School of Management professor Fran Zollers G'74 flashes a handful of her "muddiest-point" cards, which she uses to improve student learning.
Fran Zollers G'74, professor of law and public policy, is a no-nonsense person who doesn't mince words. Equally adept and highly regarded as a teacher and researcher, she rejects what she labels "the false dichotomy" between teaching and research. "They are the two essential, mutually reinforcing activities of a great center of learning," she asserts. "But for far too long, teaching didn't get equal respect."|
Today, as teaching undergoes a great revival in higher education, Zollers plays multiple roles on a broad stage. A member of the select national Peer Review of Teaching Project, she helped launch the peer review movement and give it credibility. As a true believer, she proselytized on behalf of peer review in countless workshops and presentations from California to the United Kingdom. As a School of Management faculty member, she is a link to broader currents of change and a force for innovation. In her own classroom, she is an avid experimenter, constantly fine-tuning the techniques that bolster her reputation as an outstanding teacher.
Zollers's commitment to the concept of peer review in teaching rests on her conviction that it is perhaps the most effective way of elevating the status of the classroom art. "Until teaching shares the attribute of peer review with research, it's bound to take a back seat," she insists. "We talk with colleagues about our research and ask them to review it to make it better. Why not do the same with teaching? Peer review is a way to open up an ongoing dialogue on pedagogy and make teaching community property."
The "teaching portfolio" is a form of peer review Zollers helped to pioneer in the School of Management. A course portfolio opens with the instructor's intellectual argument for the course and a rationale for the approach. It documents the progress of the course and its outcomes using sample exams, student work, and student and instructor evaluations as instructive evidence. "Ideally, a portfolio displays my methods and effectiveness as a teacher," Zollers says. "It's something I can share with colleagues. It marks the beginning of that hoped-for dialogue."
School of Management faculty members adopted peer review two years ago, and teaching portfolios are a virtual must. By coincidence, Zollers currently serves as co-chair of the faculty's promotion and tenure committee, which plays a key role in defining the criteria for professional advancement. When she suggests that "You can't begin to make a case for promotion or tenure without a portfolio," her words carry special weight. "As teaching assumes greater importance, we've got to have the culture and prototypes in place to manage the shift," she says.
In the classroom Zollers draws on an eclectic repertory of strategies and methodsmost of them inspired by or borrowed from colleagues. "Talking and working with groups and individuals focused on teaching has raised my self-awareness tremendouslythat's the great payoff of dialogue," she says. "I've become more conscious of every step in the teaching process. I'm continually probing the soft spots, determining who's getting the material and who's not-and finding all this out before the final exam, not after."
"Muddiest-point" cards are a simple yet effective diagnostic tooland a student favorite. When she completes a unit, Zollers passes out file cards asking students to complete this sentence: "I still don't understand (blank)." "If I get three or four similar responses, I know I have to go back over the material," she says. "I'm confident only when I can understand how they're learning, where the gaps are, and what it will take to fill them."
Among her students, Zollers is known as an exacting taskmaster. "She's dedicated, supportive, encouragingall the things a great teacher should be," a former student recalls. "But she won't let you off the hook. She holds her students to the same high standards by which she measures her own performance."