Any student who’s taken Illinois State’s first-year communication course in the past 17 years—that’s just about everyone—should have joined in the applause Thursday when Cheri Simonds’ name was called.
Simonds is the chief architect of the general education COM 110 course (Communication as Critical Inquiry), and at Founders Day Convocation on Thursday she was honored as the first-ever recipient of the Dr. John Chizmar and Dr. Anthony Ostrosky Scholarship of Teaching and Learning Award.
It’s the first research award for Simonds, a School of Communication professor who co-directs the Communication as Critical Inquiry course. Among other achievements, the award recognizes her research into how to best teach that class, which is required of all students in their first two semesters.
“I was extremely honored and humbled,” Simonds said. “That the University would value research on teaching is the very reason I’m here—because of this wonderful balance between teaching and research at ISU.”
The award is named for two retired Illinois State economics professors. It recognizes the scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL), defined as evidence-informed research on the teaching and learning of Illinois State students that is made public. Kathleen McKinney, the Cross Chair in SoTL and professor emerita in sociology at Illinois State, leads the award selection committee.
Simonds’ SoTL expertise is in two areas—the teaching of communication specifically, and how to better use communication to teach in all types of classrooms. It’s that first passion she discovered in graduate school while being trained to become a graduate teaching assistant (GTA) for a communication class.
An activity called “The Pope and the Rabbi,” which she still uses today to illustrate the elements of the communication process model, helped spark what’s become an accomplished career.
“It was my first day of that training that I knew this is what I wanted to do,” Simonds told STATEside. “I thought, ‘I want to prepare teachers to teach communication.’”
That’s exactly what she does at Illinois State. She’s responsible for hiring, training, and supervising the 20 new GTAs each semester who teach COM 110, in addition to shaping the course itself. Simonds said the need for a consistent GTA training program was made clear when she was first hired. She showed all her GTAs the same videotape of a speech and asked them to grade it; the scores ranged from 97 to 64.
So Simonds developed a speech evaluation training program to standardize how students’ speeches were scored. It’s one of many changes she’s made to COM 110, and it’s that cycle of teaching, reflection, changes, more reflection, and more changes that’s at the heart of her research into teaching and learning.
“An ‘A’ in one class cannot look like a ‘D’ in another. We have to make sure instructors are all on the same page,” Simonds said. “We have got to make sure students get the same experience.”
The impact of Simonds’ research extends far beyond Illinois State. She has published several articles in national peer-reviewed journals including Communication Education, Communication Teacher, and The Basic Communication Course Annual. And the award-winning faculty member has co-authored textbooks on classroom communication, intercultural communication, and public speaking.
On April 17, Simonds will be the featured speaker at an event at Bone Student Center that celebrates scholarship of teaching and learning activities at ISU in the past year, called “A SoTL Celebration.” And in the fall, Simonds will go on sabbatical to help train communication program directors across the country how to do their jobs during a series of five regional workshops.
“I get to take the show on the road,” Simonds said.
Simonds is the “consummate SoTL scholar,” said Maria Moore, an assistant professor in the School of Communication who is one of the first four SoTL scholar/mentors at Illinois State this year. Simonds is a nationally acclaimed SoTL researcher who also creatively implements what she learns and studies in her own classroom, Moore said. (This semester Simonds is co-teaching an Honors COM 110 class and a seminar in communication education.)
“Illinois State is widely known as an institution where quality teaching matters equally to quality scholarship,” Moore told STATEside. “If Illinois State is a place where we gladly teach and learn, we are much better at it because we have had Cheri Simonds as a colleague here.”
Ryan Denham can be reached at rmdenha@IllinoisState.edu.