UW-L pioneers method of improving college teaching

Image of Susan Crutchfield, Bryan Kopp and Kelly Sultzbach sitting around a table with papers discussing.

A UW-L English faculty members discuss during a lesson study group meeting. Pictured from left, Susan Crutchfield, Bryan Kopp and Kelly Sultzbach.

A UW-La Crosse-based method of improving college teaching is turning heads on the other side of the world.

Bill Cerbin, director of UW-L’s Center for Advancing Teaching and Learning (CATL), recently led a workshop for 88 directors of teaching centers at universities and technical colleges across China. The workshop via video conference was about a teaching improvement activity he’s pioneered in higher education called lesson study.

Lesson study is getting a group of teachers together to study how they teach one single class lesson. It involves planning, teaching, observing and critiquing the lessons. Typically, the lesson is about a fundamental concept in the field that causes a lot of student hiccups. Teachers compare notes, not in attempt to produce the perfect lesson, but to get to the root of their students’ confusion. It’s not about what teachers do, but how students respond to instruction. Teachers walk away with an idea of how to create a more effective lesson.

The irony is lesson study’s origins started in the East — near China — in primary and secondary schools in Japan. However, the idea never caught on for use for higher education until Cerbin, with help from Bryan Kopp, director of CATL’s writing programs, developed a pilot lesson study project for UW-L in 2003. Cerbin then led workshops across the UW System. Today more than 150 teams of about 500 faculty from all UW System schools have done lesson study to improve teaching and learning. The Chinese discovered it on the CATL project website.

Headshot image of Bill Cerbin

Bill Cerbin, director of the Center for Advancing Teaching and Learning.

Cerbin says higher education has a tradition of pedagogical solitude — faculty preparing for classes and teaching on their own. But trends toward doing classroom research and programs that bring faculty together to talk about common teaching and learning problems have contributed to a more public approach.

Lesson study is an opportunity to collectively improve teaching — not just in a classroom, but within an entire field.

“There are probably thousands of people teaching the same thing on the same day of the semester, completely unaware of how others are doing it,” says Cerbin. “From the moment I found out about lesson study, I was struck by how much sense it made for teachers — to collaborate in this specific way.”

Today teams of UW-L faculty in fields from chemistry to economics use lesson study to put student learning under the microscope. In a Business and Economics Research and Communication course, faculty have collectively explored why it is difficult for students to articulate research questions, how students use feedback on writing and how students can better understand the choice of an appropriate statistical test, says Elizabeth Knowles, senior lecturer in economics.

“Because the lesson study approach focuses on making student learning visible, it helps faculty identify the concepts that are hurdles for students — often these are not apparent because of ‘expert blind spots,’” she says.

Cerbin says teachers have an appetite to find ways to consistently improve their teaching — and they should.

“My personal view is that getting good at teaching is a career-long endeavor. It’s like any other profession in that way,” he says. “Would you want your physician to come out of medical school and never get better at his or her practice?”

Interested in finding out how you can do lesson study?


Visit www.uwlax.edu/sotl/lsp or contact Bill Cerbin at wcerbin@uwlax.edu or 608.785.6881.

Buy the book

Cerbin wrote a book “Lesson Study: Using Classroom Inquiry to Improve Teaching and Learning in Higher Education,” published in 2011.

“This is the way we can get teachers to improve their practice collectively and collaboratively.”