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Improving the Student Experience Through Support for Teaching

How does a 21st-century university prepare its graduates for the challenges of a globalized, networked world? For a world of mobile devices and fluid borders, of social media and sharing economies, for a world beset by incredibly complex and urgent problems? Solving these problems requires people who can work with data, collaborate in new ways, and approach problems with knowledge and creativity, with an openness and agility that takes pleasure in confronting the unknown.

GW equips students for these challenges through its world-class faculty, who take teaching seriously both inside and outside the classroom. Faculty rely on the support of many partners, including librarians, instructional designers, and classroom-technology engineers. GW Libraries and Academic Innovation (GWLAI) brings together, in an agile and forward-thinking organization, experts in the organization and discovery of information, in pedagogy, and in the development and support of digital technology, all working together to support teaching and learning. At GWLAI, these forms of expertise mutually inform each other: so that librarians bring a focus on critical thinking to their work in the classroom, and instructional designers grasp the potential of the latest technologies to foster learning, and those providing tech support do so with a sensitivity to the needs of students and faculty members. 

Somewhere at the university, a professor has just brought her class to the library for a workshop on research methods, meeting with a librarian in one of our fully equipped library classrooms. It might be a senior art and design seminar, preparing students for year-long thesis projects; or a cohort of doctoral students in education who are writing literature reviews; or a first-year undergraduate writing class, in which students will undertake the first serious research projects of their college careers. At some universities, “library sessions” are dry affairs, driven by canned lectures and PowerPoint. But GW librarians have developed a robust approach to research instruction that results, in many cases, in enduring partnerships between the librarian and the faculty member, who co-teach sessions in the library, emphasizing the relevance of the research process to the goals of the course.

“We are one of the few writing programs in the country with a long-standing, close collaboration with instructional librarians,” observes Rachel Riedner, executive director of GW’s University Writing Program. “This unique collaboration distinguishes our curriculum as students gain the skills and confidence as researchers that will serve them well throughout their college career.” Beyond the classroom, librarians regularly participate in the training of graduate teaching assistants across the curriculum and work closely with staff in the University Writing Center to share best practices and develop shared methodologies for supporting research and writing. 

Somewhere at the university, a faculty member is reimagining a class to deepen critical thinking, striving to leverage classroom technology to make a 60-person lecture more interactive, or exploring strategies for a flipped classroom. The University Teaching and Learning Center (UTLC) works closely with faculty to research and develop practices that support active, student-centered learning and foster student engagement. Guided by an interdisciplinary body of research, the UTLC provides multiple venues in which faculty set goals for their teaching and build a portfolio of syllabi, assignments, and other tools. In addition to one-on-one consultations throughout the year, these venues include a Course Design Institute that invites GW faculty to develop courses under the guidance of nationally recognized experts. These also include the Faculty Learning Community for Junior Faculty, which promotes a network for growing and sharing expertise in teaching across the disciplines, and an annual Teaching Day to showcase the most innovative pedagogy of GW faculty for the university community.

Somewhere at the university, a faculty member is learning to make better use of emerging classroom technologies. In conjunction with the UTLC, the Instructional Technology Lab helps faculty master new tools for both traditional and online learning spaces, enabling them to take advantage of the state-of-the-art learning environment provided by staff in Academic Technologies. With this hands-on laboratory, faculty can explore a range of available technologies before implementing them in the classroom, testing strategies to fully engage technologically savvy students with the course material. 

Somewhere in the university, a student is reinforcing today’s classroom discussion through independent study. Classes are more meaningful and discussion is deeper when students have a real-world appreciation for the subjects at hand. The Center for Undergraduate Fellowships 
and Research (CUFR) connects students with fellowship opportunities around the globe, bolstering what they have learned in the classroom by allowing them to put theory into practice. By connecting students with research opportunities, CUFR helps deepen their grasp of the material and explore their interests, stoking their academic curiosity. 

A common principle across all of these efforts at GWLAI is a focus on agility, which means cultivating a creative responsiveness to the evolving needs of the people and projects we support. That principle happens also to be a cornerstone of the approach to instruction that the most reflective and intentional teachers espouse. As Patricia Dinneen, director of the UTLC, notes, “Good teaching is a lot about experimentation and continually getting feedback: Are they learning? What do they think?” And supporting teachers means helping them become more comfortable with experimentation, by making the intellectual and institutional space for them to explore new methods and approaches without fear of failure. As we pursue this goal, we in the GWLAI are learning, too— learning what our faculty and students need—and we are constantly reflecting on our own organization in an effort to meet those needs more effectively. GWLAI is truly a learning organization at the center of teaching and scholarship at the university.

To help support teaching and learning initiatives, please contact Tracy Sullivan, executive director of development for GW Libraries and Academic Innovation. 

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