Challenge of Change

From the archives of major national reports influencing the transformation of undergraduate learning, we share again an excerpt from PCAST. This is one of the few major national reports that speaks directly to the challenge of change of the undergraduate learning environment. The story of change at Indiana University (cited above) map precisely the actions to induce cultural change prescribed by the authors of PCAST. 

PCAST authors also discuss both challenges and barriers to change—particularly those relating to faculty issues—then offer means by which to address them. 

People are usually resistant to change. One reason that many faculty may maintain traditional teaching practices is that they have been successful in their fields and therefore assume that the educational approaches that taught them so effectively are appropriate for all students. But resistance to change is human and has been confronted successfully in numerous other settings. The study of individual, organizational, and cultural change is a sophisticated field that can inform the design of transformation strategies for STEM education in the first two years of college.

The fact that lecturing remains the overwhelmingly predominant form of instruction at the postsecondary level when there are hundreds of papers showing better ways to teach indicates that more than inertia is at work. The incentives for both the academic department and the individual faculty member at research universities are focused on maximizing research success, and this system has worked extremely well to maintain a powerful research engine in higher education. However, there are few, if any, counter­balancing incentives linked to desired educational outcomes, and there are often disincentives. One that exerts an overwhelming influence on junior faculty is the current tenure decision system. Though increased attention is now being paid to teaching effectiveness, tenure decision processes still push mainly in the opposite direction. Even if junior faculty come to an institution with the passion and determination to achieve teaching excellence, they can easily feel, and are often advised by their more senior colleagues, that teaching innovations should wait until after they have achieved tenure.

Effective incentives require good metrics for measuring accomplishment—metrics by which departments and individual faculty members can be compared and held accountable. Although research will always be the hallmark of the research university and must be valued and rewarded, the ideal faculty incentive system is based on both teaching and research accomplishments. For the incentive system to be meaningful, metrics for teaching quality must be credible.

To achieve the goals presented in this report, colleges and universities need to change their institutional and reward structures. In the last few decades, some extraordinary, sweeping changes have been deliberately instigated and studied in other societal areas. For example, the nearly universal familiarity in the United States with the idea of a “designated driver,” previously unknown in our society, was achieved in three years because of one person’s vision and action. Such campaigns provide guidance for designing similarly transformative initiatives.

Based on the theory and practice of cultural change, a number of steps must be accomplished to effect lasting change for STEM education (Table 1). Key elements to be addressed include human tendencies such as resistance to change, complacency, and cynicism; practical obstacles such as lack of resources and know­how; communication challenges including lack of awareness of the problem or successful solutions; and lack of reinforcements to foster change among individuals and institutions.

PCAST authors also identify some provocative resources to inform the process of change, all helpful in the process of shaping a community with a shared commitment to spaces that matter.

Table 1. Sources:
​Gladwell, M. (2002). The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. New York, NY: Little, Brown & Co.;
Heath, C. and D. Heath (2010). Switch. New York, NY: Broadway Books.
Kotter, J. (1996). Leading Change. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review Press.
Shapiro, A. (2003). Creating Contagious Commitment: Applying the Tipping Point to Organizational Change. Hillsborough, NC: Strategy Perspective.