By Doug Ward

Howard Gobstein issued both a challenge and a warning to those of us in higher education.

Universities aren’t keeping up with the pace of societal change, he said, and the initiatives to improve education at the local, state and national levels too often work in isolation.

“We’d better start talking to one another,” said Gobstein, vice president for research policy and STEM education at the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities.

Howard Gobstein

Gobstein spoke in Lawrence last week at the annual meeting of TRESTLE, a network of faculty and academic leaders who are working with colleagues in their departments to improve teaching in science, technology, engineering and math. Pressures are building both inside and outside the university to improve education, he said, citing changing demographics, rising costs, advances in technology, and demands for accountability among the many pressure points. Universities have created initiatives to improve retention at the institutional level. Departments and disciplines, especially in STEM, have created their own initiatives. Most work independently, though.

“There are almost two different conversations occurring, I would argue,” Gobstein said. “There are those that are pushing overall and those that are pushing within STEM.”

Not only that, but national organizations have created STEM education initiatives focusing on K-12, undergraduate education, graduate education, and industry and community needs. Those initiatives often overlap, but all of them are vital for effecting change, Gobstein said.

“To transform and to make it stick, there has to be something going on across all of these levels,” he said.

Universities must also work more quickly, especially as outside organizations draw on technology to provide alternative models of education.

“There are organizations out there, there are institutions out there that are going to change the nature of education,” Gobstein said. “They are already starting to do that. They are nipping away at universities. And we ignore them at our peril.”

Gobstein made a similar argument last year at a meeting of the Bay View Alliance, a consortium of North American research universities that are working to improve teaching and learning. Demographics are changing rapidly, he said, but STEM fields are not attracting enough students from underrepresented minority groups and lower economic backgrounds.

Howard Gobstein showed this chart to demonstrate the breadth of STEM education initiatives across the United States.

“That’s not entirely the responsibility of institutions, but they have a big role to play,” Gobstein said. “To the extent that we can transform our STEM education, our classes, our way of dealing with these students, the quicker we will be able to get a larger portion of these students into lucrative STEM fields.”

Change starts at individual institutions and in gateway courses that often hold students back, he said. Research universities must value teaching and learning more, though.

“It’s the recognition that teaching matters. It’s the recognition that counseling students matters,” Gobstein said.

Higher education is also under pressure from parents, students and governments to improve teaching and learning, to make sure students are prepared for the future, and to provide education at a price that doesn’t plunge families into debt.

“We seem to be losing ground with them as far as their confidence in our institutions to be able to provide what those students need for their future, particularly at a price that they are comfortable with,” Gobstein said.

Sarah LeGresley Rush (front) and Steve Case of the University of Kansas participate in a discussion at TRESTLE with Joan Middendorf (center) of Indiana University.

At TRESTLE, Gobstein challenged participants with some difficult questions:

  • What does teaching mean in an era of rapidly changing technology?
  • How do we measure the pace of change? How do we know that we are doing better this year than in previous years?
  • How do we make sure the next generation of faculty continues to bring about change but also sustains that change?

He also urged participants to seek out collaborators on their campuses who can provide support for their efforts but also connect them with national initiatives.

“What we’re really trying to do is to change how students learn, and we’re trying to make sure that all students have access and opportunity,” Gobstein said.

Despite the many challenges, Gobstein told instructors at TRESTLE that the work they were doing to improve teaching and learning was vital to the future of higher education.

“You are doing work that is some of the most important work any of us can think of doing,” Gobstein said.

“The nation needs you.”


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

The University of Kansas has gained international attention with its work in student-centered learning over the past five years.

Grants from the National Science Foundation, the Teagle Foundation, and the Association of American Universities have helped transform dozens of classes and helped faculty better understand students and learning. Participation in the Bay View Alliance, a North American consortium of research universities, has helped the university bolster its efforts to improve teaching and learning. And participation in organizations like the International Society for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, the Association of American Colleges and Universities, and the AAU has provided opportunities for KU faculty to share the rich work they have done in improving their courses.

Participants in TRESTLE brainstorm during a launch meeting for the network. They met in Lawrence in early 2016.

KU’s leadership in student-centered education will be on display at home this week as instructors and administrators from a dozen research universities and educational organizations gather in Lawrence for a three-day institute on teaching and learning. The institute, which begins Thursday, is part of the annual meeting of TRESTLE, a network of faculty and academic leaders who are working with colleagues in their departments to improve teaching in science, technology, engineering and mathematics classes at research universities. TRESTLE is an acronym for transforming education, stimulating teaching and learning excellence.

Attendees will participate in workshops on many facets of course transformation and active learning organized around a theme of sustaining change and broadening participation in student-centered education. Among the speakers are Howard Gobstein, executive vice president of the Association of Public and Land Grant Universities; Pat Hutchings, a senior scholar at the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment; and Mary Huber, a senior scholar at the Bay View Alliance, an international organization working to build leadership for educational change.

“KU has been a hub for transforming teaching and learning for several years,” said Andrea Greenhoot, director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and leader of the TRESTLE network. “TRESTLE has allowed us to expand that community beyond campus and connect with faculty at other universities.”

Andrea Greenhoot

That collaborative approach has been central to the TRESTLE network and to this week’s institute.

“Teaching is often seen as a solitary activity,” Greenhoot said. “It doesn’t have to be that way. Our philosophy at CTE has always been that great teaching requires community. The TRESTLE community provides role models, engages faculty in intellectual discussions about teaching, gives instructors opportunities to reflect on their work, and creates a platform for sharing ideas and results.”

TRESTLE was formed three years ago after Greenhoot, Caroline Bennett, associate professor of engineering, Mark Mort, associate professor of biology, and partners at six other universities received grants totaling $2.5 million from the National Science Foundation. Their work has focused on supporting the development of STEM education experts who work within academic departments. These experts collaborate with other instructors in their departments to incorporate teaching innovations that shift the emphasis away from lecture and engage students in collaborative activities, discussion, problem-solving and projects that lead to better learning. Over the last three years, faculty members involved with TRESTLE have transformed more than 100 courses.

The transformation efforts have been impressive, Greenhoot said, but maintaining the changes after the grant ends in two years will be crucial. Blair Schneider, the program director of TRESTLE, has been coordinating this week’s activities with that in mind.

“We will be asking participants to take on some challenging questions during their time in Lawrence,” Schneider said. “How can we sustain the momentum we’ve built up over the last three years? What will it take to keep departments focused on improving student learning? How do we keep all this going? Everyone involved with TRESTLE has been energized as they have shared ideas and rethought their classes. We want to make sure that energy continues.”

As part of the institute, several KU faculty members are opening their classrooms so that participants can see the results of course transformation. Those instructors are from geology, chemistry, biology, civil engineering, and electrical engineering and computer science. Participants will also have opportunities to see active learning classrooms that KU has created over the past few years.

Open textbook workshop

If you haven’t looked into using open resources in your classes, you should. Open access materials replace costly textbooks, saving students millions of dollars a year even as they provide flexibility for instructors.

Two workshops at KU Libraries in October will help instructors learn how to adopt, adapt and even create open resources for their classes. Josh Bolick, scholarly communication librarian in the Shulenburger Office of Scholarly Communication and Copyright, will the lead the workshops as part of Open Access Week, an international event aimed at increasing awareness of open access materials.

Bolick’s workshops, “Open Textbooks and How They Support Teaching and Learning,” will be held from 9:30 to 11 a.m. on Oct. 19 and Oct. 23 in Watson Library, room 455. You can register here.


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

Data analytics holds great potential for helping us understand curricula.

By combining data from our courses (rubrics, grades, in-class surveys) with broader university data (student demographics, data from other courses), we can get a more meaningful picture of who our students are and how they perform as they move through our curricula.

Sarah LeGresley Rush and Chris Fischer in the KU physics department offered a glimpse into what we might learn with a broader pool of university data at a departmental colloquim on Monday. LeGresley Rush and Fischer explained analyses suggesting that a shift in the way an early physics class is structured had led to improvements in student performance in later engineering classes.

Chris Fischer works with students in General Physics II.

That reference to engineering is correct. Engineering students take introductory physics before many of their engineering classes, and the physics department created a separate class specifically for engineering majors.

A few years ago, Fischer began rethinking the structure of introductory physics because students often struggled with vector mathematics early in the course. In Spring 2015, he introduced what he called an “energy first” approach in Physics 211, focusing on the principle of energy conservation and the use of more applied calculus. The other introductory class, Physics 210, maintained its traditional “force first” curriculum, which explores classical mechanics through the laws of motion and uses little applied calculus. Both classes continued their extensive use of trigonometry and vectors, but Physics 211 adopted considerable material on differentiation and integration, which Physics 210 did not have.

LeGresley Rush, a teaching specialist in physics, joined Fischer, an associate professor, in evaluating the changes in two ways. First, they used results from the Force Concept Inventory, an exam that has been used for three decades to measure students’ understanding of concepts in introductory physics. They also used university analytics to see how students in the two introductory sections fared in a later physics course and in three engineering courses.

In both analyses, students who completed the revised physics courses outperformed students who took the course in the original format. The biggest improvements were among students with ACT math scores below 22. In every grouping of ACT scores they used (22-24, 25-27, 28-30, and above 30), students who took the revised course outperformed those who took the course in the traditional format. Those on the lower end gained the most, though.

Sarah LeGresley Rush

They next looked at how students in the two sections of introductory physics did in the next course in the department sequence, General Physics II. The results were similar, but LeGresley Rush and Fischer were able to compare student grades. In this case, students who completed the transformed course earned grades nearly a point higher in General Physics II than those who took the traditional course.

Finally, LeGresley Rush and Fischer used university data to track student performance in three engineering courses that list introductory physics as a requirement: Mechanical Engineering 211 (Statics and Introduction to Mechanics) and 312 (Basic Engineering Thermodynamics), and Civil Engineering 301 (Statics and Dynamics). Again, students who took the revised course did better in engineering courses, this time by about half a grade point.

“Why?” Fischer said in an earlier interview. “We argue that it’s probably because we changed this curriculum around and by doing so we incorporated more applied mathematics.”

He pointed specifically to moving vector mathematics to later in the semester. Vector math tends to be one of the most difficult subjects for students in the class. By helping students deepen their understanding of easier physics principles first, Fischer said, they are able to draw on those principles later when they work on vectors. There were also some changes in instruction that could have made a difference, he said, but all three physics classes in the study had shifted to an active learning format.

Fischer went to great lengths during the colloquium to point out potential flaws in the data and in the conclusions, especially as skeptical colleagues peppered him with questions. As with any such study, there is the possibility for error.

Nonetheless, Fischer and LeGresley Rush made a compelling case that a revised approach to introductory physics improved student learning in later courses. Perhaps as important, they demonstrated the value of university data in exploring teaching and curricula. Their project will help others at KU tackle similar questions.

The physics project is part of a CTE-led program to use university data to improve teaching, student learning, and retention in science, technology, engineering and math courses. The CTE program, which involves seven departments, is funded by a grant from the Association of American Universities. The Office of Institutional Research and Planning has provided data analysis for the teams.

A helpful tool for finding articles blocked by paywalls

A Chrome browser plug-in called Unpaywall may save a bit of time by pointing you to open access versions of online journal articles ensconced behind paywalls.

The plug-in, which is free, works like this:

When you find a journal article on a subscription-only site, Unpaywall automatically searches for an open version of the article. Often these are versions that authors have posted or that universities have made available through sites like KU Scholar Works. If Unpaywall finds an open copy of the article, it displays a green circle with an open lock on the right side of the screen. You click on the circle and are redirected to the open article.

It’s pretty slick. Unpaywall says its database has 20 million open access articles. It was integrated into Web of Science last year and is now part of many library systems.

Scott Hanrath, associate dean of libraries, said KU Libraries integrated a version of UnPaywall into its system in late 2016. If the “Get at KU” database doesn’t find a match for a source that libraries has access to, it tries the UnPaywall database as an alternative and provides a link if an open version of the article is available.

The Get at KU function is especially helpful in online searches, and the additional database opened even more options for finding articles quickly. I added UnPaywall to my search toolkit, as well. It seems like a useful addition, especially when I’m off campus.

You can read more about Unpaywall in a recent issue of Nature.


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.