Part I. The Initiative Leader’s Handbook

2 – What Is a Discipline-Based Education Specialist?


A Discipline-Based Education Specialist (DBES) is a person who acts as an agent of instructional change in a disciplinary department. The overarching goal of creating such a role is to foster expertise in teaching and learning among faculty. This chapter provides a definition of the role in terms of goals, activities, and common characteristics of DBESs, followed by recommendations for structuring such a position in an institution. Without a clear definition of the role, faculty may see the DBES as a teaching assistant and not fully leverage their expertise.

Successful framing of the DBES position

Position the DBES as a knowledgeable catalyst of change. DBESs collaborate with faculty on course transformation projects, focusing on supporting and coaching faculty in developing teaching and learning expertise. Thus, DBESs must have expertise in their disciplines, have an interest in and receive training in teaching and learning, and have good interpersonal, organizational, and time management skills.

Set clear expectations for the DBES’s work, such as supporting course transformation activities, research design, analyzing educational data, facilitating discussions, and disseminating results. The most successful DBESs enable teaching development and facilitate data-driven decision-making, rather than being used as a teaching assistant or instructional designer.

Structure the position to achieve maximal impact. Create a department-based postdoctoral or instructor-level position on a two-to-three year contract, with research and a small amount of teaching allowed.

What is a DBES?

Faculty are often interested in trying educational innovations, but lack the time and expertise to carry them out. A DBES is a generic description of a person who provides expertise both in a discipline (e.g., chemistry, mathematics, etc.) and in effective education techniques. While the SEI focused on DBESs within STEM, some non-STEM departments are also employing this approach. DBESs provide an essential link between departmental faculty and the broader education research community. They are not just people who are enthusiastic about teaching; they bring unique expertise to help facilitate the implementation of more effective, research-based methods of instruction in a department. A DBES is likely to be part of a broader initiative on campus to improve teaching and learning. See Chapter 4: Central Organization for how such an initiative may be organized.

DBES at University of Colorado
Former DBES Laurie Langdon (middle) at the University of Colorado Boulder. (Photo by Casey A. Cass/University of Colorado. All rights reserved.)

What is the nature of the DBES position?

A DBES position is usually located within an individual department, and it can be held by a variety of types of personnel, including:

  • Postdoctoral fellows (typical),
  • Contract lecturers, and/or
  • Permanent instructors.

In general, a DBES position is a contract role for a period of two or more years. If a permanent instructor is asked to incorporate DBES duties within their position, however, it could be a longer-term appointment.

Key features of a DBES position

The DBES is hired directly into the department. Unlike staff at a teaching and learning center, the DBES is a member of the department and acts as a departmental resource. The department is responsible for hiring and supervising the DBES. This allows the DBES to influence change from within the department, based on departmental priorities.

The DBES has a high-level background in their discipline. This enables the DBES to engage deeply in the disciplinary elements of teaching and learning, providing targeted guidance to faculty within the context of the discipline (Kober, 2015). It also positions the DBES as more of a colleague (even if junior) in the department, which for many faculty makes them more approachable than educational developers elsewhere on campus (Huber and Hutchings, 2014).

The DBES receives training in teaching and learning. DBESs have a keen interest in improving teaching and learning, but typically have limited prior experience in education, particularly in STEM education research. Upon hiring, the DBES is given training in pedagogy and course design, which is ongoing through their position. Often, the DBES has some teaching experience as well.

Related resource. Interactive Learning in Practice – the Carl Wieman Science Education Initiative (Dr. Cynthia Heiner, former DBES in Physics & Astronomy, recorded June 2017 at Imperial College London).

Available at

The DBES is a catalyst of departmental change

A primary DBES responsibility ought to be acting as a catalyst of change, with a focus on developing faculty expertise in teaching. This focus will effect a deep and lasting change in departments, with course transformation as a means to this end.

To fulfill this role, DBESs act as knowledgeable education experts and collaborate with faculty and course instructors on course transformation efforts in their departments. They may investigate student learning, develop learning goals, adapt or create course materials, monitor progress, measure effectiveness, and disseminate results—including contributing to the education research literature. DBESs can serve as departmental resources on pedagogy through a range of activities, such as facilitating casual discussions and conducting seminars and workshops.

Thus, the DBES serves as a ‘change agent’ and provides valuable human capital for undertaking education transformations in a department, providing both the expertise and time which faculty typically lack. (‘Change agent’ is a term adopted within the higher education literature, and is thus useful for those wishing to further research the underlying model for the DBES.) While the DBES position is the largest expense associated with an SEI-like initiative, it is also arguably the lynchpin which allows the initiative to succeed.

Primary DBES roles
  1. Catalyze instructional change in the department, including supporting course transformation activities.
  2. Serve as a departmental resource and connection to scholarly information about teaching and learning.
  3. Coach faculty, providing feedback on teaching.
  4. Facilitate faculty communication and consensus building.
  5. Collect, distill, and communicate data to guide faculty effort.

Key skills and background of a DBES

It is increasingly possible to hire postdoctoral applicants with expertise both in their disciplines and in STEM education [for example, see Bailey and Lombardi (2015)], but this combination is neither necessary nor sufficient. While this combined expertise can be developed over time as part of the DBESs’ training, successful DBESs will enter the role with the following characteristics:

The DBES must be expert in the discipline

One hallmark of a DBES is that they have expertise in their discipline, usually at the PhD level. MS-level candidates have also been successful with the right background, though these DBESs may have more difficulty attaining professional credibility in their departments.

The DBES should have an interest in education and teaching

At minimum, the DBES should be personally and professionally interested in education. Though not critical, teaching experience at a college or K12 level can be very useful. They will likely have career aspirations related to teaching or teaching improvement work in higher education. See Chapter 9: DBES Development for more on post-SEI career paths.

The DBES should possess good interpersonal skills

The best DBESs are those who are able to negotiate, persuade, motivate, and inform—without being pushy. Verbal and written communication skills, including active listening, are helpful.

The DBES should be well-organized and have good time management skills

A DBES must juggle multiple priorities, including both short-term and long-term deadlines. A good DBES has excellent time management and project management skills, can work independently, and can balance different projects and priorities.

That said, a DBES is made, not born; it is rare that applicants will have all of the above characteristics. See Chapter 3: DBES Success for more information on how DBES skill development continues post-hire.

What does a DBES do—and what is not their job?

It is important to explicitly and clearly define the DBES role; otherwise, there is ample room for misinterpretation among faculty and the DBESs themselves. The DBES should support faculty efforts and guide change in the department, rather than serving as instructional staff. See the overview in STLF Role and Faculty Working Arrangement to see how the DBES role was defined in the SEI; this description was circulated among funded departments.

Defining the DBES role was a challenge in the early SEI, with the consequence that early DBESs were mainly tasked with developing course materials, assuming that faculty would be willing partners in this endeavor. This resulted in low levels of faculty and departmental commitment to the production and continued use of developed materials. See Chapter 5: Departmental Leadership and Chapter 8: Partnering with Faculty for more.

DBES consults with a faculty member at UBC
DBES Sarah Bean Sherman consults with a faculty member at UBC. (Credit: Faculty of Science / University of British Columbia. All rights reserved.)

Daily tasks

A DBES’s day-to-day job varies widely based on local needs. In association with the departmental director and other faculty, DBESs should determine the most appropriate use of their time given departmental priorities and faculty interest. Given the wide range of possible duties for a DBES, it is important to try to avoid ‘mission creep’ of the DBES’s role and to set clear expectations for their work. See Chapter 3: DBES Success for guidance on training DBESs and Chapter 5: Departmental Leadership for guidance on setting expectations and guiding the DBESs’ work. Chapters 7-9 provide specific guidance written for DBESs about their tasks and roles.

Below are several tasks that are often undertaken by DBESs—again, with their focus as serving as a catalyst of change, rather than necessarily undertaking the bulk of course transformation work themselves.

Possible DBES tasks

Support course transformation activities*

  • Investigate student learning
  • Facilitate the development of learning goals, meeting with course instructors individually or in groups
  • Survey course instructors to establish areas of consensus and priorities for the course
  • Facilitate discussions among instructional teams
  • Develop curricular materials (clicker questions, worksheets, etc.)
  • Provide feedback on curricular materials developed by others
  • Develop measures of student learning (exams, homework, pre-/post-tests)
  • Observe classes
  • Provide feedback on course implementation
  • Archive and disseminate results

* These duties are in collaboration with the faculty teaching team: See Chapter 7: Course Transformation for more.

Analyze data on student learning

  • Identify areas of instruction that could benefit from change
  • Ask faculty members whether there are data on student learning they are particularly interested in seeing
  • Develop/implement/analyze learning diagnostic tests or concept inventories
  • Develop/implement/analyze faculty or student attitude and feedback surveys
  • Analyze exam and homework data for evidence of educational problems and successes
  • Interview students about their learning and educational experiences
  • Review existing literature to gain familiarity with research on student misconceptions and other discipline-specific concerns
  • Conduct informal problem-solving sessions
  • Listen to student discussions during activities

Facilitate discussions around teaching

  • Initiate discussions with instructors about teaching
  • Facilitate group meetings among instructional teams teaching a course
  • Provide feedback to the department faculty on curriculum
  • Host ‘brown bag’ discussions around teaching and learning
  • Seek out informal discussions with instructors

Serve as a departmental resource

  • Consult with faculty on general questions about teaching and learning
  • Take on smaller projects as a consultant rather than embarking on a full course transformation
  • Host teaching and learning workshops within the department
  • Create a departmental newsletter around the teaching initiative
  • Create training programs for departmental teaching assistants to better implement the new teaching methods

Conduct research and disseminate results

  • Design and implement research studies
  • Develop assessments of student learning (e.g., diagnostic tests, concept inventories)
  • Conduct data analysis
  • Analyze data for internal use (e.g., Scholarship of Teaching and Learning), such as course-specific data or locally valuable student feedback
  • Write up research for publication
  • Share results with the local education community
  • Present at conferences

Other duties

  • Engage in ongoing professional development through the SEI and their own reading, and by attending workshops to develop expertise in education
  • Support general SEI activities, such as annual conferences, creating documentation, mentoring new DBESs, etc.
  • Provide short activity reports to SEI Central and the department

What is not the role of the DBES?

It is important that the DBES is treated as a respected member of the department whose job is to partner with faculty to implement course transformation, rather than be seen as a glorified teaching assistant whose job is only to develop instructional materials.

The DBES is not a teaching assistant

In order to be maximally effective as a change agent in the department, the DBES must achieve the status and respect of a professional within the department, with both relevant educational expertise and high-level disciplinary knowledge. In departments where the DBES is treated as a teaching assistant, this is not productive or professionally satisfying. 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).

The DBES is not (primarily) a teacher

While it is very valuable for the DBES to co-teach a course with departmental faculty or to teach a course in addition to their DBES role, the DBES position itself is not that of instructional staff. In the SEI, departments often paid their DBESs separately as lecturers if they wished to serve as instructors of record for an entire course.

The DBES is not (primarily) an instructional designer

While instructional design can be one aspect of the DBES’s role, they should not be simply handed the duty of designing educational materials without faculty involvement. The role of the DBES is to guide faculty in learning how to develop such materials on their own—though this process may begin with the DBES developing materials and taking on some of this work.

The DBES is not (primarily) an education researcher

While education research is an important element of the DBES role, the role includes many other aspects of supporting instructional reform. Additionally, DBESs vary in their interest in conducting publishable education studies. In some cases in the SEI, a DBES who was very focused on education research contributed significantly to the field, but their impact in the department itself may have been mitigated by the time spent in conducting studies.

The DBES does not tell faculty how to teach

The DBES is a knowledgeable coach, but their role is not to dictate what faculty should do or how they should do it. A good DBES will be responsive to faculty and focus on spreading ideas. See Chapter 8: Partnering with Faculty.

How do you structure a DBES position?

Given the unusual combination of duties required of a DBES, most institutions do not have an existing position that can suitably fit these duties. While there are some variations across departments, the following position structures were useful in giving the DBESs adequate time and positioning to do their jobs well.

The DBES should be located within the department

The DBES should be a member of the department, both physically and in spirit. They should be rostered and have an office within the department, be supervised by department faculty, and be included in departmental functions such as faculty meetings, social events, email lists, etc.

DBES hosts tutor celebration
DBESs Leilani Arthurs and Jennifer Stempien host departmental celebration for tutors in the Geology department (Credit: Leilani Arthurs / CU Boulder. All rights reserved).

The DBES should be hired by the department with guidance

To ensure that the DBES is considered a member of the department, the department should be responsible for their hiring and supervision. The initiative organizers should discuss the search process with the department, help the department write the job advertisement, offer suggestions on where to post the advertisement, meet with candidates, and provide suggestions but defer to the department on the final hiring decision. During the interview process, the hiring committee should ensure that the candidate’s expectations of the role is clear, especially regarding the delineation between the supervisor in the department and the general support provided by the central organization. See Chapter 5: Departmental Leadership for advice on the search process.

The formal DBES position description should include both research and (minimal) teaching

At some institutions, this will require a new type of job title—a short-term PhD-level position which can include both research (in education) and teaching (in some cases, this may be formally forbidden). It is valuable for DBESs to engage in semi-regular teaching as part of their professional development, but this may need to be constrained to ensure that the initiative’s funds are not used to staff departmental teaching loads.

Below are two restrictions that were used in the SEI:

  1. DBESs may teach up to one course per year.
  2. Initiative funds cannot be used to pay the DBES salary during teaching.

Teaching situations usually required close monitoring on the part of the initiative organizers to properly account for funding and to keep teaching assignments from overloading DBESs.

The DBES should be a two-to-three year, full-time position

The position has a steep learning curve, and change in a department takes time. However, positions are usually advertised as one-year renewable positions, which is customary for postdoctoral positions. This limited term allows for the possibility of termination in rare cases where either the DBES and/or the department is not fulfilling their obligations.

It is helpful if the DBES is hired at the instructor or faculty level

This ranking provides some credibility and positional power for the DBES, plus longevity for the position, compared to a postdoctoral position (this was the case in two of the most successful SEI departments). Typically, however, DBESs are hired at the postdoctoral level.

It is helpful to hire multiple DBESs at once

This combats isolation of DBESs and enables them to reach many faculty as a team, enabling broad culture change. The most effective SEI departments had three-to-four DBESs working on multiple courses at the same time. DBESs can also benefit from a community across departments. See Chapter 3: DBES Success.

Chapter 2 Checklist

In order to ensure that the DBES position has the best chance of effecting change in the department, initiative organizers should consider the following actions:

Ensure the critical features of a DBES position are established

  • The DBES is seen as a catalyst of departmental change whose role is to foster faculty expertise in teaching and learning.
  • The DBES is hired directly into the department.
  • The DBES has a high-level background in their discipline along with other desirable qualities for the role, such as interpersonal and time management skills.
  • The DBES receives training in teaching and learning.

Introduce the DBES role clearly to the department

  • Explicitly define the role of the DBES, so that the department, faculty, and DBES share a common understanding of their job.
  • Ensure the DBES is seen as a member of and reports to the department (not the central organization).
  • Ensure the DBES is seen as a departmental resource and faculty coach focused on course transformation and assessment activities, not as a teaching assistant or instructional designer. See table “Possible DBES tasks” in this chapter.

Structure DBES positions to maximize potential for success

  • Create a formal job description which allows research and teaching as part of the same position.
  • Locate the position within the department and have the department carry out the hiring process, providing guidance and advice during candidate recruitment and selection.
  • Provide for at least a two-year appointment.
  • Consider hiring at the instructor level (i.e., above postdoctoral level).
  • Consider hiring multiple DBESs at once (within or across departments) to enable the development of a professional community.
  • Allow opportunities for DBESs to teach courses (financially supported by the department and carefully monitored by the central organization).

For further reading

SEI resource documents

Overview of DBES role and faculty collaboration in the SEI: STLF Role and Faculty Working Arrangement.

Annotated bibliography

Bailey, J. M., & Lombardi, D. (2015). Blazing the trail for astronomy education research. Journal of Astronomy and Earth Sciences Education, 2(2), 77.

Describes the growing availability of disciplinary education experts available to serve as DBESs.

Bush, S.D., Stevens, M.T., Tanner, K.D., & Williams, K.S. (2017). Origins of science faculty with education specialties: Hiring motivations and prior connections explain institutional differences in the SFES phenomenon. BioScience, 67(5), 452-463.

This and the two following articles in this bibliography discuss the hiring of disciplinary education faculty, who may act as DBESs.

Bush, S.D., Rudd II J.A., Stevens, M.T., Tanner, K.D., & Williams, K.S. (2016). Fostering change from within: Influencing teaching practices of departmental colleagues by science faculty with education specialties. PLOS ONE, 11(3), 1-20.

This article found that DBESs tend to affect the instructional practices of their colleagues.

Bush, S.D., Pelaez, N. J., Rudd, J.A., Stevens, M.T., Williams, K.S., Allen, D.E., & Tanner, K.D. (2006). On hiring Science Faculty with Education Specialties (SFES) for your science (not education) department. CBE-Life Sciences Education, 5(4), 297-305.

Hiring DBESs is increasingly common; this article discusses their potential roles and integration into departments.

Dancy, M., & Henderson, C. (2010). Pedagogical practices and instructional change of physics faculty. American Journal of Physics, 78(10), 1056-1063.

This article finds that physics faculty are interested in making instructional changes, but lack time and knowledge to implement innovations.

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.

Henderson, C., Dancy, M., & Niewiadomska-Bugaj, M. (2012). Use of research-based instructional strategies in introductory physics: Where do faculty leave the innovation-decision process? Physical Review Special Topics—Physics Education Research, 8(2), 020104.

Article discussing issues on sustainability of instructional changes made by faculty.

Huber, M., Hutchings, P., (2014). Bay View Alliance case study #2, research action cluster 1: The Carl Wieman Science Education Initiative in Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences.

Case study on one of the most successful SEI departments.

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.

Kober, N. (2015). Reaching students: what research says about effective instruction in undergraduate science and engineering. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

This resource identifies the department as the unit of change (albeit using the SEIs as an example) and provides general methods about instructional effectiveness. Chapter 7: “Creating Broader Contexts That Support Research-Based Teaching and Learning” is particularly relevant to SEI-like initiatives.

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., Perkins, K., & Gilbert, S. (2010). Transforming science education at large research universities: A case study in progress. Change, 42(2), 7-14.

An early discussion of the SEI model and progress.


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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.