Building a teaching culture:

The Instructional Skills Workshop in Hong Kong


R.A. Smith, M. Pang, K. B. Chuah[1]

City University of Hong Kong



            A scholarship of teaching and learning should contribute to “foster[ing] significant, long-lasting learning for all students” and to “enhance[ing] the practice and profession of teaching” (Carnegie Foundation booklet, 1999). Such a scholarship will “entail a public account of some or all of the full act of teaching … in a manner susceptible to critical review by the teacher’s professional peers and amenable to productive employment in future work by members of that same community” (Shulman, 1998, p. 6). Shulman has also argued that we need to move beyond “pedagogical solitude” and towards treating “teaching as community property” (Shulman, 1993). 


The Instructional Skills Workshop (ISW) provides one method of moving beyond pedagogical solitude and towards creating a more public peer review of teaching with a view to enabling improvements in practice to take place. The ISW model was developed in the late 1970s in Canada (Kerr, 1980; Morrison, 1985; Wilbee, 1997), and continues to be implemented widely in Canada and the United States.  The ISW is an example of a peer-based approach to instructional development where colleagues work with colleagues (Morrison, 1997).


In this paper we will describe the implementation of the ISW program at CityU, including the training of ISW facilitators and the reactions of participants. The paper is divided into five parts:


·        What is an ISW?

·        What is involved in starting an ISW program in a university?

·        The process behind becoming an ISW facilitator.

·        Reflections of a participant in an ISW.

·        Suggestions for future directions.


What is an ISW?


The Instructional Skills Workshop (ISW) is laboratory approach to the improvement of learning and teaching. It is an intensive 4-day workshop, about 24 hours long, conducted by academic staff for academic staff. Each workshop can accommodate only 4-6 participants. During the workshop participants review basic ideas about teaching, check current practices, and within the safe environment of the workshop, try out new strategies and techniques. Participants are encouraged to engage actively as learners while the other participants give their mini-lessons, and to give honest, helpful, non-judgmental feedback immediately following the mini-lessons.


The goal of the workshop is for participants, by the end of the workshop, to be able to:


During the workshop each participant prepares and conducts three 10-minute mini-lessons. The mini-lesson instructors receive feedback for the other workshop participants on the effectiveness of their lessons.


The mini-lesson should be designed as a complete instructional segment and should deal with topics/ideas/content that will provide new learning for the other participants. The “learners” in the lesson should not be playing a role (e.g., “imagine you are in the third week of a course in calculus”), but rather they should be “students” who are really learning something. The Handbook for Participants states that “The mini-lesson for the ISW is built around the following five lesson basics:


·        Bridge-in — explains the value of the lesson to the learner, provides motivation.

·        Objective — what must the learner do? Under what conditions? How well?

·        Pre-test — identifies any prior knowledge and whether or not the learner can already accomplish the objective.

·        Participatory learning — the learner is as actively involved in the learning process as possible.

·        Post-test — determines if the learner has indeed learned…


The ten-minute time limit [that is used in the ISW] forces editing and concise planning. Also, there is more than sufficient data generated during the ten minutes on instruction to provide for feedback. If the lesson were longer, the feedback could not focus as well on a few teaching strengths and areas for growth. The aim is to identify areas for improvement without overloading, and to give [the teacher] the confidence to work toward that improvement…


While the actual instructional time in a mini-lesson is only 10 minutes, the total time needed, including planning and feedback, is 40 minutes.


·        Preparation — 10 minutes. The facilitator consults with instructor to select forms, discuss points to be observed, and reassure; the instructor sets up teaching space in preparation for the lesson.

·        Lesson — 10 minutes. The instructor teaches mini-lesson to other participants; the facilitator videotapes lesson, makes observations, and prepares for feedback session.

·        Written feedback — 7 minutes. Facilitator hands out selected feedback forms and gives any required directions.

·        Verbal feedback from learners — 13 minutes. Facilitator conducts oral feedback session, ensuring that the instructor receives and understands the comments of the participants; facilitators records/summarizes feedback for the instructor.” (1993, p. 5-6). [Sometimes the feedback session is also taped so the instructor has the tape of the lesson and the feedback.]


This 40-minute cycle is repeated for each participant three times during the workshop.


Starting the ISW at CityU


There are three major issues involved in starting an ISW programme at any institution: the recruitment and the training of the first group of ISW facilitators, and then conducting the ISW program.


No staff at CityU had participated in an ISW, nor did they know anything about the program. Thus, the recruitment strategy needed to explain the ISW program and then encourage them to volunteer for a five-day intensive facilitator training program, which if successful would enable them to lead the 4-day ISW program on their own. We decided to focus on staff who had already demonstrated their interest and skill in teaching; namely, our 30 Teaching Excellence Award Winners. From the nine who expressed interest, five were able to make the training program in June 2000.


The benefits of the workshop (for both the facilitators and the participants) is that it provides participants with professional development opportunity where they can:

·        Work closely with their peers to improve their teaching

·        Practice a variety of instructional techniques

·        Receive valuable feedback from their peers

·        “Recharge their batteries”

·        Connect with colleagues from their own and other disciplines.


The initial training program for ISW facilitators is complicated by the fact that none of the participants have experienced the basic ISW. Thus, the Facilitator Development Workshop (FDW) is a five-day training program that includes a basic ISW in addition to preparing the participants to run the program themselves.  The trainers for the FDW included one person (Ron) from CityU who had been trained as a facilitator in Canada and one person from the UAE who was one of the original ISW facilitators when the program started in Canada.


After completing the FDW, the participants have run two ISWs, one in September 2000 and one in January 2001. Both of those programs were quite successful and we will now turn to an examination of the roles of facilitator and participant in these programs. 

Becoming an ISW facilitator



The opportunity — When I (Mary) initially signed up for the FDW, I had no idea what it entailed.  At that point I was simply glad that an opportunity had arisen for me to engage in some professional development.  The timing was critical.  I was feeling lost and awash, questioning whether I wanted to continue in an academic career.  My ambivalence was due to the combination of the following factors.


A year before signing up for the FDW I had won the City University Teaching Excellence Award.  However, to be frank, I simply did not regard myself as a particularly good (never mind excellent) teacher.  Winning the award had only given me additional pressures.  Learning how to teach had been an expensive experiment, a combination of on-the-job training and trial and error.  Yet, while I seemed to have been quite fortunate in having hit upon a style which the students liked and which I felt comfortable adopting, nevertheless I was frustrated and felt a fraud.  Because the reality was that for about six years I had suppressed a complex: that I had never received any formal teacher training to prepare me for a career in tertiary level education.  My license to teach was my PhD, and that is no more than training in research skills as opposed to developing teaching competencies.  The fact that the majority of colleagues and peers around me were in the same situation was no consolation.


So, it was with immense relief and some trepidation (as there was very little information available) that upon receiving the invitation, I joined this course.  The fact that the FDW/ISW promised to be highly interactive/participative and not ‘just another teaching seminar’ was a great attraction.  By that time I was rather sceptical of the latter type, and had found attending such lectures of little help – they were simply ‘too theoretical’ as the students would say.  While the sparse information from the flyer indicated that ‘homework’ would be assigned, I was unprepared for the actual workload.  In fact what I had committed myself to was an ISW- Facilitator Development Workshop, which meant that not only was I participating as a learner in an ISW, I was simultaneously being trained up to conduct future ISWs too.  It was fortuitous that I was ignorant of this fact, otherwise I might have hesitated longer before signing up!  This brings me onto the next issue of the ‘opportunity cost’ in terms of time. 


The opportunity cost — The academic job is multi-faceted and we are required to constantly juggle our time to tackle teaching, research and administrative duties.  However, the reality is that research has a much more prominent place in performance assessments for promotion, contract renewals, tenure decisions, etc, and the academic is under constant and strong pressures to produce research outputs.  Given this situation, a rational person would invest time in research rather than endeavouring to further develop his/her teaching competencies.  Consequently, surrendering ‘valuable time’ (five days) to the noble cause of improving one’s teaching skills (when one has already be recognized as being a good teacher with a teaching award) may appear to be a somewhat reckless decision.  But as reported above, I had my own very personal reasons for signing up for the ISW+FDW.


In fact, it was difficult in practice to focus and concentrate during those 5 days.  The course was conducted on campus, and needless to say there were all sorts of distractions (checking voice mail and returning urgent work-related calls; attending important meetings such as exam boards, etc).  After a long day in this workshop, it was back to the office to catch up on urgent administrative duties, and to do the homework in preparation for the next day’s workshop.  It was exhausting.


Rewards and incentives


Anticipated — The most pressing reason for signing up for this program was my own professional development.  I felt good that I was proactively addressing the problem of my complex of not having had formal teacher training.  Apart from the intrinsic rewards stemming from this, there were extrinsic rewards that were anticipated, such as, subsequent attainment of higher teaching evaluations by students and hence even perhaps achieving some job recognition on the teaching side.


Actual — The reality was that the rewards were much greater and broader than anticipated.  Certainly I had fulfilled the professional development aspect.  I had been able to learn an instructional approach within a safe environment.  I received invaluable constructive feedback from peers for each of the multiple roles we were required to adopt in the workshop – that of learner, participant and facilitator.  It was indeed multi-level learning.


Personally there was a major element of self-development too.  The whole experience of the workshop helped me to reaffirm at this crucial point in my life that I had been fortunate to stumble quite accidentally into ‘my vocation’.  The experience was therapeutic, and in fact it was figuratively speaking the opening of emotional floodgates for me.  I was able to air my frustrations, fears and grievances – all within a highly supportive environment created by people who were in the field and who were empathetic.


This brings me onto the last part of the actual rewards I attained from this entire process, that of ‘bonding’.  Having survived the trials and tribulations and ‘exposed myself’ professionally and emotionally in front of four other peers, I found that by the end I had established some very good relationships with colleagues whom I would otherwise not have had the opportunity to get to know on this level.  Indeed, I think we all enjoyed and valued the camaraderie built up in those five days.


Co-facilitating an ISW


Unbeknownst to me when I had initially signed up for the workshop, [I had not read the fine print!] it was always intended that upon successful completion of the workshop, I (along with one of the other 4 FDW participants) would co-facilitate an ISW to provide such training for other faculty at the University.  By the end of my FDW, I was so convinced of the value of the ISW, that I required little persuasion to agree to run an ISW. 


All the issues regarding time constraints mentioned above are the same for facilitating an ISW.  In fact the opportunity cost was somewhat greater.  Running an ISW could be perceived in fact as philanthropy – using my own time to help someone else, since we were not compensated financially for this, nor were we alleviated of any other of our normal duties within the department to facilitate an ISW. 


Consequently the incentives to agreeing to run an ISW are less, and therefore this issue needs to be addressed if there are plans to make ISWs more popular, as facilitators need to be convinced that doing these workshops are not just an additional burden to their other duties in the University.  At the moment, the reward relies heavily on the intrinsic – the satisfaction gained from having made a contribution to helping colleagues and the University move one step closer towards building a higher teaching culture. 


Reflections of an ISW participant


Motivation to participate in the ISW


Like many university teachers today, I (Bing) was able to get into the academy mainly on the strength of my research ability. In other words, I became a university teacher without any prior knowledge or training about the art and science of university teaching. To me a career and life in a university offers a never-ending opportunity for learning and the exploration of the world of the mind and ideas. Nowadays, regardless of the overwhelming emphasis university management places on an academic’s research performance, I still subscribe unwaveringly to the idea that teaching is the inherent part of academic life. To teach well and effectively is an obligation that cannot be shirked.


Research enhances an academic’s knowledge and complements his/her teaching but will not necessarily improve his/her teaching expertise and skill. Apart from the few naturally gifted teachers, most of us need to put in a conscious effort to develop and improve our teaching skill and style. I firmly believe that innovation in teaching not only improves the effectiveness of student learning but is also a means of making teaching more interesting and challenging. Lifelong learning applied to teaching is about the continuous improvement in one’s course content design as well as delivery. I remind myself to always be on the look out for better teaching methodologies and technological aids. It is with this in mind that I registered for the CityU’s first ISW.


My Expectations of the ISW


I came to the workshop with several expectations. Firstly, I was hoping to learn some new techniques or skills that would help to improve the effectiveness of my teaching of large class of students with mixed background and ability under the new Credit Unit system. Unlike in the past, courses are no longer programme-based or programme-driven. My class sizes have more than doubled in the last few years with the enrolment of students from different programmes and departments. The background of students is no longer homogenous.  I was beginning to feel that my proven teaching practices of the past were no longer as effective.


Secondly, I understood that ISW was to be an intensive, activity-based training workshop. I was therefore looking to share with and learn from fellow ISW participants’ good or not-so-good moments and experiences as teachers. To me, effective teaching is less of a science than an art and requires much “learning by doing”.


Thirdly, I was very much expecting that through the ISW I could experience a more intensive, mutually supportive type of peer evaluation of my teaching style. I would be able to have my weaknesses and strengths identified so that I could work more specifically on the former and enhance the latter.


My ISW Experience


For me, the most valuable aspect of the workshop was the action-based and experiential learning through the three mini lesson cycles for each participant. They enabled everyone to be actively involved in and as a result, contribute to each other's learning and development.


The mini-lesson cycle provides a simple to use teaching model that incorporates all the basic elements of effective teaching. Through these mini-lessons, each participant can take turns to experiment with and experience different teaching techniques or styles, as well as experience the effects on them as learners. The mini-lesson basics provide a common framework for subsequent feedback and discussion among the participants.


In addition, interlaced in between and complementing the mini-lesson cycles were several themes sessions led by the ISW facilitators about teaching, learning, feedback and assessment. The facilitators’ roles and inputs were invaluable in helping to lead, draw out and guide discussions throughout the ISW.


It is difficult to pinpoint or quantify the benefits I personally have gained from the ISW. However, I have certainly left the workshop with some new ideas and tools that I would like to try out, good practices and style that I could follow, and most of all a clearer understanding of some of my weaknesses in my teaching style and classroom delivery practices.


Improving the ISW


If I was re-designing the workshop, I would be a bit flexible on the duration of the mini-lessons, especially the final one. This would allow a participant to try out some new ideas or newly learned techniques in a more realistic manner. I feel that it would be better to have such a workshop off-campus say, as a teaching retreat, to minimize the occasional interruptions that would be inevitable in the participants’ “home ground”.


Finally, I also want to say that it is a great idea to have such kind of developmental workshops conducted and facilitated by one’s own teaching colleagues for other fellow teaching colleagues. To me this is one big step beyond the concept of peer evaluation and staff development. Bravo, ISW!


Future directions and challenges


            Even with the very positive reactions and enthusiastic responses of the early adopters of the ISW program at CityU, its continued success of the ISW program will depend on our ability to resolve several difficult challenges. First, we will need to invent ways to change the teaching culture so that the hard work of the facilitators and participants is recognized within the institution. Without this, we will probably be unable to sustain the momentum we have established. 


            We need to experiment with alternative formats and venues. We need to see if the program could be run successfully in a three-day format, or one day a week over four weeks. We need to find the resources to support off-campus sites. In North America they are experimenting with a technology-oriented ISW, as well as one that is focused only on presentation skills. If we can build up a number of trained facilitators who are recognized for their contributions to the teaching culture of the University, then we will be able to experiment with some of these alternatives.


            We believe the ISW program reflect some aspects of the scholarship of teaching and learning as articulated by Carnegie: it builds on what is known, it makes practice public in a supportive yet critical environment, and it creates knowledge which can be used by others. And most importantly it helps us move beyond pedagogical solitude to begin to create a community of practitioners where the practice and profession can be enhanced.





Kerr, D. W. The Instructional Skills Program. Unpublished Ministry of Education major paper, University of British Columbia, Vanvouver. 1980.


Morrison, D. E. “The Instructional Skills Workshop: An Inter-institutional Approach.” To Improve the Academy, 1985, 4, 75-83.

Morrison, D. E. “Overview of Instructional Consultation in North America.” In K Brinko and R Menges (eds.), Practically Speaking: A Sourcebook for Instructional Consultants in Higher Education. Stillwater, OK: New Forums Press, 1997.


Shulman, L. S. “Teaching as Community Property.” Change, November/December, 1993, p 6-7.


Shulman, L. S. “Course Anatomy: The Dissection and Analysis of Knowledge through Teaching.” In Hutchings, P. (ed.). The Course Portfolio: How Faculty Can Examine Their Teaching to Advance Practice and Improve Student Learning. Washington, DC: AAHE, 1998.


Wilbee, J.  “The Instructional Skills Program: A Peer-based Model of the Improvement of Teaching and Learning.” In K. Brinko and R. Menges (eds.), Practically Speaking: A Sourcebook for Instructional Consultants in Higher Education. Stillwater, OK: New Forums Press, 1997.


[1] R. Smith is Director of the Center for the Enhancement of Learning and Teaching, M. Pang is Associate Professor in Management, K. B. Chuah is Associate Professor in Manufacturing Engineering and Engineering Management.