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Building faculty buy-in: Lessons learned and some useful rules

Posted in Course Redesign, First-year Learning Initiative, Higher Education, and Trends and Change

If you are going to have an impact on teaching and learning beyond your own classes and your own students, you need to have the support of fellow faculty. If you’re on the administrative side, this is even more true: You can push an agenda through for a while, but without buy-in, any changes you make will evaporate the moment you turn your back.

And we all know that profound change is happening. Faculty roles are being fundamentally redefined, not just along the lines of tenured/non-tenured or full-time/part-time, but also in terms of the basic  responsibilities associated with teaching a course.

Courses are no longer just a patchwork of different people’s takes on some broadly defined topic within a discipline, but are evolving into something that looks more like a set of shared objectives that faculty are expected to tackle as a team. And ideally at least, instructors no longer define themselves as dispensers of content, but rather as orchestrators of learning environments.

This is a big change, and one that provokes the kind of pushback that we see all the time in our institutions. When it comes to this pushback, in a sense, the details of our change agenda don’t even matter. We could be talking about course redesign, or blended learning, or diversifying the kinds of students we teach – the sources of friction are probably similar. So how do we start smoothing out those areas of friction so that we can make meaningful progress?

I estimate that I’ve worked with around 100 faculty across almost every discipline you’ll find on a college campus, so I’ve had many opportunities to reflect on what works and what doesn’t. Many of these experiences have come through my work on the First Year Learning Initiative, which uses a peer-to-peer, community organizing approach to rethinking the pedagogy of foundational courses. Other work crosses institutions, through things like course redesign workshops. Both sorts of work push faculty – and sometimes their administrators – into uncomfortable new territory, where disagreements escalate into conflict shockingly fast.

It’s a truism that in order to reach someone who disagrees with you, you need to first show that you actually do understand where they are coming from.  So Rule #1 is to respect the reasons behind resistance. Forget the idea that faculty resistance to change is just mindless traditionalism or an unwillingness to stay up to date; instead, assume that it stems from important concerns, and that it is on you to figure out what those concerns are.

You’ll probably find that their top shared concern is an idealistic one: Faculty want their students to learn, and they want their students to thrive – in the rest of college, in careers, in life. So anything that remotely resembles giving students something less, or that might set them up to fail later on down the road, is an instant turn-off. You can’t blame faculty for that.

Faculty have also seen fads come and go, and they know that there is  ceaseless pressure to ask just a little less of students, to get them through just a little faster, until students leave with an education that is dangerously diminished. They’ve also heard the public comments about how professors make big bucks for working a couple of hours every week, with no supervision and few expectations, all interspersed with those fabled “summers off.”

Worse, we’ve seen things like online and competency-based programs marketed rather artlessly as an education students can acquire in odd bits of time in between more interesting and important things – work, socializing, watching TV in their pajamas. It’s bruising, so perhaps we can give faculty a break when they aren’t thrilled to hear about the next great thing we’re trying to sell them.

Rule #2 is to start with the discipline. Remember that faculty have devoted their professional lives – which means devoting most of their lives, period – to serving their students and their academic disciplines. Especially if you’re working across disciplinary boundaries, or don’t come from a background in the academic disciplines, you have to establish that you value that discipline and have no intention of diluting it.

This is not the same as trying to pretend that you are an expert, or that only people from the same discipline can help one another on course design. It’s actually more powerful to pose questions as an outsider, provided it’s done in the right way. In the First Year Learning Initiative, we’ve found this line of questions works really well: “What do people not know about [your discipline]? What do they assume is true about [ ], and what do you really wish they knew instead?” Whether the discipline is chemistry or religion, engineering or theater, scholars of a discipline are keenly aware of what non-experts think of it and how wrong these conceptions are.

The answers they give then funnel nicely into the next query: what they most want students to get out of the course. Framed in this context, faculty rarely cite learning a set of facts as the top goal, rather, they talk about acquiring the habits of mind and essential thinking skills at the core of the discipline. Joan Middendorf and David Pace’s Decoding the Disciplines is an essential resource for how to get to the bottom of teaching challenges by tapping into disciplinary expertise.

Rule #3 is to foreground student effort as the basis for success. I hold a firm philosophical stance that although powerful pedagogy, innovative techniques and great course design certainly help students learn, none of those things are there to create effortless learning. Producing better return on effort, and eliminating fruitless effort, are both great goals, but successful learning still starts and ends with the work students put into it.

We all know this, yet redesign conversations often seem to have undertones that if you only taught better, and worked harder at it, students would succeed. Especially for faculty teaching in the overloaded, pressure-cooker atmosphere that is sadly typical of academia today, this is a profoundly demoralizing message.

The redesign pioneers National Center for Academic Transformation have pushed this principle for a long time, and it continues to resonate. I still remember sitting in one of their conferences in 2005 as a junior instructor, when NCAT vice president Carolyn Jarmon whipped off her glasses and said “Look, most of the time? It’s not faculty who need to be working harder. It’s students who need to be working harder.”

Just having that acknowledged both made me feel better about what I was being asked to do, and made me feel a lot less overwhelmed about trying to do it. I see the same thing in the faculty I work with. Once you make it clear that you aren’t asking people to compromise content, you aren’t blaming them for students’ lack of achievement, and that you aren’t asking them to double their workload, they almost physically relax. And in that relaxed state, people are receptive and ready to try something new.

Done in the right way, foregrounding student effort isn’t a way to reduce faculty defensiveness by letting teachers off the hook for lousy work. Instead, it should resonate deeply with closely held professional values. Academics have made it through a stringently competitive system to get where they are, and they know the level of work and persistence required to succeed. Being willing to grapple with big, difficult ideas, and hanging in for the time it takes to do so successfully, is what we are all about. When this fact is acknowledged and respected, people get on board.


Despite rumblings about universities’ becoming more corporation-like, top-down mandates are still the worst way to make meaningful change within an institution (and, aren’t even effective in most corporate environments either). Those leaders who can build authentic excitement and motivation for change are going to thrive, and those who can’t, won’t.

Next up: Why student effort is so important, and what we can do about it.

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