Sustaining instructional reform (Blogging from the AAPT)

by Stephanie Chasteen on July 28, 2009

This session is about how some institutions have sustained change in their courses, and what are the central features of changes that stick:  Eugenia Etkina (Rutgers), Steven Pollock (CU Boulder), Charles Henderson (Western Michigan).

The NSF will provide money to create reforms, but individual institutions have to figure out how to make them stick.  How is this done?  Faculty, of course, are self-interested folks.  What’s in it for them if they use your reformed materials when they teach that course?

Faculty need help to:

  • Use interactive lecture methods
  • Use your curriculum
  • Get appropriate professional development
  • Change their exams to assess the new elements of student learning that are being emphasized in the course
  • Work with PER faculty to generate departmental support.

Traditionally, we’ve trained faculty to do these sorts of things and hope that they stick, but at Rutgers instead they made a new staff line to promote and support these reforms.  These staff are taken from graduate students who don’t finish their degree, PhDs who don’t go into academia, or post-docs. These jobs are easier to create than faculty lines, but there is no set career advancement path for those poor slobs (like me!) who take those jobs.  They also work with pre-service teachers in a great program to teach them how to use interactive teaching methods — they then use these pre-service teachers to staff these refromed courses.

Steven Pollock talked about our work at Colorado, and pointed out that faculty involvement includes faculty ownership — faculty meet to design course goals, develop materials, and to personalize the materials that have been previously created.  We have a departmental culture that supports faculty learning about these transformations through working groups, brown bags, faculty meetings, and team teaching.  At Colorado, students also buy in to the process — the vast majority find clickers useful for their learning, for example.  So, he suggests, the critical features seem to be to have

  • initiators and proponents of the change
  • institutional support
  • resources such as materials, staff and class space
  • faculty buy-in, including team teaching and personalization of materials
  • student buy-in
  • departmental culture

Charles Henderson discussed the particular issues surrounding new faculty, focusing on a new study by Boice.  New faculty struggle to deal with the teaching load in their first year, and research suffers (contrary to their expectations), but they aren’t particularly sophisticated in being able to ask for help and support in their teaching.  Instead they focus on the practice and principles of lecture and the content that is being presented.  They predict that their schedules will get more balanced, though they have no specific strategies to change their work weeks, and even though teaching is sucking up all their time, they’re not getting very good student evaluations.  Around the third semester faculty start to present easier material and blame poor student preparation for their continued difficulty in teaching.  In the fourth semester they still have no ans to change their approach, and they resent how much teaching is cutting into their research productivity.

So, new faculty

Equate good teaching = good content

  • Teach cautiously and defensively to avoid criticism
  • Blame external factors for their failures
  • Don’t know how to improve teaching beyond improving content and making tests easier

We need to do more than let faculty “sink or swim” in the complex realm of teaching.

He advocates

  1. New faculty workshops (broad awareness of instructional strategies)
  2. Co-teaching (deep learning about one strategy)

The new faculty workshop he discussed is the new astronomy and physics workshop put together by the APS.  This is a short one time intervention where faculty go to a 4-day workshop to learn about a variety of instructional strategies, and it’s made mostly of “telling” — ie., the faculty passively learn about these different strategies.  So it doesn’t seem like it should work very well, from what we know about professional development, but oddly, it does.  A lot of faculty have improved awareness, attitudes, and use of PER based materials after the workshop — even according to their departmental chairs!  This workshop serves as a gateway, motivating them to work on more productive teaching strategies, rather than embarking on the downward spiral that Boice described.  One faculty said that the workshop “provided an important seed.”  They’re getting interested in new techniques at the workshop and then doing more work on their own.

What about co-teaching? Henderson and Dancy have a great paper that I highly recommend about the value of co-teaching, and we at Colorado have also found this immensely valuable in promoting faculty change and sustaining reforms. Henderson described the evolution of one teacher who he worked with, who was initially skeptical of these new teaching methods, started to think that maybe some of these methods were OK, and was eventually very positive.  One thing that this co-teacher valued was that he wasn’t Henderson’s “apprentce”, it was a collegial relationship.  This strategy is effective because a lot of the complex decision-making involved in teaching practices are being modeled and discussed in an immersive way.  Might this be effective for graduate students, he suggests?

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