Reading That’s Worth Discussing

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Most of us teaching at the college level like to read. We read professional materials and sometimes even read for pleasure. Much about teaching can be learned from reading as well. But we work in a profession where there are a lot of demands on our time and no strong norms expecting us to grow and develop our knowledge of teaching and learning the way we must keep current in our fields.

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I’d like to make the case for reading about teaching and learning with a colleague or a small group of them. I know, I’m preaching to the choir. But even faculty committed to pedagogical reading have a list longer than they’re likely to finish any time soon, and most don’t regularly talk to colleagues about what they’re reading.

That said, there are many more reading circles and faculty reading groups than there used to be, and I think there could be even more, especially if we streamlined the logistics. There’s value in convening with a group, and there are more perspectives, insights and experiences to share. Moreover, there’s value when two colleagues talk in depth about something they’ve read.

The logistics of organizing reading groups can seem daunting. Some faculty are lucky enough to have a teaching center on campus with folks who organize the groups. The logistics are proportional to the size of the group. It’s a lot easier to meet with one or two people than with 10. Technology makes it easier to convene groups: an email invite can specify the place, time, and article to be discussed. If two people can have an informative and provocative discussion, it doesn’t really matter how many attend. And if different people show up or the same people do, either is fine. It’s about the exchange that happens, regardless of who attends.

When you hear about faculty reading circles, most often they’re about a book. That’s fine; there are plenty of good books to discuss. But I’d vote for articles. They’re shorter and cover a wider range of topics than books, and it’s easier to keep discussion focused when there’s less content to get through.

The challenge is finding that good article—one with substantive content and ideas that can be discussed. I wouldn’t put too many how-to articles in that category. You can learn a lot from a piece that lays out how to write good multiple-choice questions, but that’s not a topic that stimulates discussion. Now, if the piece challenges the kind of knowledge assessed by multiple-choice questions, proposes some interesting alternatives (such as student-generated test questions), or argues against the use of multiple-choice questions given certain kinds of content or learning objectives or both, then you’ve got something faculty can talk about.

The article also needs to be well written—not necessarily easy but nonetheless accessible. Studies can be tough because the empirical analysis used assumes statistical knowledge, and unless you love statistics, it’s not terribly interesting reading. But often the questions raised by the research, particularly discipline-based scholarship, are pragmatically relevant: faculty researching teaching and learning ask questions teachers care about. Current interest in evidence-based practice runs high, so I wouldn’t rule out discussing studies. The discussion can focus on certain section of the research, such as the lit review, who was studied and how, and the findings.

Good work on teaching and learning is being done across disciplines, and many really fine articles focus on aspects of instruction—such as participation, group work, academic integrity, extra credit, and rubrics—that are relevant no matter what you teach. In cross-disciplinary groups, participants can suggest good articles read in their fields.

Do you need a designated discussion leader? Not if the groups are small. What gets most teaching discussions started are one or two good questions. If those are circulated before the group meets, they may also encourage folks to come prepared, as in having done the reading.

How much have you learned about teaching and learning from conversations with colleagues? A lot? That’s the answer the research strongly supports. We get ideas and information from others far more often than from reading. Now if we do some reading and then talk about what we’ve read, that pretty much guarantees even more learning.

Note: We’d like to remind you that there’s a new collection on the Teaching Professor website called It’s Worth Discussing that seeks to encourage discussion. Each entry identifies what we consider a good article, explains why we think it worth reading, provides a brief summary of it, and then follows with some questions you can use to guide discussion. Here are the entries in the collection thus far:

If you have a favorite article that you think is worth discussing, please by all means share it with us in the comments section. What makes it an article you’d recommend? We’d be happy to put together an annotated list of articles our readers recommend.