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The Crimson White

Serving the campus of the University of Alabama since 1894

The Crimson White

Serving the campus of the University of Alabama since 1894

The Crimson White

When professors tag-team teaching, students benefit

The University of Alabama is known for its athletic teams, but that same coordination and cooperation necessary for sporting success can be harnessed in the classroom, as well. A variety of team-teaching techniques are employed by professors.

To assist with his research in Philosophy of Time, Scott Hestevold, chair of the philosophy department, audited one of physics professor Patrick LeClair’s Modern Physics classes. After sustained discussion outside of class, the two professors decided to teach a course together over the material where the disciplines overlap. They spent a summer planning the course, and in spring 2012, Physics and Metaphysics was born.

“In team-teaching with someone else, especially from another discipline, much more planning is involved because we have to coordinate what philosophers have to say with what physicists have to say about space, for example,” Hestevold said. “So, it takes some extensive planning to produce the structure for the course. We have to coordinate not only the structure of the course well ahead of time, but once the course is underway, we have to coordinate the exam schedule, the textbook assignments for the next class, and so on.”

Besides the extra planning required, courses that combine vastly different subjects require extra attention in other ways.

“If a team-taught course is cross-listed and the teachers are from radically different disciplines, like philosophy and physics, you will get students who are well-versed in physics and students who are well-versed in philosophy, but the philosophers may not know the physics and the physicists won’t know the philosophy,” Hestevold said. “So, the two instructors have to work very hard to make their individual disciplines accessible to the students from the other discipline. This is a special challenge.”

To make sure neither Hestevold nor LeClair got too technical for students of the opposite discipline to understand, each professor made sure to attend class when the other was teaching and raised his hand every time he got a little lost.

“Also, I think for anyone thinking about team-teaching, it is important to find someone you work well with, someone who has the same approach to testing, the same approach to how much assistance to give to students, the same sort of approach to class format. If approaches to pedagogy are too different, it’s going to be a very trying semester,” Hestevold said.

Luckily, this did not pose any problems for the two, Hestevold said.

“It turned out LeClair and I just saw eye-to-eye on class format, pedagogy, assessment – it was a breeze. We never had a single disagreement about any substantive matter regarding the course. We just absolutely waltzed together,” Hestevold said.

Other times, professors coordinate to guest lecture on topics in other classes related to their particular specialty. For instance, biology professor Kim Caldwell moonlights for several subjects in her husband Guy Caldwell’s Honors biology classes.

“I hope that many students benefited from the combined teaching experience. I have been doing this with my hubby for about 12 years. Each year a few students tell me directly that my lectures were useful and provided a different perspective to his class,” Kim Caldwell said.

Like Hestevold and LeClair, the Caldwells have had little difficulty in coordinating the strategy.

“In my specific example where I taught a small portion of his class, there was not any difficulty because there was a clear delineation of topics. In our case, I was ‘called to duty’ for cell division, meiosis, and genetics. These chapters are finite in Honors biology, so we knew precisely when I would lecture in the class,” Kim Caldwell said.

Caldwell also swaps lectures with Katrina Ramonell, biology professor, each year.

“Students are the beneficiaries when they are able to learn material from faculty members that have greater knowledge from particular topics,” Caldwell said.

Yet another form of team-teaching is employed in introductory logic classes. Before this system was adopted, the introductory logic courses would routinely fail 50 to 60 percent of the students, regardless of who taught it.

Since Chase Wrenn, philosophy professor, pioneered the new system, the failure rate is less than 10 percent, closer to 5 percent, without compromising the rigor of the course, Hestevold said.

“The use of computers and a team of TAs, coupled with a professor who’s always on hand, has revolutionized the teaching of introductory logic,” Hestevold said.

Students work independently using a computer program, while a team of two to three TAs and a professor circles the classroom. With the raising of a hand, a student gets help immediately from one of the TAs or the professor.

“We definitely worked well together. We attended biweekly staff meetings, and those were really helpful. We got to know one another, dealt with logistics, and worked through practice problems,” Hannah Hicks, former logic TA and a senior majoring in philosophy and religious studies, said.

Hicks said she feels students benefit from this arrangement.

“Some students told me that they felt comfortable asking me and the other TAs questions that they wouldn’t ask the professor,” Hicks said. “When students realize that we were students just like them one or two semesters previously, they seem very at ease approaching us. In some ways, the TA system eliminates the filter that arises from some students’ discomfort in speaking to professors or their worry that a question they have might be dumb. Even if a TA can’t answer a question or give a student the help she needs, the TA is able to find someone who can, so I think this system’s greatest strength is in opening lines of communication.”

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