By Doug Ward

PALO ALTO, Calif. – Nearly all college faculty members want to teach well but few have both the pedagogical background to make their classes more student-centered and the incentive to do so, the Nobel laureate Carl Wieman said Monday.

Carl Wieman (Stanford photo)
Carl Wieman (Stanford photo)

Wieman, a physics professor at Stanford, has been a leader in promoting effective teaching practices in the sciences, primarily through his Science Education Initiative. He spoke Monday at a meeting of the Bay View Alliance, a consortium of North American research universities working toward much the same goal.

The Science Education Initiative has led to the transformation of dozens of courses at the University of British Columbia and the University of Colorado, and Wieman drew on those experiences as he explained some of the successes and failures of his efforts.

The idea of “transformation” is elastic, but it generally means moving instructors and courses toward student-centered, evidence-based teaching practices that involve clear, measurable course goals, and effective means of assessment and reflection. Wieman said his work had also led to more interaction in the classroom as faculty members moved away from lecture; inspired more meaningful discussions of teaching within departments, and generated demands from students to change more courses.

“The dominant barrier to change is the incentive system,” Wieman said, adding that most faculty see anything that takes away from research time as penalizing their ability to succeed.

He and his colleagues countered that barrier primarily with what Wieman called an “artificial incentive system.” This involved spending $1 million to $2 million per department in two forms:

  • Department-centered teaching grants. These were grants to individual faculty members to use for summer salaries, to buy out classes, to hire research and teaching assistants, and to buy materials for class development.
  • Education specialists. These were mostly post-doctoral teaching fellows who had Ph.D.s in STEM disciplines and were willing to learn effective teaching practices. The initiative found almost no one who came in with the necessary expertise, so it created workshops to help the specialists learn about effective teaching. The specialists, in turn, provided guidance to faculty members, helped create course materials, and provided non-threatening coaching. That combination of disciplinary and pedagogical knowledge was critical in gaining the trust of faculty members and making the process work, Wieman said.

Wieman has found success with his model, but he has also run into barriers. For instance, all the faculty members in the targeted departments he worked with had the opportunity to change their approach to teaching, but many didn’t. Some tenure-track faculty members backed out because they said they were afraid that time spent on teaching would detract from their research and, ultimately, their ability to gain tenure. Others started but eventually gave up once they were left on their own. Math faculty were especially resistant to change, and only a small percentage joined the course redesign efforts.

Other snippets from Monday’s discussions with Wieman:

  • Supportive chairs and deans are among the most important factors in effecting change, and leaders who wouldn’t support the initiative all but scuttled some departmental efforts.
  • Faculty members who are considered “star” teachers in their departments are among the most resistant to change. These are often charismatic instructors who are popular among students and receive high teaching evaluations and even teaching awards as they give engaging performances in lecture but focus little on student learning. This group saw no reason to change and became passive resistors, Wieman said.
  • One of the most common pitfalls in course redesign, he said, is a focus on what to teach rather than how to teach.
  • Another problem is overreliance on student evaluations to gauge faculty effectiveness, something he elaborates on in an article in Change magazine. These evaluations aren’t related to learning or to best practices, he said, and evaluations tend to go down when faculty move toward new techniques.

One of Wieman’s initial goals was to see whether an infusion of money into the teaching process would lead to use of more effective teaching practices and to long-term change in department teaching cultures. In the short term, the answer is yes, but certainly not universally. It’s too early to tell whether the efforts will lead to long-term change, he said.

One thing that Wieman avoided addressing was the lack of effort in changing the incentive system, which he said was the largest barrier to change. That lack of an incentive system came up again and again during discussions at BVA meetings this week. There was broad agreement that universities must reward high-quality teaching in the promotion and tenure system to improve student learning, reduce failure rates, improve graduation rates, and to improve their long-term credibility and viability.

That won’t be easy, but like Wieman, the BVA has achieved meaningful steps in remaking courses, attracting faculty to student-centered practices, helping show meaningful ways of using class time, reducing failure rates in courses, and spreading a culture that values high-quality, innovative teaching.

As Wieman said, most faculty do see the value of high-quality teaching, and those who have shifted toward active learning and building teaching expertise within departments have found teaching much more personally satisfying, Wieman said.

“That’s the thing that keeps faculty members doing this,” he said.

KU continues to expand course transformation

KU began its own course transformation project in 2013 with a two-prong approach: creation of program for post-doctoral teaching fellows to help departments transform large undergraduate courses, and development of the C21 Course Redesign Consortium. Bob Goldstein, associate dean for the natural sciences and mathematics, was instrumental in development of the teaching fellows program after seeing the influence Wieman’s program had at the University of British Columbia.

But KU is testing an approach that requires a much smaller “artificial incentive system” (i.e., funds, and teaching specialists) than the UBC and CU programs, by building community around course transformation to amplify the catalyzing effects of the teaching specialists. To this end, Andrea Greenhoot, now CTE’s director, began C21, which has helped create a community among faculty and staff members, GTAs, and post-doctoral teaching fellows working to expand and improve student-centered teaching. The teaching fellows program, C21, and CTE’s Best Practices Institute have led to the transformation of dozens of courses at the university.

Greenhoot followed up on those successes in creating a seven-university network aimed at expanding the adoption of empirically validated teaching practices. That project, known as Transforming Education, Stimulating Teaching and Learning Excellence, or TRESTLE , received a $2.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation. Each campus will hire teaching specialists to work with faculty members on transforming courses and build a community to share information across campuses. The project builds on the lessons learned in the Wieman Science Education Initiative but tests a model that could more feasibly promote sustained change at a wide range of institutions.

Virtual workshops on campus racism

The Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education at the University of Pennsylvania is conducting a series of virtual sessions called Responding to Racism on College and University Campuses.

Two of the sessions have already taken place, but the next one, on Monday, looks especially relevant to faculty members. It is called “Race-Consciousness in Classrooms and Curricula: Strategies for College Faculty.”

Each session costs $25 and requires pre-registration.


Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.


By Doug Ward

In this month’s Teaching Matters, Mike Vitevitch writes about his experiences in having honors students give group presentations in lieu of a final exam.

Vitevitch, a professor of psychology, says he was “bowled over” by the quality of the students’ work at the end of the spring semester. As he explains in the accompanying video, honors students in Introduction to Psychology tend to do very well on exams. They know the material, and Vitevitch wanted to push their learning further.

So he divided up the main concepts from the semester – areas like methods, the brain, learning, memory, and emotion – and assigned groups of four to five students to lead 15-minute sessions during the final exam period.

You can see for yourself the types of things they came up with. And you can hear students explain their experiences. They make a compelling case not only for active learning but for relatable learning material.

Introduction to Psychology was a flipped course, and many of the students said they had had previous experiences with flipped courses. Some said they thought the flipped approach worked best with conceptual classes like psychology and less so with math and science. They said they had never taken a flipped math or science course, though.

When I asked them what advice they would give to other students taking a similar course, they were nearly unanimous: do the readings, complete the work ahead of time, and come to class prepared to learn.

They also offered advice to instructors who plan to flip their classes:

  • Choose high-quality online material, and follow up on that material effectively in class.
  • Look for good models in other classes to emulate.
  • Make learning hands-on and concrete.
  • Encourage students to make projects accessible.

It’s good advice from a top-notch group of students.


Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.