Experts engaged within a department (“embedded experts”) can be effective agents of change. One type of embedded expert is a discipline-based educational specialist (DBES), who has expertise in the relevant discipline as well as in education. DBESs were at the heart of the Science Education Initiative (SEI), in which departments competed for institutional grants primarily used to hire DBESs. This model was used at the University of Colorado Boulder and the University of British Columbia, and eventually other institutions (Wieman, 2017; Chasteen & Code, 2018).
DBESs were a critical feature of the SEI: they provided valuable time, guidance, and support to faculty undertaking course transformations, substantial course (re)development projects that provided a practical focus for change work. This is in contrast to other change efforts (like faculty learning communities) which are less intensive and more general, and in which the faculty members themselves serve as their own educational expert (as in the chapters in this volume by Salomone et al., Klein et al., and Nelson & Hjalmarson), or programs in which faculty partner with students, which focus more on improving student experiences, rather than larger-scale course transformations (as in the chapters in this volume by Callahan et al. and Cook-Sather et al.)
The DBES model served as an effective lever for engaging faculty in instructional reform efforts (Wieman, 2017), leading to sustained use of evidence-based instructional practices—particularly in large courses—with accompanying approval by students (Wieman et al., 2013; Jones, 2018). This approach is well-aligned with the change literature, which suggests that engaging teachers in reflective practice and developing a shared vision within a department are valuable (e.g., Henderson et al., 2011) and that faculty need long-term customized support to encourage adoption of new practices (Froyd et al., 2017). DBES programs are not without their challenges; these are discussed in the companion chapter in this volume aimed at initiative leaders by Greenhoot et al.
A free, open-licensed Science Education Initiative Handbook (Chasteen & Code, 2018) provides a complete guide to such an initiative based on accumulated wisdom across the projects. This chapter summarizes advice from the Handbook related to the most common issues DBESs face, as well as concrete examples from our own experiences as current and former DBESs. As the role was so novel when it was introduced, many of these approaches developed over time in response to the initial struggles of DBESs to integrate into departments (e.g. Laursen & Budd, 2008).
2 What Is a DBES?
A Discipline-Based Education Specialist (DBES) is our generic title for a person who provides expertise both in a discipline and in effective education, and thus can act as an agent of instructional change in a department. They bring expertise to facilitate implementation of research-based instruction, with a primary goal of fostering expertise in teaching and learning among faculty. To this end, we suggest the DBES think of themselves as a coach, and a catalyst of change in their department. We caution against considering the DBES as a teacher, teaching assistant, instructional designer, or education researcher—while the role contains these elements, the combination is what makes the DBES uniquely effective.
Typical DBES duties may include:
- Facilitating development of learning goals (Pepper et al., 2011)
- Developing curricular materials
- Collecting and analyzing data on student learning
- Facilitating faculty discussions
- Serving as a departmental resource
- Conducting research
- Disseminating results within and outside the department
3 Who Can Be a DBES?
A DBES should have high-level training in the academic discipline (e.g., a Master’s or Ph.D.), good interpersonal skills, and be patient and persistent. They should also be experts in teaching and learning, or have an interest in such topics and receive on-the-job training.
People who might serve as a DBES include:
- Postdoctoral scholars (used primarily in the SEI)
- Discipline-based education research (DBER) faculty
- Faculty or instructors with a focus on education (e.g., “Professors of practice,” or the “change agent” faculty member in the Cross-course Community of Transformation described in Klein et al. [this volume])
- Graduate students with a background in education (e.g., from School of Education)
- Other faculty leaders with expertise in education (e.g., from School of Education, or those who have undergone extensive training or engagement with education such as a faculty learning community, as in Nelson & Hjalmarson [this volume])
Over a decade of work by Tanner and colleagues sheds light on the faculty who might fill a DBES role, and how to support them (Bush et al., 2017). DBESs usually require specific training and on-the-job support in order to be successful (Wieman, 2017); this is not unusual for those new to academic development (Jessop et al., 2018). DBESs must hone their interpersonal skills (including the ability to persuade and negotiate), have excellent project management skills, and develop the education research expertise required for course transformation work. Due to the training needs and time needed to integrate into the department, we recommend that a DBES be hired directly into a department (“embedded”) for at least two years or ideally as a permanent faculty hire. One disadvantage of DBESs is that their often temporary, lower-status position can undermine their ability to support long-term change.
4 How Can a DBES Persuade Faculty to Consider Changes to Their Teaching?
It is best if the DBES begins by working with faculty who have already committed to changing their course(s), so that they are not in the tricky position of trying to recruit faculty at the start of their work. As the DBES builds their network of relationships in the department, they will develop opportunities to persuade additional faculty to make changes to their teaching. A DBES might consider a motto of “spread seeds and nurture sprouts,” working with as many faculty as possible, staying open-minded about who might be interested, and being patient and persistent. Resistant faculty may show interest with time. More detailed advice for a DBES follows.
Get off to a good start. In the first few months, there are a variety of ways for you to establish yourself in a department:
- Observe teaching in the department. This is an extremely important part of your own training: it gives you perspective beyond your own teaching, helps you see the context and results of instructional choices for others, and provides a lot of information about the culture of teaching and student learning in a department.
- Engage in department activities (seminars, faculty meetings, chatting in the hall, etc.).
- Initiate conversations with students about their experience in courses.
- Establish credibility as a colleague in the field (e.g., give a talk on prior research).
- Develop an “elevator speech”: a brief, clear description about you and your unusual role, to help explain to faculty and staff what you do and how you can help.
- Teaching a course may help establish credibility and give you a space to demonstrate techniques, though this alone will not build the connections needed (and there is a risk that it will take a lot of time away from training and project work).
We note that the importance of a change agent’s credibility, reputation, and respect, including relevant teaching experience, were also cited as particularly important in fostering productive partnerships in the chapter by Klein et al. (this volume).
Meet faculty where they are. Being responsive to faculty interests and constraints can help you frame your role as a productive resource and better understand their motivations (Froyd et al., 2017).
- Discover what faculty are interested in learning about their course (a useful opener for such exploration is “How is your course going?”).
- Offer faculty something they want. You might offer to perform a demo for their class, or figure out some technological hurdle for them.
- Directly address faculty beliefs about teaching and learning. You can mention examples of success in similar settings, highlight faculty who have changed their teaching for the better, discuss teaching vs. research (Brownell & Tanner, 2012), and suggest alternative teaching approaches.
- In a large project like a course transformation, meet regularly to start collaborating some months before the course is taught to develop the course and get to know each other. The course instructor may not have a good idea of what they have signed up to do, so be prepared to offer examples of course design strategies and teaching approaches.
Leverage the classroom. The classroom itself provides a rich and authentic environment for seeding ideas and encouraging discussion.
- Invite faculty to observe active learning in action (in your course, or a colleague’s).
- Use observations as a conversation starter. Ask someone if you can visit their class, and if there is anything they would like you to pay attention to.
- Partner with instructional assistants. These can be powerful allies and can suggest changes to faculty, inform you about what is happening in the course, and provide instructors with direct access to the student perspective. (Note that in this same volume both Callahan et al. and Cook-Sather et al. also describe an approach using undergraduate students as partners.)
Use data persuasively. Data, including good visualizations, can be powerful in persuading faculty.
- Use a variety of data types (quantitative and qualitative, local and national, rigorous and informal).
- Focus on student voices, as these are often more convincing for faculty.
- Gather data which speak to the instructor’s interests.
- Try to gather data as early as possible; baseline data can be challenging to collect but will offer a clearer picture of where to direct efforts and will be valuable when demonstrating how improvements to the course have affected student learning (many faculty will be keen on this).
Make the work of teaching and learning visible. Teaching in higher education can be a very private endeavor; it is rare for faculty to discuss their teaching or observe each other teach. Bringing teaching into public spaces in the department, celebrating successes, and sparking discussion can be very effective in engaging the department more broadly.
- Highlight efforts of departmental faculty (e.g., in faculty meetings, websites, newsletters).
- Create a newsletter.
- Host faculty discussions and workshops around teaching and learning.
Do not take setbacks personally. Sometimes you will come up against negative reactions to ideas about teaching, or general complaints from faculty. Their reaction is likely not related to you personally—among other pressures, they may feel frustrated by local constraints, or their identity as an excellent educator may feel under threat. Listen, and move on.
Use faculty champions. Your faculty supervisor is very important; have them introduce you to faculty and broker conversations about shared expectations for your work in specific projects. In our experience, if there are conflicts in a partnership around expectations, you (the DBES) may need an advocate to help manage sensitive matters.
5 How Can a DBES Partner Well with Faculty?
Forming partnerships with faculty is essential for DBESs, and the most successful DBESs see themselves as a departmental resource and a coach for faculty. It is thus important to meet faculty where they are (see above) and give them meaningful, actionable feedback that empowers rather than overwhelms them—it is imperative not to come across as pushy. Dormant (2011) has several tactics for change agents. Below are our suggestions:
Observe classes and provide immediate feedback. Classroom observations are a critical piece of coaching faculty. Ask in advance if there is anything the faculty member would like you to pay attention to. Discuss briefly right after the class while it is still fresh (while walking back to the office, for example). Ask how they thought it went and if there was anything they were happy with or concerned about. Mention positive things that you noticed and commiserate by sharing problems you have dealt with yourself. These observations will be particularly important in a course transformation project, to help shape your plans.
Aim for constructive conversations focused on small, concrete changes. Focus on a few concrete, achievable strategies. These small wins can motivate instructors to try larger changes. For example, you might tell a course instructor: “Rather than solve four examples, could you solve two and have the students solve one or two?” or, “There’s no need to be afraid of silence when you ask a question.”
Model evidence-based reasoning. As much as possible, focus on evidence of student learning or non-learning from the course. Aim to move the discussion away from opinions (yours and theirs) and towards the goals and challenges in teaching along with the evidence you have that supports previous choices and suggests future changes. “How do we/you know that?” can be a useful question to guide faculty in supporting their statements.
Plan to support faculty over time. It takes time and effort to learn how to incorporate active learning strategies. An activity may need to be run several times in order for it to work smoothly and effectively. Help the faculty member see this as part of the process (i.e., a growth orientation towards pedagogical change) rather than a sign that things are not going well. You may develop some early materials and assessments in order to move the work forward, though we recommend “fading out” such support over time and shift toward reviewing materials that the instructor has created.
Act as project manager and champion during a course transformation. Organize meetings and facilitate consensus when there are multiple sections/instructors, as interest and experience with course development work will vary. Start before the teaching term, then monitor progress, giving gentle reminders to faculty about making timely decisions and about upcoming deadlines (e.g., an opportunity for an important measurement like a survey or test). Show the team the progress that has been made. Apart from a few cases where the faculty involved are highly experienced, the DBES is usually the main person responsible for ensuring the project’s continued momentum and observing how efforts are playing out in the classroom.
Meet with other department faculty for additional input and context. We recommend conducting individual interviews or discussions to identify interests, followed by working group meetings among several faculty, to identify priorities and learning goals (Chasteen & Code, 2018, Chapter 7; Pepper et al., 2012). It is particularly useful to have discussions with faculty who have taught the course or teach succeeding courses.
6 What Are some Common Challenges Faced by DBESs?
Finally, because this is not an easy role, or one that an academic is typically prepared for, the DBES must engage in self-care and their own professional development. Advice for overcoming common hurdles is given below.
Maintaining morale is one common concern, especially in the face of slow progress or pushback. Change takes time, which can be tough if you are in a relatively short-term position. As with anyone learning something new, faculty will need reasons to try new teaching approaches (e.g. to address a problem in the course) and to continue these practices (e.g., have enough practice and feedback to feel successful). Be realistic about expectations and try not to get discouraged. Commiserating with others in a similar position can be a big help, as can documenting your progress.
Combating isolation is another common challenge. There are likely other DBESs, or people on your campus working on teaching and learning projects. Partnerships can be valuable for helping you feel less isolated, as well as to develop a strong network of resources and professional development.
Junior-ranking DBESs (such as postdoctoral fellows) and DBESs in instructor positions may experience challenges such as lack of visibility, prestige, power, and time; see Chasteen and Code (2018, Chapter 9) for discussion.
7 Serving as a DBES: Three Vignettes
Here, we share some of our direct experience as DBESs to illustrate how these ideas have played out in faculty partnerships.
7.1 Working Together Productively
One of the first instructors I worked with on transforming a course said that they were very interested in improving their course. However, whenever I would try to schedule a meeting with them, they would cancel or postpone. When I did manage to meet with them, they would express guilt over not having done any work on the course since our previous meeting. I found that the best way to make the meetings productive and move forward was to use the meeting time to get work done. This included any work that I would typically suggest as preparation for a meeting, like watching a short video on 2-stage exams. Instead of having the instructor feel guilty because they hadn’t watched the video ahead of time, we would watch it together. This removed the guilt and helped make the meetings productive. With the “homework” removed, the instructor was less likely to postpone meetings because of feeling unprepared. And because we were getting work done, they enjoyed the sessions more.
7.2 Developing and Implementing In-Class Activities
This instructor had never used clickers before and was quite nervous about using them. When we designed an activity, we started by discussing the learning goals of the activity first. After we ran the activity, we would consider the effectiveness of the activity. We usually ran a clicker question or two to assess the learning or had a reflection activity where we could get feedback from the students. I went to several of their classes, so if anything went wrong, I was there to fix the problem. The instructor knew they had a safety net and felt more willing to try the new technology because they had someone there who could help right away.
7.3 Using Student Voices Persuasively
The instructor was quite resistant to running activities in class because they thought activities took up too much time. They were very concerned about covering content. I found that one of the most effective ways for the instructor to assess the usefulness of in-class activities was to hear from the students. I could say that active learning is more effective than lecturing until I was blue in the face, and the instructor wouldn’t change their mind. But the student voice carried more weight. We ran a mid-semester survey and the instructor really responded well to what the students wrote. We specifically asked about the use of clickers and in-class activities, and the majority of the students commented that both were really helpful. Later in the course, if the instructor pushed back on using clickers or in-class activities I was able to remind them that the students felt that these were helpful.
These vignettes represent particularly productive responses to situations often encountered by DBESs.
Serving as a DBES can be personally and professionally rewarding, and transformative for the department or institution. For temporary DBESs, they are often in high demand for subsequent employment due to the training and experience they receive in evidence-based teaching, course design, faculty development, and educational research and evaluation (Wieman, 2017). These types of positions can be an opportunity for an enthusiastic individual to learn a great deal about teaching, learning, and the research around them, and to join an emerging community of scholars fostering improvements in classrooms for many thousands of students while helping faculty towards more rewarding teaching experiences. The work of a DBES will be most impactful, however, when accompanied by strong departmental leadership to guide the DBES and strategize about broader issues such as faculty evaluation and course policies (Chasteen & Code, 2018).
9 About the Authors
Stephanie Chasteen is a research associate in the Center for STEM Learning at the University of Colorado Boulder.
Warren Code is the Associate Director of the Science Center for Learning and Teaching (Skylight) at the University of British Columbia.
Sarah Bean Sherman is the Science Education Specialist in the Earth Ocean & Atmospheric Science Department at the University of British Columbia.
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