When Cathy Manduca1 arrived at Carleton College in 2001 to direct the Science Education Resource Center (SERC), a national network for professional development, curriculum, research on learning, and community building, she found a strong faculty engaged in understanding teaching and learning. A decade earlier in her career, she had taught geology at Carleton on a temporary appointment, and so she already knew about the institution’s history of supporting research-based instruction and faculty development. Carleton also has its own center for teaching and learning aimed at improving instruction across the entire curriculum. In short, at Carleton, Manduca found “a campus-based example of the same kinds of activities that we’re engaged in on a national level” through SERC.
“[C]hanges in teaching require an environment that is supportive of change, as well as a culture that engages in learning about teaching” writes Manduca (2008). While external funding can breed these kinds of cultures, it is not sufficient. “Cultural change has to come not just from the top and not just from the bottom, but from all directions,” she adds.
The National Research Council (NRC) report on discipline-based education research (DBER) confirms this point: “Faculty members’ teaching decisions depend on the interplay of individual beliefs and values, which have been shaped by their previous education and training, and the norms and values of the contexts in which they work. These contexts include the department, the institution, and external forces beyond the institution” (National Research Council, 2012, p. 177).
If you are a current or aspiring instructor, you are probably already aware of how departmental or institutional factors can encourage and sustain—or hinder—your pursuit of research-based practices in undergraduate science and engineering courses. If you work in a context that lacks explicit support for these
1 Interview, May 13, 2013.
practices, it may be tempting to forego the effort to change how you teach. But departmental or institutional norms are not static; support for research-based teaching and learning can be cultivated over time.
If you have a leadership role in a department, an institution, or some other influential stakeholder group, you have an exciting opportunity to support and encourage the wider use of research-based practices—and increase student learning in the process.
Top-down and bottom-up strategies can be mutually reinforcing. The success of instructors in implementing research-based practices depends to some extent on the policies of their departments and institutions. At the same time, the success of departments and institutions in effecting change depends in part on a sincere commitment from their faculty. Departmental and institutional support can help to create a culture that values and encourages research-based teaching and learning, which in turn provides an incentive for more instructors to get involved.
A variety of external organizations also provide pedagogical, professional, and financial support for reforming science and engineering education. These include disciplinary societies, education associations, resource networks, foundations, government agencies, and others.
This chapter describes several ways in which departments, institutions, and external organizations can promote research-based approaches to teaching and learning. The information is drawn from Chapter 7 of the 2012 NRC report on DBER, particularly the section titled “Putting Reform Efforts into Context”; from papers commissioned by the NRC and other research; and from interviews with practitioners who have implemented research-based reforms in their departments or institutions or on a regional or national scale.
If you are a science or an engineering instructor, department head, or institutional leader, you’ll find ideas in this chapter for creating a culture at your campus that nurtures effective teaching and learning. You will also find possible sources of professional development, curricula, collegial networks, funding, and other support for reform.
“Faculty members are situated within contexts that exert considerable influence on how they think about their work, how they approach teaching, what they value, why they select particular teaching approaches, how they assess the relative value and impact of their teaching choices, and how they assess effort spent on teaching in relationship to effort on other activities,” writes Ann Austin (2011, p. 2), a Michigan State University professor who has studied faculty development, instructional reform, and organizational change. Various elements of these contexts, such as institutional leadership, departmental peers, and reward systems, can interact in different ways to encourage—or discourage—research-based teaching practices (Austin, 2011; Fairweather, 2008). Thus, efforts to promote change should take into account the multiple departmental and institutional factors that influence instruction (National Research Council, 2012, p. 184).
Indeed, a lack of attention to the larger institutional context is one reason why research-based practices in undergraduate science and engineering education have not produced more widespread change, despite evidence of their effectiveness (Fairweather, 2008). Faculty at research institutions may resist adopting more effective teaching strategies, writes James Fairweather, “in part because they perceive that the teaching process is at odds with the research process, and that research is more interesting and more valued.” Thus, efforts to promote change must acknowledge that reform takes place in a social context that “typically rewards research more than teaching and asks faculty members simultaneously to be productive in research, teaching, and service” (Fairweather, 2008, p. 26).
Faculty at public undergraduate institutions and community colleges may face a different set of contextual factors that affect their implementation of research-based instructional strategies. Examples include heavy teaching loads that may impinge on the time available to redesign courses, a lack of teaching assistants to help manage more interactive classrooms, or limited access to on-campus professional development and expertise in innovative instruction.
Any sustained attempt to foster research-based teaching and learning must focus on creating a supportive culture in key departments and the institution as a whole. Culture is not easy to define, but it is shaped by such characteristics as the values and beliefs about teaching of leaders and faculty members, the dominant teaching style, the emphasis placed on teaching versus other priorities, and the willingness of leaders and faculty members to engage in discussions and interactions around teaching and learning (Austin, 2011).
The departmental context
The context with the most direct impact on instructional practices is the department. “The department is the important unit of change at the university,” says Kathy Perkins,2 who has studied institutional change through the University of Colorado Boulder’s Science Education Initiative (SEI). “They’re the ones that are really connected and cohesive and are tied to how instruction happens in actual courses. So if you can facilitate the department as a whole in thinking about undergrad science education and improving understanding of student learning, that can be really effective.”
Departments play a pivotal role because they “sit at the intersection of institutional and disciplinary influences” (Manduca, 2008, p. 9). While departments are a critical part of the institutional administrative structure, they are also responsible for maintaining and advancing the knowledge, practices, and culture of their discipline. In addition, instructors are more often swayed to change their teaching practices by colleagues in their own department and discipline than by general evidence about the effectiveness of research-based approaches (Wieman, Perkins, and Gilbert, 2010).
Decisions made at the departmental level may influence, either overtly or inadvertently, how instructors teach and whether they adopt research-based approaches. For example, departments typically determine what content is taught in their discipline, how courses are sequenced, and what requirements must be met by majors. They also decide how many courses and which courses an instructor teaches and how teaching assistants are used. Furthermore, departments may have some say in how instructors are evaluated and recommended for tenure and whether they have opportunities to attend professional development.
Efforts to change departmental culture are most effective when they involve the greater part of a department’s faculty—which might number in the dozens at a large research university—and affect a majority of its undergraduate courses. This is what Colorado and UBC have sought to accomplish through their SEIs. This initiative has benefited from a high level of funding, beyond what is available to many struggling institutions, but it has also yielded processes, materials, and lessons about reform that can be helpful to other institutions, regardless of their financial situations.
2 Interview, June 18, 2013.
Fourteen departments at Colorado and UBC have undertaken efforts to transform their undergraduate science courses using evidence from research through the SEI, begun in 2005 by Carl Wieman, a Nobel Prize recipient in physics and former professor at both institutions who is now at Stanford University. Rather than trying to change the teaching practices of isolated individuals, the SEI focuses on departments as critical units of change that decide what and how to teach and can influence large numbers of faculty. “If you can facilitate departments as a whole in thinking about undergrad science education and improving student learning, that can be really effective,” says Kathy Perkins,a who succeeded Wieman as director of the SEI at Colorado.
As a first step, the SEI invited departments to submit competitive proposals for grants to improve all of their core undergraduate courses for majors and non-majors. Each department received up to $1 million at Colorado and $2 million at UBC—“sufficient funds to attract serious attention” and to create an incentive for departments and faculty at large research-oriented institutions to focus on teaching (Wieman, Perkins, and Gilbert, 2010, p. 2). “So the department as a whole had to decide if this is something that they wanted to engage in,” says Perkins. “Instead of being top-down, ‘you must do this,’ the SEI was structured as, ‘if you want to engage in this, we’ll give you resources to do it.’” The grants, she explains, funded improvements in three areas aligned with research on effective teaching and learning: (1) identifying what students should learn by setting learning goals, (2) assessing what students are learning through interviewing students and giving assessments tied to learning goals, and (3) identifying and implementing instructional approaches to improve learning. The proposals also had to address how the changes being envisioned in instruction, materials, and assessment would be disseminated and sustained. Departments were encouraged to make changes course by course rather than trying to redesign an entire curriculum at once.
Colorado’s investment of $5 million funded seven departmental grantees at various levels (Chasteen et al., 2012; Wieman, Perkins, and Gilbert, 2010). UBC provided $10 million, which has gone to seven departments. All of the departments that received grants have used a large portion of their money to hire science teaching fellows—post-docs in the department who understand both the content and the pedagogy—typically with a Ph.D. in the discipline and training in science education and cognitive science. These fellows collaborate with individuals or small groups of faculty to transform courses and, in the process, transform the faculty members’ approach to teaching.
This model of using fellows has worked well according to the SEI leaders, and some departments have made them permanent positions (Wieman, Perkins, and Gilbert, 2010, p. 5). Collaborations between the fellows and the faculty have been most successful when a department chair or leader first obtained a commitment to the process from the faculty member and established clear roles and expectations.
As a result of the SEI, more than 100 faculty members at Colorado have changed their teaching practices, and more than 10,000 students each year
a Interview, June 18, 2013.
are taught in courses that have been transformed to incorporate research-based practices, notes Perkins. The numbers from UBC are even larger, notes Wieman.b In a 2010 survey of faculty in the participating departments, 62 percent of respondents reported that they had developed learning goals and used them to guide their teaching practice, 56 percent reported using information on student thinking and/or attitudes, and 47 percent reported using pre- and post-measures of learning (Wieman, Perkins, and Gilbert, 2010). At UBC, 99 percent of the faculty who have changed to research-based teaching methods as a result of the SEI report that they are continuing to use those new methods (Wieman, Deslauriers, and Gilley, 2013).
The initiative has also helped to shift the culture in the physics department at Colorado, says physics professor Noah Finkelstein.c “The culture has been one of saying, ‘I’m not simply teaching, I’m engaging in a professional and scholarly activity of education.’” The impact has been similar in many of the other SEI departments, notes Wieman.d
The efforts of the physics department at Colorado to introduce research-based strategies into what had been a traditionally taught, junior-level course in electricity and magnetism illustrate the synergy that can occur when committed instructors receive support from their department and institution. With assistance from a science teaching fellow, faculty members established explicit learning goals for the course, developed and refined course materials that addressed known student misconceptions, and adopted interactive instructional strategies such as ConcepTests and small-group tutorials. They also documented student outcomes and studied the course transformation process (Chasteen et al., 2012).
At both universities, several factors have been significant in sustaining the transformed courses and successfully transferring the reforms across multiple instructors (Chasteen et al., 2012; Wieman, personal communicatione):
- A supportive department, as evidenced by financial and staff resources, the involvement of groups of faculty in setting learning goals, the support of the chair and associate chair, and the presence of faculty involved in DBER
- A team-teaching approach that pairs faculty who have experience in redesigning courses with instructors who do not have such a background
- The provision of dedicated staff, including science teaching fellows and undergraduate learning assistants
- The creation of a one-credit “co-seminar” in which students work on tutorials that reinforce what they are learning in the main course
- An archive of course materialsf
The formal funding period for the SEI ended in 2013, but Perkins expects several of its activities to continue at Colorado through the Center on STEM Learning, established in December 2012 to coordinate more than 75 science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) improvement efforts across campus and disseminate information, research, and resources. At least some teaching fellow positions are likely to be maintained, says Perkins, but perhaps in a different form depending on the available funding.
b Email from Carl Wieman, March 20, 2014.
c Interview, April 23, 2013.
d Email from Carl Wieman, March 20, 2014.
e Email from Carl Wieman, March 20, 2014.
Several lessons and observations about transforming courses and changing departmental culture have emerged from the SEI experience as a whole (Wieman, Perkins, and Gilbert, 2010):
- Implementing new research-based teaching approaches has increased student learning. In cases where comparable measures of student learning were administered in the course before the transformation and after, students performed better in the transformed course. In the Colorado course in electricity and magnetism, for example, students in the transformed course had higher average scores on an assessment in electrostatics than students in a traditionally taught semester of the course. This kind of data is not always available, however, because in many cases faculty changed their assessments to better match their learning goals or did not have detailed assessment data from before the transformation.
- Focusing on the department as the unit of change is a sound approach. The most successful and dramatic improvements in teaching have occurred when the whole department has made reform a departmental priority.
- Providing incentives and rewards increases faculty buy-in. Departments have provided various incentives, such as giving faculty involved in course transformation release time; offering extra support from a teaching assistant, research assistant, or post-doc; and providing faculty with course materials developed by science teaching fellows. Participating faculty also mentioned two implicit rewards that have increased their commitment to the initiative: greater student engagement and opportunities to think about and discuss teaching as a scholarly activity with their colleagues.
- Providing research and data on the effectiveness of new instructional approaches is seldom enough to change teaching practices among skeptical faculty. Faculty members tend to be more convinced by data from their own courses and observing and talking with their colleagues than by general findings from DBER.
- Change takes time and effort. Developing learning goals, for example, was more difficult than the SEI leaders expected. It required faculty to reorient their view of education from one that emphasizes the delivery of content to one that helps students acquire important competencies.
- Barriers to change persist. Resistance to using shared course materials among some instructors of large, multi-section courses is one such barrier. Another is the unproductive belief that “students these days” are deficient and that shifting to
more student-centered forms of instruction is tantamount to lowering standards. Contrary to common thinking, resistance from students has not proved to be a barrier to course transformation at these institutions.
The SEI experience at Colorado and UBC reinforces the effectiveness of focusing on departments as units for change and engaging faculty in discussions about learning goals. It also suggests that making changes course by course is more feasible than trying to reform an entire curriculum. The efforts of individual faculty to redesign courses can proceed more quickly and effectively with a repository of shared course materials and the assistance of a fellow or similar individual who has knowledge of teaching and learning in a particular discipline. Collecting evidence about the impact of reforms on teaching practices, as well as on student achievement, is also quite valuable.
“The department is the important unit of change at the university. They’re the ones that are really connected and cohesive and are tied to how instruction happens in actual courses.”
University of Colorado Boulder
Research also indicates that department chairs and deans have a critical influence on instructional practices in positive or negative ways. For example, chairs can signal the relative priority placed on teaching excellence and can shape how faculty members view their responsibilities, demands, and work priorities. Early career faculty members, in particular, look to their chairs for signs about institutional priorities in order to make choices among competing expectations (Rice, Sorcinelli, and Austin, 2000). Departmental leaders who support reform can help bring around faculty who are unlikely to adopt research-based strategies on their own (Fairweather, 2008).
Ann Austin (2011) suggests several actions that department heads and deans can take to help create cultures that value and reward excellent teaching:
- Regularly discuss the relationship of student learning to institutional missions and the relationship of teaching excellence to student learning
- Initiate opportunities for collegial conversations about research-based teaching
- Allow instructors time for innovation
- Provide specific support for professional development on teaching and learning, coupled with incentives for faculty members to participate
The institutional context
The colleges and universities in which departments are situated also have an impact on issues that affect teaching and learning. These institutions set policies for tenure, promotion, and evaluation. Institutional priorities affect the time and effort instructors devote to teaching versus research or other activities. Institutional leaders can create a climate that supports and rewards excellence in teaching—or reinforces negative incentives. Institutions can provide resources for professional development on effective teaching, create incentives to reform teaching, and construct or remodel campus facilities to make them well suited to interactive teaching and learning (Manduca, 2008).
The joint efforts of faculty, university staff, and university leaders to introduce and expand problem-based learning (PBL) and other innovative practices at the University of Delaware shows how change can flourish in a hospitable institutional climate.
Science faculty at the University of Delaware were among the early adopters in the 1990s of problem-based learning (PBL), an instructional model in which students tackle complex, challenging problems and work collaboratively to resolve them. (See Chapters 2 and 4 for more about PBL.) Since then, the university has developed an institution-wide system of faculty development and other supports for research-based instruction.
Creating a community of faculty to improve teaching and learning
Deborah Allen,a who directs the university’s Center for Teaching and Assessment of Learning, was one of the first faculty members at her institution to embrace PBL when she was a biology professor. She credits Barbara Duch, a consultant to an earlier iteration of the center that Allen now heads, with helping to build a community among the individual faculty, scattered across different science departments, who shared a concern about the effectiveness of traditional methods of instruction. Duch had a gift for “knowing what our comfort zone was, and then just pushing us gently a little bit outside of that,” says Allen.
With support from the center, this group of faculty developed courses, wrote PBL curriculum, assessed the effectiveness of their teaching strategies, and conducted research on student learning in the sciences. They met weekly for informal conversations about teaching and learning and served as a support group for each other. “I could not have survived without that group of people I could go to,” says Allen.
Another outgrowth of this multidisciplinary collaboration was the development of a “Science Semester” curriculum for education majors. The university agreed to combine the required cluster of courses in life sciences, earth science, and physics for these students into a 12-credit interdisciplinary course, which students took exclusively for an entire semester. The PBL curriculum consisted of units that explored interdisciplinary topics, anchored by problems that students would work on for as long as a month. One unit, which Allen helped to develop, was called Kids, Cancer, and Chemicals. During this segment of the course, students studied a possible “cancer cluster” in a New Jersey community that was home to a chemical manufacturer. As part of the unit, students researched the chemistry of groundwater, studied the movement of chemicals through different types of soil, and analyzed epidemiology data, among other activities.
Faculty collaboration continues to be a vital force in encouraging instructional reform in the sciences at the University of Delaware. In biology, for example, faculty who may be reluctant to embrace new research-based modes of teaching are invited to serve as group facilitators in classrooms that use collaborative learning. “That was very effective because the students in a sense acted as the advocates,” says Allen.
As newer faculty members have come on board with additional strategies for improving instruction, the university has become less “monomaniacal” about PBL, Allen explains. A high percentage of faculty use some type of collaborative learning at least some of the time, but they feel as if they have more options than just PBL.
a Except where noted, the information in this case study comes from an interview with Deborah Allen, April 11, 2014.
Institutional support for instructional reform
The passion of this group of early reformers helped to persuade the university administration to support their efforts. Faculty who were interested in PBL submitted and won a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant. “I think that’s what got our administration’s attention,” says Allen. “Getting federal funding can really help to give your effort legitimacy, and then your administration will pay attention.”
At Delaware, says Allen, “the strongest things are [those] that percolate up from faculty interest. We’re the creative force, the ones who want to see it happen, and the administration met us in the middle.” As the number of faculty interested in research-based instruction grew, the administration began providing them with additional support—although the economic climate was better in those days, Allen notes.
Recognizing that students working in small groups will sometimes need more guidance than a single instructor can provide in a large course, Allen hit on the idea of using undergraduate seniors as group leaders in collaborative classrooms. The university agreed to fund a course to train these peer facilitators, and the program remains strong on campus.
Eventually, faculty who were implementing PBL advocated for classrooms that were better suited to student collaborative work. They gathered evidence of the effectiveness of their instructional strategies in order to convince the administration to invest in classroom redesign. The administration at the time recognized that “all you’re asking is for us to change the furniture,” Allen recalls. As part of a regular classroom renovation plan, the administration designed several rooms specifically geared to PBL. The university has since built additional rooms equipped with new technologies to facilitate group work. “The highest-tech ones have a huge computer monitor that sits on the wall for each group, and not only whiteboard space,” says Allen. “They can use collaborative docs and project them on the screens. The instructor can select which screen we’ll view.”
The university also founded an Institute to Transform Undergraduate Education and provides it with line-item funding. The Institute offers faculty-led professional development on PBL to instructors from around the world, sponsors an online clearinghouse of peer-reviewed problems and resources, and provides other services. The administration “saw this as a signature program,” Allen says. “There was a real synergy. We weren’t just asking for handouts; we were building something in collaboration with them.”
Both new and more senior faculty can find additional support for effective, research-based instruction through the center that Allen directs. This center sponsors workshops and follow-up consultations with faculty, distributes internal grants for instructional improvement, and conducts federally funded initiatives to strengthen best practices. “We’re not just sending people to workshops,” Allen explains. “We do the workshops here, and then we continue to support them. We do informal consultations all the time—the typical classroom observations, but from the perspective of having done this ourselves.”
Working with faculty developers who have firsthand experience implementing research-based instruction can be reassuring for those who are struggling to make the transition. “We’ve faced these issues in the classroom, and so we have that reality that faculty really appreciate,” Allen notes. “We’ve done it and we know what we’re up against. That’s good strategy.”
As the University of Delaware’s experience indicates, when a core group of faculty who are committed to change come together with open-minded and cooperative administrators, this can create a synergy that stimulates reform across a wider segment of the institution. While the impetus for reform bubbles up from the “bottom,” the support necessary to maintain and expand it comes from the “top.”
The sections that follow discuss specific areas that can be addressed by departments and institutions to encourage research-based teaching and learning:
- Curriculum and instruction
- Workloads and schedules
- Institutional priorities, tenure, and reward systems
- Institutional support for professional development
Instructors’ adoption of research-based practices may be influenced by departmental decisions about curriculum, such as course content and sequencing or faculty assignments to teach particular courses (Fairweather, 2008). For example, if the members of a department have not set overall learning goals or are more focused on covering content than on making sure students learn core concepts, this may create concerns about how well a course redesigned around research-based approaches will mesh with later courses in a sequence. If different sections of the same course are taught by different people, then this could discourage an instructor from attempting to incorporate new strategies into one section.
Some of these potential problems can be averted if the faculty members in a department can agree on a set of broad learning goals for a program of study and particular courses, as discussed in Chapter 2. This has the added benefit of coordinating learning goals that require more than one course to achieve. During these types of departmental discussions, faculty can also discuss difficult concepts within the curriculum and which courses would best address them.
Departments and institutions can encourage faculty to adopt research-based reforms through other means, such as those described in the following examples.
Create opportunities for faculty to discuss learning and teaching
These opportunities can range from regular meetings on research in learning and teaching to informal brown bag lunches. At Delaware, Allen3 is implementing a new take on the old faculty lounge by setting aside a room for conversations about teaching and learning. “People can just drift in whenever they want in a place where you know there will be these conversations.” Devoting a significant portion of a departmental retreat to teaching and educational issues, as has been done at UBC, can have a powerful impact.
Provide fellowships for faculty to work on instructional reform
At Michigan State, the Lilly Teaching Fellows program provides pre-tenure faculty, including STEM faculty, with a year-long fellowship to engage in scholarship on effective teaching practices. A large majority (85 percent or more) of faculty who participated in the program between 1991–2004 and 2004–2009 reported that their involvement had a positive impact in these six areas: (1) beliefs about teaching and learning, (2) practice of teaching and learning, (3) effectiveness of teaching and learning, (4) networking with administrators across the university, (5) networking with faculty and other academic staff, and (6) views about Michigan State (Moretto, 2011).
Vanderbilt University provides fellowships with a stipend to faculty, including STEM faculty, in the second through sixth years of their careers to help them improve their instruction using ideas from research. “We ask them to commit for a whole academic year to a sequence of activities—one-on-one consultations, course design, teaching visits, and dinners with senior faculty,” says Derek Bruff, director of the university’s Center for Teaching and a senior lecturer in mathematics. “The idea is to help them become more effective teachers in the short run in their own classrooms but to also give them exposure to a certain set of ideas and skills that will serve them well as they take on leadership positions at Vanderbilt down the road,” he explains.
Provide grants for faculty to reform instruction
Institutional grants can range from substantial grants to departments, such as those made through the SEI described above, to small grants to individual faculty to
3 Interview, April 11, 2013.
design or redesign courses or improve teaching. At Dickinson College, the dean’s office provides funding for faculty to work together during the summer on curriculum reform or department change. This funding enabled the physics department to devote faculty time to designing curriculum for student-centered instruction, says professor Priscilla Laws, which in turn helped create more faculty buy-in for the curriculum changes.
Hire DBER scholars or other faculty with expertise in teaching and learning
Within a science or an engineering department, instructors who have expertise in DBER can help build a supportive culture. At the University of Georgia (UGA), says biology professor Erin Dolan,4 “We have a really strong group of people who are very knowledgeable about the research base in biology education and can think about putting that research into practice in the classroom.” As a result, she notes, most of the department’s introductory courses use instructional strategies that actively engage students, and faculty are now working on transferring those strategies into upper-level courses. “We are hopefully moving the whole biology faculty toward a more evidence-based approach,” she says. This effort at UGA has been bolstered further by the participation of biology faculty in the regional workshop of the National Academies Summer Institute hosted at the university (see Chapter 2 for more about the Institute). “We have enthusiastic administrative support, which is great,” says Dolan.
Create graduate or postdoctoral fellowships to assist faculty with reform
A number of institutions have implemented fellowships for graduate students and/or post-doctoral candidates to improve their knowledge and skills in research-based instruction, as described in the professional development section below. These programs not only benefit the participating graduate students and post-docs from whose ranks many future STEM faculty will come, but they can also benefit current faculty by providing a source of assistance in designing and implementing research-based courses.
Such programs can be a “win, win, win,” says Bruff of Vanderbilt. “The graduate student gets a really valuable professional development experience…. The faculty member gets some help in the form of a graduate student to implement some part of their course that they want to improve or enhance. And the undergraduates in the course benefit by having a better learning experience.”
4 Interview, July 2, 2013.
Train undergraduates to assist instructors with large courses
Many institutions across the country have mounted learning assistant or preceptor programs in which undergraduates with an interest in teaching are trained to assist faculty in introductory courses. These programs not only provide participating students with classroom experience and, in many cases, with seminars on research-based pedagogy, but they also provide faculty with individuals who can help their peers with active learning or can lead tutorial workshops.
At Colorado, faculty must apply to have learning assistants for a course, a process that “requires that they think about teaching in new ways,” says Valerie Otero,5 director of the learning assistants program. At the University of Arizona, Carly Schnoebelen,6 who served as a preceptor for chemistry professor John Pollard, describes her duties in this way: “I go to all of the lectures…. [W]e do a lot of in-class activities and problem solving. I walk around, help other students, and answer questions.” In addition, she says, preceptors staff an office where students can go to get help with homework or to study for exams.
Assist faculty with research-based reforms through centers for teaching
Many colleges and universities have created centers for teaching and learning or similar units. These centers perform a range of functions. While their services often include workshops and other types of professional development, many of these centers provide teaching evaluations, observations, mentoring, and consultations to help instructors improve their teaching; oversee new faculty induction programs; give out teaching awards; and conduct other activities. The impact and effectiveness of the programs offered through these centers varies, but they can be one component of a multi-pronged effort to create an institutional culture that supports effective teaching.
Decisions about workloads, access to teaching assistants, and related professional issues can affect the capacity and desire of instructors to implement new teaching approaches (Schuster and Finkelstein, 2006). From the department’s perspective, the need to provide instructors for 10 sections of a large introductory course may
5 Interview, November 18, 2013.
6 Interview, April 25, 2013.
supersede considerations of whether those instructors are using the most pedagogically sound strategies.
Departments and institutions, often at the request of forward-thinking instructors, have taken various steps to facilitate research-based teaching and learning. Below are a few examples.
Allow instructors to team teach or co-teach a course
Sharing responsibilities for designing, preparing for, and teaching courses can be more efficient and can also facilitate the sharing of ideas. Robin Wright7 team teaches a course at Minnesota in foundations of biology with a colleague. Both instructors attend each class session, and they take turns leading the class. “It might be my turn to be the lead instructor, but my colleague will be there in the room the whole time, interacting with students and making corrections for me or asking questions on behalf of the students. And I do the same thing for him,” she explains. “It’s just wonderful.”
A teaching team that includes both an experienced and a new faculty member can benefit both instructors. The more experienced instructor can provide guidance on developing materials and managing classrooms efficiently, while new instructors can often share fresh ideas and up-to-date research on teaching practices.
Colorado uses the strategy of rotating faculty assignments to teach redesigned courses to expose more faculty to new research-based teaching strategies. In this way, says physics professor Noah Finkelstein,8 faculty who have less experience with research-based instruction “learn by enculturation and participation.”
Use innovative approaches to scheduling to facilitate classroom interaction
Several of the courses taught by instructors highlighted in this book use block scheduling in which classes meet for fewer days but for longer periods to allow more time for in-depth class projects. When John Belcher9 and other physics instructors at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology adopted the Technology-Enhanced Active Learning approach, they switched from three hours of lecture and two hours of recitation sections per week to two two-hour periods and one one-hour period of lecture with clicker questions combined with active learning exercises and lab experiments. They were emulating practices introduced by Robert Beichner’s Student-Centered Active Learning
7 Interview, April 12, 2013.
8 Interview, April 23, 2013.
9 Interview, July 9, 2013.
Environment with Upside-down Pedagogies (SCALE-UP) program at North Carolina State University.
Another option is to set aside one course session per week for small-group activities led by a teaching assistant or a learning assistant. When David Gosser10 and his chemistry colleagues at the City College of New York implemented Peer-Led Team Learning, they took away one of the four hours of lecture per week and devoted it to peer-led sessions in which students solved problems in small groups.
Use teaching assistants differently
Rather than assigning a few teaching assistants (TAs) to handle all the responsibilities for a particular introductory course, faculty in the physics department at the University of Washington “pool” their TAs so that some grade homework while others help students with tutorials in the classroom, says Paula Heron.11
Offer faculty release time from teaching to redesign courses
California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, not only paid faculty to attend a university-sponsored workshop on how to implement innovative approaches to teaching physics; the university also provided some with release time from teaching to implement new approaches, according to Alex Rudolph,12 a professor of astronomy and physics. “This is a case where they’re backing a very strong research-based change that discipline-based education research is informing,” he says. “It’s helping a lot.” Paying for some of a faculty member’s summer time to work on new teaching methods can also be effective.
Policies for evaluation, promotion, tenure, salaries, and other reward systems send strong signals to instructors about what they must do to get and keep a faculty appointment and what their department and institution value. Institutional priorities, such as the relative emphasis given to teaching and research or the need to secure outside grant money, also affect how much time and effort instructors invest
10 Interview, July 3, 2013.
11 Interview, April 12, 2013.
12 Interview, August 20, 2013.
in making their teaching more effective (Fairweather, 2005; National Research Council, 2012). Instructors are more apt to focus on improving their teaching when institutional reward structures and priorities are aligned with this goal.
An important set of institutional priorities relates to how instructors are expected to allocate their attention among their teaching, research, grant seeking, and service missions. These expectations vary considerably depending on the type of institution, its history, its available resources, the type of position an instructor holds, and other factors. Several studies have shown, however, that higher education institutions in general value research more than teaching (Fairweather, 1996, 2008; Massey, Wilger, and Colbeck, 1994). Faculty in four-year institutions report increasing pressure to do research, according to an extensive quantitative study by Schuster and Finkelstein (2006). Fairweather (2005) found that as faculty time in class increases, salary level decreases and that across four-year institutions, scholarly productivity and publications are the strongest predictor of faculty pay.
“I’ve met tenure-track faculty who were good teachers who weren’t interested in being great teachers until after they achieved tenure. They felt they needed to focus more on their research than taking their teaching to the next level.”
“If you’re at a traditional research-oriented institution, survival—or your opinion of what survival is—determines your behavior,” says University of Washington professor Lillian McDermott,13 co-developer of the research-based tutorials described in Chapter 4. If instructors believe that their future or their standing depends more on the quality and productivity of their research and their ability to bring in research grants than on the effectiveness of their teaching, they will be less inclined to spend time changing their instructional practices. It is understandable, then, that some instructors choose to just “suffice” in their teaching responsibilities (Austin, 2011).
At research institutions, policies often signal to instructors that research performance is valued more highly than teaching performance, notes Bruff. Although that may be appropriate given the mission of a research university, these policies “sometimes lead faculty and administrators to take a ‘good enough’ approach to teaching,” he says. “If your teaching is problematic, then people will pay attention.
13 Interview, April 18, 2013.
You might get extra help from your chair, you might be sent over to a teaching center for assistance, and, if the problems persist, you might not get tenure. But once you reach a ‘good enough’ bar, there can be few incentives to be better. I’ve met tenure-track faculty who were good teachers who weren’t interested in being great teachers until after they achieved tenure,” Bruff adds. “They felt they needed to focus more on their research than taking their teaching to the next level.”
Similarly, the quality of teaching is often evaluated in a far less careful and rigorous way than the quality of research, notes Carl Wieman,14 which is both an indication of an imbalance in institutional priorities and a contributing factor to its continuation.
The relative emphasis given to teaching versus research really hits home in decisions about tenure, promotion, or reappointment. At four-year colleges and universities, publishing research is the most important factor in faculty tenure and promotion decisions, according to an analysis by Braxton, Lucky, and Holland (2002). In this environment, it is not surprising that faculty members on a tenure track at a research university might put less effort into improving their instruction. Once tenure is received, they may feel more at ease in exploring new areas, including improvements in teaching.
This pressure to do research is far less of a factor at community colleges, where tenure is based to a large degree on teaching performance, with some consideration for service to the community and institution. The priority that community colleges place on faculty participation in professional development has a positive influence on teaching effectiveness, says Kaatje Kraft,15 who until recently taught at Arizona’s Mesa Community College. “Professional development is expected at a community college. That’s important because that’s where you get access to the research base on teaching practice.”
Students’ end-of-course evaluations are another institutional factor that can inhibit instructors from taking risks in their teaching, out of fear that integrating new approaches may not immediately be successful from the students’ standpoint (Austin, 2011). Student evaluations are often used to gauge teaching performance, but they are far from complete in their appraisal of teacher effectiveness. In surveys and interviews conducted by Henderson and Dancy (2011), faculty overwhelmingly expressed the view that student evaluations were not a particularly effective way of measuring teaching quality. These authors conclude that an over-reliance on these evaluations can impede reform.
14 Email from Carl Wieman, March 20, 2014.
15 Interview, June 13, 2013.
Some departments or institutions at large universities have formal policies to give greater recognition to teaching excellence. At UGA, the criteria for promotion and tenure in the Department of Plant Biology require faculty to demonstrate excellence in teaching through peer evaluations (in addition to student evaluations), teaching awards, innovation in teaching methods, and other criteria (University of Georgia, 2007). In the peer-evaluation process, a longstanding part of the department’s teaching evaluation criteria, assistant professors may undergo a mentoring or formative evaluation of their instruction in which senior faculty and a faculty mentor attend a representative subset of their classes for one course and make helpful comments and suggestions. Following that formative evaluation, which occurs early in the faculty member’s career, all assistant and associate professors go through a more formal peer evaluation by a committee of three senior faculty. These committee members attend at least three lectures each and score various aspects of instructional skills and success. The criteria for the peer evaluation include the following factors: preparation, presentation, stimulation of students’ interest, instructor’s enthusiasm for the subject, mastery of the subject matter, an overall rating, and other special observations about aspects that add to or detract from teaching effectiveness. The faculty member being evaluated has an opportunity to discuss the findings with the committee and suggest possible changes before the committee submits its report, which becomes part of a promotion dossier, to the department head.
In addition, half of the Department of Plant Biology faculty at all ranks at UGA had participated in the National Academies Summer Institute in biology as of spring 2014, according to Michelle Momany, the department head.16 Momany has found that involving new faculty in the Institute and having them sit in on an effectively taught class from the very start helps them “use scientific design for their first course, and [they] don’t have to go back and spend time fixing it later.” Generally, she says, new faculty members “welcome the opportunity to get familiar with the research on how best to help students and are happy to pick up tips along the way.”
At UBC, the Department of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences conducts class observations of each faculty member every year, using two tools developed by the SEI. The first tool, a Teaching Practices Inventory, is a checklist of whether a lecture course includes characteristics that research has deemed to be effective. Examples include learning goals or outcomes; supporting materials for students; in-class activities, such as pauses to ask for questions, small-group
16 Email from Michelle Momany, March 18, 2014.
discussions or problem solving, demonstrations or simulations, clicker questions, student reflection activities, and student presentations; opportunities for two-way feedback between the instructor and the students; diagnostic assessments; collaboration or sharing in teaching; and other characteristics. The second tool, the Classroom Observation Protocol for Undergraduate STEM (COPUS), allows trained observers to reliably characterize how faculty and students are spending their time in the classroom (University of British Columbia, n.d.). Similar tools are also available in other disciplines, such as the Revised Teaching Observation Protocol being used in geosciences.17
In general, however, most institutions have a way to go in making an explicit commitment to teaching excellence in their faculty evaluation and priorities and reward systems. Some DBER scholars have recommended that teaching evaluations be based on actual student learning gains, as gauged by pre- and post-assessments of learning, in addition to student course ratings (Knight and Wood, 2005).
Many institutions have mounted their own professional development programs that emphasize research-based approaches to teaching (Gappa, Austin, and Trice, 2007). As one example, the 22 research universities that belong to the NSF-funded Center for the Integration of Research, Teaching, and Learning network, or CIRTL, are providing long-term professional development and mentoring to build a cadre of future STEM faculty who are committed to using research to improve teaching and learning. While CIRTL is implemented somewhat differently at each institution, each program is founded on three core ideas: (1) teaching-as-research, in which STEM graduate students and post-docs engage in the systematic use of research to develop and implement effective teaching practices; (2) learning communities that encourage groups of program participants and their mentors to share knowledge and ideas for practice and that prepare participants to learn to use learning communities in their own work; and (3) learning-through-diversity, which capitalizes on the diverse experiences, backgrounds, and skills of students and faculty to enhance learning. The following case study shows how these ideas are being applied in the CIRTL programs at Michigan State and the University of Wisconsin–Madison.
At their regular biweekly meeting, a select cadre of doctoral fellows in science, engineering, math, and related fields at Michigan State University (MSU) work in smaller groups with their mentors and program staff. Taped on the walls of the meeting room are copies of PowerPoint slides containing the main research questions for the “teaching-as-research” project that each fellow will develop and carry out during the course of an academic year. A biology fellow presents her research question—Do active learning strategies improve student learning in a genetics course?—and explains her initial ideas for addressing it. “What type of active learning strategy do you plan to use?” asks one fellow. “What assessments will you use to measure the results?” asks her mentor. Fellows will take into account this input to narrow and refine their research questions; in later meetings, they will receive feedback about their objectives, methodology, and other aspects of their project.
This hypothetical example is based on the experiences of real fellows in the Future Academic Scholars in Teaching (FAST) program at MSU. Begun in 2006 with funding from the university’s Graduate School and NSF, FAST is a project of the CIRTL network, which provides professional development to STEM doctoral students to prepare them to implement and advance effective teaching practices. Each year, 10 to 14 FAST fellows are chosen from a group of applicants with an interest in teaching and a strong record in their disciplinary work toward their doctorate. During the course of an academic year, FAST fellows participate in mentored teaching experiences, workshops, and seminars on research about instruction, learning, and assessment. After completing the program, fellows may reapply for an additional year.
“Just because people are smart and they know research doesn’t always mean they can teach it effectively to a diversity of other people,” says Henry “Rique” Campa III,a director of FAST, associate dean in MSU’s graduate school, and professor of wildlife ecology. “And that is the essence of what we’re trying to change” (Michigan State University, 2011). When Campa was an MSU Lilly Teaching Fellow in the 1990s, he recognized that the things he was learning about pedagogy and assessment during the year-long fellowship would have been helpful to him as a graduate student. This spurred him to work with CIRTL and collaborate with STEM colleagues on developing the FAST program to target future faculty.
Consistent with CIRTL’s Teaching-as-Research approach, the centerpiece of the FAST program is a scholarly project on an aspect of teaching and learning that each fellow designs with support from a faculty mentor and the university’s CIRLT steering committee. The fellows then implement their projects in an undergraduate course and present their findings at a final symposium. Each fellow receives $2,000 to help conduct the project and to disseminate the results at conferences or through journal articles or other avenues.
Twice a month, the fellows participate in meetings with the steering committee members to discuss their projects or interact with guest speakers who have expertise relevant to their projects. On the off weeks, they meet in informal “journal clubs,” led by a post-doc and FAST program graduate assistants, where they prepare for the larger meetings and review pertinent research.
a Interview, April 23, 2013.
Chris Richardson, a former FAST fellow who is now an assistant professor of physics at Elon University, is putting into practice several of the strategies he learned through the FAST program. “When you get your Ph.D. and go to grad school, everyone comes out with the ability to do some form of independent research…. What you don’t have much experience doing, and what they don’t teach you to do well, is actually teach,” says Richardson.b “I knew that I needed more preparation than just teaching a couple of classes. That’s what I got from FAST.”
Richardson’s first FAST project analyzed gender differences in responses to clicker questions in an introductory physics course and found that while the number of correct answers and response times were similar for men and women, the average number of responses for a given question was significantly higher for men and that men were slightly more likely than women were to change their response within the allotted time (Richardson and O’Shea, 2013). His second-year FAST project correlated students’ clicker-question responses and grades with data from a survey of attitudes and beliefs; he found that for men as a group, their confidence in how well they learned the course material did not correlate with their grade, while women were under-confident about their learning as shown by their grades.
Like Richardson, many former fellows have published their research on teaching and gone on to faculty positions. “They can show scholarship across the mission—and that looks pretty good on a CV,” says Campa.
For Allison Rober,c an assistant biology professor at Ball State University, her time as a FAST fellow not only shaped how she herself teaches, but also influenced her colleagues. “My department chair was excited I had these types of skills,” she says. In her classes, she uses a range of research-based strategies, such as collaborative learning, one-minute reflection papers, modeling, and Think-Pair-Share. “I feel fortunate that I don’t even know how to teach without using student-centered pedagogy,” she says. “I’m always trying to engage students in behaving like scientists, regardless of what profession they aspire to.” Rober shares materials with other faculty at her institution who are interested in the scholarship of teaching and learning. In addition, she collaborated with a colleague to align the laboratory and lecture parts of a biology course to cover the same topics at the same time. That change contributed significantly to improvements in student learning, she says.
At the University of Wisconsin–Madison, the graduate students and post-docs in the Delta Program in Research, Teaching, and Learning (Wisconsin’s version of a CIRTL program) can take courses and participate in small-group facilitated programs, internships, and other activities (Gillian-Daniel, 2008). As part of their coursework and their internships, Delta participants team up with a
b Interview, May 2, 2013.
c Interview, April 29, 2013.
faculty member or other instructor to develop new instructional materials and to conduct research on teaching. These relationships benefit the mentoring faculty as well as the Delta participants, says Don Gillian-Daniel,d associate director of the Delta Program. “The students are capacity building for faculty. They bring in new ideas and training and provide the energy to help faculty move into doing something new with their course.”
Some of the Delta participants’ Teaching-as-Research projects are “phenomenal,” says Gillian-Daniel. One Delta student, for example, turned a traditional “cookbook” laboratory session in an ecology course into an inquiry-based lab session in which the undergraduate students asked their own research questions and took field trips to local sites to investigate resource management. In another project, a computer science graduate student and a post-doc, working with a civil engineering professor, found that undergraduates were having difficulties with translating word problems into a conceptual framework and with solving the problems. The team designed an interactive Web tutorial that guided students through step-by-step solutions of problems and then required them to solve similar practice problems on their own (Gillian-Daniel, 2008).
A longitudinal study of participants in a doctoral and postdoctoral teaching development program at Wisconsin, including the Delta Program, found that 76 percent of the study respondents reported that they had applied the knowledge and skills gained from these programs to their subsequent undergraduate teaching. Respondents frequently reported delivering student-centered instruction and applying what they had learned about assessment, course preparation, and planning, including setting learning goals (Benbow, Byrd, and Connolly, 2011, cited in Pfund et al., 2012).
Broader evaluations of the impact of CIRTL-related professional development, which also relied largely on faculty’s self-reported data, suggest that participants gain knowledge and skills about teaching and awareness of a wider range of approaches to analyzing teaching problems. They also develop a better understanding of the value of teaching as part of their careers and a greater ability to encourage student learning (Austin, Connolly, and Colbeck, 2008). Furthermore, participants often indicate that they feel better prepared for undergraduate teaching, have a greater sense of self-efficacy about teaching, and value opportunities to interact with others with similar interests in teaching (Austin, 2011).
d Interview, April 26, 2013.
Several ideas that may resonate with staff at other institutions can be drawn from the CIRTL projects at MSU and Wisconsin.
- Exposing prospective faculty to research-based approaches to teaching can be an effective strategy for improving undergraduate instruction over the long term. When participants in these programs become faculty, they tend to apply what they learned in their own classrooms, and their influence will last for years to come as they progress in their careers.
- Focusing on future faculty can have a spillover effect by inspiring faculty who are mentoring participants to revise their own courses.
- Professional development that involves mentoring experiences, communities of learning, and a year-long time frame appears to have a greater impact on practice than a short-term workshop.
- Participants in professional development should be encouraged to assess the impact of the changes they make in their own classrooms, not only to inform their own practice, but also to monitor the effectiveness of a professional development model.
- Having multiple professional development programs with similar goals at the same institution can create synergy around reform. At MSU, for example, the FAST program grew out of the university’s Lilly Fellows and the CIRTL network.
It can be a challenge to get busy instructors with many competing demands to participate in professional development, whether it is sponsored by the institution itself or by outside groups like those mentioned later in this chapter. If professional development programs are going to serve as an effective lever for change, they need to attract more than the “usual crowd” of instructors who are already interested in effective teaching (Austin, 2011). Faculty development experts suggest several strategies that department chairs, deans, and other institutional leaders can take to encourage participation and broaden the reach of professional development efforts (Austin, 2011; Hilborn, 2012; Sorcinelli et al., 2006):
- Send a clear signal that the institution values participation in professional development focused on improving teaching.
- Recognize that instructors have different needs for and interests in professional development at different stages of their career and offer a range of options and formats that appeal to faculty in various circumstances.
- Present professional development as a prestigious and growth-oriented opportunity rather than a remedial situation.
- Ensure that professional development activities make effective use of participants’ time and result in substantial and positive outcomes.
- Link rewards with faculty involvement in professional development.
- Provide funding to cover the costs of participation.
Professional development can have an impact beyond the instructor who directly participates. When Elizabeth Derryberry18 was hired as a biology professor at Tulane University in 2011, she hoped to be able to use the instructional strategies she had honed as a postdoctoral fellow in the NSF-funded FIRST IV (Faculty Institutes for Reforming Science Teaching) program. As part of this program, Derryberry had attended two consecutive summer workshops where she learned about effective research-based strategies and designed an inquiry-based undergraduate course in animal behavior. During the academic year between the workshops, she co-taught the course she had designed. With input from a FIRST IV mentor, she analyzed the effectiveness of her teaching through an assessment of students’ conceptual learning and videotapes of her classes. The assessment showed gains in learning, which was “very useful both as feedback for teaching and in job applications,” says Derryberry.
In her initial meeting with her department chair at Tulane, “one of the things I made evident is that teaching is really important to me,” says Derryberry. Her approach to teaching gave students opportunities to analyze real scientific data and write reflective “learning paragraphs”—and she hoped her department would be supportive. “Most senior faculty members don’t use that approach, and I wasn’t
18 Much of the information in this example comes from an interview with Elizabeth Derryberry, May 3, 2013.
really sure how that would be met or addressed,” she says, particularly when it came time for her teaching to be evaluated. To her relief, the reception was much better than she had imagined. Not only was her chair “very supportive,” she explains, but he and another colleague attended a summer institute on research-based pedagogy with her, where they “got a chance to see how this approach works and what’s effective and how to evaluate somebody using this approach.”
Instructors work in contexts that are broader than their department and employing institution. These include their discipline, as represented by disciplinary societies; other associations to which they or their institution belong; the higher education system in their state and in the nation; and public and private agencies and organizations that directly or indirectly influence their work. The following types of external groups are especially influential:
- Disciplinary societies and associations of teachers in a particular discipline are important sources of respect and professional interaction for faculty. Their members pass judgment on papers and proposals and critique other professional work (Manduca, 2008). The attitudes of disciplinary peers not only influence the willingness of individual instructors to change how they teach, but also shape research and development of effective approaches to teaching in the discipline. Each of the science and engineering disciplines has a distinct set of values, criteria for excellent work, and behavioral norms (Austin, 2011, p. 7).
- Higher education associations, such as the Association of American Universities (AAU), the Association of American Colleges & Universities (AACU), and the American Association of Community Colleges, have undertaken initiatives to improve undergraduate STEM education.
- Networks and resource centers offer opportunities for collegial interaction and make available curriculum and other resources to support research-based reforms.
- Federal agencies, such as NSF, and some state agencies have provided funding and policy support for reforms of undergraduate STEM education.
- Nonprofit institutions and foundations have provided funding, professional development, research and policy support, or other activities to enhance the quality of undergraduate STEM education.
The remainder of this section describes some of the many ways in which external groups can support research-based reforms of undergraduate science and engineering education.
Promoting systemic reform of undergraduate STEM education
AACU, which comprises more than 1,300 member institutions from all sectors of higher education, has joined forces with Project Kaleidoscope (PKAL) to improve the effectiveness of STEM education. For the past two decades, PKAL has researched and implemented strategies to improve STEM curriculum and teaching. The AACU project is developing a framework that campus leaders can use to translate national recommendations for improving student learning and success in STEM into scalable and sustainable actions (Association of American Colleges & Universities, 2014). Up to 12 colleges and universities in California will be selected to test evidence-based strategies for transforming programs, departments, and institutions.
In 2011, AAU launched a five-year undergraduate education STEM initiative to influence the culture of STEM departments at its member institutions, which include leading public and private research universities. An ultimate goal of the initiative is to encourage and support faculty in the use of research-based teaching practices. As described below, the initiative has developed a framework for systemic change in undergraduate STEM teaching and learning and has selected and provided support to eight member institutions to pilot key aspects of the framework.
AAU has made the improvement of undergraduate STEM education an organizational priority through a five-year initiative that seeks to help higher education institutions align teaching practices with evidence about how students learn best in STEM disciplines. As a national organization, AAU has an advantage of being able to convene crucial stakeholders like university leadership, disciplinary groups, other national organizations, and funding entities, says AAU project director Emily Miller.a
The initiative includes the following activities (Association of American Universities, 2013b, n.d.):
- Framework for systemic change. AAU developed a framework to guide institutions and faculty as they commit to using research-based practices to improve STEM teaching and learning. The practices promoted by the framework include the kinds of student-centered, active learning pedagogy documented in the 2012 NRC report on DBER. The framework outlines a set of key institutional elements that need to be addressed in order to bring about widespread and sustainable change.
- Project sites. With a three-year, $4.7 million grant from the Helmsley Charitable Trust, AAU has provided seed money for pilot projects at eight AAU member universities—both public and private—in various regions of the country. These sites are implementing major undergraduate STEM education reform projects that address the three key elements of the framework: effective pedagogy, scaffolding and support for faculty, and cultural change at the institutional and departmental levels.
- AAU STEM network. AAU is developing a network that will enable faculty and administrators at its member institutions to share best practices and promote sustainable change in undergraduate STEM teaching and learning. With seed funding from the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, AAU has developed an online hub to showcase promising programs and practices being implemented at member campuses and to support ongoing interaction among those who are leading reform efforts on their campuses.
a Interview, November 15, 2013.
- Metrics and evaluation. With an NSF grant, AAU is developing metrics to help the project sites, as well as other institutions, assess the current status of STEM teaching and learning at their institutions and track the progress of their reform efforts. The metrics will also be used to evaluate the overall impact of the AAU STEM initiative.
“The initiative has created a platform to bring together individuals on our campuses who have wanted to have a dialogue with each other,” says Miller. The eight project sites are taking somewhat different approaches to implementing a common framework and are at different stages of promoting research-based practices.
The initiative has already had an impact (Association of American Universities, 2013a). All AAU member institutions have designated a campus point of contact to serve as a liaison with AAU for the STEM education initiative. In 2013, half of AAU’s 62 member institutions participated in a summer workshop focused on creating the AAU STEM network. Even the 23 institutions that applied for but did not receive project grants have been positively affected, notes Miller. As part of their applications, these institutions developed concept papers that examined such factors as department and faculty engagement, institutional commitment, likelihood of sustained organizational change, and commitment to evaluation and assessment. Many of the campuses have successfully advanced these proposed projects with other funding sources.
As a resource for other higher education institutions, AAU is disseminating examples of the innovative efforts to reform STEM teaching and learning that are being implemented by its member campuses (see www.aau.edu/stem).
Setting standards for student outcomes
The accreditation standards adopted in 1996 by ABET, the agency that accredits engineering programs, demonstrate how an external body can influence the quality of teaching and learning in a discipline. These standards—called Engineering Criteria 2000, or EC2000—shifted the basis for accreditation of degree-granting programs from what students are taught to what students have learned. By adopting these standards, the ABET Board intended to increase student learning and to better prepare program graduates to enter the profession.
The standards specify 11 learning outcomes that cover not only students’ mathematical, scientific, and technical knowledge, but also other professional skills, such as solving unstructured problems, communicating effectively, and working in teams (ABET, 2009). Programs seeking accreditation must assess and demonstrate their students’ achievement in each of those areas, as well as meet additional standards for program faculty and facilities. The standards also stress awareness of ethical and contextual considerations in engineering.
Producing these learning outcomes, which are consistent with findings from research, would require new kinds of teaching. The EC2000 initiative assumed that as engineering programs aligned their curriculum with the standards, faculty would be motivated to revise their instruction and assessment practices accordingly. A study commissioned by ABET of the impact of EC2000 concluded that “the implementation of the EC2000 accreditation criteria has had a positive, and sometimes substantial, impact on engineering programs, student experiences, and student learning” (Lattuca, Terenzini, and Volkwein, 2006, p. 12). Based on comparisons of graduates’ self-reported learning outcomes, the study concluded that 2004 graduates were measurably better prepared than their 1994 counterparts in nine learning areas assessed. Findings from the study “strongly suggest that improvements in student learning have indeed resulted from changes in engineering program curricula, teaching methods, faculty practices, and student experiences inside and outside the classroom” (p. 13).
The ABET standards have encouraged frank discussions about curriculum and instructional practices among engineering faculty at many institutions. Faculty involved in the Iron Range Engineering program, described in Chapter 4, considered how to meet the ABET outcomes in the best ways suggested by research, rather than reframing existing curriculum to make it appear that a program already met the ABET outcomes—determining, for example, that “this one week in this one course connects to ethics, so, ‘Check!’” says Rebecca Bates,19
19 Interview, July 8, 2013.
an engineering professor at Minnesota State University, Mankato, who became involved in the Iron Range program after its founding. With the ABET outcomes as a guide, faculty in the Iron Range program determined that they would teach in a way that drew from research on student motivation, connected technical experiences with issues of value to society, modeled how to solve engineering problems and how to communicate those solutions, and developed students’ skills of working in teams, among other components. And while several people agreed that this was what good instruction should look like, “people also said, ‘I can’t do it at my school,’” Bates recalls. “It’s really hard to change a juggernaut’s direction…. If [the engineering program] is already good, students are already learning. But the question is, are students learning as much as they could, and who is being excluded from engineering education?”
While the ABET standards are unique among accreditation criteria for undergraduate STEM programs, they illustrate how an external group can strongly influence teaching in a discipline.
Sponsoring professional development
Disciplinary societies, professional associations, and other national and regional groups play an important role in sponsoring professional development to improve the teaching skills and knowledge of science and engineering instructors. STEM faculty workshops sponsored by scientific societies often aim “to develop expert competence in teaching, to enhance faculty views of teaching as a scholarly activity, and to promote the use of evidence in evaluating the effectiveness of teaching practices,” writes Robert Hilborn, associate executive officer of the American Association of Physics Teachers (Hilborn, 2012, p. 6). Their ultimate goals are to improve student learning and attitudes about STEM education and to attract more students to STEM careers.
Here are some notable, longstanding examples of national professional development efforts sponsored by disciplinary societies, professional associations, and similar groups:
- The National Effective Teaching Institute, sponsored by the American Society for Engineering Education, is a three-day workshop established in 1991 to familiarize engineering faculty members with proven, student-centered strategies (Felder and Brent, 2010). Engineering deans may nominate up to two faculty members from their campuses and are expected to pay their nominees’ expenses of attending. Past participants in the Institute credited the workshop
with increasing their awareness and use of various learner-centered strategies (Felder and Brent, 2010).
- Since 1996, the American Association of Physics Teachers, the American Physical Society, and the American Astronomical Society have sponsored New Faculty Workshops for faculty in their first three years of a tenure-track position. More than 1,600 faculty—roughly one-third of all new hires at U.S. institutions awarding a baccalaureate in physics or astronomy—have participated in the workshops since their inception, estimates Ken Krane,20 an Oregon State University physics professor and longtime workshop leader. At the three-and-a-half-day workshops, participants are introduced to instructional strategies and innovations that “are effective and reasonably easy to adopt,” says Hilborn.21 Roughly half of the workshop time is devoted to small-group sessions in which participants can practice and discuss the techniques they are learning. Department chairs nominate new faculty to attend the workshop, which helps bring the chairs on board with the workshop mission, says Krane, and the involvement of the disciplinary societies carries considerable weight with research universities (which account for more than half of the workshop participants). An evaluation of the New Faculty Workshops found that they have been effective in raising participants’ awareness of research-based practices and providing them with an initial experience but are less effective in helping participants implement strategies and stay engaged once they go back to their home institutions (Henderson, 2008).
- On the Cutting Edge, a professional development project of the National Association of Geoscience Teachers, has offered workshops for current and future geosciences faculty since 2003 (which are a spinoff of a series of workshops series for new geosciences faculty begun in 1999). On the Cutting Edge also sponsors an integrated website with teaching and learning resources and opportunities for ongoing networking (Manduca, 2011; Manduca et al., 2010). In a survey by McLaughlin and colleagues (2010), faculty who had participated in On the Cutting Edge were more likely than nonparticipants to report adding small-group activities to their teaching; spending less time lecturing and more time using in-class questioning, small-group discussion, and in-class exercises; and making more use of education research. On the Cutting Edge alumni
20 Interview, December 2, 2013.
21 Interview, December 3, 2013.
also significantly changed their attitudes about teaching, moving more toward active learning approaches (Macdonald et al., 2005).
- As described in Chapter 2, the National Academies and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute sponsor week-long Summer Institute workshops in biology that have reached roughly 1,000 biology instructors since 2004.
As noted in Chapter 2, these types of professional development have generally helped to increase participants’ awareness of research-based innovations, but overall their effectiveness in driving changes in practice has been limited. Studies of programs that have shown some success in reforming participants’ instruction point to the importance of providing extended follow-up, which is difficult to do. Chapter 2 describes additional components of professional development that tend to be associated with changes in practice.
Providing funding and other support for research-based teaching and learning
External groups can advance improvements in undergraduate science and engineering education through many other means. Funding is one important area. Federal agencies such as NSF, the U.S. Department of Education, and NASA, as well as state agencies and foundations, have provided critical funding for research, innovative programs, materials development, and other activities to improve science and engineering education. “A key for transformation at universities, especially at large research universities, has been federal funding,” says Noah Finkelstein of Colorado. At his institution, he notes, “NSF has done tremendous work by supporting institutional transformation in different disciplines at the undergraduate level.” Individual practitioners highlighted in this book have also found outside grants to be useful in advancing their research on promising approaches or implementing innovations on a larger scale.
External groups can also contribute to the intellectual and policy foundations of research-based instructional reform. Through its DBER study and other studies of undergraduate science and engineering education, the National Academies, for example, have synthesized and disseminated knowledge about research-based approaches and made policy recommendations.
Establishing collegial networks and sharing materials and information are additional ways in which external groups can be forces for reform. Instructors who are committed to reform but are isolated in their own work environments may find supportive and knowledgeable colleagues outside of their own institution through national or regional networks or professional organizations
(Fairweather, 2008). Often these networks are built around a particular discipline or instructional strategy. For example, instructors who are implementing the Process Oriented Guided Inquiry Learning (POGIL) approach described in Chapter 4 share curriculum materials and expertise, connect through national and regional workshops, and take advantage of expert consultations through The POGIL Project.
Regional and national resource centers also support the use of research-based practices. For example, SERC at Carleton College collects and disseminates curriculum and instructional materials, conducts and publicizes research on teaching and learning, provides guidance and professional development on implementing research-based reforms, and creates opportunities for networking. SERC also serves as a physical and virtual connection point for colleges and universities across the country at which geosciences is taught.
In addition to sponsoring professional development, disciplinary societies and professional associations have advanced effective instructional practices by forming education interest groups within the larger organization, broadening their journals and other publications to highlight research on teaching and learning and effective instructional practices, developing tools to evaluate effective instruction, and scheduling sessions on DBER and effective instruction at their conventions and meetings, to cite just a few examples.
Making meaningful changes in the larger contexts that affect undergraduate science and engineering education requires the effort of faculty and leaders “pulling together to achieve a common goal,” write Smith and MacGregor (2000, p. 81). It takes a collegial spirit and a willingness to try new things and learn from them. While individual instructors can do much on their own to improve teaching and learning, a great deal more can be achieved when departments, institutions, and external partners are committed to supporting this process.
Resources and Further Reading
Association of American Universities’ Undergraduate STEM Education Initiative www.aau.edu/stem
Discipline-Based Education Research: Understanding and Improving Learning in Undergraduate Science and Engineering (National Research Council, 2012)
Chapter 8: Translating Research into Teaching Practice: The Influence of Discipline-Based Education Research on Undergraduate Science and Engineering Instruction
Science Education Initiative at the University of Colorado Boulder http://www.colorado.edu/sei/index.html
Problem-based learning at the University of Delaware http://www.udel.edu/inst