DCAL’s New Director on the Art and Science of Teaching

When Lisa Baldez joined Dartmouth’s government department a decade ago, the Dartmouth Center for the Advancement of Learning (DCAL) was just forming—and Baldez, who officially took over as director of DCAL in November, thought she already knew how to teach.

“Part of why I came to Dartmouth was because Dartmouth cares about teaching,” says Baldez, who chairs the Latin American, Latino, and Caribbean Studies program. “I thought of myself as a good teacher. But I found teaching very challenging. The difference between a good class and a bad class, a good lecture and a bad lecture, seemed random.”

“What makes Dartmouth distinctive is the scholar-teacher model. Our best teachers are our most productive, world-class scholars,” says Professor Lisa Baldez, director of Dartmouth’s Center for the Advancement of Learning. (Photo by Eli Burakian ’00)

For Baldez, workshops at DCAL, then under the leadership of its founding director, English Professor Tom Luxon, helped. Before, when designing a course, she says, “I’d think, what books am I going to use, what assignments am I going to include? Because of DCAL workshops, now I start with the question: What do I want students to learn from this class? That makes everything more clear, because everything I do in the class is in the service of achieving the goal of students learning, rather than me teaching. It seems like a small shift, but it was a revelation to me.”

DCAL was created in 2004, through gifts from Gordon W. Russell ’55 and R. Stephen Cheheyl ’67, with a mission to “facilitate professional development for Dartmouth’s teachers and cultivate a community of conversation about how people learn.” Interdisciplinary and collaborative with campus institutions, including the Library, the Institute for Writing and Rhetoric, Educational Technologies, Graduate Studies, and the professional schools, DCAL offers faculty training opportunities, grants, and one-on-one consultation, among other services.

In announcing Baldez’s appointment to the Dartmouth community, Provost Carolyn Dever said, “DCAL plays a critical role in the advancement of Dartmouth’s core teaching mission. An award-winning teacher in her own right, Lisa brings exactly the right combination of dedication, experience, and vision to this leadership role.”

As Baldez found out when she began attending early DCAL workshops, and later served on the center’s faculty advisory board, DCAL offers both new and experienced faculty a place to talk about the nuts and bolts of their teaching practice. This includes an orientation for newly hired faculty, seminars on reinvigorating longstanding courses, and support for faculty who want to try new things in their pedagogy, from incorporating experiential learning in their curricula to experimenting with digital technologies and “flipped classroom” models.

“What makes Dartmouth distinctive is the scholar-teacher model. Our best teachers are our most productive, world-class scholars. When you are doing cutting-edge research in a particular field, you’re really engaged in experiential learning—learning by doing,” Baldez says. “DCAL has provided a place where faculty can share their knowledge and learn from one another, and that has been key to our success.”

DCAL is working in collaboration with many partners across the institution to develop major digital learning initiatives, including DartmouthX—the College’s foray into massive open online courses, or MOOCs, developed in partnership with edX. The first not-for-credit DartmouthX course, “Introduction to Environmental Science” with Andrew Friedland, the Richard and Jane Pearl Professor of Environmental Studies, launches Feb. 3; more than 4,000 students from around the world have already enrolled, and registration is still open. And through the Gateway Initiative, teams including faculty, librarians, instructional designers, media specialists, and graduate students have been redesigning introductory-level “gateway” courses to enhance student learning.

The priority for all these experiments, Baldez says, is to learn what faculty can bring back to Dartmouth’s classroom experience. “President Hanlon talks about how the value proposition of higher education is changing,” she says, noting that technology has made knowledge more accessible than ever. “That said, Dartmouth has a real advantage in terms of the connection between research and teaching that has always existed here. We can think deliberately and consciously about putting teaching and learning first, and then look at how experiential learning and digital technologies can enhance that.”

As DCAL’s director, Baldez plans to continue to expand the center’s core mission to be “a place where faculty and staff throughout the institution can get resources to do what they want in the field of teaching and learning.” In the next couple of years, DCAL plans to provide resources that will allow faculty to enhance existing courses by integrating experiential and digital learning opportunities, create new courses, and conduct research on teaching and learning in their fields.

“As a faculty member, I know what the teacher-scholar model means at Dartmouth—and the kinds of pressures and opportunities that can entail,” she says. “I see myself as somebody who can translate the science of teaching and learning to faculty members who are not familiar with it.”