Megan Lyster
Megan Lyster, assistant director, innovation & experiential learning

Day three of the workshops series on Course Design was focused on group work—specifically, finding different ways to create collaborative learning.

It was a fitting theme for Amherst’s newest pilot program, the Teaching and Learning Collaborative, where the goal is to provide a wide range of tools and research to help faculty with the work they do every day.

The morning started with 15 educators seated in small groups in the Center for Humanistic Inquiry, where the TLC offers its programs.

“We’re going to jump right in,” said Associate Director of the Writing Center Jessica Kem, who was leading the day’s workshop. As an introduction, she flipped to a slide showing the six centers that make up the TLC: the Center for Community Engagement, the Moss Quantitative Center, Academic Technology Services, the Writing Center, Library Research and Instruction, and Instructional & Curricular Design.

“The Teaching and Learning Collaborative is an experiment in group work among staff on campus,” Kem said. “We are experimenting with different ways of working with each other.”

Jessica Kem
Jessica Kem, associate director of the writing center

Recent decades have seen shifts in instructional design as the classroom increasingly becomes a dynamic space for students who learn in many different ways. In their workshops, TLC staff encourage faculty to think about such questions as: What are the key goals for teachers and learners in a course? What experiences facilitate deeper student learning? When are groups best suited to achieve course goals?

“We now know a lot more about our experiences of learning, not just for students but also as lifelong learners,” said Hari Stephen Kumar, associate director of the TLC, in an interview. “That has caused a lot of rethinking of methods.”

Kumar came to Amherst College in 2014 as an instructional curricular designer. Around the same time, the faculty was working on a Strategic Plan that, in part, recommended the College develop new ways to support professors. A faculty-staff working group then studied existing teaching centers at Yale and Tufts universities and at Carleton, Macalester, St. Olaf and Colby colleges. (The group was convened by Dean of the Faculty Catherine Epstein and led by Lecturer in American Studies Molly Mead.) 

Hari Kumar
Hari Stephen Kumar, associate director of the TLC

Jyl Gentzler, who heads the TLC as its director and is the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Philosophy, said the program they developed aims to preserve the strong interpersonal faculty and student relationships at Amherst, while also exploring new avenues for teaching and learning.

“The model we put together not only works with what’s distinctive about Amherst but also connects programs and departments that were already working in these areas,” Gentzler said in an interview.

As a place where faculty can brainstorm about courses and ideas, the TLC has an obvious appeal to faculty such as Assistant Professor of Geology David Jones, who attended the first day of Course Design Week.

“I’ve done a lot of pedagogical workshops with hari and Jyl and I’ve always found them helpful,” Jones said. ”Overall I’ve designed my course to have some sort of structure or arch to it, which is very informed by the stuff I’ve learned from what is now the collaborative.”

Jones applauded the College’s effort to formalize pedagogical learning for faculty through the TLC. He said the morning workshop had not only been a good reminder of techniques and their uses but had also offered “dozens of new ideas” on designing courses. 

“It’s nice to get access to the research that supports our understanding of how to do these things well and professionally,” he said. “It gives me a framework to think about the choices I make and the choices I’ve observed in other classrooms, including ones where I’ve been a student.”