Making Even Better Teachers

teacher pointing to slideshow
Associate Professor of Clinical Physical Therapy Todd Schroeder

A new initiative challenges faculty members to sharpen their teaching skills in division’s ongoing quest for teaching excellence. 

BY JOHN HOBBS MA ’14
August 11, 2020

WHAT DOES IT TAKE TO BE A GREAT TEACHER? Is it simply about having expertise in a certain subject area? 

Clinical Associate Professor of Physical Therapy Didi Matthews ’99, DPT ’02 doesn’t think so. 

“What we’ve learned over time is that what was once thought of as excellent teaching — somebody with a great understanding of the concepts, who simply gives information to a student, is not enough,” she says. “You have to know how to teach that information in order for it to be really learned well.”

It was with this in mind that Matthews, along with Professor of Clinical Physical Therapy Rob Landel MS ’84, DPT ’96 and Associate Professor of Clinical Physical Therapy Dan Kirages ’94, DPT ’98, applied to take part in the USC Center for Excellence in Teaching’s Faculty Fellow Leadership Institute.

The Institute is a series of 14 seminars taking place over a school year, bringing together educators from across the spectrum of academic disciplines to discuss how to develop practices, initiatives and policies to further their school’s goals toward teaching excellence. 

“It was very exciting to me to be able to learn from the CET instructors,” Kirages says. “Learning about best practices in teaching seemed like a great idea, especially because we were going to come back to the division and assist our peers in the same process.”

Having heard from their Institute peers that there had been some resistance at their schools when they took the newfound information back, the three division faculty members weren’t sure how their ideas might be received. 

But instead of resistance, Matthews and company found a faculty very welcoming of learning how to up their game in the classroom. 

“We have an outstanding group of faculty who are committed to and passionate about teaching,” Landel says. “We clearly set high expectations for our students, but behind the scenes, there is a high bar among the faculty about teaching well.” 

Building on past success

Taking part in the Institute gave the three division faculty members an opportunity to take stock in what they and their colleagues were already doing well.

From in-class room clickers that allow faculty to assess learning on the spot to active learning sessions that give students an opportunity to better understand complex concepts to computer-based testing tying each question to a learning objective, the division had already taken actions to maximize their students’ learning.  

“I also think we were already doing a great job of threading certain coursework throughout the program,” Matthews says, referencing the way pediatrics, wound care, oncology and pain management are touched upon throughout the curriculum. “The students see these themes recurring in order to help reinforce prior learning and advance their learning on a certain subject.”

She also says the mentorship program, which pairs students with faculty members, as an integral part of student success within the program.

Kirages adds that a few years ago the division had streamlined content throughout the curriculum into “need to know” and “nice to know” information to ensure courses were not too overwhelming for maximum educational benefit.

Getting started

In 2018, the three faculty members established the Division Institute for Excellence in Teaching (DIET), a division-wide initiative to share with their peers all they were learning during their time at the USC Center for Excellence in Teaching Institute. 

During Phase 1, the group, led by Matthews, held four town halls over an academic year to collect feedback and input about what tools and resources their colleagues needed to improve their teaching skills.

They also set out to define what excellence in teaching actually means to the division. 

“The [division] … is committed to excellence in teaching through the use of evidence-based, inclusive pedagogies that foster the knowledge, skills, relationships and values necessary for students to succeed in a rapidly changing world,” reads the agreed-upon definition. 

The group also set out seven characteristics of teaching excellence, which include being respectful and professional, challenging and supportive, inclusive and supportive of diversity, relevant and engaging, prepared and well-organized, fair and equitable and adaptable and evidence-based. 

Having agreed upon the division’s collective north star for reaching excellence, the group began Phase 2, which required each instructor to draft their own teaching statement. 

“A teaching statement is a document that includes a professor’s personal teaching philosophy, how they view the relationship between student and teacher, what their goals are for their instruction and then specifically what are the different activities, assessments and materials they need to use in their class in order to meet the needs of their students,” Matthews explains. 

During three 90-minute meetings, division faculty came together to reflect on their own teaching in the classroom and hear from other faculty members as they set out to draft their teaching statements.

Once drafted, each faculty member’s statements will be reviewed by another faculty member, who will give them feedback.

The eventual goal is to create metrics that, along with course reviews and classroom observation, could be incorporated into an annual faculty review process. 

Already seeing changes

As a result of these efforts, there have already been visible changes in some classrooms. 

“I am making my slides much simpler; my presentations are shorter now and separated by active opportunities that allow the students to engage with the material,” Landel says. “I am also emphasizing connections between the new material and the knowledge and skills with which the students are already familiar.”

Kirages has made changes, too. 

“I have redesigned my syllabus to include fewer and more specific learning objectives,” he says. “I have made it significantly easier for students to understand the purpose of my class and how it fits into the big picture of the curriculum.”

Matthews notes that this initiative is even more important now as the division continues to grow — in part because of the hybrid online/on-campus degree program. 

“As we grow, we need to ensure that we maintain the level of excellence that people have come to know the USC DPT experience for,” she says. “This institute will help us to do just that.”