Appendix 1. Case Studies of SEI-Like Initiatives

The University of Kansas’s Course Transformation Initiative

Duration of initiative: 2013-2018 (and ongoing)
Case study written: Spring 2018

The University of Kansas’s (KU’s) Teaching Fellows Program is based on the Carl Wieman Science Education Initiative (CWSEI) at the University of British Columbia (UBC) and at the University of Colorado Boulder (CU Boulder). This program is part of a broader Course Transformation Initiative designed to promote the redesign of undergraduate courses, particularly large or gateway courses, using evidence-based teaching methods. The Teaching Fellows Program embeds postdoctoral teaching fellows in departments to partner with faculty to transform four-to-five courses over a three-year period. KU’s adaptation of the SEI model involves a smaller number of experts per department, but we are amplifying the impact of the experts by building intellectual communities around course transformation both within and across departments.

What is the context of the initiative?

University of Kansas (KU)

  • Institution type: large, research-intensive public university. The institution includes a medical center that is 40 miles away (Kansas City, KS) from the main campus (Lawrence, KS), and is a member of the Association of American Universities (AAU).
  • Size: over 28,000 students (19,400 undergraduate), 2,800 faculty, and 11,000 staff.
  • Of note: there is 1 faculty tenure stream with a 40-40-20 division of responsibilities across teaching, research, and service. Teaching responsibilities vary from 1 to 4 courses per year, depending on department. Since 2016, KU has also hired a small number of Teaching Specialists who are responsible for teaching 4-6 courses per year and can be promoted from assistant to associate to full faculty. Their responsibilities include teaching scholarship (typically weighted at 10%) and collaboration around teaching/teaching innovation.

Departments involved in the initiative

  • Eligible departments: in the first year (2013), all science and math departments in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences (CLAS) were invited to apply for funding for a Teaching Fellow. Over the next two years, all departments in CLAS were eligible to apply, and funds were also made available for one Teaching Fellow in the School of Engineering.
  • Participating departments: as of Spring 2018, seven departments in CLAS have been awarded funding to hire a three-year Teaching Fellow, including Biology; Geology; Psychology; Physics; Chemistry; Math; and Film and Media Studies. The School of Engineering also hired a Teaching Fellow to work with faculty on foundational courses for students from multiple departments (e.g., Statics and Dynamics courses).

History and funding

The transformation of large foundational courses is key to KU’s institutional vision as articulated in a 2011 strategic plan, and this has guided much of the current effort around improving undergraduate education. In 2013, KU began the KU Teaching Fellows Program, and to date KU has had teaching fellows in seven departments in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, and in the School of Engineering. These program components have been supported by university funds. Beginning in Fall 2015, a five-year Improving Undergraduate STEM Education (IUSE) grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) enabled us to enhance our course transformation initiative through mini-grants and a program coordinator, and to expand the intellectual community to a network of seven US and Canadian institutions called TRESTLE (Transforming Education, Stimulating Teaching and Learning Excellence).

How is the initiative structured?

The KU fellows program is smaller and shorter-term compared to the SEI

The program began in 2013 with one postdoctoral Teaching Fellow in each of two STEM departments. Two-to-three Teaching Fellows were added each year until 2016. Each Teaching Fellow is hired to collaborate with faculty to transform four-to-five undergraduate courses around evidence-based teaching practices over a three-year period. The current cohort of Teaching Fellows will complete their terms in Spring 2019. The program was funded by the university itself with an investment of a little over $2,000,000 USD, staggered over a six-year period and funded jointly by the provost’s office and the dean’s offices of the participating schools (the School of Engineering and the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences). Each department/unit received approximately $250,000 to support the hire of a single Teaching Fellow for three years.

  • Successes. The KU adaptation of the CWSEI model used fewer resources and focused on building a broad community that both engaged existing faculty leaders in evidence-based teaching practices and developed new leaders. For most departments, the development of a proposal and the hire of a Teaching Fellow has been a significant catalyst for changes to key courses in the undergraduate curriculum and for improved teaching practices among a critical mass of faculty.
  • Challenges. An initial challenge was how to promote real, sustainable change with a lower intensity, ‘embedded expert’ intervention—i.e., fewer fellows over a shorter term in a given department (the term ‘Discipline-Based Education Specialist’ can be considered a CWSEI-specific version of the term ‘embedded expert’). Additionally, the program was initially designed with very little central coordination for program implementation and for the professional development of the Teaching Fellows.

The KU initiative fosters change at the department level

With the exception of the Teaching Fellow in the School of Engineering, the program operates within the department, which is considered the central unit of change. Requests for Proposals (RFPs) were advertised, and departments encouraged to apply. In Engineering, the Teaching Fellow was hired to work on entry-level courses that serve students from multiple programs, such as Statics and Mechanics. To amplify the impact of the Teaching Fellows, the Teaching Fellows Program was supplemented with other initiatives, such as a small course transformation grant program, a university-wide intellectual community on evidence-based course transformation (the C21 Course Redesign Consortium), and a program-level learning outcomes assessment initiative. Because each department has had only one embedded Teaching Fellow working on four-to-five courses, the program has focused primarily on foundational or entry-level undergraduate courses and those that tend to be barriers to degree completion.

  • Successes. The department focus has helped foster consensus building around course and curricular learning outcomes, and a move towards shared or departmental ownership of courses. The proposal process itself began these initial conversations and ensured a baseline level of readiness. In the earliest participating departments, collaboration across instructors of targeted courses has led to transfer and continued improvement of evidence-based practices from one instructor to the next, so that the courses are being taught in the transformed way by all instructors.
  • Challenges. Departments are not always engaged as a whole and sometimes lack clear leadership of the transformation initiative. Moreover, faculty efforts to improve teaching and student learning are not consistently recognized or rewarded by their departments, which has inspired another campus initiative to improve the review and evaluation of faculty teaching.

Temporary embedded experts are catalysts and supports for department-level change

Funding for the program supports the salaries of the embedded experts, called Teaching Fellows. They are postdoctoral scholars with PhDs in their disciplines that are hired by the central unit to collaborate with faculty members on the incorporation of student-centered, active and collaborative teaching practices into undergraduate courses. The fellows are employed directly by the unit in which they are embedded and are supervised by a faculty mentor in the unit. Most Teaching Fellows did not have extensive training in pedagogical innovation prior to their positions. The KU Center for Teaching Excellence (CTE) provides pedagogical training, professional development and intellectual community for the Teaching Fellows, modeled after the CWSEI program.

  • Successes. The fellows provide pedagogical knowledge and personnel time to faculty to support course and curricular planning and transformation. Because the Teaching Fellows are temporary, departments recognize that faculty must participate in the process to make it a worthwhile investment. The position provides Teaching Fellows with training and experience in pedagogical innovation and teaching scholarship. At the end of their terms they have gone into positions as faculty members, teaching specialists, and faculty development specialists.
  • Challenges. With only a single Teaching Fellow for three years in each participating unit, complete transformation of four-to-five courses is challenging; most units have made dramatic changes to at least two courses and more incremental changes to two-to-three additional courses. Also, many faculty members do not have the opportunity to collaborate directly with the Teaching Fellow. Department-level supervision and mentorship of the Teaching Fellows is also variable. Early in the program two Teaching Fellows left after one year because the positions were not well aligned with their own professional goals.

Community-building amplifies the effects of the embedded experts

To support change with fewer resources and embedded experts than the CWSEI, the KU program focuses on building intellectual communities of scholars around course transformation within and across departments. These communities provide pedagogical, practical, and social support, and promote reflection on teaching and the development of shared goals and vision. Department-level communities include course teams that collaborate on learning goals and transformation strategies, and faculty teaching working/reading groups. CTE hosts a university-wide consortium (C21 Consortium) multiple times a semester for STEM and non-STEM disciplines on issues related to course transformation. The university provides approximately $30,000 each year to support C21. Some C21 funds are used for mini-grants ($1,000-$3,000) that support additional faculty-led course transformation projects.

  • Successes. The unit-level communities have broadened the number of faculty who are taking part in teaching improvement and promote the development of shared goals and vision for teaching within the unit. C21 has engaged a large number of faculty and instructional staff, each of whom bring different knowledge, experiences, and perspectives to course transformation. The mini-grants catalyze course transformation activity in a dozen additional courses each year, both in departments with Teaching Fellows and in other departments.
  • Challenges. Although we can track participation in C21, it is difficult to track the impact on actual course transformation and student learning, except in the projects funded with mini-grants. Continuous effort and creativity are needed to keep the C21 community fresh and sustain engagement from existing members while attracting new members who are just embarking on course transformation.

A signature event makes course transformation strategies and results visible and celebrates the work

KU’s CTE hosts an annual poster session and reception at the end of each academic year to showcase the work on course transformation of members of the KU community, including faculty and instructional staff and Teaching Fellows. All course transformation grant awardees are asked to produce posters, assisted by graduate student writing partners. The event is attended by KU faculty, administrators at all levels, staff, and graduate students.

  • Successes. This event fosters intellectual exchange about course transformation strategies and results, inspires more faculty to get involved, and produces further momentum for the work. Having to generate a poster keeps mini-grant projects on track and prompts attention to the impact on student learning. The event serves as a clear illustration of the campus’s investment in teaching improvement and signals that the work is valued by the university.
  • Challenges. The poster genre is unfamiliar to some faculty and producing the poster can be time consuming, therefore the support of graduate student writing partners is critical. As course transformation activity has expanded on campus, it has been important to enlist sufficient graduate student support, particularly in the months leading up to the event.

An existing faculty center for teaching coordinates the initiative

KU’s CTE, a faculty center that promotes intellectual exchange about teaching across the university, provides the central support for the program. CTE coordinates a community of practice for the professional and pedagogical development of the Teaching Fellows, drawing on lessons learned from the UBC CWSEI. CTE also leads the university-wide C21 community, tracks results, and prepares annual reports on the results of the overall initiative.

  • Successes. The professional development for the Teaching Fellows provides needed pedagogical knowledge and social support. Reliance on a well-established teaching center as the hub of the program enables the use of existing resources, experience, infrastructure, and social capital to support and promote the broader initiative, and fosters synergies with other educational improvement efforts on campus.
  • Challenges. The important role of a central organization was not addressed in the initial Teaching Fellows Program planning and all of the funding was given directly to the units with the Teaching Fellows. Central coordination needs were higher than anticipated and placed strained the limited resources and staff in CTE. Thus, CTE had to seek additional resources (e.g., C21 funding and an NSF grant) to relieve some of that strain. Additionally the Teaching Fellows community in most years has been quite small. The funding structure also means that Teaching Fellows’ units are not directly accountable to the coordinating center, which limits CTE’s leverage and oversight on the department-level work.

The NSF-funded TRESTLE project enhances the KU initiative

In Fall 2015, KU received a five-year grant from the NSF to test adaptations of the KU program at other research universities, to enhance the program with a program manager to coordinate the central activities and professional development of the fellows, to provide mini-grants to foster collaboration on course transformation, and to offer travel grants for department faculty teams to visit other campuses. The NSF grant also expanded the intellectual community beyond KU to the TRESTLE network, which includes the two institutions that developed the original SEI model (UBC and CU Boulder), as well as Indiana University Bloomington, University of California, Davis, University of Texas at San Antonio, and Queen’s University.

The network convenes a course transformation institute each year, a series of online colloquia and conversations across the year, and offers course transformation models and resources on its website: www.trestlenetwork.org.

  • Successes. The TRESTLE project has enabled CTE to increase the support and productivity of the Teaching Fellows and to more closely track activity and outcomes. The team travel grants provide opportunities for faculty to observe transformed teaching in action and to promote a shared set of goals for the course transformation work. The TRESTLE networks provide social connections and opportunities for collaboration with peers for KU Teaching Fellows and faculty, which has been particularly important because of the small number of Teaching Fellows on campus in any single year. The annual meeting fosters exchange of ideas and creates another occasion for reflecting on course transformation strategies and results. The network has expanded to include faculty and education experts from institutions beyond the TRESTLE project partners.
  • Challenges. While the TRESTLE network fills a niche for department change agents who are leading or supporting course transformation efforts, a transition plan is needed to determine whether and how the network, and KU’s involvement in it, will be sustained beyond the period of the grant.

What were the key outcomes of the initiative?

The KU initiative has produced a substantial amount of course transformation activity

To date, KU has had teaching fellows in seven departments in CLAS and in the School of Engineering. The 2017 poster symposium showcased work in 14 different disciplines on 29 courses involving 52 faculty members and affecting over 6,000 students. Department-level analyses suggest that the presence of a Teaching Fellow, combined with the additional supports such as C21 and mini-grants, generates significant increases in faculty efforts to incorporate evidence-based teaching practices into their classes. These changes are also accompanied by improved student learning and rates of successful course completion. Because the program is still ongoing we have not yet had the opportunity to examine how well these changes are sustained.

This initiative has been a catalyst for other KU initiatives

The activity and attitude shifts generated by the Course Transformation Initiative have prompted several other KU programs, including: (a) the development of a STEM Analytics program, supported by a mini-grant from the AAU STEM Education Initiative, that empowers faculty to use institutional data to identify courses to transform and track downstream curricular effects of course transformation; (b) a project on improved methods of teaching evaluation to increase recognition and reward of evidence-based teaching (funded by a collaborative NSF grant; DUE# 1726087); and (c) expansion and coordination of models that use undergraduate teaching assistants to support active learning.

The initiative has had an impact on the broader STEM education community

The TRESTLE network has developed a North American presence, with embedded experts and individuals leading similar programs at other institutions participating in network activities. The central TRESTLE website, www.trestlenetwork.org, provides practical resources for supporting embedded experts, community building, and making course transformation results visible, as well as numerous examples of course transformation efforts from the TRESTLE campuses.

How do I get more information?

Websites: www.cte.ku.edu/course-redesign and www.trestlenetwork.org

The CTE website provides information about course transformation programs and resources available to KU faculty. The TRESTLE network website has numerous resources, examples of the course transformation efforts of faculty and embedded experts from KU and from other TRESTLE institutions, and information about upcoming events.

Example Request for Proposals and funded projects: CU Boulder TRESTLE site.

Contact: for more details please contact Andrea (Dea) Follmer Greenhoot (agreenhoot@ku.edu) or Blair Schneider (bensonbe@ku.edu).

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The University of Kansas’s Course Transformation Initiative 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.

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