by Mary Taylor Huber and Pat Hutchings
One of the Bay View Alliance’s main goals is to explore strategies that leaders can use to make evidence-based teaching practices the “new normal” in higher education. Yet, as we point out in two new reports (Huber and Hutchings, 2021a; Huber and Hutchings, 2021b), getting to this new norm involves two kinds of shift.1 One is to arrive at a point where faculty are teaching better. The other is to build a departmental culture that supports ongoing improvement—in other words, a department with features that make it both possible and desirable for its members to do serious and sustained work on teaching and learning.
The two of us heard a number of ideas about building such a culture from faculty participating in a recent BVA initiative called Transforming Education, Stimulating Teaching and Learning Excellence (TRESTLE). Central to TRESTLE’s effort was the use of disciplinary-based pedagogical experts embedded in departments to support faculty in redesigning their courses. From 2013 to 2020, we conducted case studies of this work in four departments: geoscience at the University of British Columbia, the undergraduate biology program at the University of Kansas, physics at Queen’s University in Canada, and computer science at Indiana University, Bloomington.
For some of our interviewees, a strong teaching culture was one in which an increasing number of instructors become more knowledgeable about pedagogy, pay more attention to how and what their students are learning, and use better strategies to help students succeed. “It’s really going to have to be a slow and steady change,” one computer scientist noted, “like three or four faculty at a time…[until] a significant fraction of people have started to think more about the way they teach.”
This is surely right, yet it is incomplete. Many people we spoke to also recognized that there’s a collective dimension to building a more robust culture of teaching and learning, one that sets up new patterns of interaction around teaching and learning in the department, along with policies and structures that help create the environment in which faculty members make decisions about educational programs and practices.
Indeed, we found many such features in our case study departments. None had fully developed them all, but over time it became possible to point to the power of features like the following, which we have loosely clustered here:
- Leadership for learning from the chair and faculty
- Policies that invite pedagogical innovation and risk taking
- Committee structure that supports ongoing attention to pedagogical improvement
- New and ongoing agendas for improvement
- Shared vision of goals for student learning
- Regular occasions for collective attention to teaching issues
- Support and encouragement for participation in professional development opportunities
- Assessment of student learning at the course and program level
- Involvement of students in improvement efforts
- Coteaching and mentoring of new faculty
- New kinds of appointments to support teaching improvement
- Appropriate attention to teaching in hiring and career advancement
Of course, many questions remain: Which features are most important? How do they build on one another? What policies and practices at college or university levels help support robust departmental teaching cultures? What roles can teaching and learning centers best play?
Fortunately, what we can say is that teaching improvement and teaching culture need not stall in a “chicken or egg” situation when efforts are focused on departments as units of change. Progress in teaching can be made in departments which have minimal supports in place, eventually creating the capacity to build a stronger departmental teaching culture. Of course, the dynamic can go in the other direction as well. In departments that develop a robust teaching culture, active learning strategies become familiar fare, with improvement understood as a way of life—a “new norm”— expected by colleagues and students alike.
This essay is one in a series of essays in which the authors reflect on themes drawn from their in-depth case studies of four STEM departments at four institutions participating in the Bay View Alliance’s TRESTLE Initiative.
Huber, M.T., & Hutchings, P. 2021. Dynamics of Departmental Change: Lessons from a Successful STEM Teaching Initiative. November, 2021.
Huber, M.T., & Hutchings, P. 2021. Dynamics of Departmental Change: Lessons from a Successful STEM Teaching Initiative. Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, 53:5, 41-47.