Tony Robbins says that “Setting goals is the first step in turning the invisible into the visible.”

One of OVPTL’s goals is to discover and communicate evidence-based practices that faculty, graduate students, postdoctoral scholars, and staff can use to improve student success and learning.

The objectives of this goal are to:

  1. Conduct and disseminate research on teaching, learning and academic support.
  2. Provide professional development opportunities for staff that builds on their knowledge to maximize student success.
  3. Provide professional development opportunities for faculty, graduate students, and postdoctoral scholars that builds on their knowledge of teaching to maximize student learning.
  4. Support Academic Departments as they articulate a statement of educational excellence and how to measure them appropriately.

We interviewed Adrienne Williams, Director of the Teaching and Learning Research Center (TLRC), to find out how the Center is making this goal a reality.

What is the Teaching and Learning Research Center and why is it important to the UCI community?

The Teaching and Learning Research Center (TLRC) is a small unit, activated only recently in 2016. Our mission is to make UCI one of the leading universities in teaching effectiveness by supporting research on teaching itself. We help faculty apply for education research grants, design education research projects, and analyze the results of their projects.

So, do you only help faculty from the School of Education?

No. Actually, one of the things that distinguishes UCI is the large number of faculty across campus who are interested in the evidence associated with effective teaching.

We regularly interact with several groups, including:

  • Professors of Teaching who are senate faculty on campus whose scholarship is focused on evidence-based teaching, rather than on disciplines like history or chemistry.
  • Research faculty who are writing and receiving grants that require them to share the results of their research using effective teaching methods, often labeled as “broader impacts” of their research.
  • Graduate students who, in addition to earning their doctorate in their primary discipline, want to be trained in assessing teaching in order to eventually be more effective instructors.

We also form research collaborations on campus, and we are the primary facilitator of data sharing on education research projects.

Can you give me some examples of your recent projects?

Sure!

Right now Kameryn Denaro, our computational statistician, is writing an NSF grant with a faculty member to research the most effective ways to make sure placement exams are correctly assigning the best courses to new students. Our postdoc Christian Fischer is running an analysis on the differences in student demographics in online versus face-to-face classes at UCI.

My own project is to encourage faculty in many different disciplines to add small-group active learning to their large courses, and to use undergraduate Learning Assistants as facilitators. It’s the end of the quarter, so I have ten instructors asking for feedback from their students in online surveys on how learning assistants affected their learning and attitudes in the course.

What are some examples of evidence-based practices that can improve student success and learning?

The practice most supported by evidence is active learning, which can be loosely defined as encouraging students to practice the skills they need while the instructor is present to mentor.

For example, in composition, students need to practice writing. In engineering, students need practice setting up problems and listing assumptions. While most faculty would love the opportunity to spend more time working directly with students in class, this is difficult in large courses.

This is why UCI is such a great place to work — we can provide both direct support to faculty to improve their teaching, plus guide effective assessment on whether these changes improve student grades, persistence, and interest in the discipline. The TLRC is housed in the same division as experts in instructional design, faculty development, and digital teaching support, and together we make up the Division of Teaching Excellence and Innovation.

My colleagues in DTEI partner with us in the TLRC to coach faculty how to teach actively and how to move lecture content and assignments to the online environment. I can then provide faculty with the tools to measure whether these changes produce better outcomes.

Does the TLRC focus on research or implementation of existing research, or both?

We do some of everything, but our focus is always on publication of our results, and helping faculty, graduate students, and researchers publish their results. Not only does published research help our own campus improve its teaching, but our projects can be shared with other universities in conference presentations and journal publications.

What is an example of professional development opportunities that you provide for staff to maximize student success?

We generally work with faculty and graduate students, rather than staff. But as Director, I am often in meetings and discussions with staff on topics that range from institutional data to digital resources to classroom learning environments.

Because I am familiar with the research on effective teaching, I can share that knowledge and provide references to interested staff. Recently, for example, we have been sharing the literature on the effectiveness of active learning classrooms with the team designing the new Anteater Learning Pavilion.

I also regularly meet with the Learning and Academic Resource Center (LARC). The staff there oversee two tremendously important projects — LARC tutorials for supplemental instruction, and training for undergraduate Certified Learning Assistants. Our group provides useful data to LARC to guide their training, and I try to provide the most up-to-date research on undergraduate peer support for active learning. We have the data on who attends LARC tutorials, and can incorporate this into analyses of student success.

How do you measure educational excellence? How is student success defined?

The TLRC looks at student success at many different levels. If a researcher is interested in graduation rates or persistence in STEM majors, we help with that project because we have institutional data and the statistical skill needed for the analysis. If a researcher is interested in a small, focused project, like the effects of pre-class Canvas quizzes on student performance on exams, we can help them design an experiment to measure that because we are current in evidence-based pedagogy.

I would say that our primary interest is on student academic success, while others on campus are interested in other skills important to our students, such as leadership and global engagement.

What do you most value about your unit?

UCI is much farther ahead than many campuses on studying the effectiveness of teaching, and much of this is because the Provost supported the creation of the TLRC. Researchers on campus have support in grant-writing, experimental design, implementation advice, and statistical analysis. We can train graduate students to support education research projects. And we regularly provide institutional data to campus researchers who have IRBs for education research. This, combined with the large number of faculty who are interested in education research, positions UCI as a national leader in effective teaching.

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