by Pat Hutchings and Mary Huber
Why does it take so long for teaching practices to change in college and university classrooms?
Many faculty today are intrigued by new teaching approaches that have been shown to improve the quality and quantity of student learning. And many are experimenting with these approaches, finding ways to engage students more actively--for instance by organizing them to work in groups to solve complex problems, or asking them to apply and demonstrate their learning in community settings.
This kind of work can be energizing for everyone involved. But as we have seen in our case studies of departments participating in the Bay View Alliance, it can also entail real risks and challenges. Many of the approaches that are gaining currency today require unsettling shifts in the relationship between students and teachers, with new roles for both. It turns out, too, that asking students to learn in different ways can result in lower course evaluations, which may in turn affect the prospects for raises and promotion. And then of course there’s the issue of time–asking already “super super busy” people (as one faculty member described himself and his colleagues) to take on yet another task.
With these challenges and others in mind, the two of us have been keen to identify leadership strategies that support faculty in making pedagogical changes. “Leadership for learning” is, after all, the Bay View Alliance “tagline,” and, as we suspected, participating institutions and departments provide an impressive range of examples and approaches.
Deans, associate provosts, and provosts have all played important roles in encouraging new teaching approaches at Bay View Alliance institutions. They are often the ones who endorse, find funding for, and in some cases even discover new initiatives. For example, the provost at one BVA university heard about a long-standing course transformation program at another institution, and then led a team to design a version adapted to local circumstances. That initiative has provided extra funding for departments who came up with a good plan to up their pedagogical game.
Chairs can be crucial in a department’s decision to participate in such opportunities, as well as in supporting the work once it gets underway. The chair in one department we visited created a safety zone for faculty who were experimenting with new approaches (which students don’t always like), through a policy that forgives dips in student course evaluations. Another expressed support by making it clear that despite cutbacks in other areas of the department budget, funding for course transformation efforts would be secure–a powerful signal about departmental values. A third provided leadership by diving into such work himself, partnering with an innovative faculty colleague to redesign and teach a critical introductory course.
Moves like these are especially important, we heard, in settings where the reward system tilts largely in an opposite direction–toward research productivity rather than teaching excellence. As Adrianna Kezar and Elizabeth Holcombe argue in a recent essay, faculty awareness of high-impact teaching practices is on the rise, but what’s often missing is administrative leadership to support the use of new approaches. Chairs are especially important in making this possible.
Of course, leadership is not the exclusive domain of those with administrative titles. Some of the most powerful forms of support in the departments we visited came from faculty themselves (a term we use broadly to include all who have instructional roles). Sometimes they serve as official leaders but they can also provide powerful leadership as idea champions, bringing interpersonal engagement and energy to the work. At one BVA institution, a faculty leader of a course transformation initiative was admired for her willingness to knock on office doors to encourage participation, as well as for her judgment about what kinds of data, measured out in what amounts and at what points, would make a difference to her colleagues.
Faculty leadership also emerges in learning communities, which make it possible to learn from and support one another as new classroom approaches are tried and tested out. These communities can take various forms, as illustrated by the range of opportunities we saw on one campus we visited: a cross-disciplinary institute on course transformation where faculty can interact with colleagues from other fields; a “collegium” where instructors of introductory courses gather regularly to trade ideas–and data–about student success and retention; and a new departmental research group on the scholarship of teaching and learning. Of course, these kinds of communities do not materialize out of the ether; they must be nurtured and supported through leadership at multiple levels. It takes a village, and that village is growing.
That said, the work of course transformation, as we have come to understand in these longitudinal case studies, is best understood not as a project with a beginning and an end but as a spirit of what some scholars have called “positive restlessness” (Kuh, et. al, 2010), an ongoing commitment to pedagogical innovation and inquiry. Sustaining the process will take commitment and leadership over the long haul. And, yes, time.
This essay is one in a series of blogs in which the authors reflect on themes drawn from their in-depth case studies of four departments at four institutions participating in the Bay View Alliance’s TRESTLE initiative.
Kezar, A. & Holcombe, E. (2017, Winter). “Support for High-Impact Practices: A New Tool for Administators.” Liberal Education, 103(1), 34-39.
Kuh, G. D., Kinzie, J., Schuh, J. H., Whitt, E. J., & Associates. (2010). Student Success in College: Creating Conditions That Matter. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.