For the last five semesters I have co-taught an introductory biology course. Until now, this has not been the norm in our department. This semester has been different for many instructors: half of our courses are now co-instructed. This dramatic restructuring has caused me to reflect on my experience as a member of a teaching team.
Our course follows a loosely “flipped” design with weekly laboratories, field study and an interdisciplinary project with students from two other biology courses. It is student-centred and inquiry-based, with a focus on critical thinking. Our means of co-instructing is also not traditional; rather than dividing the course into two parts, with each taught by one instructor, we have chosen to instruct together in an improvised dialogue among ourselves and our students. When one of us is speaking, the other is circulating around the theatre, engaging and listening, interjecting with positive contributions, and facilitating student participation.
Within a co-instructing scenario, there are three relevant relationships: instructor to instructor; instructors to students; and instructors to administrators. Each of these has its unique challenges, and our team has developed a series of best practices based upon our own experience and the literature.
One of the most common recommendations when establishing a co-instructed course is that the pairing must be voluntary. A willingness to be part of the team is an important factor in determining whether the course is a positive experience for both instructors and students. Entering into a co-teaching relationship can be high-risk if not done voluntarily, and especially when there is a status (e.g. tenured vs. untenured) or gender imbalance.
I am a professor who is female and untenured. I have been paired with professors who are male and have tenure. Neither of these imbalances have ever been an issue and my co-instructors are deliberate in their acknowledgement of our differences. Their small actions demonstrate to our students the value of being an effective part of a team. They direct students to me when questions are asked in my area of expertise, they refer to me by my proper title, and they always put my name first when listed with theirs.
However, we do see the imbalance acknowledged by our students and by department administrators. At the beginning of the semester, my co-instructor is more frequently approached after class with follow-up questions, and is more often referred to by his proper title and surname in person, by email and on social media. I receive more student requests for academic consideration or deferred conditions.
My co-instructor and I work hard and deliberately at being part of a team and we have noticed that this results in better teaching. We build each lesson together rather than splitting up the work. This ensures that the flow is consistent, visual aids are uniform, and our students enjoy a more active learning experience. We write all the examination questions together. Integrated over the semester, “talking time” in Fclass is equal though it varies within lessons based upon our expertise.
During class, we rarely refer to our own accomplishments and instead point out those of the other. We hold an equal number of office hours per week and we post a similar number of comments on the online discussion board. We meet weekly to reflect on what has happened and to prepare for the upcoming week. Also, we never contradict each other in class or with administration. Ever.
Perhaps one of the less obvious best practices that has facilitated this relationship is that we practice evidenced-based teaching. This way, we do not experience conflict associated with wanting to do something that the other does not. If research supports that the strategy in question will help students achieve our learning outcomes more efficiently or more effectively, then the decision is obvious.
Our research has shown that, in the context of increasing enrolment that leads to growing class sizes, institutions either scale up (increase the number of sections, number of instructors, or number of teaching assistants) or restructure the course. My experience as a co-instructor has been with a restructured course where the co-instructing strategy I have described was part of the initial design. Co-instructing, in this case, is not sequential teaching that is sometimes instituted as a means of facilitating faculty research priorities; it is much more work and vastly more rewarding. As our department transitions to a co-instructing culture, I am excited by this opportunity to innovate our teaching practice.
Shoshanah Jacobs is an assistant professor in the department of integrative biology and a member of the college of biological sciences office of educational scholarship and practice at the University of Guelph.