The benefits of active, or student-centered, learning in introductory science classrooms is well established, both in terms of overall student learning (Freeman, Eddy, McDonough, Smith, Okoroafor, Jordt, & Wenderoth, 2014), and in terms of reducing gaps in course grades, performance on concept inventories, and/or failure rates between underrepresented (in STEM) groups and majority students (Beichner, Saul, Abbott, Morse, Deardorff, Allain, & Risley, 2007; Eddy & Hogan, 2014; Haak, Hillerislambers, Pitre, & Freeman, 2011). However, uptake of student-centered practices in postsecondary teaching is slow, even if such practices are known and understood to promote student understanding (American Association for the Advancement of Science, 2019; Stains et al., 2018). Reasons for this include the systemic nature of transformation toward student-centered practices (American Association for the Advancement of Science, 2019) as well as barriers such as large class sizes, lack of time to develop materials and pedagogy, perceived pressure to “cover” a certain amount of content, and lack of student buy-in (Henderson & Dancy, 2007; Shadle, Marker, & Earl, 2017). Recent research suggests that changes to teaching practices at the postsecondary level are occurring, especially in cases where a systemic approach to change is taken (American Association for the Advancement of Science, 2019; Gess-Newsome, Southerland, Johnston, & Woodbury, 2003; Henderson, Beach, & Finkelstein, 2011; Laursen, Austin, Soto, & Martinez, 2015) and faculty are involved in creating a vision for their classroom practice (Henderson & Dancy, 2007; Shadle et al., 2017). In such cases, barriers can become less important than supports or drivers for change. Drivers such as ease of implementation and department support can mitigate some of these barriers, and may be stronger predictors of adoption of student-centered practices than barriers (Bathgate et al., 2019; Shadle et al., 2017).
Unlike K-12 teaching which usually requires a certificate, training in teaching methods is not typically required for one to graduate from a doctoral program or to be deemed qualified for a faculty position at a college or university. Though some programs exist for preparing doctoral candidates for postsecondary teaching (Pruitt-Logan, Gaff, & Jentoft, 2002), not all faculty can be expected to have had access to training in pedagogical methods by the time they begin teaching their first courses. Professional development (PD) for faculty is therefore crucial to broadening the use of student-centered approaches. Here, we describe one such project, called Change at the Core (C-Core), which was a PD program for faculty in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) departments at three interlinked institutions. As such programs become more common (American Association for the Advancement of Science, 2019; Borrego & Henderson, 2014), there is an increasing need for the sharing of resources, outcomes, and lessons learned among those seeking to facilitate faculty adoption of student-centered practices. We describe some general trends in the uptake of student-centered learning from one cohort of faculty participants in C-Core, and examine a few participants’ experiences in more depth through case studies. Our study adds to the literature in terms of (1) the context of the study, the data having been drawn from a multidisciplinary faculty development project that involved collaboration between three types of institutions generally underrepresented in the change literature, a regional, primarily undergraduate university and two community colleges, and (2) the combination of survey and case study foci, which allows us to paint a picture on the individual faculty level while putting their experiences in a bigger-picture context of STEM education reform at the three institutions. The implications we draw from our data thus have the potential to inform a variety of other faculty development projects.
Faculty development in STEM
Despite demonstration of the inadequacy of passive, teacher-centered pedagogies such as lecture in promoting student understanding in STEM (Freeman et al., 2014), these methods persist as a major mode of instruction in higher education (Stains et al., 2018). Faculty PD has been identified as a high-impact lever of change toward more student-centered practices (American Association for the Advancement of Science, 2019). Research on faculty development has identified several necessary conditions for change, which include the translation of research on teaching and learning into practical, actionable steps toward improving practice (American Association for the Advancement of Science, 2019); long-term interventions (Henderson et al., 2011); programs that attend to multiple parts of a system in parallel (American Association for the Advancement of Science, 2019; Henderson et al., 2011; Laursen et al., 2015); and interventions that take into account and seek to change the beliefs of participants (Gess-Newsome et al., 2003; Henderson et al., 2011). Further, PD should attend to institutional and departmental contexts in order to generate products and practices that are adaptable to those contexts (Lund & Stains, 2015). Finally, faculty PD that creates a “sustained community” (American Association for the Advancement of Science, 2019, p. 167) is necessary for changing cultures of academic units, which is in turn needed for lasting change in instructional practices.
Change at the Core
C-Core was a collaboration between two 2-year colleges, identified here as Community Colleges 1 and 2 (CC1, CC2), and one 4-year primarily undergraduate Regional University (RU). This project was intended to (1) improve undergraduate STEM teaching and learning in participating institutions, (2) increase the engagement and success of underrepresented students in STEM majors, and (3) create an adaptive model for the adoption of student-centered practices. C-Core adopted a diffusion of innovations model for change, working to reach a tipping point through the development of a large enough contingency of adopters of inclusive, student-centered teaching practices to change the culture of the institutions involved and promote further spreading of the practices (Rogers, 2003). The program focused on improving the learning of all students in STEM courses, with an emphasis on closing gaps in achievement between underrepresented (in STEM) and majority students. For the purposes of C-Core, students identifying as LatinX, African American, Native American, Pacific Islander, and/or women were considered underrepresented.
C-Core followed a cohort model, where each faculty cohort participated for two years. This paper focuses on the first of three cohorts, with some data from the second cohort used for comparison. Cohort A faculty participated in two 5-day summer institutes, three Saturday workshops during each of two academic years, and monthly meetings of faculty professional learning communities (PLCs). The adoption of a 2-year model with embedded PLC’s was a response to research showing the efficacy of longer-term, work-embedded interventions over “one-shot” workshops (Henderson et al., 2011; Owens et al., 2018; Wei, Darling-Hammond, Andree, Richardson, & Orphanos, 2009). Participants included contingent faculty as well as tenure track faculty at the assistant, associate, and full professor ranks at all three institutions. The first cohort included faculty from biology, chemistry, environmental science, and geology. Subsequent cohorts also included computer science, engineering, math, physics, and astronomy. This diversity in faculty rank and discipline was intentional as the aim of the project was to create “bottom-up” change guided by an emergent vision representing multiple institutions, disciplines, and ranks. Such an approach falls into the “Shared Vision” category of systemic change proposed by Henderson et al. (2011).
Professional development for all C-Core cohorts began with, and continually connected activities back to, core principles of learning rooted in cognitive science (Ambrose, Bridges, DiPietro, Lovett, & Norman, 2010; Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, 2000). This structure was intentional as implementation of active learning strategies without an understanding of their basis in the psychology of learning can lead to unproductive adaptations of practices (Henderson & Dancy, 2009; Turpen & Finkelstein, 2009). The learning theory that we continually connected to was constructivism, the idea that students actively build their understanding (Baviskar, Hartle, & Whitney, 2009; Colburn, 2000; Piaget, 1978; Vygotsky, 1978). Because constructivism is a learning theory and does not prescribe any particular pedagogies (Baviskar et al., 2009), C-Core’s foundation in this learning theory provided a basis from which to choose and adapt pedagogical strategies in an informed manner. This structure was crucial in allowing for participants to be responsive to their own contexts, an important facet of successful education reform efforts (Lund & Stains, 2015).
Formative assessment, as envisioned by Wiliam (2011), served as a framework for selecting and sequencing content and pedagogy to align with constructivist theory. The broad interpretation of formative assessment we used starts with sharing learning targets, and follows with selecting and using evidence-generating instructional tasks, responding to evidence from the tasks, and activating learners as resources for themselves and each other (Wiliam, 2011). Although originally developed for K-12 contexts, we found this framework to be extremely relevant to our faculty participants when it came to connecting high-impact pedagogies with important curricular goals. The connection to core ideas and frameworks further responds to Shadle et al.’ (2017) call to “take a more holistic approach, and propose a broader vision for the transformation of teaching, rather than focusing solely on the adoption of [Evidence Based Instructional Practices]” (p. 11).
Inclusive teaching was embedded throughout C-Core activities, starting with participants’ examination of their own identities, and following with exploration of students’ identities and experiences. Participants then learned about and planned for the use of inclusive pedagogical strategies, both in and outside of the classroom (Tanner, 2013). Many of these strategies, such as structured, small group discussions and frequent, formative feedback, overlapped with constructivist-based pedagogies participants were learning about. Other strategies, such as creating a welcoming syllabus and setting classroom norms, attended to the development of an inclusive classroom climate. We started by attending to identities in order to help foster inclusive mindsets that go beyond the implementation of specific practices (Sathy & Hogan, 2019). Inclusive, student-centered pedagogical strategies such as paper voting cards, jigsaw, structured discussions, and quick-writes were explicitly modeled by facilitators throughout C-Core and continually connected back to the core principles of constructivism and framework of formative assessment.
A significant percentage of each C-Core event was devoted to structured work time, in order to help address the frequently cited barrier to the adoption of student-centered practices of lack of time (Henderson & Dancy, 2007; Shadle et al., 2017). This work time balanced structure, in the form of tools and coaching, with flexibility, in the form of participant choice of how to use the time. Participants worked on such tasks as building learning progressions (Popham, 2008), designing formative assessment tasks, planning inclusive pedagogical strategies, and designing tutorials and other learning materials. C-Core mixed activities that were done in discipline-specific teams, such as the development of learning materials, with opportunities for cross-disciplinary discussions of pedagogy. Some of the cross-disciplinary work, as well as special sessions for chairs and deans, focused on institutional adaptations to allow for change, addressing calls for work across departments and systems to create irreversible transformation (American Association for the Advancement of Science, 2019; Gess-Newsome et al., 2003; Henderson et al., 2011; Laursen et al., 2015).
The other important component of C-Core besides the formal PD events were the professional learning communities (PLCs). Compared to many 1-year faculty learning community (FLC) models (Richlin & Cox, 2004; Tinnell, Ralston, Tretter, & Mills, 2019), our 2-year PLC model is somewhat unique. We used a model for PLCs originally proposed for K-12 teachers to work together to enact formative assessment (Wiliam, 2007). In this model, teams of teachers regularly meet to work on problems of practice, discuss peer observations, or analyze student work. A protocol for PLC meetings ensures the rotation of leadership, follow-up of discussions with action items, and finally builds in accountability through report-back mechanisms. Teams are crucial in facilitating broad adoption of student-centered practices, because they provide safe spaces in which to experiment, as well as peer support and accountability (Cox, Richlin & Cox, 2004). However, effective PLCs can take many forms (Cox, 2001; Cox, Richlin, & Cox, 2004; Olmstead, Beach, & Henderson, 2019; Stoll, Bolam, McMahon, Wallace, & Thomas, 2006). Therefore, though most of the teams were discipline-based, some crossed disciplines and even institutions. Summer institutes and Saturday workshops incorporated time for the PLCs to work together.
Because C-Core cohorts were active for 2 years, the opportunity to investigate faculty change within the C-Core model is somewhat unique, compared to FLCs cited in the literature, many of which were active for 1 year (Richlin & Cox, 2004; Tinnell et al., 2019). The goal of this article is to illustrate how faculty members implemented the knowledge and practices they learned through this 2-year PD model, and how students perceived the changes that were implemented. The specific research questions that guided this study are:
RQ1: What changes did faculty make to their classroom instruction and learning environments to improve students’ understanding of core ideas for their course?
RQ2: What supported or constrained the changes faculty attempted to make to their instruction?
RQ3: How did instructors’ implementation of student-centered practices align with students’ perceptions?
In order to facilitate data collection and analysis, we focused on participants in the first C-Core cohort, beginning in year 1 (cohort A) , including some data from participants starting in year 2 (cohort B) for comparison. A combination of survey and case study data allowed us to gain a view of general trends while describing some of the details of what implementation of student-centered instruction looked like for specific individuals. Though survey data provided us with a useful starting point for determining some of the outcomes of the C-Core program, the majority of this paper focuses on the use of four case studies. The case study approach adds depth to the quantitative data and affords the opportunity to triangulate several different types of data. Further, a cross-case approach (Yin, 2003) allowed us to explore commonalities among and contrasts between the subjects.