Developing or revising curriculum or student learning assessment plan can be energizing, community-building, and transformative for an academic program. But it can also become exhausting, frustrating, and fracturing. Situational factors may impact the motivation, capacity, or readiness of participants to undertake the work. Cultural factors may impact the perceived value of the work and the ways in which the work is accomplished. Successful curriculum and learning assessment efforts incorporate awareness of situational and cultural factors, focus on achievable goals, and implement best practices from change management, participatory design, and assessment.
Before beginning a curriculum or assessment change effort, the CAT recommends that program leaders first spend time evaluating their landscape in order to prepare their programs for success and map out a process that will align with their specific needs and goals. Based upon literature on change in higher education that focuses on departments as units of change, as well as observations of successful curricular and assessment change efforts, there are four principles for success that emerge:
- shared motivation: the members of the program recognize the need, value, and urgency of the project.
- active leadership and structures: program leaders are actively involved. Structures, such as co-chairs, committees, and scheduled updates, support the work.
- participatory and inclusive processes: the work is done in a way that is collaborative; includes diverse perspectives; values all voices; is transparent; and iterative.
- manageable goals and timelines: the scope of work is aligned to the time available. Overlapping priorities and other situational factors are incorporated into planning.
Approaches and Examples of Change in Academic Departments
The accordions below highlight some theoretical approaches and practical examples of pursusing change in academic departments. Recommended readings and a reflective checklist based upon the principles described above are available at the bottom of this page.
The culture of a department or program, and the institutional context it resides in, is critical for substanitive and sustainable changes to curriculum and learning assessment. Bolman and Deal (2013) propose four complementary frames for an organization, which can be applied to a department or program: structural; human resources (i.e. people); political (i.e. power); and symbolic. In this context, culture emerges from historical and evolving interactions between structures and symbols in a program and the power relationships between people in the program. Before you begin a change process, reflect on how these four elements exist in your department or program and how they may positively or negatively impact your efforts. A nice review of these frames and their application in higher education can be found in Reinholz and Apkarian, International J. of STEM Ed.(2018) 5:3.
Structures: instutitional policies, organizational charts, strategic plans as well as roles, responsibilities, practices, routines, and incentives within the program that organize how people interact. In an academic program in the context of curriculum and assessment, this could include the chair and associate chairs, committees assigned to curriculum or assessment, the patterns and content of committee and department meetings, and policies and expectations that indicate what the program values.
Symbols: organizational traditions, institutional memory, “the way we do things around here” mindsets as well as the artifacts, language, myths, values, and vision that members of the department or program use to guide their reasoning. Reinhold and Apkarian use symbols to indicate the ways of thinking that give meaning to the structures in a department or program. As an example, a department meeting is a structure but its meaning is variable with some meetings serving as opportunties for shared deliberation while others serve as information dissemination settings.
Power: called the political frame by Bolman and Deal, this includes alliances, coalitions and conflicts within an organization. The focus is on how interactions between individuals in a department or program are mediated by status, position, and/or identity. Academic programs that want successful curriculum or assesment change efforts need to ensure that members from all ranks, coalitions, and identities are meaningfully involved throughout the process and that those holding power support, or do not hinder, the work.
People: called the human resources frame by Bolman and Deal, this frame focuses on the individuals that make up an organization. Each person in a department or program has a unique perspective and experience based upon the intersection of their agency, motivations, needs, goals, and identities. Successful curriculum and assessment revision efforts work to develop common ground and a shared vision that accounts for, values, and incorporates these distinct individual perspectives and goals.
When undertaking any change effort, it is important to reflect on how the change may be viewed by all involved parties and work to frame the change in a positive light. When change is viewed as a replacement or a substitution, such as A –> B, then fear of loss or replacement can hinder the work. With a continual view of change, such as A –> A’, the core nature of A is not lost and instead, A is in a constant state of evolution and growth. In addition to the Four Frames described above, two alternative models can also be used to promote a positive approach to change in academic settings.
De Bono’s Six Thinking Hats: this approach is premised on the concept that people use six different thinking hats to adopt distinct perspectives toward a situation. The white hat focuses on objectivity, identifying facts and evaluating data. The red hat focuses on emotion, considering gut reactions and feelings. The black hat brings a negative view, asking what could go wrong and what problems might arise. The yellow hat brings a positive view, asking what could work out well and what benefits might arise. The green hat emphasizes creativity, encouraging consideration of all scenarios and identifying unnecessary assumptions. The blue hat brings a holistic, inclusive perspective that looks for overall patterns and brings all the other perspectives together.
Ten Analytical Lenses: this approach, which builds off of and updates the thinking hats model, brings multiple perspectives into focus so that the full complexity of a proposed change is understood. The 20/20 lens focuses on objectivity and clarity and eliminating subjectivity or prejudice. The concave lens focuses on seeing the full picture and not getting caught in details. The convex lens focuses on details and the steps and costs associated with them. The telephoto lens encourages looking into the future and with the end goal in mind. The bifocal lens helps draw attention to all current conditions, people, and structures. Rose-colored glasses focus on potential benefits from a change while sunglasses focus on considering what could go wrong. The rearview mirror helps center history, mission, and goals. Contact lenses focus on the perspective of those likely affected by a change. Lastly, the wide-angle lens draws all the insights from the previous lenses into one view before reaching conclusions.
Departmental Action Teams (DATs) are a model for change in which a small, diverse, temporary group is charged with creating and implementing a plan for sustainable change on a broad-scale issue in a single department. They were developed by STEM education researchers at the University of Colorado as part of an effort to understand how to promote and sustain change in instructional practices within academic programs.
DATs integrate best practices from change management with the faculty learning community model used in educational development to create a structure and process to guide academic change efforts. Once a team is created, they create a shared vision and goals. Then using data as a guide, the team creates and implements a plan. They assess the results and then communicate the findings with the rest of the group. More information about DATs can be found in the resources cited at the bottom of the page.
Shared Motivation: This story involves a small, established department (n≈10 permanent faculty). The academic degree programs were not accredited by a discipline-specific body, but the department aligned their courses to disciplinary recommendations. Faculty within the department exhibited “positive restlessness” and a strong desire to advance teaching and learning in their programs. Subsets of faculty had identified distinct aspects of their program that they wanted to improve. Some faculty wanted to bring new instructional strategies to the teaching of the introductory course; a committee wanted to redefine and add value to the B.A. degree; the department chair wanted to leave a significant impact on the program. Collectively, the entire department was also considering the merits of seeking external discipline-specific accreditation for their program.
Active Leadership and Structure: The department chair took an active role in leading this curriculum and assessment revision effort. This active leadership included identification of institutional partners who could support and offer guidance, careful composition of department committees, communication to signal the importance of the effort, and deliberate planning of the stages of the work to ensure participation, transparency, and consensus. The department also created an associate chair position that would focus on curriculum and assessment, ensuring that this work would remain elevated within department systems and practices. Importantly, the associate chair vacancy was filled by a well-respected, tenured faculty member who was well-positioned to work with both senior and junior-level department members. Structurally, the associate chair served on the curriculum committee, helping to promote continuity and transparency. The curriculum committee, composed of two senior faculty members, two junior faculty members, and the associate chair, scheduled regular bi-monthly meetings to consistently and continuously work on the project. Updates regarding the work were shared during departmental meetings. The incremental progress by the curriculum committee was accelerated by four whole-department, day-long retreats held at the beginning and end of the academic year over the course of four semesters. In addition to the opportunity to make significant progress on the revision efforts, these retreats communicated the value of the work, created shared ownership, and enabled transparency, all of which helped build a positive culture around teaching, learning, and assessment, and increased the likelihood of success of the effort.
Participatory and Inclusive Processes: Throughout the entire curriculum and assessment revision project, the department prioritized ensuring that all members were able to contribute to the work and that all perspectives were heard and considered. The first step was holding a department-wide retreat focused on creating a common understanding of curriculum development and assessment — including how they intersected with each other and the many articulated goals of the faculty; sharing hopes and addressing concerns about pursuing a revision path; discussing the costs and benefits associated with revision efforts; and achieving a shared understanding of the proposed process for this work. Designing the retreat in an inclusive, participatory way was essential to achieving these goals. Key design elements included opportunities for both written and verbal contributions; individual, small-group, and whole group brainstorming and discussion; intentional group composition to promote diversity, equity, and encourage all to feel comfortable; and the collection of artifacts in order to capture all ideas for future reflection and iteration. There were no formal votes during the retreat in order to keep the stakes low and allow for a greater focus on listening before any decisions were made.
With a consensus to pursue curriculum and assessment revision achieved, the program used a second full-day retreat to launch the work. All department members were able to contribute to identifying expectations, aligning expectations to outcomes, and drafting performance indicators. Strategies that anonymized ideas, iterated on initial brainstorming, and resulted in collaboratively drafted products ensured that both the process and products from the retreat were inclusive and representative. Artifacts were digitized and saved on a shared Google team drive. The materials generated at the retreat became the starting point for work by the curriculum committee to iterate and draft student learning outcomes and sub-outcomes that operationalized the programs goals for student learning. The committee prepared working drafts to share with the department for feedback and revision before using them for the next step of work. This process of whole-group collaboration, sub-group iteration and revision, then sharing for feedback was repeated throughout the work. In some cases, whole-group contributions came in the form of in-person retreats while in other cases, physical and digital platforms were created to allow asynchronous contributions. The result was a fully transparent and inclusive process in which all faculty had both agency and ownership of the resulting work.
Manageable Goals and Timeline: The central goal of the curriculum and assessment revision was to determine whether to pursue external disciplinary accreditation. This goal was chunked into small steps: determine if accreditation requirements would align with program goals for teaching and learning; discover the curricular changes that would be necessary; develop an assessment plan; evaluate the opportunities and costs of implementing the changes; and make a formal decision. Organizing and communicating the work around these discrete steps helped to focus the work and to maintain momentum since progress could be seen.
The department established an ambitious timeline of having a fully developed draft of a revised curriculum in one-year. In the midst of this work, the department hired three new junior faculty members. While they managed to accommodate the demands of the searches with the curriculum and assessment revision work, this situation can reduce the capacity of departments to do the revision work. In the end, the goal was met in 15 months rather than 12, but the delay was intentional as the program chose to pause a stage of the work in order to ensure that the newly hired faculty could participate.
Shared Motivation: This story involves a large, established department (n≈30 permanent faculty). Faculty within the department have been committed to and consistently engaging in program level student learning assessment for nearly a decade. In recent years, the program had sought to revise the learning outcomes and the assessment plan but had struggled to make meaningful or lasting progress. Teaching and learning were valued in the department, creating a positive cultural environment for revision work. The results of a decennial academic program review provided an opportunity for the program to re-engage with desired revisions. The review revealed that a majority of the faculty wanted to revise aspects of the academic program, including the introductory courses, underrepresented disciplinary areas in the curriculum, and the alignment of the curriculum and assessment plan with disciplinary standards. Feedback from external and internal reviewers provided suggestions and leverage to initiate the work. Collectively, there was a shared recognition that curriculum and assessment revision could address their goals and a willingness by both newer and experienced faculty to engage in the work.
Active Leadership and Structure: The leadership and active engagement of the department chair in all phases of the work was a significant component in the success of this revision effort. While actively involved in all aspects of this work, the Chair’s deep and deliberate planning to fully map out each stage of the work; anticipation of questions and identification of potential solutions; careful listening and consulting with colleagues; and consistent communication of the progress and status of the work, were particularly important. The department also had an organizational framework to support this curriculum and assessment change in the form of two pre-existing committees whose charges aligned with this work. These committees, filled with both junior and senior faculty members with relevant curriculum and assessment experience, meet twice a month, increasing the overall capacity of the department to conduct and complete this work. The meetings were well-organized with detailed agendas and draft documents shared ahead of time, leading to productive outcomes and continuous progress on the curriculum and assessment revision efforts. Updates regarding the work were shared during monthly department meetings. The incremental progress by the committees was accelerated by whole-department, day-long retreats held at the beginning or end of the semester. These retreats communicated value, built community around the work, and created a process for all the faculty to contribute.
Participatory and Inclusive Processes: Large departments require careful planning to ensure that all members are encouraged and able to meaningfully contribute to a revision effort while also keeping the effort moving forward in a timely manner. During this project, all members of this department were able to contribute to both the creative, brainstorming phases of the work and the iterative, revision aspects of the work. An initial whole-group retreat was held at the end of an academic year in order to gather the input from all faculty members on their ideals and preferred future for student learning in their program. This retreat was designed so that all faculty contributed to the brainstorming and clustering of ideas about student learning; worked collaboratively to identify themes and areas of alignment and divergence with their existing plans; and produced artifacts highlighting preferred language and concepts on which to base the revision efforts. As with Case 1, key elements of this design included opportunities for both written and verbal contributions to the work; individual, small-group, and whole group brainstorming and discussion; intentional group composition to promote diversity, equity, and encourage all to feel comfortable contributing; and the collection of all artifacts from the retreat in order to capture all ideas for future reflection and iteration. The products of this retreat were digitized and organized over the summer and then shared with the two committees to serve as the starting point for their work.
Throughout the following academic year, the committees worked to draft new learning assessment plans and materials and the rest of the department was updated on their progress at each faculty meeting. These regular updates created transparency, communicated value, and kept it in the foreground of the department’s work throughout the year. As these drafts were developed and shared, they were framed as working models to be piloted and then revised as needed rather than finished, final documents. This approach was important to help diffuse concerns and increase trust in the process.
A second full-day retreat was held at the end of the academic year, one year after the first retreat, in which all faculty had an opportunity to more deeply engage with the draft assessment plan and materials. The collaborative creation of a curriculum map allowed faculty to align the courses they teach with the revised learning outcomes, identify potential assignments and assessments as sources of evidence, and consider changes to the existing curriculum needed in order to better align it with the revised goals for student learning. As with the previous retreat, all artifacts were collected, digitized, and summarized, forming the foundation for the next round of work by the two department committees.
Manageable Goals and Timeline: This program had three major areas of interest for curriculum and assessment revision. They chose to focus on one area at a time, prioritizing based upon need and potential impact on the program overall, students, and the other areas. After narrowing the focus, the program leaders worked to chunk the project into manageable segments with clear goals and deliverables, estimate the time needed to complete each phase, and schedule meetings a semester at a time in order to ensure the work was completed in the desired timeframe. In order to help manage this timeline, program leaders decided to delay initiating job searches for a year so that the faculty in the program had the time and capacity to focus on the curriculum and assessment revision effort.
Over an approximately 15 month period, the program developed new student learning outcomes, an assessment plan for those outcomes — including rubrics and suggested sources of evidence, and identified locations in the curriculum where the learning could be assessed. In the second year of the effort, one of the two standing committees piloted the outcomes and assessment plan while the other committee worked to revise the curricular offerings and requirements to align with the new outcomes.
- Bolman, L. and Deal, T., 2013. Reframing organizations: Artistry, choice, and leadership. (5th ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
- Corbo, J.C., et al., 2016. Framework for transforming departmental culture to support educational innovation. Phys. Rev. Phys. Educ. Res. 12: 010113.
- Gehrke, S., & Kezar, A. (2016). STEM reform outcomes through communities of transformation. Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, 48(1), 30-38.
- Henderson, C., et al., 2011. Facilitating Change in Undergraduate STEM Instructional Practices: An Analytic Review of the Literature. J. Res. Sci. Teaching 48(8):952-984.
- Hutchings, P. (2011) From Departmental to Disciplinary Assessment: Deepening Faculty Engagement, Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, 43:5, 36-43, DOI: 10.1080/00091383.2011.599292
- Jeffrey L. Buller. 2015. Change Leadership in Higher Education: A Practical Guide to Academic Transformation. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
- Ngai, C., et. al., 2020. Developing the DELTA: Capturing Cultural Changes in Undergraduate Departments. CBE Life Sci. Educ., 19:ar15.
- Quardokus Fisher, K., and Henderson, C. 2018. Department-Level Instructional Change: Comparing Prescribed versus Emergent Strategies. CBE Life Sci Educ., December 1, 2018 17:ar56
- Quan, G.M., et al., 2019. Designing for institutional transformation: Six principles for department-level interventions. Phys. Rev. Phys. Educ. Res. 15: 010141.
- Quardokus, K. and Henderson, C. 2015. Promoting instructional change: using social network analysis to understand the informal structure of academic departments. High Educ: 70:315-335.
- Reinholz, D.L., et al., 2019. Fostering sustainable improvements in science education: An analysis through four frames. Science Education: 103:1125-1150.
- Reinholz, D.L., et al., 2019. Transforming Undergraduate Education From the Middle Out With Departmental Action Teams, Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, 51:5, 64-70, DOI: 10.1080/00091383.2019.1652078
- Reinholz, D. L., Corbo, J. C., Dancy, M., & Finkelstein, N. (2017). Departmental action teams: Supporting faculty learning through departmental change. Learning Communities Journal, 9, 5–32.
- Reinholz, D.L. and Apkarian, N. 2018. Four frames for systsemic change in STEM departments. International J. of STEM Ed.(2018) 5:3.
- A “Before You Begin” readiness checklist created by the WFU CAT.