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

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

“What just happened?” Carl Luchies asked his graduate teaching assistant.

 They stood at the front of a lecture hall in early 2013, watching as 120 normally subdued engineering undergraduates burst into spontaneous conversation.

Luchies, an associate professor of mechanical engineering, had just given the students a problem to work on and told them it was a collaborative quiz due at the end of class. Students could work with anyone in the room, he said.

“Anyone?” they asked.

carl luchies points to computer screen as he helps a student
Carl Luchies works with a student in a graduate-level biomechanics class

Anyone, he said. They could move wherever they wanted to move. Use Google if Google would help. Ask questions of him or the GTA. Do whatever they needed to do to find the answer.

After a few moments of uncertainty, “the class just came alive,” Luchies said.

Luchies was surprised at how successful his experiment was that day, especially because it was a spur-of-the-moment experiment to try to revive a mostly listless class. His willingness to experiment and to focus on the best approaches for students was nothing new, though. He received the school’s Louise Byrd Graduate Educator Award in 2010. And this fall, he received the Outstanding Teaching Award from the Midwest Section of the American Society of Engineering Education. He will now be considered for a similar national award.

Luchies looks at that day in 2013 when the class came alive as a turning point in the way he teaches. Robert Beichner, a professor at North Carolina State and an advocate for active learning in STEM fields, spoke to School of Engineering faculty members the week before classes started that year, urging them to try flipped and hybrid learning in large classes. Luchies was intrigued, but he didn’t think he had time to make changes.

In January and February, though, he realized that few students were listening as he lectured. After 15 to 20 minutes, students began checking their phones or staring blankly. He asked for questions at the beginning and end of each class. Students rarely responded.

“I tried to entertain them,” he said. “I tried to get excited about it. I was using an active display or I was writing out solutions and then automatically putting that on Blackboard so that they could see my solution. I was trying a lot of different things.”

It didn’t matter, though. Students had simply checked out. So he cut back on lectures, gave students in-class problems and told them to work collaboratively.

“All of a sudden, all the students were talking and asking questions, because now they needed to know – they wanted to know – because there was pressure to figure this out before they left the classroom,” he said. “That’s all I had to see. That was like a night-and-day difference between what I had been doing and what I was going to be doing in the future.”

Carl Luchies at his computer in a biomechanics class
Luchies answers a student question in class

Luchies describes his approach to teaching as one of engagement. He often demonstrates new material to students and then turns them loose to work in groups. He and a teaching assistant move about the room and offer assistance. Each student turns in an assignment, but he encourages the class to work collaboratively to find answers and learn from each other.

“If I explain how to do something, and then I say, OK, now let’s do it, then they have to now think about exactly what I said, what did I mean by what I said, and how do they actually use what I said to solve the problem, do the analysis, whatever it might be,” Luchies said. “That’s when the actual learning goes on. They are actually doing what I just taught them.”

Luchies has gradually expanded and adapted the in-class and out-of-class material for his class over the past few years. He recorded lectures and put them online, created online quizzes, and insisted that students come to class prepared to work collaboratively. He experimented with different types of peer-to-peer learning – pairs of students, groups of three, groups that change during the semester, groups that stay together – before settling on teams of five that work together the entire semester. Eventually, he was able to move out of the lecture hall and into the new active learning rooms at the School of Engineering, add an additional GTA and two undergraduate teaching fellows.

“Each semester, I just went further and further,” Luchies said.

That doesn’t mean that switching to an active learning approach was easy or universally accepted.

“When I first started off there was a lot of pushback,” Luchies said. “There were students who basically told me that for the last 13 years I have learned like a sponge and I don’t see why I have to do any work when I come to class.”

The numbers on Luchies’ student teaching evaluations dropped, and “I had some pretty negative comments.”

As students grew more accustomed to active learning in his class and in other classes, though, the pushback diminished. Most now like the approach Luchies uses, praising the variety of class activities and the ability to develop as teams. Luchies, too, has grown more comfortable with his changing role as a teacher, moving away from lecture and becoming what he described as a mentor or a coach.

“At the beginning I had no idea what I was doing,” he said. “I was just trying things. Now I’m much more intentional about it.”

He describes active learning as a continual learning process for students and instructors.

“Experiential learning goes both directions,” Luchies said. “I have learned a tremendous amount by trying new things and experiencing it and finding out for myself what works and what doesn’t work. Not everything I’ve tried works, but that’s OK. I don’t mind failing.”

Sometimes, though, those experiments pay off, leaving an instructor to ponder a delightful question:

“What just happened?”


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

David McConnell sees both benefit and paradox in active learning.

McConnell, a professor of marine, earth and atmospheric sciences at North Carolina State University, spoke to members of the geology department at KU last week about his research into active learning and his work in helping others adopt active learning techniques in their classes.

David McConnell, in a photo from his N.C. State profile
David McConnell, in a photo from his N.C. State profile

Decades of research has provided ample evidence about the benefits of active learning, McConnell said. Failure rates decline when instructors move away from lecture and use hands-on problem solving, group work, and similar techniques in their classes. Students in active learning classes do better on tests than their peers who have received traditional instruction through lecture. Performance gaps diminish. And all students learn better when they actively monitor their understanding through a variety of activities, a process known as metacognition.

Paradoxically, though, only a small proportion of college instructors have embraced active learning, McConnell said. That proportion is growing, he said, albeit slowly.

McConnell is part of an organization called On the Cutting Edge, which has been working to expand the adoption of active learning in geoscience courses. The organization sponsors workshops, provides course materials, visits classes, and conducts research aimed at improving geoscience education.

noah mcclean working with students in Geology 101
Noah McClean works with students in Geology 101, a class that uses active learning techniques and hands-on engagement with course material.

The biggest challenge in expanding active learning is time, McConnell said. That often means giving instructors a semester away from teaching duties to create activities, videos, and lesson plans that will allow them to take a more hands-on approach in the classroom.

Even then, active learning can be a tough sell. At research universities, professors get little credit for their teaching even though it generally accounts for a similar proportion of their time as research. Until universities reward teaching in the promotion and tenure process, McConnell said, only the truly motivated will adopt active learning.

Here are some other areas McConnell touched on:

Think of learning as you would a workout. To make gains, you must push yourself beyond your comfort level. Set goals and work steadily toward those goals. Work with others who will push you, but realize that you will often fail. That’s an important part of the process. “My job is to get you to fail because only then will you know your limits,” McConnell tells his students.

We are not our students. Instructors who have Ph.D.s were not average students when they were in college. They learned how to learn on their own and excelled at many levels of college work. McConnell urged instructors to avoid the trap of assuming their students have the same skills and learn in the same way. Most students need help in learning how to learn and in learning how to succeed in our classes and at our universities. “We have to adapt to the students we have,” McConnell said.

Make learning relevant. One reason students dismiss various disciplines is that they don’t see the application of the material. Instructors must make that relevance readily apparent and help students make connections to their lives. In doing so, though, instructors should hold students to high standards. “We don’t think enough of our students,” he said. “They will rise to the challenge.”


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.