SJR Column: Teaching Fellows Program, February 2018

A few weeks ago, a headline in the Chronicle of Higher Education, a widely respected weekly publication for college and university personnel, caught my eye. “What Makes a Good Teacher?” the headline read. The writer, himself a well-known author and professor of English, went on to describe key characteristics of teachers who (though not necessarily liked best) had the greatest impact on their students’ learning.

The list included several familiar observations about effective teachers: “They are professional without being aloof. They have a good sense of humor. They are demanding without being unkind. They seem to enjoy what they do. They are tremendously creative.”

The author closes the piece by acknowledging that some professors seem to be “born teachers” because they possess the above traits in abundance; but every professor can work to develop and enhance their own teaching expertise.

That’s exactly what the Teaching Fellows Program at UIS is all about! The program is the brain-child of Dr. Layne Morsch, a professor in the UIS Chemistry Department. Himself a distinguished teacher, Dr. Morsch was selected a few years ago by Apple (the world’s largest information technology company) as an Apple Distinguished Educator. ADEs are an elite group of professors and K-12 teachers from across the world who are pioneers using Apple technology to transform and improve teaching and learning.

With the support and encouragement of UIS Vice Chancellor and Provost Dennis Papini, Dr. Morsch has developed a professional development program that brings faculty together from across campus throughout the year to discuss educational psychology and research-based teaching practices, to experiment in their own courses and to share and learn with colleagues.

“When you do your doctorate, it’s not focused on teaching. It’s about the research,” says Dr. Morsch.

“The Teaching Fellows Program creates opportunities for faculty to engage together with high impact practices that can transform their teaching and improve student learning.”

One of this year’s Teaching Fellows is Dr. Tiffany Nielson, an Assistant Professor in the Human Development Counseling program. Tiffany, an Idaho native, completed her Ph.D. at Idaho State University and joined the UIS faculty three years ago. “I chose UIS because it is a teaching-focused university,” she says. “The Teaching Fellows Program has been a unique opportunity and perfect way to jump start my career.”

Dr. Nielson recently taught her students about fixed vs. growth mindset, a concept the Teaching Fellows had studied and discussed in a recent session.

“A fixed mindset means you believe your intelligence is set and cannot be changed while a growth mindset means you believe that, with effort and action, you have the capacity to grow,” says Dr. Nielson.

She was delighted when a struggling student told her she had been thinking about how adopting a growth mindset could help her to be more successful.

Dr. Carol Jessup, Associate Professor in Accountancy, is another faculty member who has embraced the Teaching Fellows Program. Carol is a Springfield native who earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from UIS before pursuing an accounting career and then completing her Ph.D. at St. Louis University and joining the faculty at her alma mater.

“To be part of the Teaching Fellows Program and get this exposure to effective teaching and learning strategies is exciting,” says Carol.

“I love the great books we’ve been reading and discussing.”

“The first thing that blew my mind was ‘interrupted forgetting’ (from Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning),” she continues. The concept explains that students learn and remember best not through cramming or dogged repetition but rather by spacing out study or practice in installments and allowing time to elapse between study sessions. “The takeaway for her students?” says Dr. Jessup: “It’s better if you study a little bit every day.”

The Teaching Fellows Program’s impact on student success at UIS might best be illustrated by Dr. Morsch who reflects: “Two of my students in the last week have told me the medical schools they’ve gotten admission into. That’s what I’m most excited to hear about – where my students are going and what they’ll be doing. Our graduates do amazing things!”

Susan J. Koch, Chancellor of University of Illinois at Springfield

Chancellor Susan J. Koch