Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Strategies for Change

One of the most striking findings from the MAA’s survey of university mathematics departments undertaken this past spring (see last month’s column) is the almost universal recognition that current practice in the precalculus through single variable calculus sequence needs to be improved. Many such efforts are now underway, but many of them lack understanding of how institutional change occurs as well as recognition of the importance of this understanding.

Much of the literature on institutional change lies too far from the contexts or concerns of mathematics departments to be easily translatable, but an important paper appeared a little over a year ago in the Journal of Engineering Education that provides an insightful framework for understanding change in the context of undergraduate STEM education: “Increasing the Use of Evidence-Based Teaching in STEM Higher Education: A Comparison of Eight Change Strategies” by Borrego and Henderson (2014). This paper takes the framework distilled by Henderson, Beach, and Finkelstein in 2010 and 2011 from their literature review of change strategies and applies it to eight different approaches to bringing evidence-based teaching into the undergraduate STEM classroom. This short column cannot do justice to their extensive discussion, but it can perhaps whet interest in reading their paper.

Henderson, Beach, and Finkelstein have identified two axes along which change strategies occur (Table 1): those whose focus is on changing individuals versus those that focus on changing environments and structures, and those that they describe as prescribed, meaning that they try to implement specific solutions, versus those they describe as emergent, meaning that they attempt to foster conditions that support local actors in finding their own solutions. This results in the four categories shown in Table 1.

Table I: Change theories mapped to the four categories of change strategies. The italicized text lists two specific change strategies for each of the four categories. Reproduced from Borrego and Hnderson (2014).

Within each of the four categories, they identify two strategies that have been used. For example, under a prescribed outcome focused on individuals, Category I, they identify Diffusion and Implementation as two change strategies. Diffusion describes the common practice of developing an innovation at a single location and then publicizing it in the hope that others will pick it up. Implementation involves the development of a curriculum or specified set of practices that are intended to be implemented at other institutions. For each of the eight change strategies, they describe the underlying logic of how it could effect change, describe what it looks like in practice, and give an example of how it has been used, accompanied by some assessment of its potential strengths and weaknesses. Diffusion, in particular, is very common and is known to be capable of raising awareness of what can be done, but it often runs into challenges of incompatibility together with a lack of support for those who would attempt to implement it.

At the opposite corner are the emergent strategies that focus on environments and structures. Here Borrego and Henderson consider Learning Organizations and Complexity Leadership Theory. Learning organizations have emerged from management theory as a means of facilitating improvements. They involve informal communities of practice that share their insights into what is and is not working, embedded within a formal structure that facilitates the implementation of the best ideas that emerge from these communities. In management-speak, it is the middle-line managers who are the key to the success of this approach. In the context of higher education, these middle-line managers are the department chairs and the senior, most highly respected faculty.

The effectiveness of Learning Organizations resonates with what I have seen of effective departments. They require an upper administration that recognizes there are problems in undergraduate mathematics education and are willing to invest resources in practical and cost- effective means of improving this education, together with faculty in the trenches who are passionate about finding ways of improving the teaching and learning that takes place at their institution. The faculty need to be encouraged to form such communities of practice, sharing their understanding and envisioning what changes would improve teaching and learning. Some of the best undergraduate teaching we have seen has been built on the practice of regular meetings of the instructors for a particular class. The role of the chair and senior faculty is one of encouraging the generation of these ideas, providing feedback and guidance in refining them, and then selling the result to the upper administration, conscious of how it fits into the concerns and priorities of deans and provosts. Throughout this process, it is critical to have access to robust and timely data on student performance for this class as well as for the downstream courses both within and beyond the mathematics department.

Complexity Leadership Theory is based on recognition of the difficulties inherent in trying to change any complex institution and calls on the leadership to do three things: to disrupt existing patterns, to encourage novelty, and to make sense of the responses that emerge. Borrego and Henderson could not find any examples of Complexity Leadership Theory within higher education, but, as I interpret this approach as it might appear within a mathematics department, it speaks to the responsibility of the chair and leading faculty to draw attention to what is not working, to encourage faculty to seek creative solutions to these problems, and then to shape what emerges in a way that can be implemented. In many respects, it is not so different from Learning Organizations. The strategies of Category IV highlight the key role of the departmental leadership, which must involve more than just the chair or head of the department.

In their discussion, Borrego and Henderson emphasize that they are not suggesting a preference for any of these categories, although they do note that Category I is the most common within higher education and Category IV the least. My own experience suggests that the strategies of Category IV have the greatest chance of making a lasting improvement. Nevertheless, anyone seeking systemic change will need to employ a variety of strategies that span all of these approaches. Their point is that anyone seeking change must be aware of the nature of what they seek to accomplish and must recognize which strategies are best suited to their desired goals.


M. Borrego and C. Henderson. 2014. Increasing the use of evidence-based teaching in STEM higher education: A comparison of eight change strategies. Journal of Engineering Education. 103 (2): 220–252.

C. Henderson, A. Beach, N. Finkelstein. 2011. Facilitating change in undergraduate STEM instructional practices: An analytic review of the literature. Journal of Research in Science Teaching. 48 (8): 952–984.

C. Henderson, N. Finkelstein, A. Beach. 2010. Beyond dissemination in college science teaching: An introduction to four core change strategies. Journal of College Science Teaching. 39 (5): 18–25.