Friday, December 1, 2017

Essential Questions

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For over five years, the Association of American Universities (AAU), representing the 62 leading research universities in the United States and Canada, has been engaged in

an initiative to improve the quality of undergraduate teaching and learning in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields at its member institutions. The overall objective is to influence the culture of STEM departments at AAU universities so that faculty members are encouraged to use teaching practices proven to be effective in engaging students in STEM education and in helping students learn. (See stem-education- initiative.)

Products from this initiative that should be of help to every mathematics department seeking to improve instructional practice are now available online. These include a framework for improving undergraduate STEM education with examples of programs at AAU universities that address each of the elements of the framework.
Figure: Cover of the AAU Essential Questions & Data Sources Report.
This past summer, they released their report on Essential Questions & Data Sources for Continuous Improvement of Undergraduate Teaching and Learning. Data sources include institutional data and tools for its visualization, observation protocols, rubrics, frameworks, student learning assessments, and surveys. The essential questions are separated into questions for institutional leadership as well as at the college, departmental, and instructor levels.

Because I believe that departmental leadership is the critical juncture for effective improvement, I will focus the remainder of this column on the questions addressed to departmental leaders and comment on what we have learned from the MAA’s studies of calculus instruction. By departmental leadership, I mean not just chairs and associate chairs, but all of those who shape the department’s direction. Change does not happen without a chair who is committed to improving the teaching and learning within the department, but it cannot be maintained without the support of a core of senior faculty.

Do all of the courses in the department have articulated learning goals, and are these made clear to students? What process exists to ensure that individual course learning goals connect to learning goals for the program, major, and department?

One of the clearest findings from the MAA calculus studies is that coordination of multiple section classes is essential. A prerequisite for effective coordination is a shared sense of what each course is seeking to accomplish.

What are the demographics of students in the department? What are the progression/retention/completion rates for students in the department or major broken out by relevant demographic categories? How do these compare with other departments and what steps are being taken to improve these rates?

Most departments I have visited have a sense that they are not doing as much as they could or should for students from traditionally underrepresented groups. This is not just a question of race, ethnicity, or gender, but also for students who are first generation, of lower socio-economic status, or from under-resourced schools whether they be inner city or rural. A department cannot know what is working for which populations if it is not tracking success rates by student demographics.

What actions has the department chair taken to encourage instructors to take advantage of both on-campus and off-campus (e.g., through relevant disciplinary societies) resources and professional development related to pedagogy? How many instructors have taken advantage of these resources and what notable improvements have occurred as the result?

The CBMS 2015 survey and other sources have documented that improvements in instructional pedagogy, support services, and course options almost always result from efforts initiated by individual faculty members. This question probes what the department is doing to nurture these faculty.

What resources are available to instructors in the department for encouraging all students to succeed, and what steps have been taken to ensure all instructors take advantage of these resources?

We know that faculty expectations of student ability play a huge role in how well students do, and faculty attitudes toward support services shape how students think about using these resources. The department as a whole must work to ensure the effectiveness of these services and then actively support their use, not as remediation but as a source of support and enrichment.

To what extent do departmental instructors have access to learning spaces that support evidence-based pedagogy? What training in the use of those facilities is available to instructors in the department?

The physical layout of classrooms and access to appropriate technology is critical for implementing effective pedagogies. This means tables where students can work together; sufficient space for instructors to walk around, answer questions, and observe how students are progressing; and sufficient board space for student groups to share their work. It does not have to be high tech classroom, but computer projection that is easily visible by all students is essential.

What is the department chair’s and distinguished faculty members’ support of evidence- based pedagogy? How well-known is this support to instructors and students?

This returns to the issue of nurturing those faculty who are positioned to initiate effective improvements. They need to know that if they are going to sink time and energy into improving teaching and learning within the department, then they will have the support not just of the chair whose term is limited but also of a core group of senior faculty who can ensure that support continues.

What are the biggest barriers to evidence-based pedagogy for instructors in the department and how is the chair working to address them? How often does the chair discuss these issues with the dean or other institutional leaders?

This addresses the chair’s critical role as the bridge between enthusiastic faculty, eager with ideas, and the college or university administrators with concerns to improve instruction and with access to resources that can support change. It is a position that requires insight and discernment on the part of the chair: to understand the priorities of the dean or provost and to comprehend the nature and potential of the initiative that faculty members are proposing. What will it take to implement a particular change? How can it be sold to the dean? What worries of the dean can be matched to ideas from the faculty?

How are all faculty who participate in annual/merit, promotion, and tenure evaluations educated about the meaningful inclusion of measures of teaching excellence in those processes? How closely does the chair review the outcomes of those processes to ensure teaching is indeed meaningfully included?

Finally, there is this elephant standing in the background of every effort to improve teaching and learning: How will it effect promotion and tenure? In my early years at Penn State, I was told that the dean of science was concerned about any faculty member that received high praise for teaching, because that might be a sign that they were neglecting their research. Even in my later years there, I found it necessary to discourage untenured faculty from sinking too much time into educational efforts. Unfortunately, the bifurcation of the faculty that I wrote about in October, separating tenure line faculty from contract faculty, only exacerbates this problem. With the option to “drop down” to a non-tenure line, the pressure to publish and receive research grants is all the greater.