significant conversations

The role of informal conversations in developing university teaching

This blog posts consists of some notes on a paper titled “The role of informal conversations in developing university teaching?” by Kate Thomson and Keith Trigwell (full reference at end). It ends with reflections from my educational developer perspective. My interest in this topic is tied to a research collaboration with Gary Poole and Roselynn Verwoord.

Conversation

Thomson and Trigwell’s paper describes how informal “corridor” conversations contribute to the teaching-professional growth of academics. This article is based on a qualitative study of 24 mid-career academics from across six different departments at a research-intensive university in Australia.

Role of informal conversations

The full paper is worth reading, but here I relay only the authors’ findings on the role of conversations. As described in the paper, the roles were:

  1. “To manage their teaching context (i.e. learning about processes and systems such as library reserves)
  2. To improve their teaching and student learning
  3. To reassure themselves about their teaching practice
  4. To vent about teaching-related issues
  5. To transform their thinking and practice of teaching” (Thomson & Trigwell, 2016, p.4)

These functions often overlapped with one another. The “manage” role was cited most often by participants, while the “transform” one appeared least often (Figure 2 in the article, presents a nice visual image of the distribution).

Value of informal conversations

  1. Allow university teachers to deal with challenges related to their teaching, in an manner that is both private and confidential.
  2. Enable instructors to get reassurance from colleagues about specific teaching issues, and in doing so, promote mutual learning.
  3. Allow instructors to take a collaborative approach to managing their teaching; this “may mean that issues are resolved quickly and appropriately without academics having to wait for formal opportunities for dialogue” (p.9).

Quick reflections from my educational developer’s perspective: Implications for promoting instructional growth through informal conversations

The authors found that, in some cases, academics took a “problem-solving” approach, rather than a transformative one, because of time constraints. As an educational developer, I have limited control over people’s time. However, when I engage in consulting conversations with faculty members, I can remind myself of the transformative aim if/when I slip into problem-solving mode.

Experienced instructors need support, in particular as they try out new-to-them approaches. I frequently work with experienced instructors and have found this to be true. When designing our teaching and learning centre’s programming, we need to keep this in mind and make sure that sessions are geared, not only at new instructors, but also fulfill the needs of experienced instructors.

As I design professional growth opportunities, I will want to build in opportunities for “reassurance”. Thomson and Trigwell noted that many formal opportunities aim to improve teaching and by-pass the reassurance aspect.

Autonomy with respect to who to talk with, focus, timing, location, and durations of conversations, repeatedly showed up as an important element for fostering conversations in this study. The authors concluded that “It may be this level of autonomy that contributes to the perception of conversations as an effective and efficient way for mid-career academics to learn about teaching” (p.9). As an educational developer, I will continue to encourage academics to speak to other trusted colleagues.

Here is what I’m left with, because it relates directly to one of our research questions: Are there relationships among perceived similarity, value of interactions, and impact of the network on one’s teaching and research on teaching?. Put otherwise: do academics seek out others who they perceive as “similar” to them when they want to engage in conversations? And, do they perceive that conversations with people who share similar beliefs (about teaching and learning) are more valuable?Since “reassurance” figured very prominently in Thomson & Trigwell’s findings, I presume that people do seek out others that are similar to them in their beliefs about teaching and learning. When interacting most often with individuals who share similar beliefs, is the potential for growth and transformation limited? I presume it may be (Roxa and Martenssen, 2009, touch on this too).

“… it is through challenging implicit assumptions and questioning taken-for-granted practices that professional learning can lead to changes in practice.”(Webster-Wright, 2009 p.703)

Thus, the purpose for engaging in the conversation matters. For reassurance, an instructor may seek out like-minded individuals. If they are wanting to growth professionally as a teacher, they may benefit from reaching out to people with diverse approaches to teaching.

You can read my previous posts on significant networks and significant conversations, here.  For resources from an ISSoTL (2016) session on the topic, see the Resources section of this site.

References:

Thomson, K.E. & Trigwell, K.R. (2016): The role of informal conversations in developing university teaching?, Studies in Higher Education, DOI:10.1080/03075079.2016.1265498

Webster-Wright, A. (2009). Reframing professional development through understanding authentic professional learning. Review of educational research, 79(2), 702-739.

Photo credit: “Conversation” by fte leaders https: //flic.kr/p/egbSUD

Significant conversations

Come Together

As I prepare for a pre-conference workshop and conference workshop at the International Society for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning 2016, I am reading and blogging on how university instructors learn about teaching through personal networks (my four previous posts on the topic can be found here). The ISSoTL workshops are part of a research project I am collaborating on with Gary Poole and Roselynn Verwoord.

Today’s post looks at “significant conversations” and consists of my notes from a paper by Roxå and Mårtensson, two lovely people and terrific scholars I had the pleasure of meeting in 2008.

Reference: Roxå, T. & Mårtensson, K. (2009). Significant conversations and significant networks: Exploring the backstage of the teaching arena. Studies in Higher Education, 34(5), 547-559.

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This paper presents results from a study in which Roxå & Mårtensson surveyed 109 university instructors to learn more about their teaching and learning conversation partners. Participants were from the following disciplines: engineering studies, social sciences, humanities.

Participants responded to these questions:

  1. With how many people do you have engaging conversations about teaching and learning?
  2. Where are these conversational partners found?
  3. What characterizes your conversations? (Please describe them.)
  4. Do you consider your local professional culture to be supportive or nonsupportive of such conversations about teaching and learning? (this question was only included in the later questionnaires)

The researchers drew on Handal’s (1999) concept of critical friends to “focus the respondents on individuals with whom they had sincere and serious discussions about teaching and learning” (p.550).

Summary of results

With how many people do you have engaging conversations about teaching and learning?

  • 83% of respondents had up to 10 conversational partners (there were differences among the disciplines)
  • Roxå & Mårtensson found that “university teachers rely on a limited number of individuals to test ideas or solve problems related to teaching and learning” (p.556)

Where are these conversational partners found?

The majority of participants discussed teaching with colleagues within their own discipline.  Conversational partners, however, were located within or outside the individual’s institution and discipline, and therefore the authors concluded that “significant networks” have no boundaries surrounding them.

What characterizes your conversations?

Private conversations:  

  • conversations rarely took place in formal meetings (they took place “backstage”1)
  • though many were backstage, the conversations were not isolated from the surrounding culture

Trustful conversations:  

  • conversations were about a range of topics (intellectual and emotional)
  • there was mutual trust among partners and partners often shared similar interests and values
  • at times, the conversations did not align with the official discourse within the participant’s culture/context

Intellectually intriguing conversations:  

  • conversations dealt with important disciplinary content and challenges about how to support student learning
  • participants used these conversations to make sense of experiences, deal with problems, and plan/evaluate actions.
  • Roxå & Mårtensson found that most participants were not drawing on pedagogical literature and theory as they were having these conversations; nor were they making public the results of their inquiry. Rather, they were using “personal theories” (p.556)

“Do you consider your local professional culture to be supportive or non-supportive of such conversations about teaching and learning” (this question was posed to only 50 of the participants)

  • There is a clear link between how encouraging a culture is and number of conversational partners (i.e., in a supportive culture, individuals have more conversational partners)
Implications

Significant conversations have the potential to help university teachers see things through someone else’s perspective. They may shape and/or expand an individual’s identity as teachers.

In the words of the authors: It is likely that these conversations open up the possibility of constructing and maintaining–and perhaps partly changing–an understanding about the realities of teaching.” (p.555)

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Footnote 1: Erving Goffman’s wrote about the concept of “front stage” and “back stage” behaviors in his book The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1959). Goffman proposes that we have two different modes of presenting our selves: one when we are ‘on’ for others (front stage) and another when we let down our guard (back stage). For a succinct introduction to these concepts, see here at “Everyday Sociology“. 

University instructors’ key learning connections

PATOLA CONNECTION

“Data revealed that participants’ learning networks were based around both physically and emotionally close ties, which appeared the most homphilious with respect to occupation”(p.67)

As I prepare for a pre-conference workshop and conference workshop at the International Society for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning 2016, I am reading about how university instructors learn about teaching through personal networks (sometimes referred to as “significant networks” or “social networks”). This work draws on Social Network Theory and is part of a research project I am collaborating on with Gary Poole and Roselynn Verwoord.

Today’s post is a summary of findings from the following paper:
Pataraia, N., Margaryan, A., Falconer, I., Littlejohn, A., & Falconer, J. (2013). Discovering academics’ key learning connections: An ego-centric network approach to analysing learning about teaching. Journal of Workplace Learning, 26(1), 56-72.

Below is a summary of the findings, as presented in the paper. Participants were 37 academics from UK-based universities.

The form of participants’ personal learning networks relating to teaching  
  • The highest percentage of connections that academics considered key to their learning and teaching were within their department and institution (56%).
  • Participants used their network’s expertise, information, and guidance, to carry out work-related tasks and  solve teaching-related problems. They reached out to people they perceived as being most helpful for addressing a given challenge/situation.
  • The majority of participants emphasized that a good personal relationship was critical for establishing and maintaining learning connections.
  • Most academics’ learning networks are comprised largely of other academics.
Homophily evident in participants’ networks relating to teaching
  • In this study, homophily was not seen in terms of gender or experience level but it was seen in the type of profession. That is, academics’ networks were comprised mainly of other academics.
  • Academics with more than 11 years of experience had colleagues of all ranks in their networks; however early- and mid- career academics mainly had colleagues who were at a higher rank than them (the authors refer to this as “hierarchical levels”).
Physical proximity
  • Participants’ networks are largely made up of people who are physically proximate and within the organization.
Length of time known
  • Academics’ networks were comprised of colleagues that individuals had known for periods of time ranging from short to long. As can be expected, the most experienced academics had the most diversity in their network with respect to the length of time they had known their colleagues.
  • Academics interacted most often with strong-tie connections than with weak-tie connections. (For a brief introduction to the concept of strong and weak ties, see here).
Discussion section of paper – More take-aways

“Data revealed that participants’ learning networks were based around both physically and emotionally close ties, which appeared the most homphilious with respect to occupation” (p.67)
This suggests that creation of learning networks and maintenance is aided by:
– Physical proximity
– The strength of tie in terms of friendship
– Homophily of occupation

Participants (often) shared more than one type of relationship with their contacts (i.e., individuals in the network were both a professional acquaintance and friend).

“Despite the widespread popularisation of technologies, participants tended to favour face-to-face encounters for their learning, which occurred largely with their institutional colleagues.” (p.67)

Academics’ networks are diverse in terms of hierarchical position (compared to self) and length of time they had known their contacts. This type of diversity should be favourable for learning new teaching practices.

“Given that heterogeneity in the network structure was more visible among experienced participants, we may hypothesise that their networks stand a better chance of promoting serendipitous learning and innovation.” p.68

Recommendations for educational developers
  • Help academics recognize value/potential of personal networks for learning about teaching
  • Teach networking skills and raise awareness about importance of networks.
  • Provide more opportunities for networking.

Who do you talk to about your teaching?

100/64: Side conversation

 

As I prepare for a pre-conference workshop and conference workshop at the International Society for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning 2016, I am reading about how university instructors learn about teaching through personal networks (sometimes referred to as “significant networks” or “social networks”). This work draws on Social Network Theory and is part of a research project I am collaborating on with Gary Poole and Roselynn Verwoord.

Today’s post is a summary of findings from the following paper:

Pataraia, N., Falconer, I., Margaryan, A., Littlejohn, A., & Fincher, S. (2014). ‘Who do you talk to about your teaching?’: Networking activities among university teachers. Frontline Learning Research, 2(2), 4-14.

Pataraia et al. (2014) conducted research into how academics learn about teaching and grow professionally as university instructors through their personal networks. They analysed written transcripts (14) and interviews (11) from academics in various disciplines. They had four main research questions:

  1. Who do academics talk to about their teaching?
  2. What are the main themes of academics’ conversations about teaching?
  3. With what frequency and where do academics’ conversations take place?
  4. What factors motivate academics to network and what value do they
  5. perceive in their personal networks?

I have summarized their main findings below.

Q1: Who do academics talk to about their teaching?

For most participants in this study, the majority of significant ties were with others from the same discipline, both within the department or external to the institution.

Participants most often had informal conversations about teaching with colleagues in their respective departments. Common interests (e.g., joint projects/goals/problems and mutual commitments, such as being part of the same committee) encouraged conversations about teaching. Trust among individuals and good personal relations also played an important role in fostering the exchange of ideas about teaching.

Q2: What are the main themes of academics’ conversations about teaching?

(Since these results are not as directly relevant to our research project, I am not reporting on Pataraia et al.’s findings here).

Q3: With what frequency and where do academics’ conversations take place?

The frequency with which conversations took place varied between weekly to several times a term.  Conversations took place mostly on an ad-hoc basis and most frequently with colleagues with whom they shared a teaching responsibility (i.e., co-teaching the same course, teaching different offerings of the same course, or supervising someone’s teaching). These interactions were “mainly face-to-face, spontaneous, casual in nature, and took place in common rooms or corridors” (p.11).

Q4: What factors motivate academics to network and what value do they perceive in their personal networks?

Pataraia et al.’s provide a good summary to this question in Table 6. I have reproduced it below.

Table 6: Motivation for networking and the benefits obtained through personal networks

Motivation for networking Benefits obtained through networks
Access to new teaching ideas Good personal relationships
Access to disciplinary knowledge Professional guidance
Access to new learning opportunities Prompt feedback
Access to diverse resources Solidarity and the sense of community
Access to professional and emotional support Confidence

 

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The notes below from the conclusion section of the paper are also of particular interest to the research we are conducting:

“Despite the fact that personal networks relating to teaching are valued by academics, in most cases these are strongly localised. There is little evidence of personal networks extending beyond immediate (face to-face) contacts. Even if other means were utilized to contact external colleagues, the ties were weaker, the intensity of interactions less frequent, the content of conversations less comprehensive, and generally considered less significant” (p.13).

Pataraia et al. offer two possible interpretations for the fact that networks are largely localized:

  1. Teaching practice is highly dependent on local context and therefore meaningful interactions take place with others who understand the local context.
  2. Face-to-face contact may be the most effective means for sharing teaching practices and receiving prompt feedback, hence interactions are with those who are geographically close.

The local focus implies densely connected networks where the majority of members know each other considerably well. The possible downside of this is that academics are getting less exposure to radically different ideas because the diversity of the network is limited.

“Academics’ connections did not appear time or context specific, since respondents maintained contact both with current colleagues and with those from previous institutions.” (p.14)

“…there was a wide diversity in intensity of networking relations, but only within the department interactions appeared regular in nature.” (p.14)

And if you’ve made it this far in the post, this statement sums it all up very nicely:

“Given that personal networks offered new teaching ideas, learning opportunities, diverse resources, and also shaped academics’ perceptions about teaching, it can be presumed that personal networks play an influential role in academics’ professional development.”  (p.14)

 

Reference:

Pataraia, N., Falconer, I., Margaryan, A., Littlejohn, A., & Fincher, S. (2014). ‘Who do you talk to about your teaching?’: Networking activities among university teachers. Frontline Learning Research, 2(2), 4-14.

Photo credit: Loren Kerns, “100/64: Side Conversation” https ://flic.kr/p/qcfZw7

Social network theory: A brief introduction

Color Knot
In the upcoming weeks, as I prepare for a pre-conference workshop and conference workshop at the International Society for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning 2016, I will be writing  posts related to how university instructors learn about teaching through personal networks ( sometimes referred to as “significant networks” or “social networks”). This work draws on Social Network Theory.

Today’s post is a brief introduction to Social Network Theory.

Social network theory: A brief introduction

A network consists of a set of relationships (Kadushin, 2004).  Networks are made up of the actors (referred to as “nodes”) and the relationships (or “ties”) between those actors (Pataraia, Falconer, Margaryan, Littlejohn, & Fincher, 2014) .

Social Network Theory is the study of how people, organizations or groups interact with others inside their network (Claywell, 2016). It describes the structure and properties of the interactional links between the individuals that comprise a social network (Pataraia, Margaryan, Falconer, Littlejohn & Falconer, 2013). This theory can be applied to small groups as well as those that are global (Kadushin, 2004) and can be used to describe various forms of interactions. Interactions may include the exchange of advice, knowledge, materials, and resources (Pataraia et al., 2013).

There are three types of social networks:

  1. Ego-centric networks. These are connected with a single node or individual. For example, all your followers on Twitter (you are the node) or everyone who does business at Store X (Store X is the node).
  2. Socio-centric networks. These are closed networks by default. For example, all the students in a classroom or employees within an organization.
  3. Open-system networks. These networks have ill-defined boundaries. Examples include: the ‘middle-class’ in Canada, the influencers of a particular decision, or the adopters of a particular approach.

(Claywell, 2016; Kadushin, 2004).

Social scientists are interested in the interactions between members of a network.  In the context of the SoTL research that Gary Poole, Roselynn Verwoord and I are conducting, we seek information about how academics use their networks to learn about university teaching.

 

References:

Claywell, C. (2016). What is social network theory? Retrieved from http://socialnetworking.lovetoknow.com/What_is_Social_Network_Theory

Kadushin, C. (2004). Introduction to social network theory. Chapter 2: Some basic network concepts and properties. Retrieved from www.cin.ufpe.br/~rbcp/taia/Kadushin_Concepts.pdf

Pataraia, N., Falconer, I., Margaryan, A., Littlejohn, A., & Fincher, S. (2014). ‘Who do you talk to about your teaching?’: Networking activities among university teachers. Frontline Learning Research, 2(2), 4-14.

Pataraia, N., Margaryan, A., Falconer, I., Littlejohn, A., & Falconer, J. (2013). Discovering academics’ key learning connections: An ego-centric network approach to analysing learning about teaching. Journal of Workplace Learning, 26(1), 56-72.