The sheer brilliance of the Teaching Square is the inter-disciplinary focus that allows faculty to emerge from their silos and understand greater trends of student learning needs.
Teaching Squares offer instructors a professional development tool that can be utilized in multiple settings across a campus. They are informal groups of 4 individuals from different disciplines who observe each other’s classes in the spirit of discovery and self-reflection rather than evaluation or critique. Teaching Squares foster dialogues on teaching and learning topics and prove insightful to disciplinary ways of knowing, thinking, and teaching. They provide practitioners opportunities to explore strategies for adjusting to different situational factors including class size, modality, sequence and progression, demographics, engagement levels, assessment practices, teaching styles, and more. Members typically meet over the course of one semester; however, faculty often find themselves collaborating and building friendships beyond the Teaching Square. To this end, literature points to deeper learning emerging from collaborative and social projects and activities, but effective teaching also rests on these pillars.
The original development of Teaching Squares is attributed to Anne Wesley at St. Louis Community College, and the practice has been adopted by many North American Institutions over the past several years. We have only recently been promoting the use Teaching Squares at the University of Central Florida, but they have caught on very quickly due to their focus on appreciative inquiry and their structural facility to promote collegial dialogues.
The Teaching Squares framework includes preconditions of empathy, respect, team-based collaborations, and strict adherence to non-evaluation: all outcomes should refer to observing self in teaching squares rather than offering suggestions for improvements to someone else. The process is simple.
Typically, an organizing unit like a teaching center functions as docent and matchmaker for the squares, but faculty members can form their own squares. Each square is comprised of four instructors of any rank or program. Squares work best when they are multi-disciplinary. The square meets early in the semester to make introductions, exchange course materials, and schedule visits and subsequent meetings.
Each square member visits the other three member’s classes at least once. During the visits, the observing instructor is careful to suspend judgement while doing their best to fulfill the role of peer-student, maintaining curiosity and empathy for how others experience and present their teaching persona, interact with students, or design their lessons, etc.
Towards the end of the semester, the square meets again, whether remotely, on campus, or at a local coffee shop. They share their discoveries, ask questions, and further explore their professional and personal stories. Often square members confirm the need for future interdisciplinary collaborations as they experience what it is like to be a student and novice again, appreciating how the ways of being, knowing, teaching, and doing can vary quite much at a university. They often, too, come to believe that students should be better taught these disciplinary differences in their foundation courses.
The Teaching Square principle concepts are to extend conversation and collaboration across disciplines, modalities, and course designations, contributing to the intellectual growth and professional development of teaching faculty. Teaching Squares push the teaching faculty to think outside their comfort zones.
UCF piloted Teaching Squares as part of the GEP Refresh, allowing faculty to explore other courses outside their department and college. One chief advantage of the use of Teaching Squares in GEP courses is that if faculty from other areas do not understand your class, how can we expect students to?
Teaching Squares were also used as a tool by the UCF Faculty Center for Teaching and Learning (FCTL) Knighted Faculty Credentialing (KFC) Program, under the tutelage of Dr. Ann Miller and Eric Main. The Teaching Square initiative was introduced during the darkest hours of the pandemic. It moved participants from skeptical to open-minded to a mini community of colleagues. For example, because of this endeavor, faculty learned to connect with students in online courses using a variety of tools and strategies with a focus on equity and inclusion, especially given the challenges revealed by the pandemic.
For one square, it nudged individuals to reshape courses based on reflection on the work of peers and on our own professional blind spots. The Teaching Square experience provided support as we worked to ensure our students had successful learning experiences during a time when many thought this seemingly normal goal and accomplishment would prove unlikely. We did it and they did it.
Professional Development Opportunities
A Teaching Square can also blossom into other professional development opportunities that can further promote student learning. For example, our Teaching Square evolved into a Center for Distributed Learning Course Redesign Initiative to assist diverse populations of students in their transition from high school, community college, or state colleges to a large research university, such as UCF. To this point, UCF is a Hispanic Serving Institution (HSI), only 1 of 17 HSI Designated Research 1 institution in the country. In Fall 2021, 49 percent of our students identified as minorities, and 27.8 percent were Hispanic. Moreover, UCF admits a substantial number of transfer students to enroll in upper-division classes. Many students struggle with these transitions.
As a result, our Teaching Square created a series of bilingual modules to support student success. The first module is “A Welcome to UCF” module with information on
Each module has an instructor’s guide, a student-facing module description with learning objectives, an AAC&U Value rubric, and adaptive Materia activities that can be used for extra credit points or as a financial aid activity, if an institutional requirement.
The sheer brilliance of the Teaching Square is the inter-disciplinary focus that allows faculty to emerge from their silos and understand greater trends of student learning needs. They are used at many institutions with different teaching faculty who come from different disciplines, practices, offices, and levels of experience. For example, a combination of librarian, advisor, instructional designer, and in-classroom faculty will provide a synergetic learning experience for students.
View a video that details the experiences of several UCF faculty members who piloted a Teaching Square during Faculty Center programming in Fall 2020. For more information about Teaching Squares, refer to Teaching Squares at UCF.
American Association of Colleges and Universities. (2022) Value rubrics. Retrieved April 20, 2022, from https://www.aacu.org/initiatives/value-initiative/value-rubrics
Berenson, C. The Teaching Squares Guide: Observe and Reflect on Teaching and Learning. The University of Calgary Taylor Institute for Teaching and Learning. https://taylorinstitute.ucalgary.ca/resources/teaching-squares-guide-observe-reflect-on-teaching-learning
Canova, G., Farless, P., Fernandez-Rubiera, F., Hubertz, M. (2021, March). I’m In love with the shape of you. Faculty Focus, 20 (1), 16-17. https://fctl.ucf.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/15/2021/03/FF_2021_March.pdf
Haave, Neil. (2018, July 31). Teaching squares bring cross-disciplinary perspectives. Faculty Focus: Higher Ed Teaching Strategies, https://www.facultyfocus.com/tag/interdisciplinary-connections/
Martinez, A., Garcia, N.m. AN OVERVIEW OF R1 Hispanic Serving Institutions: Potential for Growth and Opportunity. Retrieved April 20, 2022, from https://cmsi.gse.rutgers.edu/sites/default/files/HSI_Report_R2_0.pdf
National Association of Colleges and Employers. (2022). Competencies. Retrieved April 20, 2022, from https://www.naceweb.org/career-readiness/competencies/
Northern Virginia Community College, The Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning (CETL) (2015). Teaching Squares. Retrieved April 20, 2022, from http://www.nvcc.edu/cetl/_files/CETLTeaching-Squares-Program-Manual-Spring-2015.pdf
Teaching Squares Handbook. (n.d.) University of Central Florida Karen L. Smith Faculty Center for Teaching and Learning, Retrieved April 20, 2022, from https://fctl.ucf.edu/programs/teaching-squares/
Vanderbilt Center for Teaching (n.d.). Teaching Visits Observation and Discussion Guide. Retrieved April 20, 2022, from https://cft.vanderbilt.edu/tvinstructions/
What are teaching squares? (n.d.) Appalachian State: Center for Academic Excellence. Retrieved April 20, 2022, from https://cae.appstate.edu/workshops-programs/courses-programs/teaching-squares
Eric Main, M.A., Associate Director, Faculty Center for Teaching and Learning, University of Central Florida, Eric.Main@ucf.edu
Martha Hubertz, Ph.D., Associate Lecturer, Department of Psychology, University of Central Florida, Martha.Hubertz@ucf.edu
Patricia Farless, M.A., Senior Instructor, Department of History, University of Central Florida, Patricia.Farless@ucf.edu