Open classrooms encourage faculty to exchange pedagogy

The recently developed Open Classroom Initiative (OCI), co-created by faculty members Dave Richardson, professor of chemistry, and Janneke van de Stadt, chair of German and Russian and associate professor of Russian, provides Williams faculty with the opportunity to observe classes with the goal of fostering effective teaching skills.

The program, which went into full effect this semester, seeks “to give faculty members at all levels the ability to learn from each other by visiting each other’s classrooms,” according to Richardson. Any faculty member may participate in the program and observe any class regardless of experience.

“[OCI] came from the question of how faculty can learn about teaching from one another in the best ways,” Dean Bolton said. “Of course, you can talk to one another about [the best teaching practices], but that’s not at all the same as experiencing it. It came from the realization that a lot of people were really interested in improving their own teaching by watching other experienced teachers in a variety of ways. That was something they came up with in that context.”

The program allows interested faculty members to view a web page on GLOW and choose available courses taught by professors who have volunteered to participate. The list includes information regarding the type of classes offered. Classes are categorized under different kinds of pedagogical settings, such as lectures, seminars, tutorials and field trips. The number of slots available for faculty members at a given class time is also listed, as a lecture would allow for more visiting professors than a seminar.

“The open classroom idea basically removes the requirement that people have to seek each other out for permission [to attend another professor’s class],” Richardson said, as well as the notion that a professor “must commit to having a conversation with someone who has visited.” Essentially, the program clears away uncertainty regarding a specific professor’s policy for classroom visits. This streamlines a process by which a faculty member can simply drop in and leave afterward.

Richardson added that it is still hoped that “there will be a discussion between the visitor and what we call the donor faculty member after the visit … so that some learning about pedagogy will take place.” He maintained that it is not required to do so.

Prior to the implementation of the program, Richardson noted faculty “needed to make a face-to-face request” to the professor teaching the class and that this may have been an uncomfortable experience for younger professors. Richardson said the program aims “to make it relatively painless for the visiting faculty member to acquire permission to visit the class” and to eliminate any reservations faculty may have about observing a class.

Richardson explained that the idea for the program stemmed from a similar endeavor called the “First Three” program, where faculty in their first three years of professorship at the College have the ability to observe classes. “Not only did beginning faculty find it useful, but it became clear that any [faculty member] could learn from each other,” Richardson said.

Richardson is hopeful that the OCI “will have a really large effect on improving the quality of teaching … particularly if a faculty member is anticipating teaching a course that they have never taught before.” He emphasized the need for faculty to volunteer to allow their classes to be observed as well as for participation in the program across the faculty.

Feedback for the program thus far is positive. The program fits well into the educational value of the College, which encompasses the idea that professors come here because they love teaching. With the aid of the OCI, the quality of the faculty seems poised to increase even further.