By Doug Ward

Watching David Johnson’s class in digital logic design is a bit like watching synchronized swimming.

After a few minutes of announcements, Johnson and half a dozen GTAs and undergraduate teaching fellows fan out across an Eaton Hall auditorium as 60 or so students begin to work on problems that Johnson has assigned.

student with white headphones sit at table and listens to instructor who leans on table and speaks
David Johnson works with a student during Introduction to Digital Logic Design.

A hand goes up on one side of the room. Johnson approaches, and students around him listen intently as he asks questions and quietly offers advice. Across the aisle, a group of four young men confers about the problem, looking things up on laptops, writing down notes by hand, erasing, writing again, and sharing ideas. A few rows ahead, two young women point at the problem on the screen at the front of the room. They confer, take notes, and confer more. Across the room, hands go up and, one by one, the class assistants approach, offer their help and then search for more raised hands.

“We’re always busy helping someone,” Johnson said.

Similar scenes have increasingly played out across the university – and across the country – as a growing number of instructors, primarily in STEM fields, have hired undergraduate teaching assistants to work in their classes. The undergrad TAs are just one example of how colleges and universities have elevated the importance of peer learning as part of their efforts to retain students and to help them move toward graduation.

Many educational roles

At KU, those efforts extend into many areas. First-Year Experience, honors, pharmacy and business are among the programs that use peer mentors. The Undergraduate Advising Office has a team of peer advisors who, among other things, help students navigate choices of classes and majors, and help them find campus resources. As anxiety and depression have increased among students, Counseling and Psychological Services has created a peer educator program to work with students on mental health.

young woman helps a student with a problem in both foreground and background
Student assistants help their peers work through problems in David Johnson’s class.

The university’s Supplemental Instruction program is also growing and now has peer leaders working with two dozen courses. Those peer leaders have successfully completed the course they are helping with. They lead sessions in which students review course material, prepare for exams, work on study skills, and offer support to one another throughout a semester. That approach, which started at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, has been found to improve grades, retention rates and, ultimately, graduation rates.

Peers have always played a role in learning, and they have long been involved in writing programs, tutoring and review sessions. The use of large numbers of undergraduate assistants in classes is relatively new, though, and is tied to a growing use of flipped classes, active learning, and in-class problem-solving. Over the past five years or so, KU instructors in such fields as geology, biology, chemistry, physics, and engineering have hired undergraduate assistants to work in their largest classes. Those assistants do such things as monitor online discussion boards, help with labs, proctor exams, and hold office hours. A pre-semester training program was started two years ago for undergraduate assistants in STEM courses, allowing the assistants and instructors to gain a better understanding of how to work together.

Undergraduate assistants have been crucial in transforming large lecture courses into hubs of active learning. Coordinating with instructors and graduate teaching assistants, they monitor groups or sections of a classroom, answer questions, offer praise, and through their interactions with students, make large courses more personal. Like students who lead Supplemental Instruction sessions, the undergraduate assistants in large classes have recently taken the course, so they understand the flow of the class, the course material, and the areas where students are most likely to struggle.

As they help their peers, they hone their own understanding of course material, improve their communication skills, and gain experience working with groups of people. That deeper understanding helps prepare them for upper-level classes as well as medical school exams, internships and graduate school. Most rely on the money they earn to help pay their college bills. Nearly all report a sense of satisfaction from the experience.

“When you see someone finally get it, it’s really cool,” one undergraduate assistant said at a recent training session.

Zero lecture timestudent assistant stands and leans elbow on table as student points to a problem on a sheet of paper

Johnson has used graduate teaching assistants, Supplemental Instruction assistants, and undergraduate teaching fellows (as the assistants are known in engineering) to make dramatic changes in his classes. With the help of Molly McVey, a post-doctoral teaching fellow in engineering, Johnson flipped a course in which he was lecturing about half of class time. They created online materials that helped students prepare for in-class problem-solving and hired undergraduate fellows to help in the classroom. When the flipped version debuted last year, lecture time had dropped to nearly zero.

“The only time they really hear me speak is if I have an announcement, usually to remind them of a test,” Johnson said.

Johnson first tried the flipped approach during a summer computer science camp for high school students, and he was surprised by how much more students learned. So he began to transform EECS 140, which he described as a gateway course required of all students in electrical engineering. He received a course transformation grant from the Center for Teaching Excellence and worked with course designers and video specialists at the Center for Online and Distance Learning to create online materials. He had the undergraduate assistants create the in-class problems, which he described as “nearly perfect” because they require considerable thought but can still be completed during class time.young man in yellow shirt runs his hand through his hair as a student assistant sits beside him and helps him with a problem

During the first week, students aren’t sure what to make of the hands-on approach, but that hesitancy quickly disappears as they adapt to the in-class problem-solving.

“The first class they were just sitting there waiting,” Johnson said. “I explained to them again that they could start working. By the third or fourth class, they were already asking questions even before the class started.”

The questions continue throughout the class period, and Johnson and the student assistants are constantly on the move. The constant interaction has helped Johnson better connect to the class.

“When I walk around and talk to students, I really understand what they don’t understand,” Johnson said. “That really helps me do a better job.”

Students are free to leave class once they complete the day’s problems, but many stay for the entire period. Some who finish early work on the next online module, knowing they can get help if they have questions. Others like to stay and help their peers.

Improved learning and a sense of satisfaction

Learning has improved significantly in many areas of the class, and the number of students who drop or fail has fallen. The approach isn’t perfect. Johnson said there was a dip in some areas on the last of the four exams he gives. By the end of the semester, though, many students know that their grades won’t change much regardless of how they do on the last exam, so they don’t approach that exam with the same seriousness they do earlier work, Johnson said.

During class, though, the students are focused and engaged. A hand goes up at the back. An undergraduate teaching fellow kneels, listens and offers advice. A hand goes up in front, in the center, on the far side of the room. Johnson moves from table to table, student to student.

“Students always think it’s easy for an instructor to do that,” Johnson said. “For me, it’s a lot harder to go around and explain something to someone who doesn’t understand some things than it is to just stand up there and flap away and hope they understand. It takes a lot more energy out of me, but I feel much better at the end of class when I think, ‘Wow, I really did teach somebody something.’ ”


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 recent (Re)imagining Humanities Teaching conference offered a template for the future of teaching in higher education.

With its emphasis on teaching as a scholarly activity, the conference challenged participants to find effective ways to document student learning, to build and maintain strong communities around teaching, and to approach courses as perpetual works in progress that adapt to the needs of students.

Pat Hutchings speaks during a plenary session at the (Re)imagining Humanities Teaching conference

The conference was the final event of the Collaborative Humanities Redesign Project, or CHRP, a three-year course redesign program involving faculty at KU, Park, Rockhurst and Elon universities. Participants were united in their belief that humanities teaching must change if the humanities hopes to grow in an educational climate dominated by STEM and business.

The lessons from the conference apply to STEM fields as much as they do to the humanities, though. The future of higher education depends on our ability to put student learning at the center of our teaching, to embrace innovation and change, and to continually adapt our methods of instruction. It also depends on our ability to change the culture of teaching – not only in our classes but in the way institutions value the work of instructors.

So how do we do that? Here are four key elements that emerged from the CHRP conference.

Good teaching requires inquiry, evidence and time.

Kathy Wise, associate director of the Center of Inquiry at Wabash College, described course transformation as a process of “tuning, processing and iterating.” Many things can go wrong during experimentation and innovation, and rarely do first attempts go perfectly. That can be discouraging, especially when faculty members feel pressure to make changes and move on, largely because the demands of research and service bear down on them. Course transformation isn’t a box an instructor checks off, though. One of the characteristics of effective, innovative teaching is the constant assessment and change of a course. Instructors gather evidence of learning, adapt to students and circumstances, and approach teaching with questions that allow them to learn about their methods and their students.

To make course transformation more manageable, Pat Hutchings, a senior scholar at the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment, underscored the value of carefully designed small steps. Don’t bypass large changes if time and resources are available, she said, but an iterative approach can reduce the anxiety of a top-to-bottom course remake and make it easier to persevere when things go wrong. Transforming a class in smaller steps also helps make the work sustainable, Hutchings said. Even small steps take time, though, something that a cash-strapped education system (with an emphasis on “more with less”) and rewards system (with its emphasis on volume of research and above-average student evaluations) generally don’t recognize. If we hope to succeed, we must find ways of giving faculty members the time they need to revise, reflect and gather appropriate evidence.

We must learn to teach rather than expect.

Hutchings said this idea from Brad Osborn, an assistant professor of music at KU, captured the spirit of the CHRP project and provided an important reminder to all instructors. Too often, we expect students to already have certain skills or expect them to accomplish something on their own. We certainly can’t teach everything to everyone in every course, so we have to make some assumptions based on students’ previous classes and experience. If we expect, though, we make too many assumptions. We assume that students know how to handle college work. We assume that they have the skills to complete an assignment. We assume that they have the skills to complete a course. Osborn put it this way in describing his transformation of a music history course:

Deandra Little, director of the Center for the Advancement of Teaching and Learning at Elon University, leads a session at the CHRP conference. To her right are Renee Michael, director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning at Rockhurst University, and Kathy Wise, associate director of the Center of Inquiry at Wabash College.

“It has dawned on me only of late that my original impetus for including writing in this course (teaching, rather than expecting) still needs to be applied more specifically to the process of learning how to create a good argument. I need to actively teach this specific skill, not just expect it.”

If we teach rather than expect, we approach our students and our courses with an open mind. We listen to students, scaffold assignments, assign work that checks students’ understanding, give good feedback, and provide structure that helps students move through a course in a purposeful way. Peter Felten, executive director of the Center for Engaged Learning at Elon University, described the process this way: Set meaningful goals. Have students practice, practice, practice. Give them feedback. Start again.

Good teaching requires supportive leaders.

CHRP’s administrative leaders worked closely with campus leaders, providing “structures to scaffold creative and difficult work,” Wise said. This involved four campuses in three states, and the leaders handled a transition from “hope for organic, self-sustaining engagement” to development of a framework that aided understanding, reflection and change.

“Without structure, nothing happens,” Wise said.

That structure involves more than being “the project nag,” as one campus leader described herself. Effective campus leaders value and support the changes that faculty members make in their courses. They help promote the work of innovative teaching not only among colleagues but in promotion and tenure committees. They recognize that students often complain about redesigned courses, at least initially, and that lower teaching evaluations are often part of the process of making a course more meaningful. Just as important, effective leaders find ways to keep faculty members thinking about their work in transforming classes by providing ways to share ideas, support one another, and make sure that the work carries on when a new instructor takes over a class.

A supportive community improves teaching.

Wise and Charlie Blaich, director of the Center of Inquiry at Wabash, focused specifically on face-to-face meetings that members of the CHRP project had, but a supportive community is just as important for faculty members in their day-to-day, week-to-week and semester-to-semester work. We all need colleagues who share our values, who can serve as sounding boards for ideas, and who can provide feedback on our work. Trust is crucial among members of these communities, especially because innovative teaching can leave us vulnerable. That vulnerability helps us learn about ourselves and our teaching, though, because it forces us to challenge assumptions and solidify the basics of instruction (things like scaffolding assignments, systematically reviewing student work, and asking hard questions about what we want students to learn from our courses). When we share our successes and failures, we not only help others learn, but we learn about ourselves.

Dan Bernstein, leader of the Collaborative Humanities Redesign Project, listens in on a discussion at the conference.

A vibrant community also expands resources and possibilities. Blaich brought up ways that academic disciplines can help or hinder teaching. For instance, a discipline establishes an epistemological foundation for teaching and learning, provides a common language for instructors and students, and helps foster collegiality, he said. Hutchings said CHRP participants clearly bonded around their identity as humanists, with a focus on narrative over statistics and a tolerance for uncertainty over a search for clear-cut answers. Participants also shared a feeling that they were underdogs in an academic climate that had elevated STEM fields over the humanities, she said. The downside of that disciplinary identity is that inquiry into teaching often leads instructors to questions they don’t have the methodological experience to answer. In fact, Blaich said, moving beyond a disciplinary methodology (using statistics in the humanities, for example) can “seem like a betrayal.” Strong communities can help instructors get over that reluctance, though, he said.

Communities also provide a much-needed boost of mental energy from time to time. Teaching, for all its many satisfying elements, is often a solitary activity, and working in isolation can drain our energy and elevate our doubts. Meetings and conferences alter our routines, providing time and space away from the daily grind, Blaich said. One participant described CHRP meetings as “sacred time” for reflection, learning and support. Hutchings also emphasized the power of community conversations to transform culture. When we share our experiences with colleagues, “no longer is it about individual changes to individual courses,” Hutchings said. “It’s bigger than that.”

Indeed it is. It’s about the future.


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

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – The humanities have gone through much soul-searching over the past few years. So asking instructors in the humanities to take on hard questions about the way they teach seems like a natural step.

For instance, what do they value in their teaching? Is that truly reflected in their teaching and assignments? Why do they teach the humanities? What is humanities teaching and learning good for?

Those are some of the questions that arose in opening sessions this week at the (Re)imagining Humanities Teaching conference in Kansas City. The conference is the final event of the Collaborative Humanities Redesign Project, a three-year program involving faculty at KU, Park, Rockhurst and Elon universities. Dan Bernstein, the former director of the Center for Teaching Excellence at KU, has led the project, which was financed by a grant from the Teagle Foundation.

Glenn Lester of Park University

In one of the opening workshops, Glenn Lester, an assistant professor of English at Park University, asked participants to explore what they, as instructors, valued in writing. That’s important, he said, because instructors usually focus on the skills they want students to acquire but rarely engage in a deep reading of the feedback they give to students.

Lester did just that with a semester’s worth of papers, categorizing his feedback and creating a rubric that articulated what he was really looking for in student writing. He found that students’ writing seemed too generic and that he needed to adjust his teaching of the class. He used the evaluation of comments as a guide.

He found two important things, he said. First, he hadn’t been emphasizing the need for students to explain the relevance of their work, the “so what?” question. He also realized he valued the curiosity that students displayed in their writing, and wanted them to reveal more of their metacognitive processes.

He used the rubric he created from those comments not for students but for himself. It became a tool to self-assess the elements of writing he needed to make more explicit to students in his teaching. In a portfolio he created about the changes he made in the class, he offered this:

“But most of all, I want my students to care. I want them to care about what they write about. I want them to recognize that their words, their ideas and their experiences have value. I want them to use writing and research as tools to explore their own interests, curiosities, and communities.

In the opening plenary, Peter Felten, assistant vice provost for teaching and learning at Elon University, asked conference participants to reflect on the purposes of humanities teaching. They offered many ideas:

  • making connections
  • explaining what it means to be human
  • learning about subjectivity
  • understanding the self through the other
  • cultivating empathy
  • appreciating ambiguity
  • exploring the world through multiple perspectives, memories and histories
  • learning the importance of text and context, as well as narrative, perspective and representation

Felton then asked participants whether those larger goals were the ones they talked about on their last day of classes. That is, do they follow through on those aspirational goals. If not, why? 

LaKresha Graham of Rockhurst University answers a question from Pat Hutchings, center, during a lunch session at the conference. At left are Charlie Blaich and Kathy Wise of Wabash College.

He then offered a synthesis of the goals that participants in the Collaborative Humanities Redesign Project had expressed in portfolios they created on their course redesign work. The recurring themes, he said, were to set meaningful goals; practice, practice, practice; and then give feedback on student work.

Digging a bit deeper, he offered a reading of how CHRP participants approach reflective teaching, saying that three themes emerged:

  • Treat student work as the core text.
  • Expect messiness and failures.
  • Learn with colleagues.

He offered a final thought for conference participants to consider: What if we looked into not just student skills, but their habits of mind. What would we see in our students’ work?

It was a rhetorical question, but one that spoke to the goals and aspirations of the many excellent teachers in the crowd, and to the continued soul-searching that instructors in the humanities must keep doing.


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

Two recent education conferences I attended raised similar questions about developing and sustaining high-quality teaching. Things like:

  • How do we measure the success of course transformation?
  • How can we get buy-in from colleagues?
  • How do we gain the support of department chairs and administrators?
  • How do we share ideas among campuses?
  • How do we sustain and grow communities around the idea of improving teaching?

That last question was central to both conferences, one at KU and one at the University of California, Davis.

Participants in the Trestle launch meeting work in a brainstorming session
Participants in the Trestle launch meeting work in a brainstorming session at the KU Alumni Association. From left are Marsha McCartney (psychology), Chris Fischer (physics and astronomy), Dave Benson (chemistry), Natalie Caporale (University of California, Davis), and Sarah Bean (University of British Columbia).

The KU conference in late January helped launch a new CTE-led initiative called Trestle, or Transforming Education, Stimulating Teaching and Learning Excellence. CTE’s director, Andrea Greenhoot, leads the project, which is financed by a $2.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation. The goal is to spread the use of evidence-based teaching methods in science, engineering, technology, and math courses across several participating universities.

The conference at UC Davis was called TEA, or Tools for Evidence-based Action. Its focus was on documenting teaching, learning, and curricula, specifically through digital tools that provide data visualizations of student performance and classroom activities.

At both conferences, faculty members shared successes and failures in teaching, and talked candidly about the challenges we face in bringing more people into the fold. By building a community of engaged teachers, we hope to share our experiences in and out of the classroom, improve our approaches to teaching, emphasize the importance of learning, and shape our classes with evidence-based, learner-centered approaches.

Those are buzzwords, yes, but in essence they mean we need to reflect on our teaching and approach it in measured, meaningful ways. By building community, we can all find ways of doing that.

Submit a proposal for our first Teaching Slam

As a way to expand our community of engaged teachers, we are putting on a Teaching Slam.

A Teaching Slam is a fast-paced session in which speakers from many disciplines around KU share their best teaching tips, assessment ideas, or class activities. Instructors in all disciplines are welcome to submit proposals, and we’ll choose the best for presentation on Friday, March 25 from 2 to 3:30 p.m.

We are looking for proposals for two types of presentations:

  • Six + Six. You will have six minutes and six slides to share a useful class activity, an assessment idea, or a teaching tip.
  • Class Demo. You will have 10 to 15 minutes to lead your colleagues (who will act as your class) through a hands-on classroom activity. These sessions must be interactive.

Both types of presenters must provide a handout to help others use the activity immediately.

Deadline for proposals is noon Friday, March 4. We’ll choose the best and let everyone know the results by early the following week.

Interested? Submit a proposal and join our community.


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

Course redesign has become a crucial piece of helping college students succeed.

The statistics below about enrollment and graduation rates make it clear that success is too often elusive. Course redesign is hardly the only solution to that problem, but it is a proven, tangible step that colleges and universities can take.

Course redesign involves moving away from faculty-centered lectures and adopting student-centered techniques that improve learning. It usually includes online work that students do outside of class and in-class work that allows them to delve deeper into course material. (For more, see the report of the Provost’s Task Force on Course Redesign, of which I was a member.)

In the most recent issue of Change magazine, Carol Twigg of the National Center for Academic Transformation lists seven strategies that she says are “essential to improving the quality of student learning.” These strategies have emerged from the center’s work over the past 15 years and mesh well with what we have found at CTE. They are:

Brad Osborne with a group of students in a music theory class
Brad Osborne works with students in a music theory course he redesigned to provide more interaction and active learning.
  • Redesigning courses across sections to provide consistency.
  • Focusing on active learning.
  • Increasing student interactions. This includes group work and other activities that take the place of lecture.
  • Building in prompt, automatic feedback. This involves use of digital tools to provide feedback on quizzes and other assignments.
  • Providing one-on-one assistance. Twigg writes, “Students cannot live by software alone: They need human contact as well as encouragement to assure them that they are on the right learning path.”
  • Requiring sufficient time on task. This means providing incentives for attendance, participation, and completion of assignments.
  • Monitoring student progress and intervening when necessary.

As Twigg explains, none of this can be done without strong departmental and university support. She provides several excellent suggestions on how schools can do this.

College enrollment and completion rates decline

Two reports from the National Student Clearinghouse point to struggles among colleges to attract and keep students.

In one report, the clearinghouse said that six-year graduation rates for students who entered college in 2009 fell to 52.9 percent. That is down from 55 percent among students who began in 2008. Declines were steepest among students who delayed entering college after high school, and among adults.

Students at public universities fared better than the overall average, with 61.2 percent graduating in six years. That is still a decline from 62.9 percent among those who began in 2008. Six-year graduation rates at private universities were 10 points higher, at 71.5 percent.

The clearinghouse attributed the declines in part to strains brought on by the Great Recession, saying that they could have been even greater had colleges and universities not created programs to improve student success.

In another report, the clearinghouse said that fall enrollment at post-secondary institutions has fallen for the third straight year. Four-year public universities bucked that trend, with enrollment rising by 0.4 percent. Enrollment at all other types of post-secondary institutions declined: four-year for-profit colleges by 13.7 percent, two-year public colleges by 2.4 percent, and four-year non-profit private universities by 0.3 percent.

The need for a college education

Those graduation rates loom large as the skills needed for jobs grow. By 2020, 65 percent of jobs will require education and training beyond high school, according to a report by the Center on Education and the Workforce.

The U.S. has a long way to go. About a third of Americans age 25 and older hold a bachelor’s degree, and nearly 40 percent hold at least a two-year degree. (That varies widely by race and ethnicity, though.) Income generally rises along with level of education, but as Brian Stoffel of the Motley Fool explains, that doesn’t mean there’s a direct correlation or that a higher income translates into greater job satisfaction. Not everyone needs or wants a four-year degree. Anyone who wants to adapt to a changing job landscape, though, must be willing to continually gain new skills.

High school graduation rates rise

Interestingly, as colleges and universities struggle to maintain enrollments, the high school graduation rate has reached a record high. As The Atlantic reports, 82 percent of high school seniors received diplomas in 2014.

It points out many reasons to be skeptical of those numbers, though. And The New York Times goes even further, suggesting that high graduation rates may really be a sign of diminishing expectations and lower standards at some schools.

College rankings that follow the money

I don’t give college rankings systems much credence. Far too much of academic success depends on students’ backgrounds and on the amount of effort they put into their academic work, regardless of what college they attend.

The latest fad in rankings focuses on graduates’ earnings, something that has emerged as college costs have risen.

By one measure of earnings, The Topeka Capital-Journal reports, most of Kansas’s public universities don’t hold up well. Graduates of all but one state public university (Pittsburg State) earn less than expected 10 years after they began college. The article is based on federal data compiled by the Center for Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University, which created a salary-weighted rankings system.

Under this measure, KU ranks 1,212 out of 1,400 institutions. At the top are the University of Colorado at Denver, and (yes) Georgetown.

Much of the Capital-Journal article is taken up by university officials speculating about why their graduates fare so poorly under these rankings. The upshot: No one really knows, as is the case with most rankings.

Briefly …

Maine is the only state in New England that spends more on education than on prisons, The Bangor Daily News reports, citing a study from the American Academy of Arts & Sciences. …

Douglas Anderson of Southern Illinois University vents about university administrative bloat and suggests that higher education could solve many academic problems by slashing administrative staff and hiring “an army of good teachers.” …

Expect more top administrators in higher education to come from business and industry rather than the academy, the Hechinger Report says. The reasons: financial struggles, public pressure, and a lack of high-quality candidates from within academia.


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

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

All too often, we pursue teaching as an individual activity. We look at our classes as our classes rather than as part of continuum of learning. And we are often ill-prepared to help other instructors engage in a course’s evolution when they take it over. We may pass along course material, but rarely do we pass along the background, context, and iterations of a course’s development.

In a recent portfolio for the Center for Teaching Excellence, Holly Storkel and Megan Blossom explain how they did exactly that, demonstrating the benefits of collaboration in improving learning and in keeping the momentum of improvement intact.

Holley Storkel in her office in the Dole Human Development Center
Holley Storkel in her office in the Dole Human Development Center

Storkel, a professor and chair of speech-language-hearing, added active learning activities to a 400-level class called Language Science, a required undergraduate class on the basic structure of the English language. The changes were intended to help students improve their critical thinking and their interpretation of research articles. Blossom, who was a graduate teaching assistant for the class, built on that approach when she later took over as an instructor.

Storkel had taught the class many times and had been mulling changes for several years to help students improve their ability to find and work with research.

“I decided they should start reading research articles and get more familiar with that: understand how to find a research article, understand how to get it from the library, have basic skills of how to read a research article,” Storkel said in an interview. “And this class is supposed to be kind of the sophomore-junior level so that then, as they move to the junior-senior level, they would have the skills to find a variety of papers and do the synthesis across the papers and where that sort of things is the next level up. But I figured, ‘You can’t synthesize information if you didn’t understand what it is to begin with.’ ”

Blossom, who is now an assistant professor at Castleton University in Vermont, taught the same class three semesters later, building on Storkel’s work but making several changes based on the problem areas that she and Storkel identified. She reduced the number of research articles that students read in an attempt to give them more time in class for discussion. She also added pre-class questions intended to help students better prepare for in-class discussions, worked to make those discussions more interactive, and provided structured questions to help students assess articles.

In later discussions, Blossom let students guide the conversations more, having them work in pairs to interpret a particularly challenging article. To gain a better understanding of methods, students also created experimental models like those used in the article. Blossom pooled their results and had students compare the differences in their findings.

In their course portfolio, Storkel and Blossom said the changes improved class discussions about research and helped instructors devote more one-on-one attention to students in class. That was especially helpful for students who struggled with concepts. They also said the process itself provided benefits for students.

The benefits of collaboration

In a recent interview, Storkel said that collaboration was crucial in gaining a shared understanding of what students were learning from the class and where they were struggling. Rather than telling Blossom what to do, they talked through how they might make it better. She suggested that others use the same approach to improving classes.

“I think one thing that I would say to that is sort of sharing what you know so that you can get on the same page,” Storkel said. “Look at some student work and say, ‘Here’s how I taught the class. Here’s what the performance on this assignment looked like. They were doing pretty well with this but there were some struggles here, and so that might be something you want to think about if you’re going to keep some of these activities, or even if you’re doing different activities this seems to be a hard concept for them to learn or this process seems to be the part that’s really a stumbling block.’ ”

Storkel suggested that faculty engage in more conversations about the courses they teach and use course portfolios to make shared information more visible.

Portfolios provide a means to look at a class “and say, ‘What skills are people taking away from this? Where am I having a challenge?’ ” Storkel said, adding: “It’s already in a format then that is shareable and that’s more than just, ‘Here are my lecture notes’ or ‘Here are my slides. Here’s the syllabus.’ Here’s what actually happened. I think having rich records that can be easily handed off is good.”

Assessment also provides opportunities for increased sharing of experiences in courses, Storkel said.

“That might be another place where you can have a conversation around teaching, and then it might not even be attached to a particular class but more, ‘Here’s a particular skill. Students aren’t always getting it.’ So as I approach this class where that skill needs to be incorporated or we expect that to happen, now I’ve some idea of what might be challenging or not.”

It all starts with a willingness to share experiences, to put defensiveness aside, and to focus on what’s best for 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.

Active learning helps students learn in deep, meaningful ways, as study after study has shown.

That doesn’t mean it’s easy. On the contrary, students who have grown accustomed to sitting through lectures with one eye on their phones and one foot out the door often rebel at changing to hands-on exercises, in-class discussion among dozens or hundreds of students, peer learning, group projects, and other techniques that force them from their seats.

Alison Olcott Marshall, who, with the help of Kelsey Bitting, a postdoctoral teaching fellow, has transformed an undergraduate paleontology class for non-majors into an active-learning format, found out first hand last semester how difficult it can be.

“The first couple of weeks were hard because they were like, ‘Lady, you’re crazy,’” Olcott Marshall said.

She persisted, though, transforming a 100-level paleontology course that had long been a “romp through all the fossil organisms that had been found” into one with a narrower focus aimed at engaging students in the scientific process. The culmination of the craziness was an event called Paleocon, a public display of group projects that students worked on in lieu of taking a final exam. The goal was to synthesize paleontological topics in a way that students and their peers could understand, Olcott Marshall said, as the video above explains.

One of Olcott Marshall’s students, Ian Rhoads, described the class as “a very guided, hands-on learning process.”

“Ms. Olcott Marshall is really good at making sure that we’re all on track,” he said.

Annie Fuquay, Alex Tait and Wesley Riedmiller explain their project on the horseshoe crab at Paleocon.
Annie Fuquay, Alex Tait and Wesley Riedmiller explain their project on the horseshoe crab at Paleocon.

Another student, Miranda Mitchell, said she was “shocked having to be in a group and do so much group work.” She warmed to the process, though, saying, “It’s very cool to get to talk with someone every day and get to know people on a different level than you would anywhere else.”

Alex Tait, a photography major, worked in a group with a theater major (Annie Fuquay) and a business major (Wesley Riedmiller). She said the class format pushed students to take on research on their own rather than just read about it and listen to it described.

“We’re artsy kinds of people, so to this type of opportunity really motivates us to want to learn the information and apply it things that interest us as opposed to just being in the library and studying and then going and taking a test,” she said.

Olcott Marshall saw the results, as well. As she walked amid the dozen or so student displays at Paleocon, she and her students were clearly energized. Pushing through the students’ skepticism about this crazy active learning approach had clearly paid off.

“Now they’re like, ‘Oh, this makes sense. I see why I had to work,’ ” Olcott Marshall said.