I attended a great workshop a couple weeks ago with faculty, staff, and students at my University who congregated for a whole day to talk about improving the undergraduate experience.  A group of us got to talking about how collaboration is an important part of learning.  We started with collaborative learning among students, and somebody made the point (it might have been made by me, but I can't be sure) that we could also do more collaborative teaching.  A 2002 survey by Anderson and Carta-Falsa found that a sample of faculty (including adjunct faculty, instructors, and assistant professors) wanted to improve their teaching but didn't think much about collaborating with students, let alone with other faculty. 

At the workshop, however, I found a few professors who did express some interest in team teaching. I said to a few of my faculty colleagues, "It would be fascinating to teach a course with you."  Each of the people I said this to had a similar response, something like:  "Yeah, then students will get information from me about my area, and from you about psychology."  The image that popped into my mind was of professors in a wrestling ring, lecturing.  When they were out of breath, panting, they reached over the ropes and tapped me on the hand, whereupon I got into the ring and started lecturing about the psychological aspects of whatever my colleague had been talking about.

In this model students would indeed get two perspectives, and they may put these ideas together in a paper or the exam.  But the model is still of teaching as information delivery.  Those (few) of you who read my previous post on lecturing may know that I'm not a big fan of that model!

The next model to flash in my head was of my colleague and me in the same classroom, at the same time, collaborating.   Our interaction would be about the process of the course, not only (or even) the content.  The course might or might not be interdisciplinary, but the two of us would be collaborating, much in the way that we want students to, in an effort to create new knowledge and perspectives on the spot, not simply to transmit it.  I picture my colleague and I actually learning, from each other and from our interaction, in real time.

Let me tell you a story to illustrate this second model:  At the beginning of this century my colleague Bill Briggs came up to me at a meeting and said something like, "You're a big group person.  Would you be willing to come to my class and help me with some small-group stuff?"  Somewhere in our discussion we hatched the idea that I would sit in on an entire semester of his basic liberal-arts math course.  Interestingly, he didn't want me to come in and teach students about the psychology of mathematics, or any other psychological perspective.  Rather, he wanted me to come in and see if we could develop better strategies and techniques for teaching math.

Bill Briggs

Dr. Bill Briggs

I wound up sitting in on Bill's course for two semesters.  During the first semester I took all the tests and did all but one of the assignments.  (Bill excused me from doing a research paper after I showed him that my empirical publications had math in them.)  Once in a while I would say something like, "Can I try to explain that a different way?"  Or, "If I look at it from this perspective, would that work?"  Basically I was playing the role of an "enhanced student." Because of my greater confidence and fewer feelings of intimidation, I could take risks.  The feedback we got later was that some students were able to take more risks themselves, following my lead.

Bill and I became more collaborative and transparent as the semesters progressed.  For example, one day in class we (that is, Bill) was discussing combinations and permutations.  He had a wonderful decision-making process, as a bullet list, on the board.  But I was having trouble understanding it the way he presented it.  I raised my hand and said only, "Can I try something?" 

"Sure!" said Bill, with no hesitation.  (To me, Bill's willingness to take risks by giving up "control" for a while showed obvious respect for me, for his students, and for the learning process.  This respect was one of Bill's many gifts as a teacher.)  I came to the board and drew a table with several rows and columns, turning permutations into a two-dimensional process rather than a list.  At the end, I asked, "Can you think of permutations and combinations this way?"  Bill is a Harvard-trained mathematician with at least five books to his credit, but he hadn't thought of permutations in quite this way.  Not only did he say yes, that we could look at it this way, but he proposed that our students vote on which method of learning the information they found more helpful.  The vote was 50-50!

This entire interaction took place during class time, and was totally spontaneous.  Bill and I talked openly about what learning techniques would be best , about how we both were processing information.  Students saw us struggle with several pathways to understanding, and they engaged in that process with us.  At the end of the course, several students commented on how much they got from Bill and me, saying that they realized that there was more than one was to learn information, and that learning took effort.

Finally, it's important to note that this collaboration was unofficial; I wasn't paid for my time and I certainly wasn't listed as an instructor for the course.  The APA Ethics Code encourages psychologists to do some of their work for little or no financial remuneration, so I considered this collaborative teaching an opportunity to actualize some positive ethics.


Mitch Handelsman is a professor of psychology at the University of Colorado Denver and the co-author (with Sharon Anderson) of Ethics for Psychotherapists and Counselors: A Proactive Approach(Wiley-Blackwell, 2010).

© 2011 Mitchell M. Handelsman. All Rights Reserved.

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