At colleges and universities across the country, orientation programs for new faculty members are typically one-time events that possess certain common elements. First, speakers from across the university welcome new faculty and give them information about the units they represent (for example, the library, office of information technology, faculty senate, or office of academic advising). Second, there may be an institution-wide overview provided by academic affairs and student affairs. Third, new faculty attend meetings with colleagues in their respective departments and/or colleges in which they learn more information from deans and department chairpersons about office hours, advising, class schedules, tenure and promotion processes, or Blackboard (or other course management systems). New faculty members are not the sole audience for department and/or college meetings: much of the information is about departmental and college strategic goals and specialized accreditation mandates.
The most important information specifically for new faculty members may not be easily processed so early in their tenure at the university. They may leave overwhelmed, pondering ways to organize and synthesize information that college and university administrators insist is necessary to conduct official duties. And while such orientation occurs at the beginning of every fall semester, there is usually not an orientation for new faculty who begin teaching at the institution in the spring.
For many years, the above scenario defined the standard approach to orientation for new faculty members at Alabama Agricultural & Mechanical University (AAMU). In the fall of 2017, the Associate Vice President for Faculty and Programs and Undergraduate Studies and the Director of the Centers for Excellence in Teaching and Learning (CETL) broke with tradition and implemented a year-long orientation for new faculty members. This decision was based on the novel idea of asking new faculty members what they wanted to know about teaching and learning generally and about specific facets of their new institution in order to be successful in their teaching, research, and service. The unique characteristics about teaching and learning at AAMU—such as the institution’s vision, mission, and student demographics—were especially important for new faculty members with experience at other colleges and universities. This essay describes how we redesigned our orientation program for new faculty.
Structuring the New Design
In the fall of 2017 the staff of the Centers for Excellence in Teaching and Learning proceeded with the well-worn agenda for its fall orientation. This time, however, in addition to the standard welcome and the usual presentations from units across campus, the Associate Vice President for Faculty and Programs and Undergraduate Studies explained to the thirty new faculty members that she wanted their input in designing a new, year-long orientation. Her administrative experiences at two-year and four-year colleges and universities of varying sizes and with diverse missions indicated that year-long orientation programs were more effective than a one-time event. The year-long model has three benefits. First, it allows academic administrators to deliver important teaching and learning principles, as well as organizational information unique to the institution, in structured modules. Second, the year-long orientation allows new faculty the time to process information and ask informed questions based on their experiences to date. Third, this paradigm encourages the group to bond as cohorts, build relations with their peers, share lessons learned, and establish a network of human and virtual resources.
In August 2017, during a working lunch in which we served new faculty members a meal as an incentive, we asked them to explore elements about which they would like to know more during their first year. In addition to focus group dialogue, faculty members were asked to complete a needs assessment survey. Four topic areas polled highest among the respondents: 1) motivating students to learn, 2) the tenure process and advancement, 3) infusion of technology into learning, and 4) leadership development.
The university calendar includes a slot every Tuesday and Thursday from 12:30 p.m. to 2:00 p.m. in which no classes are scheduled. Orientation and professional development sessions for new faculty were held on the first Thursday of each month during this time. As with the initial orientation program, we served lunch as an incentive to attend the continuing series of events. One of the testimonies from the post-evaluation survey stated that this incentive was effective because many faculty members have class before and after the workshops.
Beginning in September 2017, one month after analyzing the focus group data, we scheduled workshops centered on the four topic areas. The first, “Motivating Students to Learn,” was held in two parts in September and October. One year previously, the Centers for Excellence in Teaching and Learning implemented a student success strategy entitled “Freshman Faculty Learning Community” (FFLC). The FFLCs focus on faculty who teach freshmen gateway courses in English, mathematics, history, biology, and computer science. For three semesters, the members of each FFLC participate in discussion groups, attend professional development workshops on active learning teaching strategies, write reflection papers, and share lessons learned with their peers. Faculty from these communities served as presenters for the new “Motivating Students to Learn” workshops. In addition to sharing their experiences with implementing teaching strategies (such as the flipped classroom, assignment design, and think/pair/share), the presenters provided new faculty with resources outside their immediate departments that are available to them.
The deans and the faculty senate president led the November 2017 workshop on “Tenure and Advancement.” Then, at the beginning of the new year, the director of distance education and the Blackboard Management Systems Operator facilitated the January and February sessions on “Integrating Technology into the Classroom,” which also included strategies for developing an online course. While demonstrating many of the technology resources available for faculty use, these sessions included basic orientation for faculty members who were new to the institution in the spring semester.
At the March “Leadership and Advancement” session, the director of Title III provided an overview of resources available for faculty to travel to conferences and how to apply for them. The Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs and Research led the final workshop of the year in April in a presentation entitled “The State of the University’s Academic Programs.”
Virtual resources complemented the in-person component of new faculty orientation. At each face-to-face session, and in weekly emails, faculty were reminded of virtual resources for professional development such as Monday Morning Mentor and Go 2 Knowledge On Demand online trainings. For busy faculty, the fact that each Monday Morning Mentor session lasted just twenty minutes was an attractive feature according to testimonials on the post-evaluation survey. During the fall 2017 semester, one-hundred forty-one faculty members participated in the Monday Morning Mentor sessions. The Centers for Excellence in Teaching and Learning staff chose Monday Morning Mentor trainings that centered on the pre-selected topic areas described above. The online sessions with the highest attendance rates centered on four guiding questions: 1) “What are the Secrets to Providing Highly Effective Feedback to Students?” 2) “How Do I Design Innovative Assignments to Foster Learning in the Online Classroom?” 3) “How do I Create a Lively, Yet Functional, Online Classroom?” and 4) “What Are the Secrets to Making Highly Effective Educational Videos?” Among the categories accessible via multimedia online trainings were the four teaching and learning modules “Best Practices for Student Success in Developmental Education,” “Best Practices in College Teaching: Creating an Active Learning Environment,” “The 10 Traits of Great Teachers,” and “How to Tap into Student Motivation and Maximize Retention.”
While new faculty were the target audience for the year-long program, all faculty who teach freshman and sophomore students through general education classes were invited to attend the monthly workshops and avail themselves of the virtual resources. The underlying premise for this decision was that all faculty—full-time, adjunct, and part-time—would benefit from the trainings. The email group assembled to announce the sessions grew from thirty new faculty members in fall 2017 to one-hundred fourteen faculty by spring 2018 who teach the general education classes for freshman and sophomore students. Department chairs and deans were copied on the emails so that they would be informed and encourage their faculty to attend. The Associate Vice President for Faculty and Programs and Studies wrote to the deans about the upcoming workshops, further encouraging them to promote the monthly events and virtual resources.
The Post-Evaluation Survey
The results of the post-evaluation survey of the New Faculty Series for the 2017-18 Academic Year were positive. We administered a Likert scale instrument in which 1 is “Not Satisfied” and 5 is “Very Satisfied.” Almost 79% of the respondents felt that the overall series was helpful and were satisfied. 78.7% of the respondents felt that the series was helpful to move career advancement and trajectories forward. 78.6% stated that they were satisfied with the content in the session that they attended and that the lessons they learned would be immediately applicable in the classroom. And over 90% replied that they felt that the sessions provided real-time resources and content that could be used in the classroom.
Based on these results, we will replicate the same year-long design during the 2018-19 academic year. However, considering responses to the open-ended questions on the survey, we will add additional sessions on grant and research development, improving teaching strategies, and content specific to selected disciplines.