At this year’s Conference on Higher Education Pedagogy, held Feb. 10–12 at the Inn at Virginia Tech, an associate dean approached Kim Filer, the conference organizer, and told her why she comes back year after year. “I get to be around all of the people that care about teaching the way I care about teaching,” she said. 

This year's conference hosted 410 participants, from as far away as the United Kingdom and the Philippines. For many, this was the first conference they’d attended in person in two exhausting years.

“There's that sort of communal feel of passion,” said Filer, associate vice provost for teaching and learning and director of Virginia Tech’s Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning. “Faculty don't understand what they would get out of a conference like this until they come, and then they realize, ‘Oh, other people are thinking about [teaching], too.’”

That Virginia Tech has hosted the Conference on Higher Education Pedagogy for 14 consecutive years “reflects the true commitment at this university to do our best for undergraduate education and graduate education,” said Rachel Holloway, vice provost for undergraduate academic affairs. “It's the bringing together of a learning community, and all of our participants are benefiting from all the expertise here.”

Eighty-four practical conference sessions around topics like diversity and inclusion, educational technology, and innovative teaching ensured that attendees came away with strategies and ideas for their own classrooms. Virginia Tech faculty members and administrators shared these seven conference takeaways that will stick with them.

  1. Experiential learning. If passive learning is akin to reading a play, experiential learning is more like acting in one. “With experiential learning, students get more engaged with the work and more immersed in their learning in a way that creates lasting impact” said keynote speaker Shara Lee, chair of the National Society for Experiential Education’s Experiential Education Academy.  Because enhancing access to experiential learning opportunities is the thrust of the university’s current Quality Enhancement Plan, Holloway wants all Virginia Tech instructors to understand the continuum between passive and experiential learning. “We're constantly educating our faculty about what we mean by experiential learning,” she said. “Hearing that same language helps all of us move forward together.”
  2. Slow-motion debates. Some approaches to online instruction can deepen learning, as Margarita McGrath, associate professor and chair of the Undergraduate Architecture Program in the College of Architecture and Urban Studies, was reminded in a session about slow-motion debates. The debate takes place in an online, asynchronous format; students research an assigned position and create a slide deck to support it. Other students watch the deck evolve online, creating rich engagement. McGrath plans to use the approach in a module she teaches on ethical dilemmas in architecture. “Being able to take a position that you don't necessarily agree with and build an argument is a really important skill set in empathy,” she said.
  3. Indigenous education. “Nature is the teacher; I’m nature’s teaching assistant,” said Mae Hey, an assistant professor of practice in the Department of History, in a session she taught about pedagogy that supports equity, sustainability, and community transformation. Her fresh approach—less hierarchical and more relational than traditional Western models—inspired Victoria Leal, the director of Undergraduate Studies and an instructor in the Department of Human Development and Family Science, “to keep putting effort into being the kind of person, and teacher, that I want to be.” 
  4. Compassionate teaching. Some students rarely engage in group discussions. A session on compassionate teaching helped Ralph Hall, an associate professor in the School of Public and International Affairs, find ways to encourage participation. “One approach was to provide specific students with the answer to a question they will be asked during class,” Hall said, “not to test knowledge, but to approach teaching from a place of compassion, a place that builds confidence, reduces anxiety, and lets students know you want them to succeed.” Even a simple tech tool like the wheel of names can help.
  5. Nontraditional assessments. While traditional exams are easy to administer and grade, there may be more effective measures of student learning. “I've personally experienced, and have repeatedly heard from instructors, that even when the instructors themselves are willing to put in the extra time and effort to administer an unorthodox assessment, pushback from colleagues and administration will be immense,” said Will Fox, a senior learning data analyst with TLOS. “So I was really glad that there were quite a few sessions there to talk about this topic.”
  6. Growth-minded feedback. Kira Gulko Morse, an instructor in the Department of English, learned from the keynote about the high-impact practice of giving students feedback with growth in mind. “All too often we stop at ‘Good job!’ or other standard reactions,” she noted. Praising the effort behind the learning, or adding a “yet” to “You don’t know how to do that well yet,” can reframe feedback as focused on the process. Curiosity is key. Asking, “I wonder why” when students aren’t performing well “helps us consider how to accommodate the needs of a particular student, focusing on progress and not on evaluation,” said Morse.
  7. Online portfolios. Alicia Johnson, a visiting assistant professor of Instructional Design and Technology in the School of Education, had an aha moment in a conference session about online portfolios. “It occurred to me that I am introducing students to ePortfolios in their most stressed times—the first semester and first course in the program.” Now Johnson is considering ways to help students develop a habit of populating their Portfolium portfolio with projects and reflections every semester, so they aren’t scrambling to do it when they enter the job market. “It's nice to be reminded of tactics that may help our students have success after they graduate,” Johnson added. “Conferences help to do that for me.”
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