Teaching Circles

Teaching Tidbits

Teaching Circles: “Can We Talk?”
Encouraging Conversations About Teaching and Learning

For many faculty members, opportunities to talk about teaching are limited to brief encounters with colleagues around faculty mailboxes. In those few minutes, the talk may turn to the frustrations of teaching rather than to more substantive - and stimulating - teaching and learning issues. One way to encourage conversations about teaching and learning is through the formation of teaching circles ... .

What’s a teaching circle?

... a group of faculty (or graduate students) who meet, on an ongoing basis, to discuss issues of teaching and learning. Membership is limited - generally to no more than 8-10 participants. And members of the circle determine the focus and topics for discussion.

What types of issue would form the focus for a teaching circle?

Some circles explore relatively narrow topics (e.g., case-study teaching techniques; making large classes more interactive; mentoring graduate students). Topics for other circles, however, may be quite broad (e.g., current issues in higher education; strategies for surviving the first years in the classroom, teaching and technology). The good news is that almost any topic is appropriate as long as a group of faculty find it engaging and/or useful to their teaching.

Should members of the circle come from the same department or program?

Not necessarily. In some cases, the focus for the circle may be inextricably connected to a particular discipline (e.g., Math instructors may decide to share materials and techniques they’ve developed for their own classes). In other cases, circles benefit from a more heterogeneous mix of faculty perspectives on teaching challenges. As an added bonus, faculty in “mixed” circles are sometimes more open to sharing teaching experiences with colleagues outside their departments.

How Do Teaching Circles Go About Exploring Teaching/Learning Issues?

Teaching circle meetings can take a variety of forms to stimulate conversation and help faculty investigate teaching/learning issues:

  • Guided Discussion: Members come prepared to discuss an item (article, chapter, videotape) or issue selected by the group.
  • Round-robins: Members share personal experience and knowledge on a topic of interest to the group.
  • Ask the expert: An “expert” (or expert panel) is invited to share insights on a topic.
  • “Progress” reports: Members report on experiments they’ve conducted with new ways of teaching.
  • Peer Tutoring: Members of the group take responsibility for learning different aspects of the topic being explored by the group. At each session, one or two members report back on the material they’ve researched.
  • General discussion: Meetings can be occasions for informal conversations about teaching and learning. There’s no set agenda. Participants bring in issues, questions, topics that are of interest to them.

Should members of the circle come from the same department or program?

  • ... a group of faculty (or graduate students) who meet, on an ongoing basis, to discuss issues of teaching and learning. Membership is limited - generally to no more than 8-10 participants. And members of the circle determine the focus and topics for discussion.
  • Some circles explore relatively narrow topics (e.g., case-study teaching techniques; making large classes more interactive; mentoring graduate students). Topics for other circles, however, may be quite broad (e.g., current issues in higher education; strategies for surviving the first years in the classroom, teaching and technology).
  • The good news is that almost any topic is appropriate as long as a group of faculty find it engaging and/or useful to their teaching.
  • Not necessarily. In some cases, the focus for the circle may be inextricably connected to a particular discipline (e.g., Math instructors may decide to share materials and techniques they’ve developed for their own classes).
  • In other cases, circles benefit from a more heterogeneous mix of faculty perspectives on teaching challenges. As an added bonus, faculty in “mixed” circles are sometimes more open to sharing teaching experiences with colleagues outside their departments.

How Do Teaching Circles Go About Exploring Teaching/Learning Issues?

Teaching circle meetings can take a variety of forms to stimulate conversation and help faculty investigate teaching/learning issues:
  • Guided Discussion: Members come prepared to discuss an item (article, chapter, videotape) or issue selected by the group.
  • Round-robins: Members share personal experience and knowledge on a topic of interest to the group.
  • Ask the expert: An “expert” (or expert panel) is invited to share insights on a topic.
  • “Progress” reports: Members report on experiments they’ve conducted with new ways of teaching.
  • Peer Tutoring: Members of the group take responsibility for learning different aspects of the topic being explored by the group. At each session, one or two members report back on the material they’ve researched.
  • General discussion: Meetings can be occasions for informal conversations about teaching and learning. There’s no set agenda. Participants bring in issues, questions, topics that are of interest to them.

How is the issue of “leadership” handled? It depends ...

Some Possibilities for The First Meeting:

... some groups have no designated leader. In these groups, meetings may be used for informal discussion with no set agenda. Or the group may work together to establish a meeting-by-meeting agenda with members agreeing to bring in materials to share for discussion.
  • Pros: relaxed, open, informal, member responsibilities are few.
  • Cons: members may be frustrated by a lack of direction; meetings may degenerate into complaint sessions; a few individuals may dominate discussion.
... rotating leadership. Members of the group take turns leading the group and facilitating discussions. Depending on the circle, a leader might be asked to share his/her expertise on a particular topic or to take responsibility for finding an appropriate reading or suggesting a topic for discussion.
  • Pros: leadership is shared and no one person carries an unreasonable burden; different leaders may bring a welcome variety to circle sessions; facilitated sessions may be more productive than general discussion.
  • Cons: facilitation skills may vary; members may be unwilling to accept responsibility for directing a session.
... single designated leader. One member takes responsibility for organizing meetings, suggesting topics, facilitating discussion and/or recruiting speakers. The leader may be someone with experience in the area or someone who takes on the leadership role as a service to the larger group. This kind of leadership is particularly helpful for a “New Faculty” teaching circle whose members may be new to teaching and unfamiliar with campus resources.
  • Pros: Members of the group are freed of leadership/administrative responsibilities, skillful leadership can help insure the circle’s success.
  • Cons: the circle can become a forum for the leader’s issues and agenda; members may be less actively involved and engaged; the success or failure of the circle can rest on one person’s shoulders.
Try a round of introductions to establish connections and common ground. Ask people to introduce themselves. The standard information (e.g., names, departments, length of time on campus, experiences teaching at other campuses or in other settings, etc.) is helpful. In addition, members might be asked one or more of the following: what brings you to this teaching circle? What would you like to learn / how would you like to benefit? In what types of activities /discussions would you like to participate?
Discuss teaching circles in general. Some individuals may not be clear about the purposes and functions of a teaching circle - a brief overview of teaching circles might be helpful.
Discuss the “specifics” -- set a meeting schedule, consider circle leadership, discuss possible topics/activities for future meetings (the introductory statements of participants may provide ideas and direction for future meetings)
Come prepared with a short article, video, or discussion topic to spark interest /interaction for the first meeting (or send a reading to participants prior to the first meeting) - even if organizational details prevent you from using it at the first meeting.
Set an agenda for the next meeting. Consider bringing a suggestion for the next meeting’s activity.

Deborah Langsam, 2001

Attachment: Teaching Circles [PDF, 48 KB]