Laura E. Smith

Associate Professor of Art History, Michigan State University

Reflections on the Adams Academy Fellowship Experience 2017-18

In May of 2017, I was awarded a Walter and Pauline Adams Academy for Instructional Excellence and Innovation Fellowship. This is one of the few opportunities I’ve found for non-tenure stream faculty to receive reward and recognition for their teaching. Since fall 2009, I have developed and taught 12 original courses, including two Integrative Arts and Humanities courses, and two core curriculum courses in conjunction with the university’s “Shaping the Future Initiative.”  Most recently, in response to my colleagues’ requests, I created a new Latin American Arts course (Fall 2017) and an online History of Photography course to be launched in the summer of 2018.  Last spring, I decided it was time to seek formal affirmation of my achievements.

The program brings together a cross-disciplinary group of faculty and academic staff for a year-long study of the literature on effective university teaching and learning practices. We met monthly beginning in September; our final group meeting was in April. It was a welcome break from the daily tasks of teaching, and to engage with other professionals about our concerns, successes, and failures in effecting educational excellence.  I very much appreciated the chance to listen to and be inspired by these very dedicated, self-conscious, and experienced colleagues.  Besides gaining resources for my professional development, I felt I established an important community of support that I can call upon in the future.

Some of the highlights of our discussions are as follows:

  1. online teaching portfolios – One major outcome for the program was to develop a professional website that provided information on who we are as teachers and researchers, as well as highlighted some of our career achievements. Out of our discussions and study of various types of academic websites, we all made individual decisions about what we wanted in terms of aesthetics, content and the organization of our materials. I added a new teaching component to my website, which had previously just featured my research activities. I’m looking forward to using this part of the website to promote some of my favorite teaching moments and lessons.
  2. recognizing and accommodating diversity in teaching methods and learning outcomes – There is no one perfect model for teaching or learning, rather the literature largely supports recognition and accommodation of students’ diverse learning goals. Some students are only interested in figuring out how to get the right answers to get the desired grade. To encourage students who may be less motivated to take risks and become more invested in the learning process, the literature presents several options.  Teachers might offer a choice of tasks so students can choose some with which they feel more interested or comfortable.  Teachers can create more low stakes assignments where students are rewarded for taking risks, not just getting the answers right.  Teachers can offer credit for student progress in assignments or exams, not just reaching preset criterion.  Teachers can set up learning communities to help everyone make progress.  Collaboration, rather than competition, as a course goal can be incorporated into assignments.

Reference: Svinicki, M.D. (2005). Student Goal Orientation, Motivation, and Learning. IDEA Paper, 41.

  1. recognizing and confronting teaching biases that may inhibit learning – In order to promote a classroom environment where issues of bias and oppression can be safely discussed, the teacher might make a statement at the beginning of the semester to encourage students to bring any concerns to him/her. Students might also collaborate on a class charter or rules to establish guidelines for respectful discussions or debates, and the assurance of the classroom as a safe place.  Teachers might also introduce his/her activities where they have helped students from underrepresented backgrounds to succeed, and the ways they’ve demonstrated a commitment to achieving equity and enhancing diversity.  Beginning of semester surveys on students’ learning preferences can provide insights into the best teaching methods to use for that particular group of students.  Teachers should be familiar with Universal Design for Learning Guidelines to maximize opportunities for students with physical or emotional learning challenges.  (

Reference: Tonya Golash-Boza, “Writing an Effective Diversity Statement,” Inside Higher Ed, June 10, 2016

  1. Backwards Instructional Design – This method of designing course content starts with the end results of what is defined in learning goals/outcomes. From there, curriculum and assessments are derived. In beginning with clear statements about what we want students to know, understand, and do by the end of the semester, we can more appropriately design content, assessments, and assignments. A learner centered approach to course design is not just focused on understanding and remembering foundational knowledge.  This approach encourages active and interactive learning, as well as the application and integration of knowledge, skills, and thinking to solve problems.  It builds skills in learning how to learn about oneself and others.  It creates opportunities for students to conduct self-assessments, and provides clear and frequent feedback on the difference between poor, acceptable, and exceptional work.

References: Wiggins, G. & McTighe, J. (1998).  “What is Backward Design?” and “Putting it all together:  A                  design template.” Understanding by Design.

Fink, D.  (March 2005).  “Integrated Course Design.”

  1. Peer Review of Higher Education Teaching – There is too much reliance by university administrators on poorly constructed and biased student surveys to evaluate teaching performance. Additionally, faculty aren’t properly trained  on how to offer constructive teaching feedback. Often, there is no systematic teaching evaluation and training at the higher education level, and few teaching awards are not dependent upon student surveys.  Teaching evaluations need to be multi-dimensional in approach, not just reliant on student surveys. Departments can decide whether to set clear guidelines for evaluating teaching performance, or whether to allow teachers to self-evaluate in conversation with peers and supervisors.  Those engaged in the observation or peer review can decide what criteria to assess, rather than imposing expectations from a set list of criteria.  Most of the literature insists that critique and teaching feedback is critical to one’s growth, self-development, and good teaching.  Any faculty who is not able to be self-critical will never be a good teacher.  We teach students how to be critical, why should faculty be exempt?  My own classroom observations have been very positive experiences and I have considered them essential to my professional development.  In preparation for the most recent observation, my partner and I met to discuss the issues on which we wanted feedback. After the observations, we met to provide each other with what we learned and what ideas we might have for addressing the issues.  It was a quite informative and painless process.

References: Chism, N. V. N. (1999). Peer Review of Teaching. A Sourcebook. Anker Publishing Company, Inc.,            176 Ballville Road, PO Box 249, Bolton, MA 01740-0249.

Jill Cosh (1998) Peer Observation in Higher Education ‐‐ A Reflective Approach, Innovations in Education & Training International, 35:2, 171-176, DOI: 10.1080/1355800980350211 To link to this article:

  1. Active Learning – Most of the literature supports the idea that active learning promotes the recall of information and course achievement. While I have been incorporating active learning in my teaching for many years, I tried some new methods based on student feedback in one of my classes this semester. One activity I incorporated into lectures, was to stop at least once or twice an hour to have students clarify their notes or summarize the main ideas. I then asked for volunteers to read their short statements so the class could then come to some collaboratively-generated conclusions about lecture concepts.  I also experimented with allowing students to write their own test questions to better prepare them to relate key terms to learning outcomes.  Students had been merely memorizing definitions. By writing their own questions, they not only learned how to study in terms of applying terms to learning outcomes, they also developed writing skills.  They followed guidelines for writing good multiple choice questions.  Lastly, I designed a group assignment to promote collaboration as a learning outcome.  They were given professional and pedagogical rationale for working as a team, and will conduct peer evaluations as part of the assignment.

References: Cynthia Brame, “Active Learning”

Michael Prince, “Does Active Learning Work?”, J. Engr. Education 93(3), 2004.