team teaching

Bill Purves purves at THUBAN.AC.HMC.EDU
Fri Jul 9 17:01:43 EST 1999

I'd like to comment on two closely related questions, both posed
by Jon.  The first concerns team teaching; the second, TEAM-

For my money, it's a mistake for a department to design a course
(introductory or otherwise) and then tell one or several people,
"You're going to teach it--follow our syllabus."  My preference
is to determine who's going to teach and then let her/him/them
teach what and how they feel it'll work for them.  Most instructors
know what they can do best, I think.  I'm not a believer in
having the accumulation of specific facts be the point of a course.
Put a nickel in me, and I'll bore you to tears explaining why
I think there is virtually NOTHING specific anybody needs to know
at the undergraduate level.  But I needed to say that so that
you would understand more completely why I believe in "instructor
autonomy."  It also will help you understand why I have never
lost any sleep, over decades as a department chair here and there,
about whether some topic is going to get short shrift.

I would recommend that department chairs, as a first step, find out
who WANTS to teach WHAT courses, and try to let that happen.
Faced with assigning people to introductory courses, my first
thought is to try to put your best foot forward in terms of who
is going to make the course attractive/interesting/rewarding to
the students.  The department is almost certainly going to have
a strong view (with luck, not TOO many conflicting ones) about
the basic content and sequencing within a year course.  If you
can identify the instructors first, that could be a factor in
deciding the sequence of broad topics.  And the actual
instructors should propose their own course design.

Why team-teach?  Sometimes it's essential because of the heavy
work load.  Sometimes there can be a wonderful synergism between
or among instructors.  I've experienced that more than once.
(And I'll confess that my favorite situation was teaching an
entire semester of an intro course all by myself, so such
synergisms were a terrific treat.)  In theory, students profit
by having experts staying close to their own expertise, which
is favored by the team approach.

Why not team-teach?  In practice, there is a great student
tendency to choose up sides.  As a department chair, I had
plenty of opportunity in three institutions to observe that
phenomenon.  And it's a phenomenon that can be devastating
to an instructor.  The choosing of sides can result from
real or perceived disparities in fairness, testing, etc.
Most commonly, it results from perceived differences in
faculty personalities--students may think it's a matter of
relative expertise, instructional skill, or whatever, but my
sense is that it's a perceived difference in faculty
attitudes and warmth to the students.

There are other pluses and minuses, but I think that's the
most dangerous minus... and this essay is going to be
long enough as it is.

As for TEAM teaching (Jon's "co-teaching"), I can offer a couple of
thoughts.  Some years ago, I TEAM-taught in that sense twice with a
friend--he was at Pomona College and I at Harvey Mudd (a 10-minute
walk separated our offices).  We did a joint plant physiology course.
That experiment ended with his untimely death.  (No, I didn't do it.)
I've also twice TEAM-taught a Harvey Mudd course called "Structure
and Function" (an unusual combination of elements of animal
physiology, anatomy, and biomaterials science, to a class consisting
primarily of engineering majors).  (We team-taught in the course in
the more traditional sense another half-dozen times, at least.)
T.J. Mueller and I have also taught four workshops (on lecture-free
learning and on designing multimedia learning aids) by this TEAM

The virtues of TEAM teaching are obvious.  If one instructor is
uncertain about something, the other may help.  Sometimes, one
instructor may be failing to get something across to one or more
students, and the other can perhaps succeed.  Our courses always
emphasized student participation/discussion, and having two
instructors on hand is especially useful in that situation.
Both instructors are fully aware of what the other has said.
In the courses I TEAM-taught, both instructors shared equally in
testing and grading.  We tried to sequence things in such a way
as to alternate between our respective areas of expertise, rather
than have A "up front" for the first half and B for the second half.

There can also be drawbacks to TEAM teaching.  I admire the married
couple who TEAM taught without ending in the divorce court ;-)
Seriously, the best of friends can sometimes find it wearing to
work together that closely.  In my experiences, all the instructors
held their egos in check.  But what do you do if one of the
instructors misspells every third technical term?  Constant
correction is rough all the way around; letting it go isn't ideal,
either.  Another danger is that the instructors can end up seeming
to lecture to each other (as the students see it).  A related
danger is that one or both instructors can feel threatened in the
sense of fearing to make mistakes.  This may or may not be sensed
by the students.  And students can choose up sides, as described
above.  I found that much less of a problem in the "TEAM" model
than in the "team" model, but I'm not sure why.  Perhaps it was
because the TEAM model spotlighted mutual respect:

A key is for the instructors to have great mutual respect.  That
can make up for other problems.  In my experiences, the students
gave the courses excellent evaluations, and many commented that
they had profited by sharing the productive interactions of two
instructors.  (BTW, our two-person Structure and Function team
separated for most of the term, the last time we taught the course,
because we were both feeling the mistake-angst I mentioned above.
And then we both left academe early--the next year--and went into
business together.  So the problem wasn't one of wounded friendship.)

(bill, ever garrulous)

William K. Purves      Vice President/Editorial Director
The Mona Group LLC                     West Coast Office
2817 N. Mountain Avenue              phone: 909.626.4859   
Claremont, CA 91711-1550               fax: 909.626.7030
              e-mail: purves at

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