Part III. The Discipline-Based Education Specialist’s Handbook
8 – Partnering with Faculty
One of the most important goals of a DBES’s job is to catalyze educational improvements within the department by educating faculty about teaching and learning. While early faculty partnerships should be brokered by the departmental director (see Chapter 5: Departmental Leadership and Chapter 6: Setting the Stage), over time, DBESs should try to engage as many faculty as possible in the initiative through gentle persuasion. DBESs should also be prepared to act as a coach for faculty, giving feedback on their teaching to help them improve.
Approaches to partnering well with departmental faculty
Rely on your departmental director to engage faculty early in the initiative.
Identify faculty interests and gather data or offer resources which are adaptable and relevant to their interests or classroom challenges.
Don’t rely on data alone to influence faculty, as they are often more heavily influenced by observing active learning or by what colleagues or visitors are doing in their classroom.
Make teaching and learning visible in the department by hosting discussions, publishing newsletters, and having multiple conversations. Over time, these strategies tend to shift departmental culture and lead more faculty to engage with improving their teaching.
Stay open-minded about who might be interested. We have found that faculty attitudes about teaching do not fall neatly into clear categories (such as ‘skeptic’ or ‘enthusiastic adopter’), and that attitudes evolve over time. Be patient, persistent, and flexible.
Give feedback and coach faculty on teaching by observing their classrooms, providing a few concrete suggested changes, and backing up your recommendations with evidence.
How can you form faculty partnerships?
It is not the job of the DBES to engage faculty in the initiative, at least not at the start of the project (see Chapter 7: Course Transformation for further discussion). However, as you become more embedded in the department by creating a network of relationships with faculty, you will likely have opportunities to entice additional faculty to consider making changes to their teaching. Next, we discuss suggestions for persuading and engaging faculty past the first wave of those with early interest. Once a faculty member has committed to engaging in changes to their course, see the end of this chapter for a discussion of effective coaching strategies.
How do you respectfully persuade faculty to consider changing their teaching?
How can you respectfully coax faculty to consider making changes to their teaching? It is imperative that you don’t set up a combative relationship with the faculty member by coming across as pushy or telling the faculty member what to do. Rather, approach the discussion tactfully (we do admit that persuasion is part of the DBES role). Below are suggestions for persuading additional faculty to be involved.
Meet faculty where they are at
Being responsive to faculty interests and constraints can help frame your role as a productive resource and let you better understand faculty motivations in your department.
Discover what faculty are interested in learning about their course
Learning about individual faculty interests and challenges is one of the most powerful strategies a DBES can employ. For more junior DBESs (e.g., postdoctoral fellows), it can work well to think of yourself and present yourself as an eager apprentice interested in learning from their expertise. You might ask them: “How is your course going?”, “Is there anything you would like to change in your course at the moment?”, “Is there anything you would like to know about your students’ experiences in the course?”, or “What data on your course or student learning would be most interesting to you?” Responding to their areas of interest helps ensure that you aren’t seen as having your own agenda, but rather are responsive to their needs.
Offer faculty something they want
Once you know a faculty member’s ‘pain points’, you can find hooks for engaging them. Giving faculty something that immediately benefits them gives you a foot in the door for starting a conversation about classroom changes. For example, if they are struggling to hear student voices in their class, you might offer them the support of learning assistants or offer to help them figure out how to use audience response systems (clickers). You might offer to perform a demo for their class, figure out some technological hurdle for them, or help them implement two-stage exams.
Address faculty beliefs and concerns about teaching
Faculty beliefs about teaching (what is possible, what is effective, and how students learn) or other constraints like comfort with technology may affect the best choice of teaching approach for their course. It is important to address faculty concerns with new teaching methods by supporting implementation, mentioning examples of success in similar settings, providing student data, and offering alternative teaching approaches. Try to stay flexible, rather than rigidly sticking to a pedagogical plan, to help faculty feel strong ownership over these choices.
A further belief about teaching is that it requires a fixed, innate set of skills that are only achievable by some people (teaching awards can actually reinforce this perspective). When possible, it is important to highlight faculty in the department who have changed their teaching for the better and who identify effective teaching as something they learned to do.
Additionally, many faculty will have concerns about the status of teaching relative to research in research-intensive departments. See Brownell & Tanner (2012) for a discussion on this issue.
Leverage the classroom
Invite faculty to observe active learning in action
Seeing something in action is the most powerful method of persuading faculty to try something new. Seeing research-based teaching practices in person can dispel a number of standard concerns (maintaining difficulty of content, student management, use of technology) and make changes seem approachable and desirable. You can invite faculty to observe your own course if you are teaching or a colleague’s course (with their permission). However, many departments have a culture where visits are rare and are strongly associated with teaching evaluations, so careful encouragement is required.
You can ask faculty engaged in course transformation to open their classroom to visitors, perhaps after presenting their strategies in a seminar. You might keep a list of faculty across departments who are open to allowing others to drop in to observe their class, recording the types of active learning they are using. Posting the list isn’t sufficient, however; you will need to actively encourage faculty to attend. You can create targeted invitations to faculty you would like to be exposed to the techniques being used in these classes.
Use classroom observations as a conversation starter
A classroom observation can lead to valuable conversations around teaching with faculty, build rapport, and give ideas for collaboration. Observations can be informal (sitting in and maybe taking a few notes) or highly structured (using a validated protocol, for example). You might use the Classroom Observation Protocol for Undergraduate STEM courses (COPUS) or see PhysPort’s Assessment page for a list of other formal observation protocols. For less structured observations, the SEI Course Observation guide provides a framework for observing active learning courses. You can construct opportunities for using such observations (e.g., “I’m testing this classroom observation protocol; can I observe your class to test it?”). A variety of recommendations around this specific practice were developed by Brett Gilley at UBC in the COPUS Wedging document.
Regardless, for best results you should ask the person teaching in advance if there is anything specific they would like you to pay attention to, then provide feedback in a follow-up meeting. This follow-up is an important part of establishing rapport and the value that you have to offer.
Partner with instructional assistants as change agents
If a course includes learning assistants and teaching assistants (undergraduate and/or graduate), they can be powerful allies. Learning assistants and/or teaching assistants have eyes and ears in the classroom, and may be well-versed in pedagogy (for example, through taking a course). Thus, they can suggest changes to faculty, inform you about what is happening in the course, and provide instructors with direct access to the student perspective. Include them in meetings with course instructors during the course transformation. This potential role of instructional assistants is a good reason for you to undertake teaching assistant training projects (which many in the SEI have done).
Use data as a persuasion tool
Data, especially when presented with good visualizations, can be powerful in persuading faculty, though this is not universally true. There are many good books about effectively presenting data for different audiences. See Effective Data Visualization (Evergreen, 2016) and Presenting Data Effectively (Evergreen, 2018), for example. Below are some suggestions that we have found valuable when using data to persuade faculty.
Use a variety of data
Data and its related analysis need not rise to a publication level of rigor to be persuasive; the more local the data (e.g., from students in the course, perhaps even from the current teaching term), the more attention it may receive. It is still possible to be systematic enough for better and earlier decision-making than reliance on a few anecdotes from students, as in standard teaching evaluations.
Focus on students and student voices
What students say can often be powerful. Data from student surveys, interviews, focus groups, and/or assessments can be used to convince instructors to try something new. See the SEI Research Interview Guide for tips on student interviews. These anonymous results can be shared with individual instructors, or highlighted at department meetings or retreats to promote the need for change. This way the discussion is focused on the students and the suggestions that come from the students, rather than from administrators or from you.
Gather data that will speak to the course instructor’s interests
If the course instructor is concerned about exam performance, you should probably examine actual student exams from previous iterations of the course. If they are concerned with student engagement during class, then visit some classes. You might develop a midterm survey for students and help faculty members interpret the results.
Make the work and the results of teaching changes visible
One of the problems in higher education is that teaching is a very private endeavor. It is rare for faculty to discuss their teaching or observe each other teach. Bringing teaching into public spaces in the department, celebrating successes, and sparking discussion can be very effective in engaging departmental faculty at large.
Make local examples visible
As much as it is within your power, highlight the efforts of faculty within the department both as a way of validating their work and to show what is realistic in terms of local constraints. For some people, this can be more influential than careful research studies. You can bring attention to faculty efforts by inviting others to observe their teaching, attending faculty meetings to discuss the project, asking faculty to write up a short description of their project for the initiative website, or celebrating them in an initiative newsletter.
Create a newsletter
A short monthly newsletter can be very influential, bringing consistent attention to the initiative, and providing a venue to celebrate the work. UBC’s Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences department developed a very successful newsletter, and later, a blog. Designed to be easily skimmed, these two-page documents had titles such as An Instructor’s Clicker Cheat Sheet, and Making the Most out of the First Day of Class. These helped inform faculty about relevant literature and best practices, as well as SEI efforts in the department.
Engage faculty in discussing teaching and learning
In the SEI, some departments hosted teaching workshops or ‘brown bag’ discussions (in which participants bring their own lunches to a meeting), which were useful for engaging faculty in discussions with a low time commitment. You might host a reading group on teaching and learning issues, perhaps focusing on papers with local examples or readings from practitioner-oriented journals, such as the Journal of College Science Teaching. We have also seen that faculty participation in working groups has had ancillary benefits, including creating a forum for faculty to discuss pedagogy and student learning and connecting them with their colleagues around issues of teaching and learning. You may also consider offering an ongoing Faculty Learning Community in your department, where faculty meet regularly for a year to work on their own teaching. Such groups are highly impactful. Another new structure which has been very influential is the Departmental Action Team (DAT), where faculty engage together to sustainably solve an educational issue in the department.
Engage a variety of faculty
How do you ensure you are working with as many different types of faculty as possible? Below are some general principles for the DBES to engage with the broader department. For information on how departmental directors and chairs can engage faculty in the initiative, see Chapter 5: Departmental Leadership.
Stay open-minded about who might be interested
Try not to make assumptions about faculty; you might be surprised at who comes knocking on your door. In the SEI, faculty from all career stages and a variety of backgrounds in teaching-related projects participated in the work. You may find resistance from those you thought were on board, such as award-winning teachers or early career faculty, whereas those who have been less involved in teaching improvements may be glad to have an opportunity to engage. Faculty may change their attitudes over time, as well: instructors may not seem interested at first, but may begin to embrace new ideas over time.
Engage with as many faculty as possible
You might start by working with the most enthusiastic professors, then eventually start to gently push the more reluctant faculty. Have as many conversations as you can; even if you don’t seem to be getting anywhere and conventional wisdom suggests that that faculty member can’t be persuaded, conversations may bear fruit later. Even if you have been given a clear strategic plan for the initiative in the department, it is important to be opportunistic and look for additional faculty (and courses) to involve, focusing more on successful faculty development experiences than the exact outcomes envisioned in the initial plan.
Spread seeds and nurture sprouts
Spread seeds by suggesting ideas of new things to try through individual meetings, informal conversations, departmental newsletters, use of classroom observations, etc. Nurture sprouts of interest when they appear. Listen to faculty’s concerns and work on problems that they are interested in, rather than what you think is most important, and build from there. Focus on building a productive relationship with faculty above all else.
Be patient, but persistent
When working with faculty, you can introduce ideas gradually. If they say they don’t want to try something new, don’t be afraid to press them a little, but if they are still resistant, move on and revisit the issue again in six months. We found that over time, the more faculty members that were engaged in thinking about and changing their teaching, the more the teaching culture of the department was influenced. This resulted in more faculty deciding to learn about and use new teaching methods. The most effective DBESs worked with faculty over long periods of time (two years was the norm in one long-standing SEI department). Don’t lose faith; sometimes progress can be difficult to detect because it can be so incremental.
Divide and conquer
The most effective SEI departments had three-to-four DBESs at a time working on multiple courses and engaging with faculty. Different DBESs bring different backgrounds and skills, which can be beneficial when working with faculty; if one DBES is not able to partner well with a faculty member, another DBES might.
Don’t take it personally
Sometimes you will come up against negative reactions to suggestions or ideas about teaching, or general complaints from faculty. Their reaction is likely not related to you personally—they may feel frustrated by local constraints, their identity as an excellent educator may be under threat, or perhaps they are facing other pressures. Listen, and move on.
How can you give feedback and coach faculty productively?
The most successful DBESs see themselves as a departmental resource and a coach for faculty. This is true whether they are collaborating on an intensive course design project or temporarily consulting with the faculty member. In either case, it can be a challenge to provide meaningful, actionable feedback to faculty that empowers rather than overwhelms them. See Chapter 7: Course Transformation for a discussion on initiating and carrying through the course transformation work, a discussion of using faculty meetings in course transformation, and resources for facilitating faculty discussions or conducting interviews.
Observe classes and provide immediate feedback
Ask in advance if there is anything the faculty member would like you to pay attention to. Prepare as much as possible by reviewing basic principles and activities that may be relevant for the course. Plan in advance for a follow-up discussion as soon as possible after the class while it is still fresh (while walking back to the office, for example). You can keep this discussion short, starting by asking how they thought it went and if there was anything they were happy with or concerned about. Mention positive things that you noticed and commiserate by sharing problems you have dealt with yourself. In the initial discussions it is more important to build rapport than to convey what you know about teaching and learning. Limit your feedback to just one or two things—you don’t want to overwhelm them—and highlight areas of interest to the instructor. See the SEI Course Observation guide for suggestions on how to conduct casual observations.
Aim for constructive conversations focused on small, concrete changes
Focus on concrete, achievable strategies. These small wins can motivate instructors to try larger changes. For example, you might tell a course instructor: “Rather than solve four examples, could you solve two and have the students solve one or two?”, “count to 10 after asking a question,” or even “there’s no need to be afraid of silence.” You can share your perspective of the student experience as well; if you have observed the faculty member providing a long explanation of an idea, when the students seemed to have grasped the idea early in the explanation, you could convey this. After the discussion, you can promise to read further on the topics that came up, then follow up with the course instructor.
Use evidence-based thinking
As much as possible, focus on evidence of student learning or non-learning from the course. The general idea is to move the discussion away from opinions (yours and theirs) and to focus on the goals and challenges in teaching along with the evidence you have that supports previous choices and suggests future changes. “How do you know that?” can be a useful question to guide faculty in supporting their statements. Using multiple measures, such as course observations, student interviews, surveys, and other assessments, can provide a rich set of data to understand student learning in the course.
Plan to support faculty over time
There is a steep learning curve for incorporating active learning strategies. An activity may need to be run several times in order for it to work smoothly and effectively. Help the faculty member see this as part of the process (i.e., a growth orientation towards pedagogical change) rather than a sign that things are not going well.
Act as project manager and cheerleader
Monitor progress, giving gentle reminders to faculty about making timely decisions and about upcoming deadlines (e.g., an opportunity for an important measurement in the course like a survey or test). Show the departmental team the progress that has been made. Apart from a few cases where the faculty involved are highly experienced, the DBES is usually the main person responsible for ensuring the project’s continued momentum and observing how the course transformation is playing out in the classroom.
In order to engage departmental faculty broadly in the initiative, DBESs should consider the following approaches:
Persuade faculty over time to make changes to their teaching
- Rely on the departmental director to broker initial faculty commitment to the initiative.
- Look for opportunities to bring additional faculty on board.
- Discover faculty interests and offer them resources to address any challenges.
- Address faculty beliefs and concerns about teaching openly.
- Invite faculty to observe active learning in practice in classrooms.
- Use classroom observations as a way to start a conversation about teaching.
- Use instructional assistants as change agents.
- Use data as a persuasion tool, but don’t rely on it to influence instructors’ beliefs.
- Focus on students and student voices to influence faculty.
- Gather data that will speak to the faculty member’s interests.
- Publicly celebrate teaching by hosting external visitors, bringing attention to faculty efforts, creating a newsletter, and/or running a reading group.
Engage a variety of faculty
- Stay open-minded about who may be engaged over time.
- Work with as many faculty as possible, continually striking up conversations and looking for opportunities to reach out to faculty.
- Spread ideas (‘seeds’) of things to try, and nurture interest (‘sprouts’) as they arise.
- Focus on building productive relationships with faculty above all else.
- Keep pressing faculty to consider changes, introducing ideas gradually over time.
- Don’t take negative reactions personally.
Give feedback and coach faculty on teaching
- Observe classes and give immediate feedback.
- Be constructive in your comments.
- Limit your feedback to one-to-two high-impact items at a time.
- Focus on areas of instructor interest.
- Begin with small, concrete, and achievable suggestions.
- Present evidence to support your suggestions.
- Plan to support the instructor over time and communicate that this extended engagement is normal.
For further reading
SEI Resource documents:
- Structured observation protocol for course observations: Classroom Observation Protocol for Undergraduate STEM courses (COPUS)
- Framework for semi-structured course observations: SEI Course Observation guide
- Recommendations for leveraging course observations for faculty engagement: COPUS Wedging
- Tips on conducting student and faculty interviews: SEI Research Interview Guide
- Department SEI activity newsletter example: UBC EOAS newsletter
- Department SEI blog to highlight SEI activities: UBC EOAS blog
Brownell, S. E., & Tanner, K. D. (2012). Barriers to faculty pedagogical change: Lack of training, time, incentives, and…tensions with professional identity? CBE-Life Sciences Education, 11(4), 339-346. doi: https://doi.org/10.1187/cbe.12-09-0163.
This article considers that a scientist’s research identity may be at odds with their development of a teaching identity.
Duhigg, C. (2012). The power of habit: Why we do what we do in life and business. New York, NY: Random House.
This book about how habits are formed can help you think about how to coach faculty to develop new instructional habits.
Evergreen, S. D. (2016). Effective data visualization: The right chart for the right data. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
A delightful book about data visualization that can help you think about what you want to communicate and to whom, and how to do it effectively using the right charts.
Evergreen, S. D. (2018). Presenting data effectively: Communicating your findings for maximum impact (2nd ed). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
A useful “how to” book about data visualization and communication.
Heath, C., & Heath, D. (2007). Made to stick: Why some ideas survive and others die. New York, NY: Random House.
This book about how to communicate ideas to make them ‘stick’ can help you think strategically about communicating with department faculty.
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.