Four Steps for Writing about your Teaching Innovation

Violet Cheung, Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology, outlines four steps that helped her to turn a teaching innovation into a publication.

Violet Cheung

Too often we think of teaching and research as two separate endeavors – the former is our job and the latter a creative outlet. A paradigm shift for me was the phrase “teaching innovation” and the realization that you are innovating when you develop a unique course or improve an existing course. We are accustomed to sharing our research in journals, but we often don’t think of writing about our teaching in journals. Major innovations should not be hidden but shared with peers. As Saera Khan writes in her blog post “Strategies for Turning your Teaching into Publication,” there are many journals that may be interested in publishing your innovations in teaching. This paradigm shift has proven personally fulfilling to me and my coauthor and has expanded my perspective on scholarship.

While I have to admit that I wasn’t prepared for the long process involved in publishing our teaching innovation, it was easier once I saw how to breakdown the process. An important part entailed making ideas explicit–first verbally and then in print. Below I outline four steps to write about your teaching innovation:

1. Adopt a problem-solution framework to articulate your innovation

If it is hard to think of yourself as an innovator, then trying thinking of yourself as a problem-solver. Chances are that the unique student population, the unique course materials, or the unique class size has presented challenges to you in your teaching. As a dedicated educator, you adapt your teaching to address many of these challenges. Little by little, semester by semester, you have drifted far away from the traditional delivery of the course, and now you may have an innovation in your hand. Ask yourself “What problem did I try to solve?” and “What is my solution?” Turn your answers into a short elevator speech so that you can succinctly describe the problem-solution pair.

2. Ask colleagues to affirm the value of your innovation

Share your elevator speech with a colleague in your department and/or with a colleague at a different institution to see if there is interest and an audience for your innovation. Watch their reactions. If they say, “I don’t see how your method is different” or “I see why it works at your institution but nowhere else” then you will need to continue to adapt. If the reactions are more positive, such as, “Can I try using your teaching method in my class?” or “Why didn’t I think of it?” then you know this may be an important contribution.

If you received positive feedback, then listen carefully to the comments from your future readers because they may be able to articulate the benefits of your innovation better than you can. There are two reasons for this. First, they have the buyer’s point of view whereas you have the seller’s point of view. Guess which is more appealing to journal editors? Second, your colleagues can tell you the first benefit that comes to mind whereas you may be thinking of multiple benefits. Sometimes it is not possible to write about all of them because each comes with its own set of literature, and your colleague’s opinion becomes important when you have to focus on one benefit.

3. Document the efficacy of your innovation

As you search for appropriate journals, it may make sense to look for the journal’s typical data reporting style. For example, in psychology and other social sciences, data collection methods may fall along the lines of quantitative vs. qualitative, subjective data vs. objective data, comparison between class sections of different instruction styles vs. comparison of the same class section from the start to the end of the semester. Understanding the journal’s expectations for data reporting will help you determine how much you’ll need to document the effectiveness/efficacy of your innovation.

4. Familiarize yourself with the teaching literature in your field

As you investigate different journal outlets, tag relevant articles and read them. At first, It may seem an arduous task to learn the jargons and major divisions in the literature, but this is important because you want to make sure you cite the relevant literature and frame the context for your teaching innovation. If you want to write about teaching in your field, it is your responsibility to know what has been published previously and situate your innovation within the existing literature.

While I worked through this process, I came to appreciate the connection between my teaching and research, and I have been able to participate in meaningful conversations with my colleagues about teaching innovations and how to get started in the publication process. Publishing your innovative teaching methods can be a valuable way to bring together your research and your teaching.

Strategies for Turning your Teaching into Publication

Saera Khan,  professor in the Department of Psychology, shares different approaches to identifying your pedagogical strategy and how to turn it into a publication.

Saera Khan
Saera Khan,  professor in the Department of Psychology

Professors take pride in their high caliber teaching, and when we innovate in our teaching, our primary goal is to create unique and original curricula or techniques to maximize our students’ understanding and critical analysis of the material. However, our efforts and engagement in teaching need not be limited to the students in our classroom. Academic journals and conferences devoted to sharing pedagogical innovations, strategies, challenges, and best practices (to name a few) exist so that others may benefit.

Identify your Strategy

To help you get started in thinking about how to turn your teaching into a publication, we created this non-exhaustive list of potential categories of types of articles you may write on your curricular innovations:

  1. Innovative teaching strategies, exercises, or assignments. My colleague, Violet Cheung created an original teaching exercise to help advanced research methods students learn about the statistical concepts of reliability and subjective data. Together, we refined her technique and tested the utility of this exercise over several semesters of this course. We presented our findings at the Annual Teaching of Psychology Conference.
  2. Curriculum design. Department members may collaborate to create learning goals and outcomes for specific courses as well as the overall program structure. Programs may take on a unique philosophy or pedagogical approach when student populations are considered in the design. In this case, a specific course may not be the focus per se, but rather how courses are designed and sequenced in relation to each other to create a comprehensive program.
  3. Case studies and storytelling in teaching. A narrative approach may teach a concept far more powerfully than a lecture. When we cover depression and suicide in my general psychology course, I present the true story of a young woman whose struggles with mental illness ends in tragedy. The story also allows us to explore the complexities in working with young adults suffering from severe depression as well as the right to privacy between college-aged students and their families.
  4. Narratives or reflections on teaching a particular course, population, etc. Teaching articles need not be geared towards teaching students. Your article can be a meta essay exploring broader themes or concepts about your challenges or joys in teaching. For example, one of my colleagues is writing an article on teaching a course as a queer woman of color.
  5. Adapting your course or teaching to a specific population. As our student populations diversify, our pedagogical strategies may need adaptation to reach all our students. Share how your teaching has grown more inclusive to students’ needs. Several of my colleagues are writing articles on adapting their teaching to support a high number of international students in their classes.

Please note that not all ideas fit neatly into one category exclusively and that your idea may be worthy even if it does not fit any of these categories!

Choose a Journal

After going through this exercise, your next step is to target a journal within your discipline and research the requirements. The ACRL Instruction Section Research and Scholarship Committee has a list to help find journals devoted to teaching in general and specific discipline areas.

Three Questions to Evaluate Your Probability for Success

There are three questions you need to ask yourself to evaluate your chances for success.

  1. Ask yourself: how will you evaluate success? In other words, what forms of persuasion can you use that will convince the reader that your ideas are worth trying?
  2. What previous articles have been published in the journals you are interested in? This will give you an idea of whether or not your article is a good fit for the journal or addresses an unmet gap in your field.
  3. Do I need to collect data to show evidence of my teaching approach, curricular innovation, or of student learning? For some of you, collecting pre and post intervention data is advisable and it may even be required for some teaching journals. For others, collecting students’ feedback specifically on your technique or exercise is sufficient.