Part II. The Departmental Leader’s Handbook

5 – Leading the Work from within the Department


Though many initiatives aim to influence the institution as a whole, the department is the key cultural unit on most campuses, and consequently, Discipline-Based Education Specialist (DBES)-focused programs should be designed to operate principally at the department level with coordination by a central organization. However, at the outset, a department may not have a natural structure for supervising a DBES and their accompanying course transformation activities. The department needs to set goals for the initiative in their own context, supervise the DBES, and engage faculty in the work. In the SEI, the success of individual departments in terms of faculty engagement and use of course materials varied widely due to departmental factors. See Wieman (2017) for further discussion.

Approaches to ensuring good management of the work within the department

Recruit and hire good DBES candidates, making sure they have the appropriate skills and mindset.

Manage the project with an appropriate leadership structure, appointing a well-regarded and capable departmental director who can plan and manage the project and supervise the DBES. Coordination with the chair and the dean (when possible) is also valuable.

Strategically plan the work, creating faculty working groups, focusing on influencing departmental faculty, and creating long-term teaching assignments.

Encourage and incentivize faculty participation by making teaching and learning visible in the department, valuing teaching improvements, and providing incentives.

Make the work visible by keeping faculty continually apprised of the work in the initiative.

How do you recruit and hire a DBES?

Department members directly involved in hiring should be familiar with the parameters and expectations of the DBES role, as described in Chapter 2: What Is a DBES?


Consider searching for candidates with PhDs in their disciplines who have a strong interest in education. In most cases, finding a DBES will require a recruitment search outside of the department, though suitable internal candidates can also be successful. Advertisements typically describe the position and its duties (such as working with faculty to develop course materials and learning assessments) and require a PhD, as well as organizational, interpersonal, and communication skills, with experience in education noted as a plus. The position is typically listed as a one-year renewable appointment. See Sample Advertisements.

Use external searches

In the SEI, most departments conducted external searches for their candidates, with applicant pools ranging from 10-50, with approximately half of those applicants being worthy of serious consideration. Only in computer science (where industry competition for recent PhDs is very strong) was there difficulty in finding suitable candidates.

Advertising channels for such external searches include publications or websites dedicated to disciplinary research, education research, and teaching and learning; anywhere that teaching and learning discussions happen within the discipline. Informal networks and disciplinary listservs are also valuable in seeking out potential candidates. The CIRTL network has a list of undergraduate science teaching-related job postings and postdoctoral positions, located mostly but not exclusively in the U.S.

Consider recruiting internal candidates

In some cases, however, you might consider candidates such as existing instructors in the department, emeriti faculty members, or graduate students. In our experience, internal candidates whose backgrounds and experiences indicate they would be effective in the job can be very successful DBESs. In the UBC Computer Science department, for example, using internal candidates met the challenge of the lack of suitable postdoctoral-level candidates. At CU Boulder, the Integrative Physiology department continued to buy out some of the teaching time of instructors after the postdoctoral funding ended; these ‘curriculum coordinators’ then acted as facilitators of educational change in the department.

Selecting applicants

To assess the suitability of a candidate for a DBES position, use a combination of interviews, an on-campus visit, and a talk. In considering applicants for a DBES position, consider whether the applicant:

  • is expert in the discipline,
  • has an interest in education and teaching,
  • has good interpersonal skills, and
  • is well-organized and has good time management skills.

For questions you might ask a candidate, see Sample Questions for DBES Interviews. More discussion of the characteristics of successful applicants is in Chapter 2: What Is a DBES?

It is crucial to gauge the candidate’s personality and work characteristics, including how they might handle a difficult situation. For example, if a faculty member is resistant to change, it is a red flag if the candidate suggests that the faculty just needs to be convinced of the need for change, rather than indicating a willingness to listen and collaborate. Another red flag is a candidate who feels that they already know everything about teaching and learning without reference to the literature. Occasionally, a DBES candidate may have an agenda that is not in line with the goals of the initiative. In the SEI, we found it was a mistake to assume they would change their priorities.

How do you structure departmental leadership?

While the central organization can provide support through a variety of mechanisms, at the end of the day, the responsibility falls on the department to lead the work. Successful departments are those in which the activity is well-planned and well-managed, and in which a large number of faculty are open to engaging in such educational experimentation.

Departmental thank you lunch.
DBESs in CU Geology SEI at a departmental thank-you lunch (Credit: Leilani Arthurs / CU Boulder. All rights reserved).

The departmental director: the department team leader for the initiative

Within the department, identify a departmental director to supervise the DBES and manage the project. This is an essential position; an undergraduate or curriculum committee is not a suitable replacement for a director, as the project needs a faculty champion with the responsibility and authority to collaborate with the DBES and establish a vision for the project. In contrast, undergraduate and curriculum committees tend to be reactive and non-visionary. To circumvent this, one successful SEI department, Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences (EOAS) at UBC, set up a new Teaching Initiatives Committee to help lead educational change.

The most effective directors are those who are well-regarded in the department and who also have planning and organizational skills. Good organizational and management skills are especially vital in departments with multiple DBESs, as this requires considerable planning and coordination.

Roles of the departmental director over time
  1. Overseeing initiative-related HR activities, including the search and hiring of DBESs.
  2. Making budgetary decisions.
  3. Strategic planning, including deciding which courses and faculty the DBES will work with, and introducing the DBES to those faculty.
  4. Clearly communicating the DBES’s role and responsibilities within the department; establishing working arrangements between the DBES and faculty.
  5. Supervising the DBES, providing feedback, monitoring their progress, and intervening when problems arise.
  6. Protecting the DBES’s time and sheltering them from departmental politics.
  7. Meet regularly with the central organization to provide updates on the work and seek feedback.
  8. Summarize the department’s initiative work in an annual report to document outcomes and share them with stakeholders.
  9. Prioritizing and publicizing the work in the department, such as reporting to the chair or faculty.

The most critical elements of this position in the SEI were supervision of the DBES, general coordination of the project, and managing the unfamiliar and somewhat delicate working relationship between the DBES and faculty. Sending the DBES off on their own to discuss their collaboration with faculty was usually not effective and sometimes resulted in a dysfunctional DBES-faculty working relationship.

DBES supervision

It is important to establish the location of DBESs within a clear chain of command. Who does the DBES report to? Who manages their daily activities? DBESs should be seen as members of their respective departments, but the central organization should also provide professional development for them along with oversight for the departmental project. In the SEI, the following structure was used to meet these goals:

  1. A departmental director acts as a DBES’s immediate supervisor. A faculty member in the department serves as the departmental director, charged with overseeing the project and the DBES. Thus, the DBES is clearly situated as a member of the department and the supervisor is intimately connected with the departmental culture, politics, and daily functioning.
  2. The central organization provides additional oversight of the DBES. SEI Central managed the DBES’s training and, in some cases, research advising, ongoing DBES meetings, and regular progress updates with the departmental team. In departments leading their own work with no SEI Central equivalent, these oversight roles should be taken on by the department. See Chapter 4: Central Organization for a full description of these roles.

The department chair

The chair plays an important role. A supportive chair can help in the management and prioritization of the initiative, both in terms of who they appoint as departmental director and in supporting the planning and management of funding, faculty, and teaching assignments. In many SEI departments, the chair changed during the course of the initiative, which sometimes had significant impacts on the work. Depending on the department, this impact was either positive or negative. Engagement of the dean and clear accountability can be critical for continued departmental progress under such change in leadership. See Chapter 4: Central Organization for more information.

Productive contributions of the department chair
  1. Appoint an appropriate departmental director.
  2. Plan the work in conjunction with departmental priorities.
  3. Provide incentives to faculty for improving teaching (e.g., desirable committee or teaching assignments, space assignments, salary increments, etc.), and reassure faculty that they will not be penalized for low student evaluations during the initial course transformation phase.
  4. Reward and celebrate teaching improvements: nominate instructors for rewards, thank faculty, use teaching excellence in merit evaluations, etc.
  5. Make the initiative’s work visible and celebrate it within the department.
  6. Invite DBESs to faculty meetings to observe and present.
  7. Consistently communicate the importance of the initiative’s work within the department and to the higher levels of administration.

Chairs may be particularly interested in the perspective offered by UBC Dean Simon Peacock on the UBC CWSEI (see Improving Undergraduate STEM Education at Research Universities [2017]). Dean Peacock describes how the UBC initiative dealt with university policies (such as teaching evaluations), and how UBC required first year courses to develop learning goals as a support for SEI efforts.

How do you plan the departmental project?

This section describes creating priorities and structures to guide the departmental project as a whole. See Chapter 6: Setting the Stage for guidance in planning transformation of a specific course.

Faculty and DBESs at CU Boulder
Faculty and DBESs discuss course transformation activities in the TRESTLE project. (Credit: Patrick Campbell/University of Colorado. All rights reserved.)

Engage in strategic planning

An educational change project requires thoughtful planning. Who might be interested in working on the project? What is the department ready to do, and what might be the local challenges? What structures might support the work? How will faculty help direct the planning and identify departmental priorities? See our set of recommendations and resources in our SEI Strategic Planning Approaches handout.

Support planning with faculty working groups

In many cases in the SEI, project planning was at least partially emergent. Many departments established very productive faculty working groups which helped advise the project, usually through the development of learning goals for the course in question. Such discussions can be particularly useful in departments where there is no pre-existing departmental vision or ownership over courses, and provide an avenue for deciding what students should learn in a course. See Facilitating Faculty Discussions and Facilitating Learning Goal Discussions for specifics of such facilitation.

Since the SEI, a very promising new structure has emerged for departmental decision-making: Departmental Action Teams (DATs). In a DAT, a facilitated team identifies problems of interest in the department and generates sustainable solutions. Such groups have been transformative in many departments.

Onboard the DBES

When your DBES is first hired, they will need some assistance in orienting to the department structure, faculty, and issues. The departmental director should set up regular meetings and work with the DBES to give them concrete tasks and help structure their first few months. Make sure the DBES is given information about the history of the initiative in the department and typical teaching practices, and is oriented to departmental resources and staff. The departmental director can introduce the DBES to the department at faculty meetings, facilitate in-person ‘getting acquainted’ meetings with key faculty, and arrange for the DBES to observe some courses. The DBES may wish to engage in a ‘listening tour’ with faculty in their first months on the job as a way of learning about the department and faculty, asking faculty questions like “What are the biggest challenges for your courses?” and “What do you think success would look like for this initiative?” When the DBES is introduced to students, their role should be described so as to best support student respect (e.g., as a co-instructor, and definitely not as a teaching assistant).

Focus on faculty engagement

In your planning, focus on how you will engage faculty as a higher priority than identifying a list of courses to be transformed. In most departments, systematic transformation of courses may be too ambitious of a goal. This is partly due to the fact that large introductory courses are often plagued by entrenched curricula and multiple sections taught by faculty who may or may not be interested in the project. Thus, many SEI departments focused on hooking people based on their existing interests and building the project from there, rather than working through a pre-identified list of courses to transform.

There is one clear exception to this rule: in UBC’s EOAS department, course transformations did proceed in a systematic way: the DBESs and departmental director posted a list of courses to be transformed at the beginning of the project (see EOS Long Term Plan 2009). DBESs systematically worked through this list, trying to involve as many faculty as possible. While there were necessary deviations from the plan due to sabbaticals, new hires, curricular changes, etc., this document provided a useful starting point and roadmap for the project, as well as a way to engage professors over time, by establishing long-term teaching assignments to support the plan. This plan was supported by strong and consistent leadership and a supportive culture for teaching transformations, including a committee focused on departmental teaching improvements. For more about EOAS’s story, see Wieman (2017, Chapter 5).

Establish teaching assignments for the course over one-to-two years

Establishing long-term assignments for the course ensures stable teaching and strategic hand-off to future instructors. See Chapter 6: Setting the Stage for information on long-term assignment models.

How do you engage faculty in the initiative?

It can be challenging to engage faculty in course transformation work productively, especially given the typically low institutional prioritization of teaching. This section describes the ways in which a department can encourage faculty to consider engaging in the initiative. It can be valuable to focus first on engaging faculty (and working on their courses), rather that creating an a priori list of courses to be transformed. See Chapter 8: Partnering with Faculty for our recommendations on how the DBES can productively partner with faculty once the work has begun. These recommendations align with other recommendations on supporting institutional change. See, for example, Chapter 7 in the National Academies report Reaching Students.

Host external visitors

“No man is a prophet in their own land,” as the saying goes. External visitors can have an outsize influence compared to department faculty. You might invite a research visitor to discuss something about their teaching, invite a scholar of teaching and learning, or invite a faculty member from another department to present a course reform project. In the SEI for example, Carl Wieman visited every department and discussed the science of teaching and some department colloquia highlighted experts in teaching and learning. Such high-profile experts can elevate and professionalize the status of teaching in the department, and initiate discussion about teaching and learning in a way that is free from existing relationships and expectations in the department.

Provide time-saving resources or perks

Learning how to teach differently takes time, so offering incentives can help encourage faculty participation. In the SEI, such incentives were most effective when they were tailored to the needs of the faculty member, often in a way that could benefit their research or free up their time. Offer faculty teaching buy-outs/releases, extra teaching assistants or research assistants, opportunities for paired teaching, or other perks in exchange for engaging in a classroom transformation project. These perks will typically be arranged by the departmental director and the chair. A faculty agreement might be signed between the parties to indicate the work that would be done in partnership with the DBES in exchange for a buy-out, for example, and to provide accountability. See Course Transformation Deliverables.

Value development work in formal evaluations

A faculty member’s involvement in the course transformation project should count positively in their teaching portfolio for tenure and promotion. Because student evaluations occasionally suffer early in a project, or, perhaps more frequently, faculty may fear that evaluations will suffer, give faculty (particularly pre-tenure faculty) reassurance that such low evaluations—if they happen—will not count against them or that alternative measures of teaching effectiveness will be used.

Validate teaching improvements publicly

Faculty working with the DBES ought to be featured publicly in the department (e.g., through a department newsletter, SEI newsletter, or in faculty meetings) and be encouraged to present at local and national events. These activities serve to further affirm faculty’s often new identity regarding teaching excellence. UBC’s EOAS department developed a very successful newsletter which served to make the work visible across the department.

Assign faculty to teach coveted courses

For major course projects it can be very useful to explicitly assign the instructor developing the course to teach for several terms, because teaching the course multiple times can be a time-saver for faculty, especially in departments where the culture is high rotation among courses. This can also be a valuable incentive if the teaching assignment is for a particularly coveted course.

Ensure respected faculty are included

While this isn’t always possible, if you can be strategic in trying to engage widely respected faculty early in the initiative, this can be useful in engaging other faculty further down the line. Consider faculty who are particularly well-respected for research or teaching, or are influential within the department.

Focus on long-term departmental faculty

In the SEI, the principle focus of the DBESs’ energy was on long-term faculty, which include tenure-track research or teaching faculty and long-term instructors, but not contract lecturers. This focus reflected the SEI’s goal of affecting the culture of teaching and learning in the department, necessitating engagement of personnel who would have influence on departmental teaching practices for the foreseeable future. Throughout this Handbook we refer to ‘faculty’ as including this general group of long-term members of the department.

Include teaching-focused faculty and other long-term instructors

Across departments, the status and roles of those assigned primarily to teaching can be quite varied, whether they are tenure-track teaching faculty, instructors on long-term contracts, or instructors hired to teach course-by-course. Anyone with a (relatively or formally permanent) long-term teaching position in a department can contribute significantly to an initiative; in the SEI this contribution was usually most effective when the teaching faculty were fully integrated into the department and treated as respected members who rotated among courses.

How do you build for sustainability?

Consider how you will maintain faculty engagement after the end of the initiative by drawing attention to the course transformation work and by creating long-term structures.

Make the work of the initiative visible within the department

Ensure the department as a whole knows about the work, especially by publicizing early successes. Give the DBES and director some time during faculty meetings to report on the work. You might consider building a website you can send interested faculty to for more information or creating two-page guides to teaching strategies. Some DBESs hosted teaching and learning discussions within the department. One example of a successful dissemination project was the monthly newsletter produced by EOAS at UBC. Encouraging faculty participation in an annual cross-departmental showcase can show that the existing efforts in each department are part of a broader mission at the institution. See the End of Year Event example in Chapter 3: DBES Success.

Poster session at CU Boulder
Sharing education research at an annual symposium at the University of Colorado Boulder. (Credit: Casey A. Cass/University of Colorado. All rights reserved.)

Such dissemination feeds productively into the work, informing faculty about relevant literature and best practices, elevating the importance of educational work, and ultimately engaging additional faculty.

Create structures to sustain the work

Unfortunately, culture change in the department will probably not be sufficient to maintain changes made as a result of the initiative without some accompanying structures. For example, how will learning goals and pedagogy for courses be revisited periodically? How will engaged faculty have opportunities to continue to grow their skills? Structures may include creating or revising departmental policies, including course renovation information in faculty review, creating or charging a committee with addressing curricular reform, supporting faculty learning communities or other opportunities for faculty development, using paired teaching, or creating teaching awards for faculty. For more about sustaining course transformation work in particular, see the variety of suggestions near the end of Chapter 6: Setting the Stage.

Departmental factors that help and hinder

Consider the following factors when engaging in strategic planning of the work. For more detail, see Wieman (2017; pp. 109-115 and 143-150).

Factors that help within a department
Factors that hinder within a department

A supportive Department Chair who:

  • Is an effective leader
  • Plans and manages initiative activities
  • Sends messages to faculty to emphasize the importance of the initiative
  • Highlights initiative activities in department

An unsupportive Department Chair who:

  • Is not well respected
  • Is not strategic in assigning faculty to teach initiative courses
  • Sends a negative message about the importance of education
  • Ignores initiative activities

Effective oversight at the department level, including:

  • Creation of a new structure to oversee initiative activities
  • Working proactively and engaging in long-term planning
  • Identifying a departmental director with clear responsibility, authority, and good leadership skills

Poor oversight at the departmental level, including:

  • Delegation of initiative activities to existing committees
  • Working reactively, fitting the initiative in as a low-priority activity
  • Lack of departmental director, or identifying a director who is not well-respected or not a good manager

Clear communication of DBES responsibilities, and continual oversight and monitoring.

Lack of management of DBES/faculty relationships, including sending DBESs to talk to faculty on their own.

A sense of departmental ownership of courses.

Individual course ownership and/or lack of shared ownership of multi-section courses.

Amount of rotation in teaching assignments
High turnover makes it easier to reach more faculty, but more difficult to sustain changes.

Thoughtful planning of teaching assignments in advance.

Last-minute, non-strategic teaching assignments.

Incentives for improving teaching.

Disincentives for improving teaching.

Early conspicuous successes in student outcomes and faculty experiences.

Lack of clear successes.

Non-tenure track instructors or contract faculty who are respected, well-integrated into the department.

Non-tenure track instructors who are disconnected from rest of the department.

Chapter 5 Checklist

In order for the department to productively lead the work, department leaders should consider the following actions:

Recruit and hire a DBES

  • Advertise and recruit in disciplinary research, education research, and teaching and learning venues.
  • Consider both internal and external candidates.
  • Select an applicant who is expert in their discipline with good interpersonal and time management skills, and watch out for red flags.

Manage the project

  • Appoint a departmental director who is well-organized and well-regarded, and has the authority to supervise the DBES and lead the project.
  • The departmental director should lead the project, manage budgets, coordinate with the central organization, and publicize the work in the department.
  • The departmental director should oversee the DBES’s work through regular meetings and progress reports while protecting the DBES’s time and sheltering them from politics.
  • The chair should be engaged as an active advocate for the initiative.

Plan the work

  • Strategically plan the work, considering departmental priorities and faculty interest.
  • Create faculty working groups to generate consensus.
  • Consider focusing on interested faculty rather than a logical list of courses.
  • Create long-term teaching assignments.

Encourage and incentivize faculty participation

  • Invite outside experts to talk about teaching.
  • Provide time-saving incentives and perks for participation.
  • Acknowledge the work in formal evaluations and address potential faculty fears.
  • Value teaching improvements publicly.
  • Give coveted teaching assignments as incentives.
  • Engage teaching-focused faculty and other long-term instructors.

Make the work visible within the department

  • Make regular announcements on progress within faculty meetings, and invite the DBES and departmental director to present.
  • Create a website to showcase the work.
  • Encourage the DBES to host teaching and learning discussions, write a monthly newsletter, and implement other ways of engaging the department as a whole.

For further reading

SEI Resource documents:

  1. DBES position announcements: Sample Advertisements
  2. DBES candidate interview questions: Sample Questions for DBES Interviews
  3. Recommendations for planning an initiative: SEI Strategic Planning Approaches
  4. Recommendations for facilitating faculty discussions: Facilitating Faculty Discussions
  5. Recommendations for developing learning goals with faculty: Facilitating Learning Goal Discussions
  6. Example of multi-year strategic plan of course transformation: EOS Long Term Plan 2009
  7. Expectations for instructors involved in course transformations example: Course Transformation Deliverables
  8. Department SEI activity newsletter example: UBC EOAS newsletter
  9. Recommendations on co-instruction as a model for faculty development: Paired teaching white paper

Annotated bibliography

Eckel, P., Green, M., Hill, B., & Mallon, W. (1999). On Change III: Taking charge of change: A primer for colleges and universities. An occasional paper series of the ACE Project on leadership and institutional transformation. Washington, DC: American Council on Education.

A practical guide to leading change within an institution, including strategies and information on supporting change agents.

Elrod, S., & Kezar, A. (2016). Increasing student success in STEM: A guide to systemic institutional change. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges & Universities.

A step-by-step guidebook for campus leaders at the department or institution level for improving student achievement in undergraduate STEM.

Fry, C.L. (Ed.). (2014). Achieving systemic change: A sourcebook for advancing and funding undergraduate STEM education. Washington, D.C.: Association of American Colleges and Universities. Retrieved from

A practical sourcebook that discusses the rationale for change in higher education, building institutional capacity, changing faculty practices, and tracking and sustaining improvement.

Kotter, J. P. (2012). Leading change. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review Press.

Describes eight change strategies for leading top-down change within an organization. This model informed the SEI approach, and there are many short articles describing the general approach. While not fully accounting for emergent change, this is a useful model.

Kotter, J. (2012, November). Accelerate! Harvard Business Review, 45-58.

Describes eight processes that can help organizations accelerate change, such as developing a sense of urgency and strategic vision.

Wieman, C. (2017). Improving how universities teach science: Lessons from the Science Education Initiative. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Authoritative resource on the SEI model and its impacts, including a detailed description of the rationale for the SEI, lessons learned, and data on departmental outcomes.


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The Science Education Initiative Handbook Copyright © 2018 by Stephanie V. Chasteen (University of Colorado Boulder) and Warren J. Code (University of British Columbia) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.