18 Discipline-Based Teaching Development Groups: The SIMPLE Framework for Change from within

Jill K. Nelson and Margret A. Hjalmarson

1 Introduction

While a significant body of research provides evidence that interactive, student-centered teaching improves learning, engagement, and retention, adoption of these teaching practices in STEM disciplines has been slow (National Research Council, 2012). This paper studies the value of an ongoing faculty development model to support instructors as they change their teaching to adopt research-supported, student-centered teaching practices. The teaching development model is structured around discipline-based faculty learning communities (SIMPLE groups) that meet regularly for at least one academic year. SIMPLE groups operate according to five principles put forth by the SIMPLE model for faculty teaching development: Sustained, Incremental change, Mentoring, People driven, and Learning-Environment focused. The focus of the project on which we report was to scale the SIMPLE model to multiple STEM departments at a single institution and to study how the principles of the model were enacted across the different teaching development groups. In this paper, we consider the following research question: How does the nature of SIMPLE groups support the adoption of reflective teaching practices? Through examining this research question, we aim to understand how ongoing teaching development groups can contribute to department-focused change toward evidence-based teaching practices.

2 Literature Review

This project used a variation on professional learning communities. Both in higher education and K–12 contexts, professional learning communities bring together instructors to discuss professional practice (Cox, 2004; Richlin & Cox, 2004). Wenger-Trayner and Wenger-Trayner (2015) define such communities of practice as “groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly” (p. 1). Other researchers describe particular features of such communities: practice, community, and domain (Mercieca, 2017; Wenger, 1999/1998). Wenger (1999/1998) describes this practice as intertwined with community as “collective learning results in practices that reflect both the pursuit of our enterprises and the attendant social relations. These practices are thus the property of a kind of community created over time by the sustained pursuit of a shared enterprise” (p. 45). To achieve this community, membership is voluntary (Gehrke & Kezar, 2019). Also, members develop relationships and trust among the group over time and with ongoing discussion. Finally, professional learning communities have a focused domain of interest that brings participants together in a voluntary way. In a community of practice or a professional learning community, members should have a shared interest in learning about their practice in a specific domain. In our case, we created discipline-based groups focused on developing student-centered teaching approaches.

The concept for social learning about teaching parallels social learning by students (Lattuca et al., 2014; Wenger, 1999/1998). In the higher education context, professional learning communities have been used as a model for instructional change, but research is still emerging (Kezar et al., 2018). Often, they are created for teaching development (e.g., Anderson & Finelli, 2014; Furco & Moely, 2012). Existing research indicates such experiences should be closely tied to the questions about their teaching identified by the instructors (Henderson & Dancy, 2011; Kezar et al., 2018). While learning communities should recognize that faculty may have different motivations for participating and varied interests in teaching (Gehrke & Kezar, 2019), there is also a sense of common purpose related to a shared interest in teaching overall (Mackenzie et al., 2016). Faculty learning communities also help faculty feel less isolated in what they are trying (Terry et al., 2018). Having a safe and supportive environment for peer-to-peer learning is a key component of the learning community in order to support changes in teaching (Furco & Moely, 2012; Kezar et al., 2018; Mackenzie et al., 2016).

3 SIMPLE Model for Discipline-Based Learning Communities

Each faculty learning community was situated within a particular discipline; participating instructors (and occasionally graduate students) were drawn from the same or closely related academic departments. We focused on discipline-based groups because colleagues frequently remarked that available resources for identifying active learning techniques did not lend themselves to STEM fields. STEM instructors wanted an environment to discuss how to implement active learning in STEM and learn from their colleagues’ experiences. In a prior project, we observed that when instructors in a faculty learning community shared the same STEM discipline, the ability to share experiences and make connections allowed them to consider how to translate recommendations for teaching into their specific contexts (Hjalmarson & Nelson, 2014). Discipline- (or department-) based professional development has been shown to have additional advantages, including obtaining administrative support, building community and a sense of belonging within departments, facilitating the development of shared vision, and supporting regular discussion of teaching, curriculum, and assessment within departments (e.g., Laursen et al., 2019 and references therein). In addition, local faculty advocates for reformed teaching have been shown to significantly influence changes in teaching (Laursen et al., 2019).

A Diffusion of Innovations framework (Rogers, 2003) guided the development of the SIMPLE Model and our approach to the implementation of SIMPLE groups. Our goal was to support faculty in developing their teaching and learning about new teaching strategies. The group leaders we identified were often what Rogers (2003) refers to as “opinion leaders” who had expertise in student-centered teaching or were regarded as authorities on teaching by their colleagues. As facilitators who guided group participants through the teaching innovation process, they act as agents of change toward adoption of evidence-based teaching practices. Another important piece of Diffusion of Innovations is the sharing of knowledge among possible early adopters of a teaching strategy. Hence, participation was not mandatory; we encouraged leaders to identify and recruit members. We were seeking people likely to persist even if they encountered barriers to new teaching approaches. Rogers (2003) describes communication behaviors of early adopters as being more well connected with other people, having greater knowledge of the innovation, and having greater connections to change agents (p. 283). We anticipated that they would be people who might have already tried innovative teaching strategies or were highly interested in exploring new teaching strategies. This would create a departmental network of knowledgeable adopters and support for them as they tried new approaches. Indeed, several groups have remained active since inception (up to four years), with participants now leading follow-on efforts to promote teaching change in their departments.

The faculty learning communities studied in this project follow the SIMPLE model for faculty teaching development. The guiding principles of the SIMPLE model, detailed in Table 1 and further discussed in Nelson et al. (2016), are designed to guide the organization and activities of SIMPLE groups while allowing flexibility across contexts, institutions, and departments.

Table 1: Summary of SIMPLE Principles for Faculty Teaching Development
Principle Description
Sustained SIMPLE groups are designed to be ongoing in nature, in operation for at least one academic year if not longer. The ongoing nature of SIMPLE groups facilitates creation of community around teaching and provides the time necessary for participants to identify new strategies, tailor those strategies to their own teaching, implement, and revise those strategies. Groups that remain active over time have strong leadership, provide ongoing value to participants, and require a reasonable level of effort for beneficial participation.
Incremental change SIMPLE groups are designed to encourage participants to make small changes in their teaching. Instructors participating in our preliminary study of ongoing teaching development noted that when they undertook large changes (e.g., flipping a course that had been a traditional lecture), the burden of making the change and addressing any hurdles that arose in implementation greatly reduced its chances of success and sustained use. Hence, SIMPLE group participants engage in teaching change slowly, making small changes that can accumulate to create larger change.
Mentoring SIMPLE groups are designed to provide participants with support and mentoring as they learn about, implement, assess, and revise teaching changes that move them toward active learning. While SIMPLE groups do not include formal instruction, they are facilitated by group leaders who have knowledge of and experience with active learning practices. With input from participants, group leaders identify resources to scaffold SIMPLE group meetings such as books and videos that introduce new teaching practices and structure group discussion.
People-driven SIMPLE groups are designed to support participants in addressing their individual teaching needs. One of the key unique features of the SIMPLE model is that participants are not asked to adopt prescribed teaching strategies. Instead, participants are asked to bring their own teaching challenges and needs to the group and are introduced to a menu of possible strategies through resources and group meeting discussions. Because participants select and implement strategies consistent with their own needs, sustained implementation of the teaching change is more likely.
Learning environment SIMPLE groups are designed to focus on the environment in which students are engaging with STEM content, peers, and instructors. Participants are encouraged to make changes toward interactive teaching and student-centered learning, and the teaching strategies introduced through resources and discussion are selected to support these types of changes.


4 Research Design

In this NSF-funded research project (#1347675), the SIMPLE model was scaled to five STEM departments (Biology, Civil Engineering, Computer Science, Mathematics, and Physics) at a large, public, research-focused institution (Nelson et al., 2016; Nelson & Hjalmarson, 2019). SIMPLE groups were established in each department and remained active for at least two academic years. A leader for each SIMPLE group was recruited by the PI team. Leaders were identified based on their interest in teaching reform and their influence within their department. Most leaders participated in a semester-long training led by the project PIs. (One leader joined after training had taken place, and one group changed leaders after the first year.) Following training, leader meetings (facilitated by the project PIs) were held monthly to provide ongoing support.

As our research goal was to understand the participants’ experience in SIMPLE groups and how they valued participation, we focus on data about that experience and the SIMPLE principles themselves (Patton, 2017). This is consistent with recommendations for the evaluation of learning communities and understanding the value they have for participants before attempting to understand more distal impacts like student learning (Wenger et al., 2011). Data collected as part of the project included participant interviews, recordings of group leader meetings, and participant check-in forms (completed two to three times each academic year). Group leaders and participants were interviewed at the end of each year of the project. Interviews were conducted by members of the project research team, including a graduate research assistant supported by the project, and were typically between 15 and 45 minutes in length. Interview questions explored participants’ motivation for joining the group, how group meetings were structured, what benefits they gained from participation, and what challenges to participation they faced. In this paper, we consider interview data from the end of the first and second years of operation for each of the five SIMPLE groups listed above. 34 individuals were interviewed. Table 2 summarizes the number of interviews per group each year.

Table 2: Interviews per Department Each Year
Department Year 1 Year 2
Biology 2 leaders

5 participants

1 leader

3 participants (2 repeats)

Civil Engineering 1 leader

4 participants

1 leader

2 participants (2 repeats)

Computer Science 1 leader

4 participants

1 leader

4 participants (3 repeats)

Mathematics 1 leader

8 participants

1 leader

2 participants (2 repeats)

Physics 1 leader

4 participants

1 leader (new)

2 participants (1 repeat)

Total 31 18

Note: “Repeats” indicates a participant was also interviewed in Year 1. There was also one new group leader in year 2.

Interviews as primary data source are useful for understanding the participants’ perspectives (Gubrium et al., 2012) in order to understand the principles that guided the group design (Patton, 2017). To address questions of descriptive validity (Maxwell, 2005; Maxwell & Chmiel, 2014), multiple reviewers read the interviews and we discussed our interpretations as we were coding the data to ensure consistency. We used a qualitative content analysis approach to develop codes and describe common themes in participant responses (Schreier, 2014). To begin coding the data for this analysis, we each reviewed prior analyses of the data set and a subset of the interviews. A preliminary coding of the data identified segments where participants discussed aspects connected to the SIMPLE principles using a content-focused approach following existing theory (Schreier, 2014). However, content analysis should also include data-driven codes that emerge through analysis (Schreier, 2014). This analysis based on our existing SIMPLE framework and data-driven codes helped us define a coding frame.

5 Findings

Several themes emerged with respect to how SIMPLE groups supported group members’ development of reflective teaching practices. While some themes aligned with SIMPLE principles, interview analysis also revealed the importance of the discipline-based nature of the groups for supporting reflective teaching practices.

5.1 Discipline-Based and Discipline-Led

A common value of the SIMPLE groups for participants was their discipline-specific nature, i.e., having teaching conversations with other people in the same discipline in a group led by someone in their department. In our coding, two variations emerged about the value of discipline-based groups. The first is that participants discussed teaching strategies in ways that were specific to their discipline (e.g., structuring oral reviews for a calculus course or implementing collaborative coding activities in a programming course). The discipline-based group provided an opportunity for feedback about different ways to incorporate a teaching strategy that accounted for the content, common class structures, or student expectations for the discipline. Group members appreciated that colleagues could share their experiences about using similar strategies in related courses. Having a group leader from their own discipline also encouraged them to participate in the first place and help to create trust in the group.

The second discipline-based variation that was valuable to group members was their shared knowledge, expertise, and understanding. This supported reflection by helping group members focus on their particular teaching dilemmas but also for a shared context for advice/feedback from others. Shared understanding increased the relevance of the discussion for participants by focusing on strategies they were likely to use and on means for implementing them that made sense in the discipline. This allowed a more efficient conversation by eliminating the need to explain content to other group members. The group leaders also supported faculty as they were making by changes by guiding the conversation with requests for updates, sharing of new resources, etc.

5.2 Sustained and Incremental Change

The most common theme identified related to sustained and incremental operation of the SIMPLE groups was group members’ desire to build community around teaching. Several participants noted that their department structure previously had no discussion devoted to teaching. They valued the opportunity to engage in a teaching discussion with their colleagues in a comfortable, supportive environment. As described by one group member, “You can ask what’s going well, what’s not going well, what would you recommend doing, and it’s all of that information sharing to build the community. A support network is what you’re building—that’s what I enjoyed most about it.” The value of discipline-specific groups ties to this theme, as well, since group members saw value in building a department-based community around teaching. This community building takes time and may require a long period before large teaching changes result. Hence, providing a structure for long-term support of teaching development is necessary to promote sustained change.

Tied to sustainability, the incremental principle relates to participants making small changes to their own teaching. We mention the incremental principle here not because participants raised it directly in their interviews, but rather because the comments they made seemed critical to understanding potential value. SIMPLE groups made space for participants to learn about new strategies and try what seemed most appropriate for their own classes. For example, “I think you want to take baby steps … Even though it’s something really cool, it’s not completely transformative, right? But they are doing some cool stuff, and you see how in the course of 4–5 semesters it will add up to something huge, but they’re almost embarrassed about it because they are thinking you’re gonna think it just isn’t that big a deal.” This participant is describing needing a comfortable space for discussion, connecting to the sustained principle, and the idea that small change in teaching can add up over time. The incremental principle values the idea that change takes time. Faculty need opportunities to try things, solicit (and receive) feedback, and try again. Noting the incremental process of change supported by group participation, a group leader remarked, “Many of our discussions involved theory of these things. And now it’s actually incorporating them and moving beyond it. Again, so some people took the first couple of steps in what’s a 20-step process, right? So, now they are going to be teaching the same course or courses over and over and over, so what we need to do is move beyond that into greater complexity.” The groups helped faculty move from learning about new teaching strategies to implementing them more effectively.

5.3 Mentoring

Mentoring in SIMPLE groups can be best described as a combination of guidance from experienced colleagues and collaborative learning. 28 interviews included some mention of mentoring. A particularly valuable aspect of participation was hearing from people from the same discipline with similar challenges in their teaching. Group members felt learning about other people’s experiences helped them avoid pitfalls and work through challenges in new teaching strategies. In many groups, there was an informal dynamic of new faculty being informally mentored within the group by members who were more experienced. As one group leader described the mentoring role, “for several years I think I’ve been incorporating these things into my classes, and so I think my role was to be a cheerleader for people, right? … Some of the things that I’ve incorporated, like everybody else, have failed measurably. But instead of just giving up, it’s really helpful to have people in a room to say, ‘Look, you can expect this. Don’t worry about it.’ That’s very powerful to have someone who’s gone through the experience that had as tough a time as you had, … It’s really terrific advice, so I think it’s a mentorship role is what I see.” The group leader in this way is both learning and providing support to other participants. The powerful experience is in learning from someone in the same discipline.

Mentoring is specifically related to the discipline-based nature of the groups because the participants were receiving feedback from people in their own department who might have more experience with the particular types of courses they were teaching. This is supported by existing research suggesting that instructors learn from trusted and supportive peers in their own discipline (Kastens & Manduca, 2017).

One SIMPLE group participant described the applicability of the discussion as, “So, I feel like what was beneficial about this project was that in meeting with the other people in my department to talk about it, the strategies that were discussed were applicable to my classes versus other things that I’ve been to, strategies that were discussed may or may not apply, and it was not always useful to me.”

5.4 People-Driven

The people-driven principle describes how SIMPLE groups should work from the teaching goals and interests of their members. In 18 interviews, the people-driven nature was mentioned as a valuable aspect of the group. When asked why instructors continued to attend group meetings, a group leader stated in their second-year interview,

First and foremost they have to feel like it’s worthwhile. It has to somehow meet whatever reason they have for coming, most of which is kind of, “Make my teaching easier, more satisfying, and my goal is to be effective. But if it takes my entire—all day and all night every day for seven days a week to be effective, I’m in trouble ’cause I have other responsibilities and I have a life outside of a total work commitment.” So, there have to be some ways of making it that this was productive. And, not someone sort of driving a meeting with an agenda that wasn’t my agenda. So it has to be an organic kind of thing where they feel like, “If I have an issue it’s gonna get taken care of, and if I have something useful to contribute it’s gonna be heard and taken up so that my time is not, you know, it’s not a waste of my time.”

Group leaders played a role by structuring the discussion to encourage everyone to share and creating an open space. For instance, one participant said her group leader opened meetings with the questions, “Hey … Does anybody have anything that they need people to help them with? Or did anybody do something that was really amazing?” Participants appreciated meetings that included time for them to bring their own dilemmas and challenges up for discussion, possibly balanced with reading or discussion of other department issues. As a counterpoint, some participants who became less engaged in SIMPLE groups over time spoke to those groups having specific agendas or interests that were not their own.

6 Discussion and Implications

Interviews of SIMPLE group leaders and participants indicate that SIMPLE groups supported instructors in trying new teaching strategies, reflecting on the strategies they were adopting, and finding a community of instructors with a similar interest in transforming teaching. The SIMPLE principles created a structure that allowed flexibility to meet instructors’ varying needs and was supportive of change over time. Recruiting group leaders from the discipline helped participants connect easily to pedagogical conversation. An important take-away from this work is that change in teaching practice takes time and that faculty need ongoing support for sustained change. Connections made through SIMPLE groups have continued indefinitely, sometimes through formal groups but often through informal conversations and teaching discussions. Instructors who participated in SIMPLE groups have begun to lead department-focused change efforts via, e.g., follow-on funded efforts or administrative roles. Ongoing questions that need further exploration include how the value of SIMPLE groups to participants can be sustained over multiple years and how the existence of an active group may impact departments over the long term. Further investigation is also needed to understand how to support and develop group leaders and facilitators over time as participants’ needs evolve.

7 Acknowledgements

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 1347675 (DUE) and while Margret Hjalmarson was serving at the National Science Foundation. Any opinion, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

8 About the Authors

Jill Nelson is an Associate Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at George Mason University.

Margret Hjalmarson is a Professor in the School of Education at George Mason University.

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