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Faculty Orientations Toward Instructional Reform

Learning Abstract

August 2014, Volume 17, Number 8

By Susan Bickerstaff and the Scaling Innovation Team

Some of the most promising developmental education innovations require that instructors significantly change their classroom practice. For example, instructors may be asked to teach to a more heterogeneous group of students, prepare students for statistics rather than algebra, or attend more explicitly to students’ nonacademic needs. Cultivating such behavioral change is difficult, and usually falls upon the leaders who are working to launch or scale a new approach. These leaders report that generating faculty buy-in is among the most challenging aspects of reform implementation.

Regardless of whether a college is launching a homegrown pilot or adopting a state mandated policy at full scale, bringing colleagues on board and supporting them during the change process is essential to the success of an initiative. Without faculty members’ willingness to reflect on their classroom practice and tailor their teaching strategies to a new curriculum or course structure, any reforms involving instructional improvement are vulnerable to lackluster implementation and possible derailment.

Implementing successful instructional reform, therefore, requires both convincing faculty members that the innovation is worthwhile, and providing resources to bolster their confidence and  help them successfully carry it out in the classroom. Understanding the orientations that faculty members have toward the reform can help leaders effectively address their concerns and needs during the implementation process and beyond.

Three Orientations Toward Instructional Reform

Over the course of CCRC’s Scaling Innovation project, we visited colleges that were embarking on developmental education reforms and interviewed numerous developmental education instructors and faculty leaders. From this research, we identified three orientations toward reform: ready to act, ambivalent, and reluctant to change. We found that these categories were both fluid (subject to change over time) and contextual (formulated in reaction to the specific proposed reform). Within each of these broad categories, a variety of perspectives was represented.

Ready to Act

The first category, those who were ready to act, was comprised of the faculty members who were most likely to play a role in launching or leading the reform in its early stages. Individuals that fell in this group shared a willingness to be early adopters, but they also brought differing levels of knowledge, experience, comfort, and confidence to the new approach.

Some faculty members were ready to act because the proposed reform aligned with their teaching philosophy and resembled their current classroom practice. In other cases, instructors wholeheartedly embraced the philosophy but needed significant support to successfully enact the reform. A third group of early adopters opted to participate in the reform for reasons that were unconnected to the reform principles, such as perceived benefits to their work life.


Faculty who fell into the second category, ambivalent, were neither active proponents nor opponents of the reform. Our research indicates that the ambivalence expressed by faculty in this group often stemmed from sources unrelated to the reform itself.

For instance, some faculty members were reluctant simply because their time was already consumed by participation in other professional activities. Others, often adjuncts, felt they did not have the time and energy to adopt a new approach. Some ambivalent stakeholders were awaiting evidence of the reform’s effectiveness and were likely to become ready to act once positive outcomes were established. Still others seemed to be uncertain about their ability to improve outcomes for students using the reform model.

Even some who were already participating in a reform displayed this ambivalence, often to the detriment of effective implementation. One faculty member, for example, reported that it was only after he had already taught a student-centered math class for three semesters, and attended an in-depth professional development event, that he finally “got” the theory of action behind the reform. Until this self-described transformative moment, he continued to rely on lecture rather than the recommended student-centered strategies.

Reluctant to Change

The final category in our typology was comprised of faculty members who were reluctant to change. Individuals with this orientation differed from their ambivalent colleagues in their active resistance to the reform. Reform leaders reported spending significant energy responding to this group, sometimes referred to as the vocal minority. Leaders often assumed that faculty in this group were uniformly resistant to any form of change. In fact, our data suggest more complex factors were almost always in play.

The rationale for reluctance sometimes stemmed from satisfaction with the status quo or skepticism about the necessity for improvement. In developmental education, for example, some instructors were only aware of pass rates for individual courses and unaware of low rates of student persistence to and through college-level courses (Hern, 2010). On the other hand, some faculty members recognized that problems existed but felt that the solutions to these problems lay outside their classrooms: in academic or student services, for example, or within the students themselves.

Alternatively, a number of reluctant faculty members believed that instructional change was warranted but were opposed to the chosen approach. For example, some math instructors believed deeply that students needed to learn algebra and thus were resistant to the implementation of a pre-statistics pathway. Similarly, many of the instructors resistant to reforms that accelerate students’ progress through developmental education were convinced that students need more instructional time to be successful.

Often faculty members’ reluctance could be traced to discomfort with a reform’s conception of classroom roles. For instance, if instructors believed their role was to deliver knowledge for student consumption, reforms that asked them to facilitate student discovery or attend to students’ nonacademic needs seemed incompatible.

It is important to note that orientations toward reform were not inherent to the individual but formulated in reaction to specifics of the proposed change. For example, we encountered one faculty member who was reluctant to eliminate levels of developmental reading and writing coursework because she felt one semester was not enough to prepare students for college-level English. However, she was enthusiastic about integrating reading and writing courses because it aligned with her teaching philosophy. Similarly, we found that if instructors began to see a likely payoff to the proposed change and felt supported in adopting the approach, even the most reluctant faculty members could become ready to act.

Moving From Reluctant to Ready

On the surface, ambivalence and reluctance can appear as apathy and obstructionism; however, our data suggest that these responses are often rational and legitimate. If reform leaders understand more about their colleagues’ orientations toward proposed changes, they will be in a better position to provide information, activities, and supports to increase the numbers of faculty who are ready and prepared to make changes in the classroom.

Most of the varied perspectives from ambivalent and reluctant faculty can be grouped into two broad concerns: (1) faculty are unconvinced that the reform will be effective, and (2) faculty are uncertain whether they could successfully implement the approach. To address these concerns, reform leaders must make clear whatthe reform is designed to do and howit can be implemented in the classroom. To convey the what, reform leaders may need to make the case for change using data on the problem the reform is designed to address, clearly explain the reform’s theory of action, and present an array of evidence on the efficacy of the approach. To demonstrate the how, leaders can provide a concrete picture of implementation through videos of classroom practice, demonstration lessons, and sample course materials.

Reform leaders in the Scaling Innovationproject listened carefully to uncover the source of faculty hesitation and provided targeted supports to move their colleagues from reluctance to readiness. For example, to counter critiques that particular teaching styles (such as project-based learning or the discovery approach) would be too challenging to implement in the developmental education context, reform leaders used videos of classrooms, curricular examples, and samples of student work to create what they called “a vision of the possible.” Additionally, some leaders shared testimonials from instructors who were initially reluctant—for example, because they were resistant to addressing students’ nonacademic needs or giving up lecture-based pedagogy—in order to demonstrate how beliefs can change through engagement.

Institutional factors also play an important role in promoting readiness. Faculty members in departments that have adopted and then abandoned numerous reforms may be reluctant to engage in what they see as the latest fad. Departments with strong cultures of collaboration and experimentation may have more instructors who are ready to act. Departments and colleges can increase faculty buy-in by providing instructors with extra time to learn about, prepare for, and reflect on teaching a new course. Course released time, monetary incentives, or structured opportunities to focus on teaching (e.g., department meetings) all help to encourage willingness to engage in reform.

The variety of perspectives on reform that we encountered in our research suggests that a one-size-fits-all approach is insufficient to achieve widespread buy-in among faculty. Instead, leaders need to meet with faculty, listen to their perspectives and concerns, and tap their experiences and expertise to develop varied learning and support structures that address underlying causes of ambivalence or resistance.

Moving Beyond Ready

Once a faculty member is ready to act, he or she may still need support to ensure optimal implementation. Thus, faculty engagement activities must go beyond efforts to broaden participation and also facilitate learning how to enact new instructional approaches. Our research indicates that inquiry groups, curriculum teams, course steering committees, and other structures that allow for ongoing conversations grounded in the specifics of teaching are valuable in helping faculty gain confidence and proficiency in the reform (Bickerstaff, Edgecombe, & the Scaling Innovation Team, 2012).Institutional leaders and professional developers who are able to identify the different orientations toward reform among their colleagues are well positioned to strategically allocate engagement resources and attend to the needs of faculty as they change over time.


Bickerstaff, S., Edgecombe, N., & the Scaling Innovation Team. (2012). Pathways to faculty learning and pedagogical improvement. Inside Out, 1(3). Retrieved from http://www.scalinginnovation.org/pathways-to-faculty-learning-and-pedagogical-improvement/

Hern, K. (with Snell, M.). (2010). Exponential attrition and the promise of acceleration in developmental English and math. Perspectives, June/July. Retrieved from http://www.rpgroup.org/sites/default/files/Hern%20Exponential%20Attrition.pdf

Susan Bickerstaff is a Research Associate at the Community College Research Center, Teachers College, Columbia University.

Opinions expressed in Learning Abstracts are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the League for Innovation in the Community College.

Posted by The League for Innovation in the Community College on 08/01/2014 at 6:48 AM | Categories: Learning Abstracts -