Part II. The Departmental Leader’s Handbook

6 – Setting the Stage for Effective Course Transformations


A primary role of the Discipline-Based Education Specialist (DBES) is to facilitate course transformation: applying what is known from research about effective instructional practices into a specific course context, and being deliberate in the approach by using data from the course to support choices and capture the impact of the work. The departmental leadership has an important role to play in ensuring that course development is a collaboration among faculty and the DBES, that the working relationships progress smoothly, and that the changes to the course are sustained over time. This chapter outlines how the departmental leadership can support effective course transformations. For details on how the DBES can undertake the course transformation work itself, see Chapter 7: Course Transformations.

Approaches to supporting effective course transformation work in departments

Plan the work, including long-term teaching assignments, and allow several terms for the transformation.

Create shared expectations in the faculty members teaching the course and in the DBES, along with written documentation and close monitoring.

Plan for sustainability, focusing on culture change in the department, continually communicating about the work, setting expectations for use of course materials, and connecting faculty through co-teaching or discussions to support their use of course materials.

How do you plan a course transformation?

The SEI used a backward design model to guide course transformations, in which learning goals, assessments, and instruction are aligned across the course. Incorporating concepts from the research literature on teaching and learning with data from students in the course (past and present) is essential in helping to decide what specific changes to make. For more discussion of what is entailed in a course transformation, including case studies and resources, see Chapter 7: Course Transformation.

Former SEI department director Jennifer Knight discusses teaching with fellow faculty. (Credit: Patrick Campbell / University of Colorado. All rights reserved.)

It can be challenging to identify the most appropriate courses for transformation and ensure that the faculty engaging in the work with the DBES understands what such a transformation entails. To ensure smooth progress, we recommend the following actions.

Consider reaching out first to interested faculty

In some cases, strategically choosing courses that are most in need of transformation can be productive. In most departments, however, more progress can be made by focusing first on faculty who are eager to engage. Working with this first set of interested faculty gives the initiative some time to establish itself and create credibility with more reluctant faculty. See Chapter 5: Departmental Leadership for more on strategic planning and engaging faculty and Chapter 8: Partnering with Faculty for ideas on persuading the second wave of faculty to engage.

Create long-term teaching assignments

Before the SEI, few departments at CU Boulder and UBC had a multi-year plan for faculty course assignments. Setting such a plan in place required an adjustment in departmental thinking and planning, but did not take additional time. Generating a two-to-three-year teaching plan enabled long term strategic planning for the use of the DBES and their work with faculty, especially in departments with multiple DBESs to coordinate, and created clearer opportunities and expectations for their partnership with faculty. Long-term teaching plans also supported greater shared ownership of course transformations, since faculty knew how long they would likely continue to teach that course and thus reap the benefits of the work invested.

Allow several terms for the transformation, including a planning term

A planning term enables the DBES to get to know the faculty member teaching the course, collect data on student learning in the course, begin developing learning goals, assessments, and teaching materials, and collect baseline data. When allowing for a planning term is not realistic, using a more incremental course transformation approach—changing a few things at a time—may help to keep the changes manageable. For more detail on the DBES role during the planning term, see Chapter 9: DBES Development.

Since a course transformation is never perfect on the first try, at least one iteration is typically required for fine-tuning, based on the experience in the first teaching term. See Course Transformation Outcomes and Timeline, which describes a full course implementation and timeline in the SEI.

Engage instructional assistants

Undergraduate learning assistants (see this article and Otero, Pollock and Finkelstein, 2010) and teaching assistants (graduate or undergraduate) can be important elements of the change process. For the first semester of a course transformation, you may wish to hand-pick teaching assistants who are already well-versed with active learning and pedagogy to help support the instructional team. Teaching assistants and/or learning assistants can be very useful in suggesting activities and informing faculty and the DBES about what is happening in the course, such as student difficulties both with content and with respect to specific activities. The use of transformed teaching methods often require a greater instructor:student ratio than in traditional courses, and the use of instructional assistants can often make such changes feasible and affordable.

Teaching Assistant training in the CU Boulder Geology Department (Credit: Leilani Arthurs / CU Boulder. All rights reserved).

How can you set expectations for DBES-faculty partnerships?

It is critical for the departmental leadership to set clear expectations for faculty collaborating with the DBES. This helped ameliorate common problems described below.

Common problems in DBES-faculty collaboration

The DBES is treated as a glorified teaching assistant, providing administrative support for faculty and dealing only with mundane tasks.

The faculty member does not meet regularly with the DBES or does not provide materials for feedback in a timely manner.

The DBES creates too many of the materials without involvement of the faculty member (though this can be a useful strategy when starting out).

The faculty member changes their mind about collaborating with the DBES once they realize the level of work required.

In many cases in the SEI, lack of progress was due more to simple misunderstandings rather than to recalcitrance on the part of faculty or the department. Thus, setting clear expectations was critical. The departmental director needed to take a hands-on management role in this regard, making it clear how the working relationship would function, what the faculty member was expected to do, and what the DBES was (and was not) expected to do. The director also needed to continually monitor the DBES-faculty collaboration over time and intervene if problems arose.

To set expectations, address the following questions with both the DBES and course instructor:

  1. What is the role of the DBES? (See Chapter 2: What Is a DBES?)
  2. What is the role of the faculty member?
  3. What is the timeline for the work?
  4. What is your plan if the roles are not fulfilled or the timeline breaks down?
  5. Who will own the course materials?
  6. Who will own data and author reports or publications?
  7. What is the plan for the sustained use of materials over time?
Setting expectations for DBES/faculty collaboration
  1. Document the DBES role. Circulate a short description of the DBES role and use it to start all course design projects. See STLF Role and Faculty Working Arrangement, EOAS-SEI “Getting Started”, and Chapter 2: What Is a DBES?
  2. Document course design expectations. Clearly describe and document what a fully transformed course would look like. See Course Transformation Outcomes and Timeline and EOAS-SEI “Getting Started”.
  3. Create a signed, written agreement. Outline expectations, timelines, and deliverables, and have the agreement signed by the faculty member and chair. While not legally binding, such an agreement sends an important message and creates realistic expectations. See Course Transformation Project Agreement for an example.
  4. Meet regularly (DBES-faculty and DBES-faculty-departmental director). This ensures close communication and monitoring of the DBES-faculty relationship over time.

How do you support sustainability of the transformation?

Part of a successful course transformation is effectively and sustainably archiving packages of course materials, and encouraging uptake of the course transformation by multiple faculty. These were both challenges in the SEI. Below we describe the difficulties faced in this part of the work, and some recommendations.

Common challenges to creating course sustainability

Time. If faculty have already developed materials for the course in question, it may be more time-consuming for them to use the new materials with an unclear reward for doing so.

Expertise. Even with the use of course archives, uptake of existing materials is not straightforward if faculty are not familiar with the principles behind the design.

Rotation. In departments with high levels of rotation through teaching assignments, a faculty member may teach a course only intermittently, reducing the incentive for them to invest the time required to transform a course.

Archiving. It is difficult to create a coordinated system to archive course materials for later use by faculty, and ongoing maintenance of course archives is rare after the departure of the DBES.

At the planning stage, discuss and decide how course sustainability will be addressed, considering the variety of approaches described below.

Generate departmental expectations about future use of course materials

Will there be departmental expectations that future course instructors will use the course materials as a condition of accepting the teaching assignment? How will new course instructors be introduced to the course materials? Who will teach the course in the long term, and how can those course instructors be chosen to maximize sustainability? Can you put structures and/or funding in place to support new course components? Can these expectations be communicated at the level of the chair and/or key department committees and leadership related to teaching? Determining your department’s answers to these questions can help create a solid strategic plan for the future.

Create long-term teaching assignments

Create teaching assignments for the course several semesters in advance. This enables the DBES to involve those future instructors in course development. Faculty are much more resistant to change if they are not involved in the planning. Long-term assignments also assure faculty that the time devoted to the course transformation will pay off when they teach the course multiple times.

Disseminate the work within the department

Make the work visible within the department to build faculty engagement and celebrate teaching successes. For example, present outcomes from the course transformation within faculty meetings, create a departmental newsletter, and reconvene faculty working groups to share results. See Chapter 4: Central Organization for more information.

Connect the original instructor of the transformed course with future course instructors

Especially in the initial year or two after a substantial course project, connect the initial course instructor with new people teaching the course. This is best if there are departmental expectations around the use of the materials.

Train instructional assistants

If a course includes learning assistants or teaching assistants, part of the course transformation will involve training them. For example, help teaching assistants understand the rationale for the course changes so that they will allow students the time in class or lab to engage in active learning activities. Many teaching assistants feel their job is to provide clear lectures or work problems in front of students, and without some training they may default to this type of instruction. For videos and worksheets which are useful for orienting instructional assistants to active learning classrooms, see the Periscope project.

Consider co-teaching (paired teaching) assignments

In co-teaching assignments, an experienced faculty member is often paired with a newer faculty member. When faculty work as a team to teach a transformed course, the newer faculty member gets valuable on-the-job mentoring and experience with the course materials, which will reduce the time needed to use the same approach when teaching alone the next semester. The UBC CWSEI experience with co-teaching has shown that it can be very effective for transferring a course to a new instructor and for developing the new instructor’s teaching expertise. See this white paper on paired teaching, which has several recommendations.

Create course materials packages

As described in Chapter 4: Central Organization, packages of course materials for use outside the institution are a way of documenting the outcomes of the project. Generating a package of course materials is a necessary—though not sufficient—step towards synthesizing and documenting the outcomes of the project. Create an organized set of materials that are usable by other faculty, and include a set of notes on what was done, what worked, and what areas need further improvement. Examples of such course archive packages are online at our course archives page (the Physics department’s archives may be the most detailed).

Focus on culture change

If an SEI-like project has already focused on changing teaching in the department as a whole, the faculty body will have the relevant knowledge and background to implement the course materials. This holistic focus on the department has been shown to result in fewer faculty abandoning the new teaching methods they learn, with many faculty going on to use those methods to independently transform courses. See Wieman et al. (2013).

Chapter 6 Checklist

In order to develop high-quality courses with potential for sustainability, departmental leaders should consider the following actions:

Plan the course transformation

  • Consider focusing on interested faculty, rather than on specific courses.
  • Plan teaching assignments for two or three iterations of a course.
  • Allow several terms for the transformation, including a planning term, a first teaching semester, and a second teaching semester.

Create shared expectations for DBES/faculty collaboration

  • Discuss the working relationship with faculty in advance.
  • Document the DBES role in writing.
  • Create a written agreement for the collaboration between the DBES and faculty.
  • Monitor collaborations and intervene if problems arise.

Plan for sustainability and culture change

  • Create a plan for sustainability early in the project.
  • Generate departmental expectations about content and pedagogy to be used in the course in future.
  • Consider co-teaching models to bring new faculty into the approach.
  • Create long-term teaching assignments for the course.
  • Share the work in the department through faculty meetings and newsletters.
  • Connect the instructor who first teaches the transformed course with planned future instructors of the course.
  • Create a course materials package that is transferable.

For further reading

SEI resource documents:

  1. Full course design steps and timeline in the SEI: Course Transformation Outcomes and Timeline
  2. Overview of the DBES role and faculty collaboration in the SEI: STLF Role and Faculty Working Arrangement
  3. Example of expectations, timelines, and deliverables to be signed by involved faculty and DBESs: Course Transformation Project Agreement
  4. Department-specific example of the above document : EOAS-SEI “Getting Started”.
  5. Recommendations on co-instruction as a model for faculty development: Paired teaching white paper
  6. Example course packages: SEI course archives page

Annotated bibliography

Ambrose, S. A., Bridges, M. W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M. C., Norman, M. K., & Mayer, R. E. (2010). How learning works: Seven research-based principles for smart teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Outlines major principles for how students learn.

Chasteen, S.C., & Otero, V. Teaching with learning assistants. Science Education Resource Center. Retrieved from

Brief, user-friendly description of learning assistants and how they can best be used.

Handelsman, J., Miller, S., & Pfund, C. (2006). Scientific teaching. New York, NY: W.H. Freeman.

Describes the scientific approach to teaching, which underlies the SEI model.

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.

Otero, V., Pollock, S. & Finkelstein, N. (2010). A physics department’s role in preparing physics teachers: The Colorado learning assistant model. American Journal of Physics, 78 (11).

Describes the learning assistant program and how it has improved student learning.

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.

Wieman, C., Deslauriers, L., & Gilley, B. (2013). Use of research-based instructional strategies: How to avoid faculty quitting. Phys. Rev. ST Pkys. Educ. Res., 9, 023102.

Describes how the use of DBESs enhanced faculty’s sustained use of instructional strategies.


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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.