Educational innovation: I-LEaP pedagogy bootcamp prepares new professors for teaching

// Biomedical Engineering, Electrical & Computer Engineering, Engineering Physics, Industrial & Systems Engineering, Materials Science & Engineering, Civil & Environmental Engineering, Mechanical Engineering

Tags: education, Educational Innovation, learning, News, teaching

Trina McMahon (left) Corinne Henak (right)
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Many new faculty members step in front of their first classes without any formal training to be teachers. In fall 2015, however, a workshop series called i-LEAP, offered by UW-Madison’s Teaching Academy, introduced new professors to evidence-based strategies for effective instruction.

The UW-Madison Teaching Academy offers a yearlong pedagogy fellowship called Madison Teaching and Learning Excellence (MTLE). As of 2015, six cohorts totaling 57 early-career faculty members representing 55 departments have completed the curriculum. However, new assistant professors, particularly in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines, may not have time to pursue extensive professional development amidst setting up their labs, securing funding for their research, and navigating an unfamiliar campus.

Leaders within the Teaching Academy saw this limitation and hoped to offer a stop-gap alternative to the extensive MTLE program. Recently, Chris Dakes, a faculty associate in the Wisconsin School of Business, began leading shorter workshops on education for incoming business school instructors. At the same time, Trina McMahon, a Vilas Distinguished Achievement Professor in civil and environmental engineering and bacteriology at UW-Madison, recognized a similar need within the College of Engineering.

“Right now, the minimum requirement to be a teacher is ‘do you have a PhD and did you do good research,’” says McMahon.

McMahon, Dakes, and Sarah Miller, leader of faculty engagement programs in academic technology at UW-Madison, collaborated to create a condensed, one-semester program called I-LEaP, consisting of a series of three intensive weekend-long modules to give new teachers a foundation in effective instruction. They teamed up with Teaching Academy Fellows Jamie Henke-Paustian in the Division of Continuing Studies and Tim Paustian in the Bacteriology Department to design the curriculum.

The I-LEaP workshops introduced new instructors to the concept of active learning, strategies for engaging students, tools for assessing learning, and ways to construct a syllabus during day-and-a-half-long sessions of this teaching “boot camp.”

Although the idea of “active learning” was a new concept for many of the participants, they walked away from the workshops inspired and empowered with techniques they can quickly and easily implement in their own classrooms.

“Participating in I-LEaP provided me with an introduction to on-campus teaching resources, and an array of evidence-based techniques for improving student learning outcomes,” says Corinne Henak, who joined the mechanical engineering faculty as an assistant professor in fall 2015. “Next semester, I look forward to adding more active learning into my classroom.”

Active learning is an effective alternative to traditional, lecture-based teaching, which conveys facts to students, but provides few opportunities for them to practice synthesizing complex content and to solve problems.

Yet, even though the benefits of active learning far outweigh those of the “lecture at students” approach, for some faculty instructors, it can be tough to break out of the 50-minute monologue-style course format.

Instead of viewing teaching as a “performance,” participants in the workshops learned to break apart lesson planning as a series of individual design problems—instead crafting class time around specific, measurable objectives for student learning.

Treating curriculum-building as a design process resonated particularly well with the new engineering faculty. Rather than building a course as a linear series of lectures, McMahon encouraged the new teachers to first identify what they want their students to be able to do at the end of each class period and then develop activities to help them achieve those learning objectives.

“I often have a list of concepts or content I want to cover, but I evaluate each of those items: What do I want my students to do with this? How do I turn this into something I can assess?” says McMahon. “If I can’t think of a way to assess my students then maybe it’s not necessarily that important.”

Students and professors both benefit from this initial investment in strategic lesson planning. Rather than spending time preparing lectures on extraneous content that will ultimately confuse students, professors can plan activities for students to put the material into practice. Particularly in large classes, simple strategies such as making time for students to work on problems individually, to discuss their process in a small group, and then to report their results to the class can break down barriers to engagement and understanding.

“People have an attention span of about 12 minutes,” says McMahon. “Timing active learning activities around that 12-minute timepoint can jolt everybody back into focus.”

During the workshops, McMahon encouraged the new professors also to view their teaching as an ongoing research project: each semester offers an opportunity to experiment with new strategies, to interpret data from student performance, and to improve. She shared evidence from her own classes: the distribution of her students’ final exam scores skewed eight points higher after she started to incorporate active learning into her teaching.

Thirty new professors and staff instructors from across campus participated in sessions in fall 2015—and interactions between humanities and STEM instructors led to fruitful dialogue about teaching philosophies between disciplines. Additionally, McMahon met personally with the engineering faculty participants in small groups to discuss specific issues unique to each of their departments.

According to Henak, these individual meetings helped foster a sense of support and cohesion inside her new department. “I-LEaP provided me a community of instructors within engineering,” she says.

And that’s a critical side benefit of I-LEaP. “They’re all in this together, facing all the same challenges, and realizing that they’re not the only one experiencing it,” says McMahon. “We’re trying to gradually change the culture so that when they get tenured, the next generation of professors cares about teaching—and teaching well.”

Although I-LEaP introduces faculty to key concepts and strategies in teaching and learning, it is truly meant to be an introduction. McMahon insists that participants should seek out richer and more sustained opportunities available on campus, including MTLE. Tenure-track new faculty members with teaching responsibilities may apply to the yearlong MTLE program through the Teaching Academy. Upon completion, fellows receive $4,000 in flexible funding for teaching and $500 for an undergraduate learning assistant. Professors at any career stage interested in attending the next series of i-LEaP workshops starting in August 2016 may contact Trina McMahon at

Author: Sam Million-Weaver