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Introducing Change

How can introductory courses change in order to enhance students' higher-order thinking skills (e.g. problem solving, critical thinking, and abstract reasoning)? What are the current institutional barriers that have prevented trying and implementing such changes?

These were the questions addressed by Introducing Change: Introductory Courses and the Nature of Faculty Work, a program in 2012-14 generously funded by the Teagle Foundation. The program grew out of a consortial concern about how to better teach students to become "higher-order thinkers" and out of the Foundation's interest in what kind of impact such changes would have on the structures of faculty work.

Opening workshop and faculty teams

Nine faculty teams from eight ACM colleges were selected to participate in Introducing Change. At at workshop on February 8-10, 2013 at Macalester College, they gathered to discuss their projects in light of the broad questions and existing literature; share and sharpen their own questions, research designs, and methods; develop a timetable to prepare for the Fall 2013 course offering; and identify an appropriate plan for documenting and assessing the effectiveness of their work.

Implementation workshop

The faculty teams gathered on February 21-22, 2014 in Chicago at an implementation workshop to share the results of the course experiments they carried out during the previous year. They completed their curricular projects in the months following the workshop.

Project Description

In the Introducing Change program, two- and three-person teams of ACM faculty revised an introductory course or a first-year seminar on their campus in ways that cultivate higher-order thinking skills. The teams also identified and documented how faculty work and its reward structures can change in order to sustain these innovations. With experiments on as many as nine ACM campuses, Introducing Change was designed to foster collaboration among campuses, so that teams conducting course experiments could gain comparative perspective on the findings that emerged about trends in liberal arts teaching and faculty work.

Campus teams prepared their experiments beginning in early 2013 and delivered their revised course during the 2013-14 academic year. To help faculty prepare their course experiments, teams participated in a design workshop at the start of the program, and following their classroom projects shared their results at an implementation workshop.

Program Background

If liberal arts colleges can find more sustainable ways of helping students in introductory courses learn in complex ways, the entire educational experience could become more effective, productive, and efficient. That is, it could maximize the instructional impact of faculty effort through structures that promote learning throughout a student's college career and beyond.

Introductory courses at liberal arts colleges — broadly construed to include discipline specific introductions (i.e. 101-level courses) and first year seminars — can play a decisive role in preparing students to be self-directed and mindful in their approaches to learning, particularly when they are successful at teaching these higher-order thinking skills.

The challenges in teaching novice students both subject content and higher-order thinking are well known to faculty. Knowing facts, i.e. mastering content, is often set in competition (for class time and resources) with higher-order thinking skills and learning how to learn. Presenting students with more difficult and complex problems is pushed aside by the need to make sure that students acquire and digest a corpus of knowledge.

The extent to which faculty rewards (such as tenure criteria) and incentive structures (such as counting teaching credits) align well with the successful integration of higher-order thinking in courses is not clear. The Introducing Change program will explore this issue, ideally by finding new structure for faculty work that support practices that best enhance student learning.