Academy of Teaching and Learning Excellence Promotes Faculty Excellence and Learning Success at UA Little Rock
The University of Arkansas at Little Rock is home to a professional faculty development unit that promotes instructional excellence and student learning success for hundreds of hard-working faculty members every year.
Started in 2007, the Academy for Teaching and Learning Excellence’s (ATLE) mission is to foster excellence in teaching and learning through sharing ideas, collaboration, and building a strong community of engaged teachers and learners.
The academy is led by a trio of co-directors who serve three-year terms with one co-director rotating out every year to ensure an infusion of fresh ideas. The current co-directors are Dr. Tom Tudor, professor of management, Dr. Laura Barrio-Vilar, associate professor of English, and Dr. René Shroat-Lewis, associate professor of geology.
The academy hosts at least 12 Lunch and Learn events each academic year for faculty members to network and learn about teaching techniques and student success initiatives as well as multiple teaching moment programs for members to have direct learning experiences in a variety of classroom and on-campus settings. These events serve as a powerful way for UA Little Rock faculty to learn best teaching practices and share these practices with their colleagues and students. ATLE also sponsors mentorships, an orientation for new faculty members, community engagement opportunities, workshops, a faculty awards program, and a database of online faculty resources.
“Attending the professional development segments is a good boost for faculty members,” Barrio-Vilar said. “It’s a reminder that there is always something to learn and always something to do better. I wanted the kind of job that allowed me to be a lifelong learner and help others learn.”
The 2021-22 school year saw 283 faculty members participating in ATLE events during the fall 2021 semester and 319 during the spring 2022 semester. This year brought the creation of a new ATLE award – the Lifetime Teaching Commitment Award – to honor Dr. Amar Kanekar, the first person to earn more than 2,000 points from ATLE.
“All these sessions have provided me with a wholesome and well-rounded perspective into teaching, instruction, assessment, and student issues,” Kanekar said. “I have learnt so much from each and every session I have attended. I think all the sessions add to one’s understanding of teaching and learning as applicable to higher education.”
The idea for ATLE began with the late Provost David Belcher and former faculty members, Richard Ford, professor of economics, and Earl Ramsey, director of the Donaghey Scholars Honors Program. After visiting the University of Arkansas’s summer institute for teaching and learning, Ramsey and Ford met with Belcher and formed a committee of faculty members to investigate the idea of forming a professional development unit for faculty members on campus.
With funding from the Office of the Provost, faculty members Carol Thompson, Michael Kleine, and David McAlpine were selected to be the academy’s inaugural co-directors in 2007 and were tasked with getting the academy off the ground.
“We were excited and enthusiastic and dreamed of a time when the dominant conversation on campus would become how to enhance student learning,” said Thompson, a professor of applied communication. “Our first group of co-directors was dazzled by the opportunity to reach out to faculty to help us, together, find ways to enhance the students’ experience at UA Little Rock.”
They began by hosting the academy’s first professional development activities, called Lunch and Learns, though they originally called them Teaching Demonstrations. They also developed a mentoring program to match up faculty with students who would spend time together talking about teaching. This trio would also find and furnish ATLE’s office space in Dickinson Hall, where it is still located today, and hire the program’s first graduate assistants to help with administration, publicity, and execution of ATLE’s events.
A $50,000 grant from the Ted and Virginia Bailey Foundation allowed ATLE to bring to campus many respected leaders in education to speak at UA Little Rock, including Harvard’s Richard Light, author of “Making the Most Out of College,” Mary Ellen Weimer, author of “Learner-Centered Teaching,” and Ken Bain, author of “What The Best College Professors Do.”
The co-directors refer to ATLE as “the most efficient unit on campus” with the amount of programming they provide at a low cost. In 2019, Chancellor Christina Drale also made a $25,000 gift to create an endowed fund in support of ATLE to celebrate the start of her career as chancellor.
“I’m proud to have been involved with ATLE from its very beginnings when I served on the committee to establish the program,” J. Bradley Minnick, associate professor of English, said. “After serving as a co-director, I was one of the first ATLE fellows at the time Dr. Drale became chancellor and gave a gift to ATLE. It really gave us the sense that the chancellor was very much behind ATLE. We all wanted opportunities for faculty members to have more workshops and resources to work more effectively, and we thank her so much for her support.”
The COVID-19 pandemic brought challenges with continuing programming, but faculty members persevered in finding ways to continue to provide professional development opportunities. Lunch and Learn events switched to an online format with boxed lunches being delivered by graduate students or picked up by faculty members.
“The ATLE provided lunches were very popular and appreciated by faculty that watched and participated in our programming through Zoom from their offices,” Tudor said.
ATLE also added the Monday Morning Mentor Series, which provides 20-minute mentor videos every week on topics in higher education. During the summer of 2020, ATLE co-directors met weekly with the Provost’s Advisory Committee to develop resources to assist faculty to switch to online education.
“As educators, we all have the opportunity to learn more,” Shroat-Lewis said. “We don’t come out of school being an excellent teacher. I’ve been a teacher for 22 years, and there is always something new to learn. I want to keep things exciting and innovative for my students.”