“How do you affect a culture change within your institution to engage your students differently?” A Wicked Problem from Dr. Butch Herod


For attendees and facilitators please reference the original agenda below.

Reflecting on feedback we’ve received from the group, we are trying a more results-orientated approach to our meetings:

How might we support you and leverage our community to help you overcome the challenges you are facing on your campuses?

With that in mind, we have launched a new Problems of Practice digital community format: a client/consultation framework to workshop our Community of Practice's burning questions. In this first scenario, Dr. Butch Herod, Director of the West Houston Institute at Houston Community College, graciously agreed to be our first “client” while others on the call acted as the experts working through his question. A review of the four-step process:

1. "Client" presents challenge

2. "Consultants" ask clarifying questions of client

3. "Consultants" workshop a solution

4. "Client" reflects on solution


our client

Dr. Butch Herod, Director of the West Houston Institute, Houston Community College

Butch: The question is a question that I know we’re struggling with here at HCC and one, based on the conversations at IU, others have addressed or are struggling to address: How do you effect a culture change within an institution, essentially propel change so that we can engage our students? How do you go about doing that? All of us institutions struggle with these kind of challenges.

My background (or my pedigree) is coming from faculty, but as you know, we have some faculty that really don’t want to change anything that they’re doing. Others don’t necessarily see it as essential that we change everything that we’ve done that’s been, for all practical purposes, a practice that we’ve used for hundreds of years. So, how do we reach students differently? How do we engage them differently? What are the processes and techniques? How does technology play in that process? How much does the furniture play? How much do active learning pedagogies play? That's the genesis of the question.


Question #1

Ed Gomes (Duke): Butch, do you see this as just purely being a faculty or an administrative concern? We just did a series of workshops with the Sony folks on campus where faculty were engaged in that discussion and part of the feedback that they provided, and that some of our instructional design folks also gave anecdotal evidence around, is that students aren’t necessarily all that enthusiastic about active learning as a pedagogy and that certainly can have an impact on how faculty want to engage in active learning. Is that something that you’ve heard, as well?

Butch: I think if we reframe that differently it may be that it’s not specific techniques that they’re objecting to that we have labeled or categorized as active learning. It may just not be an effective way to engage them. So, in other words, you could use a group discussion technique and say, “I’m doing active learning,” and actually have no effect. It could bore the students. It could be conducted improperly. It could turn into groupthink, or worse still, it could turn into one person taking the lead and doing all the work. So, all of those techniques have to be managed and used effectively as techniques. I think because we focus so much on active learning it’s really about engagement. How are you first engaging your students, and how are you helping them in the learning process? I mean, that’s the heart of it. It’s not “we use Technique A or Technique B.” I think the techniques are part of the armamentarium of what we do, but I don’t know that, if we label something active learning, and then they say, “Well, students don’t want to do it"...I don’t know of a student that doesn’t want to be engaged in the classroom, unless they just don’t want to be there, period, in which case you’re lost. Every person I know, when they enter a classroom, they want to be challenged and engaged and intrigued by the coursework. So, how are we doing? What’s the best way to do that? How do we help?

Question #2

Brian Beatty (SFSU): One question I would ask is whether or not we feel like the institution has areas where this culture’s already part of it—in other words, faculty who are already comfortable engaging students and have a pretty successful approach to that—or whether we’re looking at a complete deficit model, where it just doesn’t exist. And related to that, I think a comment about the students—I think I would ask a question, also, as to whether or not you think it’s realistic to assume all students want to be engaged, when engagement typically means effort. I mean, it’s a basic operating assumption, I think, that we would want to confirm or challenge before going too deeply into designing some solutions. I didn’t include the potential for students who don’t want to be engaged. And how do we change that culture, as well?

Butch: Yeah, that’s an excellent point. If I could respond to that just quickly, I agree with you, and we have plenty of those kinds of students, and so I do think we need to address that as part of the issue. That’s a great point, and culturally, institutionally, I think it varies from institution to institution. I think most institutions have some level of engagement and practice active learning practices. We have a fairly large center for teaching and learning excellence, but again, we’ve got quite a few faculty in our ranks. We have over a thousand full-time and probably about 3,000 adjunct faculty.

Workshopping a solution

Why is this challenge important to an institution’s active learning initiative? Do you have an example?

Kiho Kim (American): I think one perspective that I had is, in order to change culture, it has to come from both of the sides—the administrative side and also the faculty side, and there’s a student component there as well, but I think the bottom lines are with the faculty and the administration. From the administration’s perspective, the SETs, student evaluations of teaching, are really important, and they’re trying to push faculty to do the kinds of things that improve SETs. But ultimately, they don’t look much beyond the SETs. So from the faculty side, whatever’s working for them in terms of the SETs, that is what they will stick with. And in many cases, they're unwilling to innovate because they don’t want to take the chance of something going awry. At AU, we’ve taken some steps towards fixing that by offering faculty a course-release for a semester—a release from being evaluated based on SETs only, if they want to try something innovative. So they can apply to have a pass on a particular class in a particular semester, so that they can try different things without potentially being penalized. There has to be some sort of give-and-take on either end. I think ultimately, the students will go wherever the faculty is pushing them, if the faculty is dynamic and involved.

Brian: You know, one thing that I’ll contribute is that I think the assessment nature of that response can’t be under-appreciated. We know that a lot of people are motivated by how they’re going to be assessed, especially when that’s a big part of their world. And so, if we want to see different emphases in the pedagogy, then that has to be rewarded in some way in the assessment structure. I think the things we’re looking for certainly ought to be part of that, something to help attract change, as opposed to work against change.

"Why is this challenge important? Why do we even need to address this question? Why is it important to having a successful active learning initiative?"

Kiho: I guess the answer is that the evidence for the efficacy of active learning, in terms of student outcomes, is pretty strong and pretty compelling. So the question is, “Why aren’t faculty taking this up more frequently and more deeply?”

What is the broader context that we’re working in?

Kiho: For AU, which is a private institution, we’re also very tuition-dependent, and so we have to make efforts to make AU an attractive place for students. So even before thinking about retention, we have to think about recruitment. Defining AU as a strong, research-led, student-centered, student-focused institution, in terms of classroom activities, has also been an important part of our profile moving forward.

Ed: Yeah, Duke is very similar, in terms of that focus. One of the pieces of feedback that we heard is that that Ivy League students want to be able to get the good grade, because this is a stepping stone to a graduate program, whether it’s premed, or other business school/law school/etc. So, the idea that they know that they can just get the information and then turn it around to get the good grade is something that they’re highly interested in. But Duke is also like AU pushing for the research component, and the things that force you to think (the critical thinking) is important. I think active learning helps with that process of getting students to understand how to be critical thinkers and not just someone who can take the information and then just spit it back out and get the grade. So, I think that broader context is important and we want to make the effort to indicate why active learning is useful. As someone else said, the evidence is fairly clear so how can we get that to be part of what we do? I also think the issue of assessment being part of the appointment, promotion, and tenure process is interesting, but I don’t know how that works across all the academic institutions - whether those annual assessments are a significant factor in appointment, promotion, and tenure. I’d be interested to know how important that is from one school to the next.

What might success look like?

Brian: Let me jump in. At our university, it depends on where the faculty are located, as far as their college, their department especially, and their role in the university. Our adjunct faculty are much more vulnerable to the process. In some departments with especially large numbers of lecturers, that SET score, for us, is one of the key determinants of whether or not they’re rehired. But a tenured faculty member, especially a full professor—a lot of times, those scores are much more for their own improvement so they may not care about the score if they find something new. They want the comments. They want to know how students are responding to that. So, for us, it really depends on their specific faculty role.

Kim Pulford Westemeier (American): I’d say, if we’re only talking about SETs, or student evaluations of teaching, then they’d probably be really high. To me, though, I think success would be that students are really excited to go to class every day and it’s just this culture of learning that’s all of a sudden become a part of just their everyday. So it’s going, being ready to discuss and excited about what they’re learning.

Candy Fleming (Montclair State): I’m just wondering how we would then translate that into improved life or career outcomes.

"How can we somehow relate the students’ excitement about learning, which would be related to higher engagement—how can we somehow get to a measurement of it’s actually improved their actual outcomes, their learning/career/life outcomes?" - Candy Fleming, Montclair State University

Ed: I think that comes into—what are you doing with your alumni, and how actively are you connected with those alumni, gathering information and surveying them on a regular basis? That’s one of the things that some of our programs are trying to do more, reaching out to the alums of their specific programs and get feedback, “Where are you now? What are you doing? What was your experience like at Duke? How has that supported your success moving forward in your career?” That assessment component is not just what happens when you’re on campus taking the courses, but what happens after you leave. I don’t know if all the academic institutions have the ability to do that as effectively as someplace like Duke, which is kind of a machine, when it comes to our alumni association and the fundraising that goes along with that, etc.

Any other thoughts on how we might measure that?

Katie Kassof (American): I think, on a more granular level, we need to look at what the activities are actually doing. Are they causing the students to have more critical thinking? Are they causing them to have to work in teams and learn how to deal with personalities? And boil down less about what the activity is, what they’re learning about in that particular class, and more what are the life skills that those activities are promoting. And then, when you go and look at how the alumni are doing, you have some things, some areas that you can measure.

Butch: Can I just second that for a minute? Because I absolutely agree with that. Part of it is, you know if you’ve got them [students] working collaboratively and you’re witnessing the things that they’re doing in a classroom context. Even with assignments that may be turned in and that are worked in as groups, that’s some measure of an acquisition of a skill set which we then hope and would think is transferable to life settings - such as employment or whatever they do subsequently to their education. I just wanted to second that, because it is difficult to measure these things and quantify what that looks like in terms of a skillset subsequent to employment. To me, it’s measuring it in the classroom and then doing what she [Katie] suggested, which was perhaps then asking questions around those kinds of things through the alumni associations and elsewhere.

What would be resources needed to actually accomplish some of this, both from an implementation as well as evaluation standpoint?

Emily Isaacs, Montclair State: I think that most schools have pretty robust assessment systems for their courses, and we can kind of compare and contrast assessment systems, how students are learning, and specific learning outcome goals in a class which has deployed active learning methodologies and those that haven’t. So, I think of it as being systematic and charting your progress for improvement and achievement in existing, approved student learning outcomes. That, to me, is the base, before you get to the rest of that, which is important, very, very important, but is maybe later down the road.

"From our perspective, one of the things we have to be paying attention to is the ability to scale engaged learning or active learning to larger class sizes." - Brian Beatty, SFSU

Brian: Let me add to that. From our perspective, one of the things we have to be paying attention to is the ability to scale engaged learning or active learning to larger class sizes. Our class sizes are already pretty large, and they’re not going to get smaller, in general. We need to be more efficient at being able to do this. Every active learning class is limited to the 20 or 25 students that can be managed with some specific existing pedagogy. Well, how do we make that work with 49 or 50 students? And I think that technology solutions are certainly one of the ways that we can help scale those effective practices.

Kiho: I would also like to add, in terms of resources, to actually do institution-wide data collecting in regards to how well some of these strategies are working. Individual classes do that, but that data is scattered across the campus, and not really collected in any fashion where one can go in and look at the complexity of factors something contributes to student learning outcomes, including active learning. Do that institutional research. I think resources need to be allocated to be able to do that, so that you can have a better sense of the effectiveness of these strategies.

reflection + final insights


  • If you’re going to affect a culture change, it has to be both admin and faculty.
  • There can’t be a penalty for faculty who try to do innovative things.
  • There is resistance, in some cases, to some of what we title active learning pedagogies, so it’s interesting to me that it’s across institutions in some manifestation. I’d heard that before but there was reinforcement of that.
  • We don’t have the tenure process issue that others do but it’s still worthy to note.
  • We do have faculty that have been here for a considerable number of years, in some cases 40 years, so that was part of the genesis of the question. We respect our faculty. We don’t just say, “Well, you need to change what you’re doing.” That’s not the way it works.
  • What the faculty does in their classroom is sacrosanct, just like it is other places, so it is about affecting a change of culture. The whole discussion is interesting to me, just that all of us have different aspects of the problem that we’re looking at.
  • I also find it interesting that we know active learning is important, but yet this degree of resistance to it and the difficulty in achieving it.
  • I hadn’t thought about the scalability issue, because we want to scale what we do, but by the same token, we don’t have class sizes in excess of 32. There may be a 35 in there somewhere, but we have comparatively smaller class sizes, so that’s less of an issue.
  • But scaling a technique is a challenge because, even if we set up perfect conditions in one classroom, how much of that can you replicate across 23 campus sites across this city with varying degrees of technology and infrastructure and age of buildings and furniture? We’re constantly redoing it, but it is an issue, in terms of scalability.

...And BUTCH'S final question

Is there any sense of urgency from these institutions around trying to engage in active learning pedagogies or doing something differently to engage our students differently, given the challenges we have around everything from enrollments to costs to you-name-it, and keeping students?

Brian@SFSU: One of the things we’re working on here is launching a much more substantial faculty development center with a lot of our instructional designers deeply involved in technology integration. It’s kind of the same team that’s been working on active learning. One of their initiatives this year is bringing on a first-year experience program for the university. Almost unbelievably, we’ve never had something like that. So, as an effort to increase our retention of first-year into second-year students, we’re going to be rolling that out. All the courses are specially-designed courses that specifically take a look at the engaged pedagogy being used in those classes and whether or not it’s an active learning classroom, so that’s kind of embedded. But I think one of the things I’m going to do is talk with the people leading that to see where they stand on how much that’s going to be surfaced as “This is a real issue that we want to specifically work with faculty on,” who have to be approved to teach these classes, much like they have to be approved for a GE course.

I think that there’s a lot of stress on student success, whether it’s defined as student outcomes or retention. But there’s some tension at my school, and really at all schools, as to what are the impediments to student success. Are they impediments that exist within the classroom, i.e. a faculty—a teaching problem or learning problem? Or are they factors primarily associated with outside the classroom, so whether they’re financial or engagement or extracurricular? Obviously, they’re a mix of those things, so in the competition for priorities, trying to figure out which of those strategies is best to move the needle on retention or career success, etc. is just really, “Where can we get a win at an institution? What’s the best way to move the needle?” There’s some variability in trying to figure that out. On some level, what’s happened to change in the classroom is really challenging in a faculty. Most of us live in environments where faculty have a lot of autonomy, which doesn’t mean they’re not very interested in teaching, but in some ways it’s easier to do stuff on the staff side. So sometimes I think changing what’s happening in the classroom is the hardest pragmatically. I think that plays into whether or not an institution’s going to invest heavily in professional development. The other piece is just whether or not there’s enough data, or there’s a strategy for improving results for any of these efforts of active learning or any other kind of initiative. That’s a lot.

Andrew Fauce@Dartmouth: Dartmouth is really opt-in—it would be unheard-of to impose an active learning program, per se. We do have, or have had, rather, a gateway course initiative. That initiative is really focused on helping students succeed in the preliminary courses, particularly in the sciences, that allow them to go on to their declared major. So for us, there was a need to change the curriculum to support more student success. The faculty that were involved were invested in that change, because they wanted more students in their major, and those things fit together rather nicely, but none of this was imposed. This was identified as an objective within each discipline.

Ed@Duke: Duke’s very similar. We’ve sort of moved into this active learning as a pedagogy fairly heavily. We’re in a constant state of looking in our classrooms, and the general design criterion is that every space, as much as possible, can support active learning. So I think institutionally, at least at the undergraduate level and some of the graduate programs and other professional schools, the active learning pedagogy is something that everybody feels very strongly they should be able to support. Space design is leading us in that direction, so I think we feel pretty good about that. I also think we have to worry about trying to stay in step with where our other priorities are. As a Research 1 institution, we’re always very interested in making sure that we’re bringing in faculty who are able to bring in research dollars. Right now, we have a planned priority around the sciences and bringing in some of those research faculty who are able to engage very heavily on the research side but then also want to make sure that they’re just as actively engaged in the instruction. So building space that can support their teaching in an active learning pedagogy but that also provides them the opportunity to have excellent research facilities. There’s competition for dollars. There’s also competition for space and I think if you can get the culture leading in a direction where everybody agrees that active learning is just the way we should be doing it and have the space designed for it. And if you want to just lecture, that’s fine, but you have facilities that are able to go in that direction, should you choose to go that way. That way, faculty autonomy is not squashed and they don’t feel like [active learning] is being thrust upon them.

PARKED: Questions we still have

  • Active learning in large classes - very important.
  • Methods for doable comparative assessment of classes and ways to measure progress to see if these efforts really are worthwhile and impactful. (ex: a/b testing)
  • Partnering with others solving for was the large classroom active pedagogy options: particularly electrical and computer engineering, enrollments that are 50 to 70 students, with the support of some technology but also TAs.
  • Determining how many TA's are required for certain techniques you’re using in the classroom in order to implement.
  • Understanding what kind of support the institutions provide to faculty members to evolve their pedagogical techniques, for example, to move towards active learning, to move towards more online technology where that’s applicable, etc. So, what is provided? And in addition, to what degree is it mandated, or to what degree is it provided as an option for the faculty members? How do you approach that continual development of faculty with their teaching and learning practices?
Special thanks to Dr. Butch Herod for today's WICKED PROBLEM.

Our next problems of practice will meet october 19, 2018 @ 12pm est. details will follow via email.

Questions or comments? Please reach out to Grace at grace@entangledstudios.org or Patrice at patrice@entangledstudios.org.


Created with images by Mockaroon Account - "Yellow Brick Texture" • Daniel von Appen - "untitled image" • Jon Tyson - "untitled image" • Michael D Beckwith - "untitled image"

Report Abuse

If you feel that this video content violates the Adobe Terms of Use, you may report this content by filling out this quick form.

To report a Copyright Violation, please follow Section 17 in the Terms of Use.