Part I. The Initiative Leader’s Handbook

3 – What Makes a DBES Successful?


Discipline-Based Education Specialists (DBESs) represent a relatively novel career path, and thus require specific training and on-the-job support in order to be successful. DBESs must hone their interpersonal skills (including the ability to persuade and negotiate with faculty), have excellent project management skills, and develop the education research expertise required for course transformation work. DBESs do not arrive at the institution ready to take on all such activities; they require time and development in order to reach their maximum capability. Without support, DBESs may become discouraged and frustrated to the point of abandoning the position. This chapter discusses DBES oversight, professional development, and community-building efforts by initiative organizers and/or the central organization.

Approaches to ensuring success and satisfaction among DBESs

Provide DBES professional development around teaching and learning, education research, and common challenges in the job (e.g., through initial training, ongoing meetings, a reading group, and an annual celebration).

Establish a DBES professional community to provide support, feedback, and ongoing development using the engagement tools described above.

Establish clear departmental expectations and oversight for management of the work and DBES supervision. See Chapter 4: Central Organization and Chapter 5: Departmental Leadership.

What is the development path of a DBES?

While DBESs should possess a certain baseline set of attributes (see Chapter 2: What is a DBES?), a good DBES is made and not born. It is important to allow enough ramp up time for a DBES to be maximally productive in their job. Below we describe how DBESs can develop their skills over time.

Three DBESs discuss teaching and learning
Three DBESs (Cheryl Pinzone, Ruth Heisler, and Teresa Foley) from University of Colorado discuss teaching and learning at a training given by Wieman in 2017 at Stanford. (Credit: Peter LePage / Cornell University. All rights reserved.)

What is the progression of a DBES in their position?

In the SEI, DBESs were typically hired for three years and entered with a graduate degree in their discipline and an interest in teaching, but with no background in educational research. The table below shows activities that DBESs typically performed in each year of their appointments as they progressed from a novice to a more seasoned DBES.

New DBES (Year 1)
Experienced DBES (Year 2)
Seasoned DBES (Year 3)
  • Initial training
  • Read educational literature, especially within their discipline
  • Observe classes for initial course transformation
  • Begin facilitation of faculty and faculty groups
  • Plan course transformation and build course materials in partnership with faculty
  • Strong contributions to course transformations
  • Continued facilitation of faculty and faculty groups
  • Begin research project(s)
  • Publish in the educational literature
  • Give conference talks
  • Mentor new DBESs and/or teaching assistants
  • Provide in-department consulting to faculty not involved in officially proposed projects
  • Develop and run workshops
  • Search for jobs (see below for career options)


What skills does a DBES need to develop?

Given the diverse tasks discussed in Chapter 2: What Is a DBES?, DBESs need a wide range of skills and professional attributes to be successful. There are certain baseline attributes that a DBES should possess in order to have the best chance of success: expertise in the discipline, an interest in education and teaching, and good interpersonal, organization, and time management skills. Most of these skills are honed during the course of the position.

DBESs benefit from certain attitudes and mindsets. Patience and persistence are key in this position, which is why certain personality types are better suited to the DBES role. The most successful DBESs are those who are viewed, and who view themselves, as a departmental resource, and thus develop scholarly expertise in teaching and building productive relationships with faculty.

Over time, we’ve found that the following skills are important features of the most effective DBESs. Areas which were the target of explicit professional development during the SEI are marked with an asterisk (*).

An effective DBES works well with people

Ideally, they will:

  • Have good active listening skills
  • Have good facilitation and coaching skills*
  • Have excellent interpersonal skills, including the ability to negotiate, persuade, motivate, and inform, without being pushy*
  • Be a good communicator, with the ability to disseminate information effectively and professionally (verbally and in writing; privately and publicly)*
  • Be flexible

An effective DBES is organized

Ideally, they will:

  • Have good time management skills (including email organization)*
  • Have good project management skills outside of a formal project management setting*
  • Be able to change focus throughout the day
  • Be able to balance many different projects and priorities*
  • Effectively facilitate meetings*
  • Be able to set and manage professional goals*
  • Learn to say “no” when appropriate
  • Be able to work independently

An effective DBES is focused on their own professional growth

Ideally, they will:

  • Reflect on their own progress*
  • Be metacognitive about their own work*
  • Seek feedback from various sources
  • Actively read the education literature in their discipline and in STEM education more broadly*
  • Seek to achieve excellence in course design (such as learning goal development, question design, and documenting course materials)*
  • Seek to improve their research skills (including statistics knowledge, experimental design, data interpretation and analysis, and publication)*

How do you initially train DBESs in the science of teaching and learning?

Since most DBESs have limited prior experience with STEM education research, we recommend creating a New DBES Development Series on the relevant education and cognitive psychology research, research-based instructional practices, and measurement of learning. In the SEIs, this training series was usually run once per year (more if the pace of hiring demanded it) and consisted of about twelve 90-minute meetings in a semester. A relevant reading or two can be assigned in advance of each session so that during a session participants can discuss the reading(s) and work in small groups to apply the material. The first semester of a new DBES’s job could be spent in planning a course transformation, observing classes (especially or exclusively the course being transformed), and attending this development series.

Warren Code facilitates a discussion around teaching and learning
Warren Code facilitates a community of practice around course design (Credit: Centre for Teaching, Learning and Technology / University of British Columbia. All rights reserved.)

Though primarily intended for new DBESs, this training can be opened up to interested faculty as well as experienced DBESs. New DBESs benefit even if they have significant background in teaching and learning or education research, as this group can be an important way to build a cohort with other new people. Once the broader group has sufficient expertise, most training sessions can be facilitated by existing DBESs. In our experience, attendance by faculty was predictably sparse, but experienced DBESs often attended as facilitators; this was very beneficial, as they could share valuable insight with new DBESs.

For models to create your own such training, see the resources below.

  1. SEI training series: Development Series for new STLFs outlines the training that was eventually established at UBC.
  2. 2017 Carl Wieman department education specialist training: see syllabus here.
  3. Learning assistant (LA) pedagogy course materials: many institutions run pedagogy courses for undergraduates, notably for LAs, which can serve as sources of materials regarding the science of teaching and learning. For examples of such pedagogy courses, create an account at and visit the program resource page on pedagogy courses.

How do you help DBESs develop fully as change agents?

While the New DBES Development Series provides the opportunity to develop expertise in education research and pedagogy, DBESs need ongoing professional development, including skills in facilitating the work in the department. The existence of a thriving DBES community is very important for this support. To combat isolation and enable ongoing professional development, the SEI used several regular engagement strategies.

Regular DBES sessions

Below are the methods used in the SEI to enable ongoing professional development and networking. Depending on the structure of your initiative (see Chapter 4: Central Organization), these methods can be used as a menu of options to inform your strategy.

DBES meetings

Every other week, new and experienced DBESs across departments met to share ideas and resources. Topics included development of effective learning goals, designing in-class activities, conducting cognitive interviews of students, interpersonal communication and negotiation, designing and conducting rigorous assessment and research studies, and sharing experiences of what worked well (or not). These sessions were facilitated by the SEI initiative director, seasoned DBESs, or invited guests (such as campus experts on communication or a visiting researcher). See Example STLF Meeting Topics for examples of these sessions and external workshops.

Reading groups

DBESs met to discuss relevant readings in a journal-club format on the weeks alternate to the DBES meetings. Faculty and graduate students often attended as well. The distribution list for reading group announcements was quite broad, enabling engagement across many faculty members, former DBESs, and DBESs at other campuses. Topical readings included both new and ‘gold standard’ literature in science education or cognitive psychology. Reading groups were also used as a forum for DBESs and/or faculty to solicit feedback on in-progress publications. See Example Reading Group Choices for examples of selected readings and sample invitations for a discussion group.

Metacognition meetings

Each DBES was paired with another DBES outside of their department to discuss progress and set plans on medium- and long-term goals, meeting every four-to-six weeks.These meetings provided a coaching relationship and opportunity for reflection with a consistent partner outside the department. See Metacognition STLF Meetings for the guidance given to DBESs in the UBC CWSEI.

Departmental oversight meetings

Every one-to-two months, SEI Central met with DBESs and departmental directors to discuss progress in the departments. DBESs submitted monthly progress reports in advance of these meetings. More detail about these, and other oversight structures, is in Chapter 4: Central Organization.

Annual End of Year Event

In April of each year, the SEI held an annual End of Year Event to showcase the work. This was a valuable opportunity for DBESs and departments to engage professionally around teaching and learning, as well as to share best practices and a sense of community.

Poster session at UBC end of year event
End of Year poster session at UBC CWSEI (Credit: Gabriel Lascu / Science Centre for Learning and Teaching / University of British Columbia. All rights reserved.)
End of Year Event format

Morning session (1.5-2 hours)

  • Brief annual update from SEI Central: initiative-wide announcements and quick highlights from each department
  • Short presentations from faculty: feature a few projects with results or techniques worth sharing widely, or a panel on a theme of interest, such as the student perspective in active learning

Poster session (1.5-2 hours)

  • Simple, low-cost posters to create a low barrier for sharing or existing posters used for other conferences
  • Primarily DBESs present, but faculty and student projects are welcome
  • Light lunch provided

Workshops (1-2 hours)

  • Two or three workshop sessions with topics to appeal to faculty (e.g., using clickers, cognitive task analysis, writing in the science curriculum)

Example End of Year Event schedules and materials can be found here:

Individual professional development

All the above sessions were bolstered by the DBESs’ individual professional development activities, broadly listed below. Detailed suggestions for professional development, including recommended readings, are in Chapter 9: DBES Development.

  • Teaching a course. Teaching provided both useful experience and credibility for facilitating the departmental work and for building experience for their CV. DBESs were also able to use their courses as models for faculty, encouraging faculty to come and observe their own classes to see how particular instructional techniques were used. See Chapter 2: What is a DBES? for restrictions on teaching responsibilities.
  • Reading in the education literature.
  • Learning how to apply statistics for social sciences (such as correlations and t-tests) within education research studies.
  • Observing classes.
  • Attending campus workshops.
  • Attending conferences.
  • Facilitating workshops for faculty.
  • Organizing a discipline-based education research (DBER) seminar series with external speakers.
    Submitting regular activity reports, encouraging reflection on progress and needed skills. See Chapter 4: Central Organization.
  • Other professional development as needed (e.g., time management, software, etc.).

External publications and dissemination

It is valuable to have some focus on formal presentation and publication of the work for the career development of the DBES, to share ideas with the broader community, and to engage in teaching improvements as a scholarly endeavor. The SEIs were quite effective in contributing to the research literature (see our full list of publications). Ensure that the DBES has adequate time to write and publish results—if this is not prioritized, it will often fall prey to the more urgent matters associated with facilitating course improvement work. It can be productive to push DBESs to submit a paper when it is ‘good enough’, rather than spending too much time refining it. A conference submission deadline can be very useful in encouraging this. Such work will be important evaluation criteria for the DBES when they apply for a raise, a reappointment, or a new position.

How can you build a DBES community?

Given the idiosyncratic nature of the DBES’s role, access to a professional support network is very important. In the SEI, DBES morale and productivity suffered without such a network. A professional community enables DBESs to become maximally effective within the typically short tenure of their position by leveraging the wisdom accumulated within the group. If a DBES is solo in the department or university, efforts should be made to find relevant communities for them to engage in. We found the approaches described below were helpful in generating community.

Hire several DBESs within one department

Having a DBES team within a department helps to combat isolation and enables DBESs to leverage their individual skills effectively. The most successful SEI departments had three-to-four DBESs at any one time. In the more common case that there is a single DBES within a department, it is crucial to connect that DBES to a support network elsewhere in the institution as well as to supportive faculty within the department.

Hire several DBESs across departments

This enables the building of a robust community by having adequate numbers for development meetings with a variety of personalities and skill sets—including some DBESs who may take it upon themselves to lead community building.

Leverage experienced DBESs

Experienced DBESs have many valuable insights to share with new DBESs. Using them to lead training sessions and discussions can assist in the creation of a professional learning community that continues to grow and thrive, as well enabling those DBESs to develop leadership skills.

DBES exit talks

One way that the experience of seasoned DBESs was leveraged was by encouraging any departing DBES to run an exit talk during a weekly DBES meeting. In an exit talk, the departing DBES shared key lessons they learned on the job, allowing them to reflect on their experience and create greater knowledge continuity between newer and seasoned DBESs.

Identify a central meeting space

Given the expectation of the various meetings mentioned above, regular group meetings, ad hoc meetings with visitors, and/or workshop sessions, it may be difficult to rely on a department to provide consistently available daytime space, so identifying at least one room where people from various departments can book (likely via SEI Central) is important.

Communicate online

The SEI made extensive use of Basecamp, an online project coordination tool which functioned as a mailing list with persistent files attached to posts. Interaction by email was important as this was the most common communication medium across people and institutions. Basecamp provided a central location for posting questions and resources, and the persistence of the message and file archive made for a rich, accumulated resource that could be made available to new people. In some cases, former DBESs remained involved in this online community. For example, Reading Group announcements were posted to a group with over 200 subscribers. This group gave former DBESs an opportunity to stay apprised of new and relevant readings in science education. Helpfully, former DBESs often posted job announcements to the group.

Provide regular professional development events

SEI Central organized several regular meetings with coordinating/supporting online discussions, all of which contributed to the development of the DBES community and to individual skill building.

Provide regular social events

Get-togethers once a month or celebrating the end of term also serve to help build the community.

Host public gatherings

SEI Central held an annual public gathering (End of Year Event) of those involved in the project, which supported a cross-departmental community among DBESs and faculty—and visibly celebrated the work.

Chapter 3 Checklist

In order for DBESs to be able to successfully facilitate the departmental work and have high job satisfaction, initiative organizers should consider the following actions:

Help DBESs develop professional skills

  • Be mindful of the range of professional skills required for the job (interpersonal skills, organization, and professional growth).
  • Ensure DBESs attend a well-structured training program (e.g. the New DBES Development Series).
  • Provide regular DBES sessions, such as biweekly discussions, reading groups, reflective discussions, meetings with departments, DBES exit talks, and end of year events.
  • Encourage seasoned DBESs to plan and facilitate DBES sessions.
  • Require DBESs to submit regular reflective activity reports.
  • Encourage DBESs’ individual professional development, such as teaching a course, observing courses, reading the literature, attending conferences, and/or facilitating workshops.
  • Ensure that DBESs have adequate time and professional support to publish results in the scholarly education literature.

Build a DBES community

  • Encourage a large and active DBES community with the continual addition of new members.
  • Hire several DBESs within a department and/or across departments.
  • Have experienced DBESs lead trainings and meetings for new DBESs.
  • Identify a central meeting space.
  • Create opportunities for online communication (e.g., email list, project management tool, online resource area).
  • Provide regular professional development events.
  • Provide regular social events.
  • Host an end of year public event.

Additionally, it is extremely important to create clear expectations for the departmental work, including departmental leadership and oversight from the initiative organizers. See Chapter 5: Departmental Leadership.

For further reading

SEI resource documents:

  1. DBES training established at UBC: Development Series for new STLFs
  2. Wieman 2017 national workshop agenda: Department education specialist training
  3. Ongoing DBES development series examples: Example STLF Meeting Topics
  4. Invitations and readings for reading group: Example Reading Group Choices
  5. Peer-to-peer DBES reflective discussions at UBC CWSEI: Metacognition STLF Meetings
  6. End of Year Event schedules and materials:
  7. SEI publications: full list of publications

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.

Ingram, E. L., House, R. A., Chenoweth, S., Dee, K. C., Ahmed, J., Williams, J., et al. (2014). From faculty to change agent: lessons learned in the development and implementation of a change workshop. 2014 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, 24.630.1-24.630.12. Retrieved from:

Outlines lessons learned from a long-standing workshop for the professional development of change agents.

Kezar, A. (2009). Change in higher education: not enough, or too much? Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, 41(6), 18-23.

Discusses the challenge of change in college campuses, using insights from studies on change leadership. Also discusses the importance of change agents.

Kezar, A. (2014). How colleges change: Understanding, leading, and enacting change. New York, NY: Routledge.

A more detailed scholarly volume on the topic of leadership and academic change.

Wenger, E., McDermott, R., & Snyder, W. (2002). Cultivating communities of practice. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

Discusses the importance and practice of supporting professional communities to connect activities and knowledge across an organization.

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.