In this Higher Ed Careers interview, the director of Gonzaga University’s Center for Teaching and Advising shares essential elements to consider in your fall course design and tips for building a community of support.
Leah Jackson, HigherEdJobs: As faculty prepare for the fall semester, what are some of the top action items you would recommend to them and why?
Dr. Nichole Barta, director of the Center for Teaching and Advising, Gonzaga University: First, find a community of support for collaborative reflection. Teaching is a demanding profession, and we are more likely to thrive when we have others who encourage, challenge, and inspire us. By regularly exchanging ideas and engaging in professional dialogue, we gain fresh perspectives, reflect on areas of strength and improvement, and acquire new instructional strategies that can significantly enhance our teaching effectiveness. Staying connected with our peers not only fosters a mindset of continuous improvement but also holds us accountable to supporting our personal well-being and the well-being and success of our students. Through this collective effort, we create a supportive network where we can share insights, challenges, and successes, ultimately improving all aspects of our professional lives. If it’s difficult to find a community of support within your own institution, don’t hesitate to explore opportunities within professional networks, or reach out to me if you want to connect with a community of support!
Next, keep learning ways to support student well-being. Mental health and stress are affecting students’ desire to go to college and their ability to succeed. There is no one-size-fits all solution to this problem, but as faculty we can learn strategies for alleviating academic stress in the classroom. Even small changes to our course design and instructional methods can help students feel supported and more confident in their abilities. Strategies aimed at reducing unnecessary academic stress are also effective learning strategies. As we deepen our understanding of how the brain functions and how learning takes place, we discover that these strategies align with the natural processes of learning. By incorporating these evidence-based practices into our teaching, we can create a learning environment that optimizes student learning and well-being.
Jackson: You’ve been involved in developing inclusive pedagogy at Gonzaga University. What can professors do to ensure inclusivity in their classes this year?
Barta: A key to inclusive learning environments is to prioritize learning and using students’ names. Take the time to address students personally and encourage their peers to do the same. Additionally, make a conscious effort to compliment students’ work and highlight their accomplishments to show your appreciation for their contributions. I believe that modeling positive reinforcement sets the tone for a supportive and inclusive learning environment. We can show students how we expect others to be treated in the classroom.
Professors can also implement strategies that promote equitable participation. Traditional methods like asking whole-class questions and allowing anyone to respond can unintentionally lead to certain students dominating discussions while others hesitate to speak up. Instead, consider alternative approaches such as forming small groups and rotating designated leaders to facilitate conversations. This approach guarantees that every student has a chance to contribute their thoughts and ideas. Using small groups also fosters peer-to-peer interactions which can foster a sense of community and belonging. By helping students to get to know each other, we are expanding their network of support and enabling them to assist one another even outside of class.
Jackson: In a recent article of yours published on The Conversation, you stated, “According to a recent survey of over 12,000 adults in the U.S., 63% of those 18 to 24 who had never attended college said emotional stress is one of the biggest reasons why they are not currently enrolled. And among those who do enroll, 41% thought about withdrawing for at least one term, the survey found, and more than half of the time, emotional stress was the main reason.” In a time when college students experience greater mental health concerns, what role can course design play in helping students succeed in the face of these challenges?
Barta: When it comes to supporting students’ success in the face of growing mental health concerns, course design plays a critical role. Academic stress occurs when students are faced with academic demands that exceed their capabilities. To address this, we need to evaluate the expectations we have for students in terms of knowledge and skills and then determine their current proficiency in those areas. By considering students’ prior knowledge, capabilities, and perceived needs, we can design courses that challenge them appropriately without overwhelming them or causing unnecessary anxiety.
To effectively support our students, it is beneficial to use a variety of assessment methods to gauge their knowledge, skills, and interests. This approach enables us to tailor the course to better meet their needs, such as selecting readings that align with their interests, offering alternative assessment options, and providing resources to enhance their skills.
By understanding our students’ backgrounds and assessing their capabilities, we can identify areas where they may require additional support or resources. In cases where they lack the knowledge and skills required for success, we can provide additional resources or guidance. For example, in my courses, I have started providing annotated assignment examples. This involves strategically commenting on specific parts of the assignment where I anticipate students might encounter challenges. Through the annotations, I direct them towards helpful links or recommended readings that offer support and guidance for successfully tackling those sections. This helps students to find the best resources to use if they do struggle with certain concepts or skills.
By analyzing our learners’ needs and capabilities, we can more effectively design courses that support their success and foster a positive learning experience.
Jackson: Again, referencing your recent article, you share tips for faculty to keep in mind while reviewing their syllabuses, as well as some great tools to help reduce student stress and anxiety. What are some important elements of course design beyond the syllabus that faculty should consider?
Barta: One recommendation for designing effective lessons and instructional materials is to consider the concept of attention fatigue. Our ability to sustain focused attention on cognitively demanding tasks has its limits. Similar to how we can run out of energy when engaging in physically demanding exercise, we can run out of mental energy with intense sustained attention. When students struggle to maintain attention during class activities, it can hinder their ability to effectively learn and retain the content, leading to increased stress when recalling information for exams or projects.
To proactively address attention fatigue, it is important to evaluate the cognitive demands of our activities and make intentional adjustments. Incorporating periodic breaks throughout the lesson allows students to recharge their attention and refocus. Using varied instructional methods helps stimulate interest and maintain engagement. Incorporating active learning strategies that encourage student participation can enhance attention and deepen understanding. Implementing these strategies to manage attentional resources promotes student engagement, improves content retention, and reduces stress related to comprehending and recalling information.
Jackson: Gonzaga’s Center for Teaching and Advising (CTA) organizes several learning communities. What are these learning communities, and how can they help faculty improve their teaching and make changes for the upcoming semester?
Barta: Our Center for Teaching and Advising (CTA) offers various learning communities aimed at supporting faculty in enhancing their teaching and making changes for the upcoming semester. One key initiative is our Teaching@GU Orientation course, an online program available to new tenure-track faculty two months prior to the start of the semester. This course familiarizes faculty with Gonzaga’s mission, tenure-track expectations, campus resources, and best practices in higher education pedagogy. Through interactive Zoom sessions, we engage in conversations with faculty on course design, review syllabi, and exchange ideas for effective teaching methods. Our primary goal is to ensure faculty feel confident and well-prepared for the classroom.
In addition, we will be launching Teaching Effectiveness Learning Communities in the fall. These communities bring together small groups of faculty to engage in discussions, share experiences, and explore innovative strategies aligned with their teaching goals and Gonzaga’s Teaching Effectiveness Framework. Within each learning community, members conduct a needs assessment to identify their specific area of focus for the year, enabling them to develop a personalized implementation plan. This plan serves as a “prescription” of strategies that faculty can integrate into their teaching practices to grow in their targeted area. The learning community provides valuable support in assessing the effectiveness of these strategies and making adjustments to better support student learning.
Through our learning communities, we help faculty demonstrate evidence of teaching effectiveness that aligns with the dimensions of our Teaching Effectiveness Framework. The collaborative nature of these communities not only facilitates professional growth but also ensures that faculty are equipped with the tools and support necessary to continually refine their teaching approaches and meet the evolving needs of their students.
Jackson: Please tell us about your current position in higher education and the path that led you there.
Barta: I currently serve as the director of the Center for Teaching and Advising (CTA) at Gonzaga University. In this role, my primary focus is on supporting faculty members in their teaching and advising responsibilities by providing resources and facilitating professional development opportunities. Prior to this position, I taught courses in the kinesiology & sport management department. Before joining Gonzaga, I was an Instructional Specialist for a large public school district, where I had the privilege of mentoring and supporting teachers in various aspects of curriculum development, instruction, and assessment. Additionally, I have 15 years of experience as a high school health and physical education teacher and sports coach. Throughout my journey, I have discovered that instructional coaching is my true passion. This realization motivated my transition from teaching in the Kinesiology program to my current role as the director of the CTA. In this position, I can combine my love for teaching and coaching with my commitment to supporting educators in their professional growth.
Jackson: What keeps you engaged working in academia?
Barta: One of my main motivations in academia is continuously striving to discover the most effective teaching methods that enable students to unlock their full potential. We know that knowledge alone is insufficient to bring about behavioral and attitudinal changes. So, we must look at teaching and learning as more than knowledge dissemination. What types of learning experiences will influence transformation and support students becoming self-actualized and positive change agents in their communities?
I believe that academia has the potential to address the mental health crisis. I know that we can support others in learning ways of being and doing that alleviate stress and anxiety. My passion lies in academia’s potential to improve the quality of life by understanding how our brains and bodies function and discovering ways for each of us to thrive.