspire new ideas in educational research or teaching! Research conferences and discipline-based education conferences are advantageous choices for research updates, developing connections, and working with collaborators.  College teaching conferences, however, provide vastly different perspectives and even potential collaborators across disciplines.  Perhaps this conference was timed well for me to adopt new teaching ideas.  I can’t say for sure.  What I know is that I have another entry on my conference attendance wish-list.  While I probably won’t be implementing every idea I heard, I have ambitious plans to use other disciplines’ techniques in my classes for years to come.



Featured image: Pixabay, CC0.


Anson, C.  (2017).  Loosening the grip on academic writing:  a learning-centered approach.  Original Lilly Conference on College Teaching.

Ballantine, J; A Jolly-Ballantine.  (2017).  Teaching that course again?  Course reflection and the process of revision.  Original Lilly Conference on College Teaching.

Beckett, K.  (2017).  Fulfilling the purpose of online discussions.  Original Lilly Conference on College Teaching.

Falk, A.  (2017).  Best practices in teaching field experience classes.  Original Lilly Conference on College Teaching.

Isaacs, AN; SA Nisly; AM Walton.  (2017).  Student-generated e-Learning for experiential education.  Original Lilly Conference on College Teaching.

Nuhfer, EB; R Watson; K Nicholas Moon.  (2017).  Confirming the value of students’ metacognitive self-assessments:  being “unskilled and unaware of it” is unlikely.  Original Lilly Conference on College Teaching.

Parker, K; A Lenhart; K Moore.  (2011).  The digital revolution and higher education: College presidents, public differ on value of online learning.  Pew Internet & American Life Project.

Sander, C.  (2017).  Phenomenon-based science instruction:  scientifically thinking about the physical world.  Original Lilly Conference on College Teaching.

Schoolman, ED; JS Guest; KF Bush; AR Bell.  (2012).  How interdisciplinary is sustainability research? Analyzing the structure of an emerging scientific field.  Sustainability Science7(1), 67-80.

Singleton, M.  (2017).  Out with the old:  adopting collective feedback in the online technical writing classroom.  Original Lilly Conference on College Teaching.

Thomas, J.  (2017).  A strategic and multi-level approach for teaching undergraduates how to read primary literature in the sciences.  Original Lilly Conference on College Teaching.

Wieman, CE.  (2014).  Large-scale comparison of science teaching methods sends clear message.  Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences111(23), 8319-8320.


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