Team-teaching offers increased expertise

Photo Illustration by Brennan Caughron

Photo Illustration by Brennan Caughron

By Marie Wilson

Five times during her college career, Marsha Sorenson, senior in LAS, has taken courses that are team-taught by multiple instructors, causing her to adjust to different lecturing and testing styles mid-semester.

“The first time, I didn’t like it because you get used to one teaching style and exam writing style and then halfway through the semester, you have to get used to another,” Sorenson said.

Now a veteran of several team-taught courses, Sorenson said she transitions more easily and understands that switching professors can lead to better expertise on the topics covered in a course.

Keeping up with research

While not offered in all departments, team-taught courses are common in scientific subjects and areas where new research is constantly developing, said Robert Wickesberg, professor of psychology.

    Sign up for our newsletter!

    For these topics, splitting teaching responsibilities among faculty members allows students to learn from the person with the most updated knowledge on a specific subject, Wickesberg said.

    Wickesberg is one of four professors who teach an introductory biological psychology course. He said this course has been team-taught for at least 20 years.

    The challenge of staying informed about a broad range of material is also one reason the department of Molecular and Cellular Biology team-teaches some of its introductory courses, said Melissa Michael, director of undergraduate studies.

    The department also divides teaching responsibilities for some of its 400 and 500 level courses aimed mainly at graduate students, Michael said.

    “Primary literature is at the heart of much advanced-level teaching,” she said. “That’s why having the most informed person is very important because no one faculty member can be an expert on everything.”

    Faculty members in the School of Architecture sometimes team up with professors who are experts in other topics, including urban planning and landscape architecture, said Art Kaha, associate director of undergraduate and administrative affairs.

    “Usually, it’s for a reason that relates to what we do in the real world … because architects work with people in a lot of other professions,” Kaha said.

    Planning for teamwork

    Team-teaching allows students to learn from experts, but it also requires more planning on the faculty members’ end.

    The extra hassle of getting professors to collaborate is the reason the Mechanical Science and Engineering department does not offer team-taught courses, said James Phillips, associate head for undergraduate programs.

    “It’s an administrative nightmare to assign more than one professor to a course and expect them to get along,” Phillips said.

    Wickesberg said he and his colleagues who teach the introductory biological psychology class generally work well together. They hold three meetings each academic year to plan and evaluate what will be covered in the course. The only problem these instructors often run into is the transition from one section to the next.

    Sometimes, a professor will run out of time to discuss everything in his lecture plans, leaving the person who follows him scrambling to cover important material before moving on to new topics, Wickesberg said.

    “Sometimes, the impression among the students is that the class is not quite as continuous as it should be,” he said.

    Easing the transition

    Sorenson, who is enrolled in Wickesberg’s course, said moving from one section to the next caused some difficulty, but it was eased by the fact that the exams were all written similarly.

    Michael said changes in testing are usually subtle because instructors for the same course rarely change the mode of the test.

    Professors seem to understand the difficulties students face in team-taught courses, and many times, they help out by posting study guides or practice exams to acclimate students to their style, Sorenson said.

    Michael said she has never received a complaint about the instruction format of any of the team-taught courses in the MCB core curriculum. She said some students may have difficulty with one professor or one style of exam writing, but these issues are no different within team-taught courses than they are among separate courses.

    Course coordinators also help students and faculty members make the transition from one section to another by providing continuity, Michael said. In psychology courses, this role is filled by teaching assistants.

    “We rely on the TA to tell us what went on in the other parts of the course … because hoping that the handshake will go well is difficult,” Wickesberg said.