By Doug Ward

The evaluation of teaching generally looks like this:

Students hurriedly fill in questionnaires at the end of a semester, evaluating an instructor on a five-point scale. The university compiles the results and provides a summary for each faculty member. The individual scores, often judged against a department mean, determine an instructor’s teaching effectiveness for everything from annual reviews to evaluations for promotion and tenure.

That’s a problem. Student evaluations of teaching provide a narrow, often biased perspective that elevates faculty performance in the classroom above all else, even though it is just a small component of teaching. Even as faculty members work to provide a multitude of opportunities for students to demonstrate understanding, and even as their research receives layers of scrutiny, teaching continues to be evaluated by a single piece of evidence.

A CTE rubric for evaluating teaching helps instructors and departments focus on a series of questions.

The Center for Teaching Excellence hopes to change that in the coming years, with the help of a $612,000 grant from the National Science Foundation. Through the grant, CTE will offer mini-grants to departments that are willing to adopt a richer evaluation of teaching and adapt a rubric we have developed to aid the evaluation process. The rubric draws not only on student voices but also on peer evaluations and on material from the faculty member, including syllabi, assignments, evidence of student learning, assessments, and reflections on teaching.

The grant project involves departments that fall under the umbrella of STEM, or science, technology, engineering and math, but we plan to expand involvement to humanities and professional schools. It will focus on the evaluation of teaching, but our goals extend beyond that. The reliance on student evaluations has in many cases hindered the adoption of evidence-based teaching practices, which emphasize student learning as the central outcome of instruction. These practices have resulted in deeper learning and greater success for students, in addition to closing gaps between majority and minority groups. So by helping create a richer evaluation of faculty teaching, we hope to help departments recognize the work that faculty members put into improved student learning.   

As the project unfolds, four to five departments will receive mini-grants in the coming year and will work with CTE staff members to develop a shared vision of high-quality teaching. We will add departments to the program in the next two years. Those departments will adapt the rubric so that it aligns with their disciplinary goals and expectations. They will also identify appropriate forms of evidence and decide how to apply the rubric. We envision it as a tool for such things as evaluation for promotion and tenure, third-year review, annual review, and mentoring of new faculty members, but the decision will be left to departments.  

Representatives of all the KU departments using the rubric will form a learning community that will meet periodically to share their approaches to using the rubric, exchange ideas and get feedback from peers. Once a year, they will have similar conversations with faculty members at two other universities that have created similar programs. 

The KU grant is part of a five-year, $2.8 million project that includes the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, the University of Colorado, Boulder, and Michigan State University. UMass and Colorado will also work to improve the evaluation of teaching; a researcher from Michigan State will create case studies of the other three campuses. Andrea Greenhoot, director of CTE; Meagan Patterson, a faculty fellow at CTE; and I will oversee the project at KU. The project grew from conversations at meetings of the Bay View Alliance, a group of North American research universities working to improve teaching and learning on their campuses. KU, Colorado and Massachusetts are all members of the alliance.

We see this as an important step in recognizing the intellectual work that goes into teaching and in elevating the role of teaching in the promotion and tenure process. In doing so, we hope to help faculty make their teaching accomplishments more visible and to elevate the importance of student learning. 


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

Research universities generally say one thing and do another when it comes to supporting effective teaching.

That is, they say they value and reward high-quality teaching, but fail to back up public proclamations when it comes to promotion and tenure. They say they value evidence in making decisions about the quality of instruction but then admit that only a small percentage of the material faculty submit for evaluation of teaching is of high quality.

That’s one finding from a recent report by the Association of American Universities, an organization that has traditionally embraced research as the most important element of university culture. That has begun to change over the last few years, though, as the AAU has emphasized the importance of high-quality teaching through its Undergraduate STEM Education Initiative. It elevated the importance of teaching even more with its recent report.

That report, called Aligning Practice to Policies: Changing the Culture to Recognize and Reward Teaching at Research Universities, was created in collaboration with the Cottrell Scholars Collaborative, an organization of educators working to improve the teaching of science. The report contains a survey of AAU member universities about attitudes toward teaching, but many of the ideas came out of a 2016 gathering of more than 40 leaders in higher education. Andrea Greenhoot, the director of CTE, and Dan Bernstein, the former director, represented KU at that meeting.

I wrote earlier this summer about the work of Emily Miller, the AAU’s associate vice president for policy, in helping improve teaching at the organization’s member universities. The AAU, she said, had been working to “balance the scale between teaching and research.” Miller played a key role in creating the latest report, which makes several recommendations for improving undergraduate education:

Provide ways to reward good teaching. This involves creating an evaluation system that moves beyond student surveys. Those surveys are fraught with problems and biases, the report says, and don’t reflect the much broader work that goes into effective teaching. Such a system would include such elements as evidence of course revision based on learning outcomes, documentation of student learning, adoption of evidence-based teaching practices, and reflection on teaching and course development. Universities also need to educate promotion and tenure committees on best practices for reviewing such materials, the report said.

Create a culture that values teaching as scholarship. This might involve several things: raising money to reward faculty members dedicated to improving student learning; providing time and resources for instructors to transform large lecture classes; and creating clear standards of good teaching for promotion and tenure, and for teaching awards. The report also suggests providing forums for recognizing teaching, and diminishing the divide between instructional faculty members and those whose jobs are research heavy.

Gain support from department chairs and deans. University leaders play a crucial role in setting agendas and encouraging faculty to adopt evidence-based teaching practices. This is especially important in the hiring process, the report says, and leaders can signal the importance of good teaching by providing professional development money, supporting involvement in communities that help promote good teaching, and having new faculty members work with experienced colleagues to gain insights into how to teach well.

The report made it clear that many research universities have a long way to go in making teaching and learning a crucial component of university life. Despite mounting evidence showing that student-centered, evidence-based teaching practices help students learn far more than lecture, the report said, most faculty members who teach undergraduate STEM courses “remain inattentive to the shifting landscape.”

In many cases, the report said, university policies express the importance of teaching, with most providing at least some guidance on how teaching should be evaluated. Most require use of student surveys and a majority recommend peer classroom evaluation. The problem is that teaching has long been pushed aside in the promotion and tenure process, even as universities pay lip service to the importance of teaching. The report said that needed to change.

“Research universities need to create an environment where the continuous improvement of teaching is valued, assessed, and rewarded at various stages of a faculty member’s career and aligned across the department, college, and university levels,” the report said. “Evidence shows that stated policies alone do not reflect practices, much less evolve culture to more highly value teaching. A richer, more complete assessment of teaching quality and effectiveness for tenure, promotion, and merit is necessary for systemic improvement of undergraduate STEM education.”

The report features the work of three universities, including KU, in helping change the culture of teaching. It includes a rubric we have developed at CTE to help departments move beyond student surveys in evaluating teaching, and talks about some of the work we have done to elevate the importance of teaching. It also explains the work that the University of Colorado and the University of California, Irvine, have done to improve STEM teaching at their campuses.

I’ll be writing more about the CTE teaching rubric in the coming weeks as we launch a new initiative aimed at helping departments use that rubric to identify the elements of good teaching and to add dimension to their evaluation of teaching. The AAU report is a good reminder of the momentum building not only to improve teaching but to elevate its importance in university life. Progress has been slow but steady. We seem on the cusp of significant changes, though.


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 and Mary Deane Sorcinelli

BOULDER, Colo. – Symbolism sometimes makes more of a difference than money in bringing about change in higher education.

That’s what Emily Miller, associate vice president for policy at the Association of American Universities, has found in her work with the AAU’s Undergraduate STEM Initiative. It’s also a strategy she has adopted as the initiative expands its work in improving undergraduate teaching and learning at research universities by encouraging adoption of evidence-based practices.

Miller provided an update on the work of the STEM initiative for the Bay View Alliance, whose steering committee met at the University of Colorado, Boulder, one of its member institutions, earlier this month for its semiannual meeting.

She pointed to an approach to systemic and sustainable change to undergraduate STEM teaching and learning in a framework that AAU has developed. The framework recognizes the wider setting in which educational innovations take place – the department, the college, the university and the national level – and addresses the key institutional elements necessary for sustained improvement to undergraduate STEM education, Miller said.

Emily Miller gestures at BVA steering committee meeting
Emily Miller of the Association of American Universities speaks with Jennifer Normanly of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, at the BVA steering committee meeting.

The framework, which was vetted by campus stakeholders at 42 AAU institutions, guides the work of the initiative. Miller said that 55 of 62 AAU member universities had participated in activities hosted by AAU, engaging more than 275 faculty members and institutional leaders.

“Simply put, there’s has been widespread enthusiasm and interest in the initiative and impressive changes in teaching and learning,” Miller said.

Miller said instructors needed to draw on the same skills they use in teaching students to inform the public about science and science education. That outreach is also critically important, she said, because it helps to demonstrate the societal benefits of federal investment in science. This is an area where AAU has redoubled its efforts to promote the importance of government/university partnership  in response to significant cuts to research budgets at the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, among other federal agencies, Miller said.

“We are going back to some real roots to explain what is the relationship between our research universities and the federal government, particularly around the research enterprise,” Miller said. “But we also have strong interest in the value of an undergraduate degree at a research institution, so we are helping explain that value by our work in the Undergraduate STEM Initiative.”

Since the STEM initiative began in 2011, it has received nearly $8 million in grants from foundations and the federal government. And though it has awarded several universities $500,000 over four years to improve STEM teaching, Miller sees just as much value in smaller mini-grants.

“I would have never thought of writing a grant to give $20,000 grants,” Miller said, “but that has actually allowed us to effect more change on more campuses because of the symbolic significance of the resources.”

Twelve universities, including KU, recently received those mini-grants, and the AAU plans to put out a call for another round of grants next year.

“The significance of getting money from AAU matters more than any dollar amount,” Miller said. “And while the money might help leverage more internal dollars, it symbolically means so much because it convenes people around the table.”

Getting people together helps organizations take steps toward changing the culture of teaching and learning, a central goal of the Undergraduate STEM Initiative. Miller said, though, that AAU needs to lead by example; that as it works toward “cultural change on campuses, cultural change needs to happen within my association.”

She added:

“By increasing its own emphasis on improving the quality of undergraduate teaching, the AAU can help the university chancellors, presidents and provosts who make up its membership increase the degree to which they focus attention on this matter. Our institutions have traditionally emphasized research, especially in the way faculty members are rewarded. AAU can help balance the scale between teaching and research.”


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. Mary Deane Sorcinelli is a senior fellow at the Institute for Teaching Excellence & Faculty Development at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and a co-principal investigator of the AAU Undergraduate STEM Education Initiative. Both Ward and Sorcinelli participated in the recent BVA steering committee meeting.

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

Let’s call it pride.

That’s probably the best way to describe the look of Sandra Gautt as she wandered among the 45 posters and the dozens of people at The Commons in Spooner Hall.

Xianglin Li and Moein Moradi from mechanical engineering discuss the work that went into their posters.

Gautt, former vice provost for faculty development, returned to KU for CTE’s third annual end-of-semester poster session on teaching. More than 40 instructors from more than 30 departments contributed posters, demonstrating the work they had done over the past year transforming classes to make them more student-centered, adding elements of diversity and assessing student learning more meaningfully.

The poster session represents work faculty have done thanks to course development funds from CTE, the Provost’s Office and a KU grant project called Trestle, which is funded by the National Science Foundation.

Gautt led the Teaching Commons Committee in the early 1990s and helped establish CTE in 1997. She said she never imagined that an idea for building community around teaching could turn into such a vibrant and diverse demonstration of intellectual engagement. It has, though. As CTE turns 20 years old this year, the poster session represents just one of many ways that teaching has gained in importance over the years.

Krzysztof Kuczera from chemistry talks about his poster with Mary Lee Hummert, vice provost for faculty development

I write frequently about the challenges of and barriers to innovative teaching. There are many. But the poster session offered many reasons for hope, especially as administrators and department chairs joined the dozens of people who attended and learned about the things faculty members had been doing in their classes. Among those efforts:

  • Joseph Brennan and Missy Shabazz from math explained how they have begun moving calculus courses toward a flipped model that provides increased incentives for participation.
  • Lin Liu, Carl Luchies and Mohammedmoein Moradi from mechanical engineering explained development of interactive learning modules to help students gain a better grasp of physics and math concepts they need in an introductory mechanics sequence.
  • Pam Gordon from classics explained changes she made in testing that provided better comprehension and understanding of the grammar of ancient Greek.
  • Sharon Billings, David Fowle, Amy Burgin, Pamela Sullivan, Terry Loecke and Dan Hirmas explained how they developed an interdisciplinary course in biogeochemistry.
  • Nancy Brady and Kelly Zarifa from speech, language and hearing explained a shift from an exam to a midterm project to aid student learning.
  • Trevor Rivers, Mark Mort and Stefanie DeVito explained how they had worked to create consistency in a biology course at the Lawrence and Edwards campuses.

Those are just a sampling of the work being done in such areas as geography, biochemistry, math, engineering, music therapy, physics, music, psychology, biology, African and African-American studies, journalism, philosophy, law, English, social work, design, chemistry, art and business. They give a good sense of the types of work faculty members are doing as they focus on student learning rather than delivery of content.

Ward Lyles from urban planning talks about making his courses more inclusive with Carl Lejuez, dean of liberal arts and sciences

The posters also help demonstrate some of the principles we promote at CTE:

  • The needs of students and society are changing, and our teaching must change to meet those needs.
  • Teaching needs constant re-evaluation and reflection if we want courses and instructors to improve.
  • Teaching should be more open and collaborative, allowing instructors to learn from one another by sharing insights and challenges, and working toward shared goals.
  • Communities provide effective vehicles for change, and the communities we have built around teaching have indeed led to important changes at KU.
  • Teaching is intellectual work on par with research and deserves equal weight in the promotion and tenure process.

As Gautt wrote recently, “Teaching and learning are now campus conversations, and reflective/intellectual inquiry into teaching and student learning are a part of the KU culture.”

That’s certainly reason for pride.

Dan Bernstein, former director of CTE, presents the 2017 Bernstein Award for Future Faculty to Rebekah Taussig and Carolina Costa Candal

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

Matthew Ohland talks confidently about the best ways to form student teams.

In a gregarious baritone punctuated by frequent, genuine laughs, he freely shares the wisdom he has gained from leading development of a team creation tool called CATME and from studying the dynamics of teams for more than two decades.

Ohland, a professor of engineering education at Purdue, visited KU recently and spoke with faculty members about the challenges of creating student teams and about the benefits of CATME, which has many devotees at KU. The tool, which launched in 2005, is used at more than 1,300 schools worldwide and has led to a long string of research papers for Ohland and others who have worked on the CATME project.

Matt Ohland, in a blue shirt, kneels at a table as he explains his work
Matt Ohland explains some of the thinking behind the team creation tool CATME

I asked Ohland the question that faculty members often ask me: What are the most important characteristics of a good team? Without hesitation, he offered something that surprised me but that made perfect sense:

“Of all the things you can choose about team formation, schedule is by far the most important,” he said.

That is, if you want students to work together outside class, their schedules must be similar enough that they can find time to meet. If they do all the work in class, the schedule component loses its importance, though.

Before he delves deeper into group characteristics, he offers another nugget of wisdom:

“What you start with in terms of formation is much less important than how you manage the teams once they are formed.”

That is, instructors must monitor a team’s interpersonal dynamics as well as the quality of its work. Is someone feeling excluded or undervalued? Is one person trying to dominate? Are personalities clashing? Are a couple of people doing the bulk of the work? Is a lazy team member irritating others or creating barriers to getting work done?

Whatever the problem, Ohland said, an instructor must act quickly. Sometimes that means pulling a problem team member aside and providing a blunt assessment. Sometimes it means having a conversation with the full team about the best ways to work together.

“Anything – anything – that is going wrong with a team dynamically, the only way to really fix it is face-to-face interaction,” he said.

Delving into team characteristics

In faculty workshops, Ohland delved deeper into the nuances of team formation, asking participants to provide characteristics to consider when creating teams. Among them were these:

  • Demographics
  • Traditional vs. nontraditional student
  • Academic level
  • Gender
  • Ethnicity
  • High performer vs. low performer
  • Interest in the class or the subject
  • Confidence
  • Work styles (work ahead vs. work at last minute)

All of those things can influence team dynamics, he said, and the most consequential are those that lead to a feeling of “otherness.” For instance, putting one woman on a team of men generally makes it difficult for the woman to have her voice heard. Putting a black student on a team in which everyone else is white can have the same effect, as can putting an international student on a team of American students.

“If students have a way of knowing that someone is different, it allows them a way to push them away,” Ohland said. “It’s their otherness that excludes them from certain kinds of team interaction. It’s their otherness that lets people interrupt them.”

Ohland also shared an illustration of an iceberg to represent visible and invisible characteristics of identity. It’s an illustration he uses to help students understand the diverse characteristics of team membership. Gender, race, age, physical attributes and language are among those most noticeable to others. Below the surface are things like thought processes, sexual orientation, life experience, beliefs and perspectives. Awareness of those characteristics helps team members recognize the many facets of diversity and the complexity of individual and team interaction.

Pushback from students

Jennifer Roberts, a professor of geology, uses CATME to form teams in her classes. She said that some students had begun to push back against providing race and gender in the CATME surveys they complete for team formation.

“They went so far as to say that this disenfranchises me because I don’t fit in these categories,” Roberts said.

Ohland said that he understood but that “ignoring race and gender in groups has real consequences.” He suggested explaining the approach to female students this way:

“What I tell my students is that I’m not putting you on a team with another woman so that you will be more successful,” he said. “I am putting on a team with another woman because it changes the way that men behave.”

He cited research that shows that putting more than one woman or more than one person of color on a team improves the performance of everyone by cutting down on feelings of isolation and allowing more views to be heard.

“Men stop interrupting them,” he said. “They start paying attention to their ideas.”

At Purdue, Ohland said, he goes as far as keeping freshmen together on teams in first-year engineering classes, separating them from transfer students who are sophomores or juniors.

“We’ve got to get them by themselves,” Ohland said. “They are at a different phase in life. They’re at a different place academically.”

Preparing students for teams

Ohland said it was important to help prepare students to work effectively in teams. His students go through several steps to do that, including watching a series of videos, engaging in class discussions about how good teams work, reviewing guidelines that team members need to follow, and learning about ways to overcome problems. They also agree to follow a Code of Cooperation, which stresses communication, cooperation, responsibility, efficiency and creativity.

He also explains to students how a student-centered class works, how that approach helps them learn, and what they need to do to make it successful. In a student-centered class, an instructor guides rather than leads the learning process, and students help guide learning, apply concepts rather than just hear about them, reflect on their work and provide feedback to peers.

Students must also understand the system they will use to rate peers, Ohland says, and he spends time going over that system in class. It includes measures on how students are contributing to a team, how they are interacting with teammates, how each member works to keep the team on track, how to evaluate the work quality of teammates, and how to evaluate teammates’ knowledge, skills and abilities.

The ins and outs of teams

It would be impossible to detail all of the advice Ohland offered. I would suggest visiting the CATME informational page, where you will find additional information and research about forming and evaluating groups, and keeping them on track. A few other things from Ohland are worth mentioning, though, largely because they come up in many discussions about using teams in classes.

Don’t force differentiation in evaluations. I have been guilty of this, trying to push students to create more nuance in their evaluations of teammates. Ohland said this creates false differentiations that frustrate students and lead to less-useful evaluations.

Learn what ratings mean. For instance, if team members give one another perfect scores, it could mean they are working well together and want the instructor to leave them alone. It could mean that students didn’t take the time to fill out the evaluations properly or it could mean that students felt uncomfortable ranking their peers. In that last scenario, Ohland sits down with a team and explains why it is important to provide meaningful feedback. If they don’t, individuals and the team as a whole lack opportunities to improve.

“That seems to help get them think about the value of the exercise,” Ohland said. “It gets that discussion going about why are we doing this and why it’s important not to just say everybody’s perfect.”

Keep the same teams (usually). Changing teams during a semester can create problems, he said, because high-functioning teams don’t want to disband and teams that are making progress need more time to work through kinks. Only the dysfunctional teams want to change, he said. The best approach is to find those dysfunctional teams and help them get on track.

The one exception to that guideline, he said, is when learning to form teams effectively is part of a class’s goals. In that case, an instructor should form teams more than once so that students get practice.

Evaluate teams frequently. Ohland recommends having peer evaluations every two weeks. Research shows that evaluations should coincide with a “major deliverable,” he said. That makes students accountable and increases the stakes of evaluations so that students take them seriously.

Create the right team size. In some cases, that may mean three or four. In others, six, eight, 10 or even more.

“Team size depends on what you are asking students to do,” Ohland said. “The critical thing about team size is that you need enough people on a team to get the work done that you are asking them to do – the quantity of work. You also need enough people on a team to have all the skills necessary to do the work represented.”

It also depends on the layout of a room. For instance, a team of three in a lecture hall is ideal because students can have easy conversations. A group of four in the same setting will leave one member of the team excluded from conversations.

A final thought

Research by Ohland and others has helped us better understand many aspects of effective student teams. I asked Ohland whether those components mesh with what students look for in teammates.

Making that connection, he said, “is the holy grail of teamwork research.”

“It’s so difficult to get an absolute measure of performance,” he said. “If our goal is learning, that’s a different goal than a competitive, objectively measured outcome in a project.”

Some data point to a connection between learning and team performance, but proving that is a work in progress.

“We’re getting there,” Ohland said.


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

A new grant-funded initiative at the University of Kansas will promote the use of data to improve teaching, student learning and retention in science, engineering, technology and math programs.

KU is one of 12 universities to receive a $20,000 grant from the Association of American Universities as part of a major AAU project to improve STEM education. The grant will be used to promote faculty-led course and curricular changes that enhance student learning among undergraduates, and to help eliminate long-standing achievement gaps for students from underserved groups.AAU logo

The KU initiative will be led by an interdisciplinary team that includes Andrea Greenhoot, a professor of psychology and the director of the Center for Teaching Excellence; Caroline Bennett, an associate professor of engineering; Mark Mort, an associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology; DeAngela Burns, vice provost for undergraduate studies; and Doug Ward, associate professor of journalism and associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence.

“We see this as an important evolution in teaching and learning at KU,” said Greenhoot, who also leads a multi-university course-improvement program called TRESTLE, which is funded with a $2.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation. “Many KU faculty have been actively working to integrate evidence-based practices into their classes. Institutional data will help us gauge whether these efforts are helping students be more successful in later courses, and in completing their degrees.”

The new initiative will build on another project that CTE began last year. That project, part of a multi-university partnership known as the Bay View Alliance, is intended to help faculty members and departments use data to better understand student learning and student success, and to align with university goals of increasing retention and graduation rates.

Both initiatives aim to answer such questions as these:

  • How well are entry-level courses preparing students for later courses in a program sequence?
  • Are redesigns of such courses leading to better preparation and higher rates of success in later courses?
  • Are there inequities in student achievement and success for students from underserved or other groups? How effective are our efforts to reduce such gaps?

The AAU initiative at KU will begin later this semester with a goal of including 10 STEM departments in discussions about how to use institutional data to inform course and curricular improvements that can foster better student learning and improved degree completion. Administrators and deans already have access to this type of data, Burns-Wallace said, but many universities are extending access to faculty as they work to improve student success.

“This is a great opportunity to incorporate faculty into a wider conversation,” Burns-Wallace said. “Student success is a shared responsibility, and this grant will help STEM faculty understand how their course and curricular transformations have an even broader impact on overall student progress at KU.”


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

Consider a few of the changes roiling public higher education.

Technology has created new ways for students to learn and to earn credentials but has also eliminated the need for a physical presence in many courses. Competency-based models have elevated the importance of work and life experiences in learning. Declining state support has pushed tuition costs increasingly higher, leading to growing scrutiny of colleges and universities by families and legislators. Many recent graduates have even expressed doubts about whether college was worth the expense.

Ann Austin, a professor at Michigan State University who recently led the National Science Foundation’s Division of Undergraduate Education, says these types of changes are as significant as those that higher education experienced in the late 19th century. That’s when the land grant acts led to a vast increase in the number of public universities, helping give rise to technical training, science education, social sciences, medical schools, law schools and other professional schools. Also during that time, faculty and curricula began to specialize, but students also gained the right to choose electives. Colleges for blacks and women also took root. By the early 20th century, higher education operated much differently than it did just a few decades earlier.

ann austin photo
Ann Austin

Modern institutions are only beginning to come to terms with the changes that lie ahead, and can really only guess at how those changes might reshape education.

“There’s a big question about what higher education will look like in the coming years,” Austin said.

Austin does a lot of thinking about change, which has been the focus of her research but also her work at NSF and the development of the Center for Integration of Research, Teaching, and Learning, which she co-founded.

Austin spoke recently at the semiannual meeting of the steering committee of the Bay View Alliance, a consortium of nine North American research universities (including KU) working to improve teaching and learning in higher education through cultural change. She drew from her extensive research into cultural and organizational change in higher education, especially in the areas of faculty development and the need to adapt the workplace, as she urged alliance members to think more strategically about the types of changes they are trying to make on their own campuses.

A changing landscape

Her views are especially important during this time of shifting ideas, perceptions and practices in higher education. Societal, legislative and financial forces are bearing down from the outside, providing opportunities for making much-needed changes from the inside, especially in the way we approach and value teaching.

Austin argues, though, that to do that we must not only analyze the problem we are trying to change, but examine it from many different angles and consider the issues that drive or impede change. Many times, she said, we jump into a change process but don’t identify the problem, the issues or the context. Nor do we consider how we would address the problem, even though “this is something we should be coming back to over and over again.”

In essence, she suggested that BVA members engage in change as they would a research project: Clarify a problem that needs to be addressed, gather information about that problem, analyze that information, provide context, and draw conclusions on how best to move forward.

Austin offered many provocative questions to illuminate the process she laid out, drilling down on the many facets of an institution that provide opportunities for or impediments to change:

  • Why is this issue a problem? What elements of the problem need to be addressed? What factors will affect the process of change?
  • Who owns the process of change and has access to data? Who gets recognition? What alliances do we need to form?
  • How do we maintain momentum and energy, especially as leadership changes?
  • How do we establish support mechanisms to aid the process in person and online?
  • Who has informal power, and how do we handle resistance?
  • How do we connect our efforts to institutional priorities?

We must consider these and many other questions if we hope to succeed, Austin said.

“If we want people to change, they have to know what to change and why they should change,” she said. “They also need to know that they won’t be penalized for doing so.”

A multi-university approach to change

BVA has approached change at many levels of university culture as it has worked to improve recognition of innovative teaching at research universities, to promote the use of active learning in large undergraduate classes, and to build community among faculty members so that they can share ideas and experiences that lead to improved student learning. Recent projects include use of embedded teaching experts to improve instruction, use of data analytics to better understand learning, and creation of new processes for evaluating teaching. Ultimately, it hopes to change attitudes toward teaching and the university culture that impedes innovative teaching.

Austin’s presentation came after a morning in which several BVA members raised concerns about the slow pace of change in higher education, saying that members must do a better job of explaining the value of change. Some said teaching centers needed to do more to move change from the grass-roots to the administrative level. Others wondered how they could tie the need for improving teaching to improving university finances. Still others expressed doubt that attitudes toward teaching had changed at all.

Mary Huber, a BVA advisor who is a senior scholar emerita at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, challenged that notion. Those of us who value teaching have indeed helped bring about change, she said.

“The conversations we are having today are much different from the ones we had 30 years,” Huber said. “We may have not had the magical transformative powers we had hoped, but what we have done has been hopeful.”

And if Austin is right and we are at the cusp of an enormous wave of change, we must continue to remain hopeful as we work to shape 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.