Creating a Teaching Dossier

Tile mosaic of hands reaching after a doveThe teaching dossier can help you improve your teaching by allowing you to reflect upon your teaching philosophy, methods of teaching, and your students’ learning. For teaching assistants (TAs), it can also serve as an important document in an academic job application, or at the very least, it can help you prepare for an academic job interview. For faculty members, the dossier may help in the tenure review or promotion process. Several books and articles, some of which are listed at the end of this handout and are available from the Centre for Teaching Excellence (CTE) library, outline the basic components of the dossier. Here are some tips to keep in mind when creating your dossier.

Content

  • Decide on the purpose of the dossier. How do you want to use the dossier – for your own use, as part of an application for an academic position, or for tenure review or promotion? Customize it according to that purpose. Be selective; for example, a dossier that is only used for your own professional growth might not necessarily emphasize a syllabus in the same way a dossier for a job application would.
  • Realize that the dossier represents an argument. It should not function merely as a “container” of teaching materials. It is up to you to convincingly convey the meaning and significance of the evidence to your readers. The dossier should include a thesis statement (teaching philosophy), pieces of evidence, and descriptions and analyses of that evidence. You might also include future directions for further developing your teaching and your students’ learning in a goals section.
  • Start early and plan ahead. Get into the habit of collecting evidence about your teaching and putting it in a file. Don’t spend too much time sorting through items early on; you can select items from your file later. It’s easier to create a dossier from detailed material that you have collected over the years than from nothing at all. Save all of your student and peer evaluations. If early reviews were not that positive, use them to show how much you have improved. As well, many articles recommend keeping a journal of your teaching experiences to draw from later. It’s also beneficial to attend workshops on teaching and learning issues. CTE offers one workshop specifically on developing a teaching dossier.
  • Tailor your dossier specifically to reflect your teaching. There are some variations of the items included in a dossier simply because it is a highly individual document. If you are a TA and are looking at sample dossiers created by professors, keep in mind that your experiences in teaching may be different from theirs and that what might appear in one person’s dossier is not necessarily relevant for your own. For example, many courses that TAs teach are already pre-set in the content covered and methods of assessment. In such cases, it would be difficult to describe your own innovations in these areas. Here are some tips on how to deal with this situation:

    • Describe a course that you’d like to teach. You only need to provide a paragraph stating what the course will cover and the learning objectives.
    • Try writing up a syllabus for a course you’d like to teach. Consider how you could incorporate your area(s) of specialization into the course. To plan a course, you’ll need to consider issues in course design. It helps if you make a weekly schedule of topics and activities to cover. CTE has many publications on how to create a syllabus as well as on course design. When you’ve completed the syllabus, ask a professor in your discipline for feedback.
    • Prepare an assignment for a course you’d like to teach.
  • Teaching philosophy. This is perhaps the most difficult part of the dossier to write because there is no one correct way to do one and no one correct message to convey. The statement of a teaching philosophy should articulate why you do what you do as a teacher. If you have different teaching philosophies for different types of courses, think about providing a separate write-up for each category. For example, conducting a lab session might be different from holding a lecture

Format

  • Keep to a reasonable length. To ensure that your dossier is read in its entirety, it’s essential that you convey information about your teaching in a concise manner. Recommendations in length vary but generally your commentary may be up to 10 pages, and the whole document with appendices shouldn’t exceed 20 pages. Be selective; choose items that highlight your strengths and achievements and that your reader will find convincing. Refer your reader to appendices if you want to include detailed evidence such as student feedback or an example of teaching material. For teaching evaluations from students, group all students’ comments from a few classes under the main headings/questions. Another option is to ask a professor to provide you with a paragraph summary of the evaluations.
  • Think about the order of items. You can order the sections any way that you wish. However, the statement of teaching philosophy should probably appear either as the first or second item.
  • Label courses clearly. When listing courses taught, use the course title, not the University of Waterloo code, since other universities use may use different codes for the same or similar courses.
  • Use an appropriate writing style. Most examples use an informal style. Avoid dropping buzzwords such as “interactive” without providing a convincing explanation of how the term relates to your teaching.
  • Present your dossier professionally. Provide a clear contents list with clearly labeled appendices. Pay careful attention to grammar and spelling. Even though the style of the dossier is informal, you should proofread several times and also ask someone else to read your dossier.

Uses

  • Decide whether you should send the dossier as part of a job application. Generally, you should only send a dossier if a hiring committee requests one. However, even if very few ads request a dossier, it’s still a good idea to create one as it help to prepare you for the interview.
  • Consider sending selected sections of the dossier. For job ads that don’t request a dossier, you can still send your 1-page statement of teaching philosophy without worrying about burdening the hiring committee with too much information. Sometimes hiring committees ask for copies of teaching evaluations. If you’ve done a lot of teaching, sending copies can become quite expensive and can make your application too lengthy. You might consider sending the summary of students’ comments that you’ve included in your dossier. Group the responses verbatim under the question headings and indicate that you’ve used the students’ wording to reflect their thoughts about the course as accurately as possible. Also indicate, perhaps in your cover letter, that originals are available on request.

Frequently asked questions

Which characteristics will be evaluated?

No standard checklist for evaluating teaching dossiers exists, but here are some general teaching characteristics* a dossier might convey:

  • good organization of subject matter and course
  • effective communication
  • knowledge of and enthusiasm for the subject matter and teaching
  • positive attitude toward students
  • fairness in assessment and grading
  • flexibility in approaches to teaching
  • appropriate student learning outcomes

* From: R.C. John, R.C. Froh, P.J. Gray and L.M. Lambert, A Guide to Evaluating Teaching for Promotion and Tenure. R.M. Diamond. ed. Acton, MA: Copley, 1987.


What is the guarantee that a dossier does not just include biased information?**

Since the dossier is an evidence-based document, all information in the narrative must be substantiated in the appendix. If an instructor claims that student evaluations rate the teacher’s high scholarly expectations as outstanding, then rating forms in an appendix must demonstrate excellence in the particular areas of performance. In addition, a sound dossier clearly integrates all areas of concern (materials from oneself and others and products of student learning) and offers a coherent teaching profile in which all parts support the whole. In general, a dossier cannot hide poor instruction or augment mediocre teaching because in such cases the evidence of excellence is simply not present.


Does a gifted writer have a distinct advantage because of developed communication skills?

First, remember that an instructor may write a dossier for purposes other than convincing someone else of teaching performance. A dossier created for personal improvement needs no external approval of its style. For other purposes, a dossier is best written in collaboration with a mentor who assists the instructor in discovering and highlighting teaching accomplishments, in developing a clear and effective way of communicating teaching effort, and in identifying improvement opportunities. Still, no degree of communication savvy or style can make up for the realities of teaching performance as clearly demonstrated through the assessment component of a dossier. Style is no substitute for real evidence of good or improved teaching.


How important are student learning outcomes in a dossier, and is there any evidence to suggest that dossiers enhance outcomes?

The products of student learning are an integral component of a valid, complete dossier. Without the inclusion of the products of good teaching, the reliability of a dossier, its capacity to address the rigorous demands of assessment, and its efficacy as an agent of change and improvement are seriously impaired. Good teaching is reflected in good outcomes. No extensive studies exist to prove that dossiers strengthen student outcomes, but a dossier raises an instructor’s awareness of the importance of student learning products and the kinds of outcomes to develop for more effective teaching and for a stronger dossier. Such reflection and strategy can improve students’ products as a consequence of the dossier’s processes of discovery, description, documentation, and planning.

Resources

  • The teaching dossier kit
  • Seldin,Peter et al. “Using the Portfolio to Improve Instruction. Teaching Improvement Practices: Successful Strategies for Higher Education, W. Alan Wright, ed. Bolton, MA: Anker, 1995. pp.247-253.