Using rubrics

I’ve been a fan of working with rubrics for a long time, but somehow I don’t seem to have blogged about it. So here we go!

Rubrics are basically tables of learning outcomes. The rows give different criteria that are to be assessed, and then performance at (typically three) different levels is described. Below, I’ll talk about the benefits that working with rubrics have for both teachers and students, and give two concrete examples of how we used them and why that was helpful.

Rubrics are a great tool for teachers

  1. Designing a rubric makes you really think long and hard about what it is that you want students to be able to demonstrate for the different criteria, and how you would distinguish an ok performance from a good performance for each criterion.
  2. Once the rubric is set up, grading becomes a lot easier. Instead of having to think about how well any given response answers your question, now it’s basically about putting crosses in the relevant cells matching the performance you see in front of you.
  3. This makes it a lot easier when there are many people involved in grading — the dreaded “but x got a point for y and I didn’t!”-discussions become a lot fewer because now grading is a lot more objective
  4. Giving feedback also becomes a lot easier, since all the performance descriptions are already there and it’s now basically about copy&paste (or even sharing the crossed-through rubric) to show “this is where you are at” and “this is what I was expecting”.
  5. It also helps in course planning…

One example of where I was really glad we did have a rubric is the project that Torge and I collaborated on: We bought four cheap setups for rotating tank experiments and designed a course around making otherwise really unintuitive and difficult to observe concepts not only visible, but manipulating them in order to gain a deeper understanding. We had written down a rubric pre-corona, but when we went into lockdown in March 2020, having the rubric helped us a lot in quickly figuring out how to transfer a very much hands-on course online. Since we had clearly identified the learning outcomes, it became very easy to think of alternative ways to teach them virtually. The figure above shows part of the rubric, and circled in red is the only learning outcome in that selection (of a lesson that we thought was all about the hands-on experience!) that wasn’t just as well taught virtually. But looking closely at the rubric, we realised that the students did not actually need to necessarily do the rotating experiments themselves, as long as they were doing some kind of experiment themselves to practice conducting experiments following lab instructions. With the rubric, we had a checklist of “this is what they need to be able to do at the end of class” to directly convert into activities.  We ended up with me showing the rotating experiments from my kitchen, while the students were doing non-rotating experiments, using only readily available household items, from their homes. Without the very explicit learning outcomes in our rubric, converting the course would probably been a lot more difficult.

Rubrics are also great for students

  1. They get a comprehensive overview over what the instructor actually expects from them
  2. They can use the rubric to make sure they “tick all the boxes”, or strategically decide where to put their time and effort
  3. Instructor feedback is now a lot more helpful than “2 out of 5 points”.

Kjersti shares an example of how she “negotiated” rubrics in her GEOF105 class to co-create it with her students:

The goal is to invite students to negotiate an assessment rubric for written assignments. We have tested this out in the following way:

  • The teacher drafted a rubric and assigned an equal weighting of 5 points to each assessment criteria (15 criteria gave a total score of 75 points).
  • The students voted anonymously for which criteria they wanted to assign a stronger weighting. We made no limits in how many criteria each student could vote for.
  • The votes were counted up, and the remaining 25 points in the assessment were distributed based on the number of votes for each criterion.

The two criteria most students voted to weight stronger, were the structure of the lab report and the reflection part. I suspect they wanted more points for the structure partly because it is not too difficult, but also because they spend much time figuring out how a lab report should look. I also found it interesting that they wanted more points for reflection. Last year we asked the students to write a reflection paragraph that would not be assessed. We thought it would be stressful for the students to write the reflection knowing it would be evaluated. But, I guess we were wrong!

They also wanted more point for making/discussing hypothesis, using good illustrations and relating the experiment tank to the Earths geometry — all of which are objectively difficult parts of the lab report.

We found two main results after using the negotiated rubric:

  1. The students (on average) achieved higher scores than the previous year (were the rubric was fixed)
  2. The students made fewer complaints to the assignment score

We think the students achieved higher scores because they spent more time getting acquainted with the rubric before writing their assignments and could use it more constructively as a checklist.

So those are our experiences with using rubrics. How about you? We’d love to hear from you!

Small groups work on shared artefacts

Participation in shared production of artefacts is a great way to learn in a community, because putting things on paper (or, as we will see later, on online slides or physical whiteboards) requires a clearer articulation of the topic of discussion, and a level of commitment to a shared meaning (Wenger, 1998). We give two examples of methods we like to use, and then a trick to break up roles in student groups so it is not always the same person taking notes or reporting back to the group.

Physical whiteboards

One of Kjersti‘s favourite teaching techniques is the use of whiteboards, especially in GEOF105, a second-year course introduction to oceanography and meteorology (see many examples of great student artefacts on her Twitter; and multiple-choice questions to support discussions as her other favourite method here).

For in-person teaching with group discussions and exercises, the groups can draw or write their main results on portables whiteboards (best trick: Picture frames with just white paper behind the glass! Very cheap, very effective. Great idea, Elin!). When the students are asked to document their results on a whiteboard, they need to be concrete and agree on the level of details they provide.

In our GEOF105 course in undergraduate oceanography, we use many sketching exercises. We find that the sketching exercises provide many positive aspects:

  • Students like sketching. They often decorate the sketches with smiling suns or add wildlife to the sketches, contributing to a relaxed atmosphere and a positive learning environment.
  • Many questions arise when the students start sketching, because suddenly having a vague idea is not enough any more. First, they discuss, explain, and check if their ideas make sense. Then, they need to combine all the ideas into one concrete sketch.
  • The sketching activates more students in the discussions. Some students take responsible for sketching, some provide input, and some ask questions.

Below, you see an example of one group’s work on coastal up- and downwelling on the Northern vs Southern hemisphere (note the use of appropriate animals to illustrate the hemisphere ;-))

Shared online slides

But this type of negotiating of meaning can also happen in a virtual space. We have used shared online slides during group work in both digital and in-person teaching. The slides provide an easy way to provide figures and questions the groups can work on, and you can also add one slide for each group where they write down a summary of their discussion or answers key questions. The sharing of online slides and collaborative writing on them provides several opportunities:

  • You can keep track of the groups’ progress by looking at their slides. Especially in digital teaching, where you cannot as easily eavesdrop on the students’ discussions, it is difficult to visit all the different breakout groups and get an idea of their progress. Students often dislike it if the teacher jumps into their breakout-group unannounced (ehem, some teachers dislike doing it, too…). We have experienced that students prefer the teacher to pay attention to the slides and not visit the breakout-groups uninvited.
  • You can choose to allow the students to look at the other groups’ slides. This gives an opportunity to help the students if they feel they get lost or need some ideas to proceed with the discussions.
  • You can review the slides from the different groups and make a summary after the group activity, prepare how to structure a discussion based on the points different groups wrote down, or how to proceed (giving students more or less time in the group, picking up or dropping a topic, …).
  • The students have access to the shared slides — and thus their combined notes — after the lecture

Anecdotal evidence, but students that are asked “which ice cube will melt faster, the one in salt water or the one in freshwater?” without also being asked to sketch the mechanism they base their answer on, almost always get it wrong (or right only for the wrong reasons). This year’s class all came to the correct response based on the correct mechanism (see below)!

Assigning responsibilities to break up established roles

Group dynamics can be tricky, and groups very easily fall into pattern that might engage students very unequally. To facilitate shared responsibility for taking notes, sticking to the topic of discussion, or reporting back from group work, you can assign and re-assign the roles based on semi-random criteria. For in-person teaching, you can use their birthday (e.g. birthday closest to Christmas, or ’today’), or other semi-random information to distribute roles. In online teaching, you can also use the students’ physical location as a criterion. You can, for instance, ask the student located furthest south/north/east/west to report back from the group. The students will need to first figure out who is responsible for each role and then follow through with that. Great icebreaker, and not always the same person taking notes or reporting back!

Including missing topics that students suggest

I’ve been talking about the importance of leaving room for topics that students are really interested in for a long time. Today, I want to tell you about my first experience with this:

Back in 2012, in my first year teaching the “introduction to oceanography course”, a student came up to me after the first lesson and told me that she had a part-time job in a company that builds oceanographic instrumentation: She had spotted one of the instruments the company sells on one of the slides with research cruise pictures that I had shown for motivation and could add some details on how it works. I was obviously excited to hear about her experiences and asked a couple of questions, so after a short conversation about how we both thought that knowing about practical aspects of how measurements are done is super excited, she invited us to a guided tour in her company.

A couple of weeks later, the whole class went on an excursion — with packed lunches and the whole class-trip feeling — and my student’s line manager and the student herself gave us a tour of the company. We got to see a presentation as well as doing a tour of the labs. Especially the labs were cool: My student was wearing the special kind of shoes that allowed her to walk wherever she liked, but the rest of us had to stay within narrow walkways that were marked on the floor with yellow tape so as to not bring any electric signals too close to sensitive instrumentation (or something like this, this was a loooong time ago!). And we got to see how the kind of instruments were produced that we would use on our own student cruise in this course only weeks later!

Even though I can’t remember the technical details of what we were told there (but I DO remember how they had different standards to calibrate turbidity meters with and I thought that was sooo fascinating), I vividly remember the excitement of the class, but most importantly the pride of the student who got to show us her company. The next year we went back with the next class I taught, and it was again exciting, but there was something really special about making time and going to the hassle of driving out to visit the company of one of the peers in the class.

So what I try to do now is to create this excitement and feeling of relevance because we are talking about something that came from within the group of students, by opening up opportunities where I explicitly ask for suggestions. I reserve parts of the class specifically for whatever students want to talk about, and whenever students show a special interest in a topic, I am happy to re-arrange my plans to make time for whatever is on their mind. This does get me the occasional “the red thread of this class wasn’t always clear” comment in evaluations, but I think it is so worth it (also I’m working on making the red thread clear when I return to it after any detour I might take to follow student interest ;-)).

What do you think? Have you tried this and what were your experiences?

Guest post by Kjersti Daae: Using voting cards to increase student activity and promote discussions and critical thinking

I got permission to publish Kjersti Daae‘s iEarth conversation on teaching (with Torgny Roxå and myself in April 2021) on my blog! Thanks, Kjersti :-) Here we go:

I teach in an introductory course in meteorology and oceanography (GEOF105) at the geophysical institute, UiB. The students come from two different study programs:

Most students do the course in their third semester. They have not yet learned all the mathematics necessary to dive into the derivation of equations governing the ocean processes. Therefore, we focus on conceptual knowledge and understand the governing ideas regarding central ocean processes, such as global circulation and the influence of Earth’s rotation and wind on the ocean currents. The students need to learn how to describe the various processes and mechanisms included in the curriculum. I, therefore, use voting cards to promote student discussions during lectures.

I first heard about voting cards from Mirjam’s blog “Adventures in Oceanography and Teaching”. The method is relatively simple. You pose a question with four alternatives A,B,C,D, accompanied by different colours for easy recognition. The students have a printout each with the four letters on it.They spend a few minutes thinking about the question and prepare their answer. Then they fold their paper so that only one letter/colour shows, and hold it up and provide direct feedback to the teacher. The questions can, among others, be used to checking if the students understand a concept or let the students guess the outcome of something they haven’t learned yet.

However, I prefer to use voting cards to promote discussions among peers. This procedure is following the Think-pair-share method developed by Lyman (1981). By carefully selecting alternative answers, I can make it hard for the students to choose the correct answer, or the answers can be formulated so that the students can argue for more than one correct answer. When the students hold up their answers, they can look around at the other students’ responses and find someone with a different response than themselves. Then they can pair up and discuss why they answer differently and see if they can agree on one common answer before sharing their opinion with the rest of the class. During this exercise, the students practice talking about science and arguing for various answers/outcomes based on the voting cards’ questions.The exercises serve at least two purposes:

  1. The student practice answering/discussing relevant questions for the final exam.
  2. The students get active instead of listening passively to the lecturer.

Usually, I can see the students becoming very tired after 10-15 minutes of passive listening. These voting questions “wake up” the students, and after one such question, they tend to stay focused for another 10-15 minutes.

I think the voting cards work really well. When I display a question, the students usually move from a relaxed position to sitting more straight and preparing for being active. I can hear them discussing what they are supposed to. I also get very good feedback and responses in whole-class discussions/summaries following the discussions in pairs. Such summaries are especially interesting if multiple answers can be correct, depending on how the students argue. I can select responses from students based on their visible letters and make sure we can hear different solutions to the same question. During a semester, I see a clear development in the way students reflect on the various questions and express critical thinking governing oceanographic processes. The exercises show the students how important argumentation is. An answer with a well-founded argumentation and critical thinking is worth much more than just the answer/letter. My observation is consistent with Kaddoura (2013), who found that the think-pair-share method increased nursing students’ critical thinking.


Lyman, F. (1981). “The responsive classroom discussion.” In Anderson, A. S. (Ed.), Mainstreaming Digest, College Park, MD: University of Maryland College of Education.

Kaddoura, M. (2013). «Think Pair Share: A Teaching Learning Strategy to Enhance Students’ Critical Thinking», EducationalResearchQuarterly, v36 n4 p3-24

A review of change theory in STEM higher ed (Reinholz et al., 2021)

More reading for my “leading educational change” course run by iEarth and BioCEED! Today on how change theory has been used in STEM higher education over the last 25 years  (Reinholz et al., 2021), which I am summarising here.

Why are people interested in change theory? In order to change a system (for example to make sure society’s need for more STEM educated people can be met, or to support diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives), it is very helpful to understand what levers to pull. Just making facts available does not lead to change in itself (as we also see for other issues, like climate change). Therefore, funding agencies therefore more and more require explicit theories for how change will happen in projects they fund, and more and more people explicitly lay out their thoughts of what will happen and why before starting a project.

But let’s sort out some confusing terms, or at least how they are being used in this article: “change theory” vs “theory of change”. Change theory is an evidence-based framework to explain mechanisms that drive change. It is general and applicable to many different situations. A theory of change, on the other hand, is specifically about how change will happen in a specific project: What are the goals of the project, what needs to be achieved before as stepping stones, what kind of interventions could get you there, what’s the context, how will you know if you have been successful, and what were your assumptions going into all of this.

Four essential components of a theory of change

A theory of change consists of four essential components:

  • Rationale and assumptions. A rationale is basically a narrated version of how change will happen. It is built on assumptions which need to become explicit. For example, are decision makers going to be convinced by rationally interpreting data, or do they need to be emotionally involved in order to process the data?
  • Context. Change doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and in order to change STEM education, we must consider where it occurs. Who are stakeholders, what are frameworks like, who funds what, who sets learning outcomes, …?
  • Indicators. Working towards an ultimate goal, there are many small milestones to be reached. Indicators tell us about whether progress towards those goals is being made, and according to plan.
  • Interventions. Interventions are what is being done to drive the change. If showing data to people does not make them act, how will we get them to act instead? Maybe by changing incentive structures, or appreciation of certain activities, or more funding, or better communities.

The eight most commonly used theories of change

The authors then did a systematic literature review on articles published on using change theory in STEM higher ed (they ended up reviewing 97 articles in detail), and present the eight theories that were used most often (N = number of articles using a specific theory). I’m summarising Reinholz et al.’s summary here because it’s quite fascinating to see the different ways that people think and talk about change processes.

Communities of Practice (N = 26)

Communities of practice consist of a group of people who have a common topic they care about and work together to learn more about the topic and improve their skills. In a community of practice, learning occurs through participation. In the context of facilitating change, the idea of communities of practice has been used to inspire “communities of change” with the specific purpose to drive change, and “faculty learning communities” to drive teacher professional development.

When communities of practice are used as theory of change, the focus is usually on the community itself (and interventions are typically about creating communities of practice around practices that are supposed to be strengthened), or specific roles within that community, but not on the institutional context in which change is supposed to happen.

I really like this theory of change and have used it in the past — the original Wenger (1998) book has been transformative in my thinking and has great explanatory power for things I observe (and here is a summary of more reading I’ve done about the subject). But I really appreciate the point about the usually missing consideration of the context.

Diffusion of Innovations (N = 19)

From a diffusion of innovation perspective, ideas spread between individuals and adoption occurs in predictable stages (from becoming aware that an innovation exists, considering whether or not to adopt it, deciding to adopt it, trying it, and sticking with it). Innovations that spread well according to this theory have some kind of advantage over current practices but at the same time fit well into current practices and beliefs, are easy to adopt and have a low threshold to be tried on for fit, and can be observed in practice before one needs to make a decision about whether or not one wants to join. There are also different types of adopters which might need to be target differently: from early adopters that are willing to take risks, to late adopters which will only adopt an innovation when there really isn’t much choice left because everybody else is already doing it.

This theory seems a bit oversimplified, and extensions discussed by Reinholz et al. include considerations around how to increase chances that innovations are actually implemented, focussing on the importance of good communication and support when implementing an innovation. However, I think it is useful to consider that people are different in their willingness to adopt new things, and that characteristics of an innovation can make it more or less likely that the innovation is being adopted.

Teacher-Centred Systemic Reform (N = 6)

The essence of teacher-centred systemic reform as a theory of change is that teachers’ beliefs influence teacher practices. Teachers’ beliefs are not necessarily fully informed by knowledge, and they are hard to change by evidence. Nevertheless, this theory is mainly about targeting individual teachers to then, in the long run, change the system.

Maybe I am too much in the “communities of practice” framework of thinking and have been involved in too many faculty development activities that targeted individuals (that were super motivated in a workshop but then did not have a community or systemic support to actually change much), but to me, this theory seems to be less useful than the others. But thinking about beliefs and how hard they are to change is probably a good point to take away from it.

Here is a blog post where I review literature on Teacher-Centered Systemic Reform.

Appreciative Inquiry (N = 4)

Instead of fixing what is wrong, appreciative inquiry starts from what is positive in an organisation and develops that further towards the desired outcomes. There are four steps involved: figuring out what the team’s values are, developing a vision from that, defining goals, and then working towards them.

What I really like about this theory is that it is so positive, and approaching change from a perspective of “there is already a lot of great things happening here, let’s make it even better” feels so much nicer than approaching change as “everything here is horrible, we need to fix things”, and especially when change is driven not in a grass root fashion but somehow from the outside, this is probably a very good approach to make conversations even possible. But somehow I see the danger of not addressing real problems in a determined-enough fashion because we are trying to be so positive. But that might be just me…

Expectancy-Value Theory (N = 4)

I’ve written about expectancy-value theory as a theory explaining motivation to work towards a goal before: People need to feel both that it is actually possible to reach a goal, and that reaching the goal is important to them, to be motivated to put in the required work.

I think this is a helpful framework to consider, but this theory does not give guidance on how people’s self-efficacy can be increased or how the perceived value of a task can be changed. So it’s a good thing to check if what we want people to do is a) feasible and b) probably of value to them, but it doesn’t help much in designing interventions.

Four Frames (N = 4)

The four frames theory looks at an organisation from four different angles which each reveal different aspects of culture: structures (roles, routines, incentives), symbols (beliefs and ways to communicate them), people (individuals’ goals, needs, agency), and power (hierarchies, coalitions, …).

While this theory doesn’t give us actionable advice, it is useful to consider that there are (at least) these four frames to consider to fully understand change and to address it adequately.

Paulsen and Feldman’s General Change Model (N = 4)

This theory was specifically developed to work for change processes in STEM education. According to the theory, change occurs in predictable stages: Unfreezing (when people recognise that something within the current system is not working and they are dissatisfied enough that it motivates them to change), changing (when the actual change takes place in form of acquiring new information, forming new groups, changing routines), and refreezing (when the change is solidified).

What I like about this model is that it explicitly considers the refreezing part — not just changing something, but making sure that in becomes the “new normal”.

Systems Theory (N = 3)

In systems theory, the whole system involved in change is considered, and especially how different parts of that system influence each other. The focus is on a “learning organisation” which continually develops, and which is characterised by systems thinking (assuming that structure influences behaviour), personal mastery, mental models, building shared vision, and team learning.

From the Reinholz et al. article alone, I don’t get a good enough overview over systems theory to understand its full implications, but again it seems like a comprehensive approach, which I appreciate.

My reflections

I read this article, naively hoping it would give me the eight most relevant theories that I should consider when planning theories of change for my own projects. What I got, though, were the eight theories that other people had used the most (at least in published literature on STEM changes), but it felt like, quite possibly, those other people had randomly picked a theory they were familiar with and that sounded reasonable (kind of like what I’ve been doing with communities of practice and self-determination theory myself).

Reading through those eight theories drove home the point which I also describe in my summary of Kezar & Holcombe’s article, that it is important to not only take one specific theory of change, but look at change more comprehensively from different angles: What does motivate people to change, but also what other conditions need to be in place politically, in the organisation, in the community for that change to actually happen, and then to also be sustained?

What I am missing still missing (and that is not a complaint of this article, more a realisation of what I might have to search for or do myself) is a systematic overview of change theories that are out there, and from that a discussion of how and why some might be more applicable to changing STEM education than others. Can’t someone give me a checklist of all the things I should consider to be on the safe side? ;-)


Reinholz, D., White, I., & Andrews, T. (2021). Change theory in STEM higher education: a systematic review. International Journal of STEM Education, 8(37), 1 – 22. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1186/s40594-021-00291-2

Communities of practice

Summarising my reading on “communities of practice”, and my views on how this framework might be useful for thinking about change in our context, for our iEarth/BioCEED-led course on “leading educational change”…

Communities of practice are often used as a model for “learning through participation”, describing how culture influences how knowledge within organisations is built and shared, and aspired to when cultural change is worked towards. Identities, how they develop and how they influence how people behave are central in this framework: for members of a CoP, their membership in this CoP and participation in its shared practice are defining parts of their identity.

The concept of CoPs was developed by Etienne Wenger (1998) and has since been widely adopted. A brief description and definition are given in Wenger (2011):

“Communities of practice are groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.”

A community of practice (CoP) has three defining characteristics:

  • A shared domain of interest or expertise which brings people together (the expertise does not have to be formally recognised).
  • A community in which people interact regularly, learn together, share experiences and stories, all related to the shared domain of interest.
  • A practice of the shared domain of interest, which the community engages in together, thus developing a shared repertoire of skills, stories, tools, which improves their practice.

What exactly happens in a CoP can take many different forms, for example brainstorming ideas to solve a problem, sharing information, materials, experiences, combining efforts to create synergies, or building comprehensive archives of solutions.

In all cases, negotiating shared meaning is essential: “reification”, the process of creating objects that represent a more abstract concept, helps organise discussions by visualising understanding, and documenting results for future reference. However, theses simplified symbols can also be misunderstood or taken out of context, or take away agency when they are imposed on people who weren’t part of the reification process. It is therefore important that participation and reification always occur together.

Roles in a CoP

Despite CoPs often being informal in nature, in order for people to consistently do things together, they do require someone to take on the role of community coordinator.

What I really like about CoPs as a framework is that — in addition to full members which fully identify with participation in the CoP, there are many legitimate ways to participate without being a full member:

    • people might be on an inbound trajectory: new members are learning to participate in the practice of a community, transforming their identity to become a full member. It changes how they participate in the world and at the same time who they are, what they do, and who they do it with
    • people might also be on an outbound trajectory: students are encouraged to grow, to try on different roles and idetities, and ultimately leave when they’ve found the best fit
    • people might also be brokers: peripherally participating in several CoPs and making connections across CoPs, this way create new meaning. But: “uprootedness is an occupational hazard of brokering”, and organisations are still learning to recognise and appreciate the value of brookers.

In addition to by brokers, flow of information can also happen by artefacts (which, as boundary objects, transport meaning in or out) and through interactions (for example through shared projects with other communities of practice).

Even for people who don’t identify as brokers, membership in several communities of practice is common — often with different domains of expertise, or in different, possibly overlapping communities on the same domain. Wenger (1998) describes how identifying too strongly with one CoP can hinder innovation, and how participation in any kind of learning opportunity will only have lasting effects if the home institution’s culture allows for any new aspects to be integrated with the person’s identity and in the CoP at home. Encouraging multi-membership, for example in a work-place related CoP and one that is focussed on family life, helps not tear people apart.

The existence of a CoP does not mean that there are no conflicts and disagreements: “As a form of participation, rebellion often reveals greater commitment than does passive conformity” (Wenger, 1998). However, newcomers might not lead to as much change as one might think, because their desire to become part of the community might lead to them not wanting to rebel too much too early on.

Developing a CoP

Communities of practice are not necessarily formalised in clubs or committees, they can form spontaneously or be designed purposefully. They typically go through 5 different stages (Wenger et al., 2002).

  • potential: figuring out whether there is enough shared interest and the will to engage in a shared practice
  • coalescence: the CoP is “launched” and members are recruited
  • maturation: the CoP changes from sharing tips & tricks between friends to a formal structure
  • stewardship: the CoP tries to keep on going as people might get tired and boundary conditions change
  • transformation: the CoP might change dramatically or die

When designing a CoP, there are seven principles to consider (Wenger, 2002):

  • Design the community to evolve naturally. A CoP is carried by the voluntary efforts of its members, their interests and goals. All of these might change with time, which will need to also change the community.
  • Create opportunities for open dialogue within and with outside perspectives. Not all expertise is necessarily already available within the community, so seeking it out and welcoming it is helpful
  • Welcome and allow different levels of participation. See different roles above — not everybody has to be a full member to be respected and welcomed.
  • Develop both public and private community spaces. This accommodates members’ different preferred styles and keeps the community open for new ideas.
  • Focus on the value of the community. Reflecting on the value of the community helps sustain motivation.
  • Combine familiarity and excitement. Members need both predictability, e.g. in routines and regular meetings, as well as excitement, e.g. spontaneous events and new input.
  • Nurture a regular rhythm for the community. Interacting and practising together regularly is the backbone of a CoP.

None of these are super surprising, but together they are a nice set of criteria to check against when developing a theory of change.

How communities of practices have been applied to educational change

Wenger (2011) describes three ways how educational practices are affected by communities of practice:

  • Internally: Building communities of practice in which students learn in school
  • Externally: Connecting in-school learning to the actual practice in the real world
  • Over the lifetime of students: Making sure that students remain part of communities of practice when they transition from school into a job and then onwards

Wenger (2011) focusses on how students are involved in communities of practice, not on teachers and their learning, but for the purpose of our own change project, this is equally applicable to teachers. But communities of practice have been used to design and explain change in academia (and also in many other contexts! But my focus here is on educational settings) by many other authors in all three contexts.

Internal

Tinnell et al. (2019) report on the positive impact a specific type of CoP, a faculty learning community (FLC), had at an engineering faculty for both faculty (getting real-time feedback, better student interactions, teaching teamwork, peer collaborations) and students (changed attitudes and effort, better understanding, better teamwork), with the change persisting up to 2 years after the end of the FLC. They attribute the changes to

  • monthly meetings that provided accountability and support
  • the relationships developed within the FLC between peers
  • sharing of ressources within the FLC

External

Mårtensson & Roxå (2014) look at learning and professional development through two different communities of practice, one across all of Sweden, the other international, and stress the experience of a joint enterprise in participants. A repeated, predictable, long-term nature of the project, rather than a one-off week-long workshop, is important if a long-term impact, for example on professional practice or identity development, is desired. They also show that creating artefacts is an important tool to negotiate shared meaning and build community.

Gehrke & Kezar (2017) identify the ways in which individual faculty involvement in four CoPs engaged in STEM reform efforts is associated with perceived benefits for their home departments and institutions. They find that positive outcomes for individuals hoping to influence broad organisational goals are related to involved in a CoP over a long period of time, and to presenting results from that CoP to the outside, for example at conferences, potentially giving them legitimacy at their home institutions to drive change. Another helpful strategy seems to encourage participants to join the CoP in a team with peers, thus being able to continue conversations at their home institution. And even having participated in the same workshops individually provides a shared language and trust.

From that study, Gehrke & Kezar (2017) give four recommendations to people wanting to design communities of practices to reform STEM education:

  • make sure people receive enough support to stay engaged for long periods of time,
  • bring people in in small teams of peers from each institution
  • help community members become confident and skilled in the subject itself and in communicating about it
  • bring in key leaders to support members and help change the culture

Bernstein-Sierra & Kezar (2017) identify five challenges and possible solutions that national STEM education communities of practice faced:

  • Funding: Communities of practice often rely on soft money. The advice is to adopt a “self-sustaining mindset”, i.e. live within their means, merge with a larger organization with more fund, or commercialising.
  • Leadership: As the CoP matures, demands on leadership change and therefore the leader might either have to develop or make space for someone else — who needs to be suited and/or developed for that role.
  • Legitimacy: Recruiting new members becomes easier when there is evidence of effectivity, e.g. self-assessment data
  • Staleness: When the novelty wears off, members might become tired and/or bored. This can be met with openness to criticizm, advisory boards, new leadership.
  • Maintaining integrity: As things change, new acivities might not be in line with the CoP’s original mission. There needs to be reflection on and re-evaluation of goals, and transparency about this.

Lifetime

Still reading? Yeah, me too, will add to this point later! :-) I’m actually a bit skeptical if I will find a lot of literature here, seeing that I described above how CoPs have life cycles that end with substantial change or the end of a CoP.

My reflection

For me, reading Wenger (1998) was quite a transformative experience, because it gave me language and a framework to articulate a lot of things I had observed but was not able to articulate, for example relating to the role of brokers. Purposefully building CoPs, considering especially legitimate peripheral particpants and how identities are anchored in home institutions and need to potentially change if new ideas are to be implemented back home, seems like a better way to approach cultural change than I’ve been involved in before.

But: Considering my reading of Kezar & Holcombe (2019), I am now more aware than ever that CoPs are just one lens (despite one I like a lot!) on culture change, and that there are contextual factors that need to be considered in addition, that the framework of CoP does not address. But I guess that’s why we are doing this “leading educational change” course — to figure out which other lenses we want to include to tackle the big issues the right way! :-)


Bernstein-Sierra, S., & Kezar, A. (2017). Identifying and overcoming challenges in STEM reform: A study of four national STEM reform communities of practice. Innovative Higher Education, 42(5), 407–420. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10755-01 7-9395-x.

Gehrke, S., & Kezar, A. (2017). The Roles of STEM Faculty Communities of Practice in Institutional and Departmental Reform in Higher Education. American Educational Research Journal, 54(5), 803–833. https://doi.org/10.3102/0002 831217706736

Mårtensson, K., & Roxå, T. (2014). Promoting learning and professional development through communities of practice. Perspectives on Pedagogy and Practice, 5.

Tinnell, T. L., Ralston, P. A. S., Tretter, T. R., & Mills, M. E. (2019). Sustaining pedagogical change via faculty learning community. International Journal of STEM Education, 6(1), 26. https://doi.org/10.1186/s40594-019-0180-5.

Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of practice: Learning, meaning, and identity. Cambridge university press.

Wenger, E., McDermott, R. A., & Snyder, W. (2002). Cultivating communities of practice: A guide to managing knowledge. Harvard business press.

Wenger, E. (2011). Communities of practice: A brief introduction. [here]

Quick summary of literature on the Teacher-Centered Systemic Reform

As preparation for our next meeting in iEarth & bioCEED’s course on “Leading Educational Change”, I am reading up on “Teacher-Centered Systemic Reform” (TCSR).

The motivation to develop TCSR as a new model to plan and ealuate change arose of observations of “the school reform paradox: change without difference”, i.e. a century worth of school reforms that did not fundamentally change what happens in schools in the US. Previous attempts to understand why change did not happen were insufficient since they only focussed on individual facets. Woodbury & Gess-Newsome (2002) thus proposed the TCSR model, which they describe as a “multifaceted yet focused and dynamic model of educational reform”.

The TCSR model considers of three factors: the general context, contextual factors of structure and culture in the system a teacher is working in, and the teachers’ personal context.

Contextual factors of structure and culture are for example the local context (e.g. what are the governing policies around education, standards, curricula, assessment; how are teachers educated and evaluated; what teaching materials are being used; what are the student demographics; what are cultural norms), the school context (e.g. type & size of school, physical settings, budget, schedules, technology, …), the department & subject area context (e.g. teachers’ teaching loads, budget choices), and the classroom context (e.g. student demographics, class size, time of day, materials & technology, …).

Personal contextual factors are for example demographic things like gender and age, how prepared a teacher is, how much teaching experience they have, and their ongoing efforts to learn about teaching and learning generally and as applied to their subject.

Those factors all interact with and influence the teachers’ thinking when it comes to their knowledge and beliefs regarding teaching and learning, choice of content, etc., thus influencing their practice.

The TCSR model can be used to develop or evaluate reforms. For example, when a new technology is supposed to be introduced in teaching practice, it is helpful to consider that it is most likely to happen if it is congruent with the teachers’ beliefs and knowledge, but also that it needs to be available at their school and supported by culture at the school and in the wider context. In evaluation, the TCSR model provides different factors whose influence can be investigated.

The TCSR model has been applied in different ways, for example:

Birt et al. (2019) use TCSR to understand why new college instructors react to reform attempts the way they do — or don’t: The local teaching environment inhibited some reform attempts to the point that instructors felt their hands were tied, and using the TCSR model helped identify barriers. Birt et al. then identified agency as a new factor to be included in the TCSR model, that can help instructors overcome hindering influences of the context they are working in. They state that “empowering new instructors to enact teaching practices that go against the grain and support student learning, rather than maintain the status quo, is paramount.

Ferrare (2019) uses TCSR to support the assumption that classroom practice is determined by teachers’ beliefs and the context they are in, which is then confirmed by their own study on >70 teachers and >140 hours of classroom observation. They focus on the connection between teacher beliefs and observable practice, and find that educational reforms need to address beliefs in order to change practices.

While I appreciate the different lenses on what makes teachers change their instruction and the checklist of factors to keep in mind as potentially important, I’m not sold on the TCSR model as useful for my purposes as no mechanisms are considered or suggested.


Birt, J. A., Khajeloo, M., Rega‐Brodsky, C. C., Siegel, M. A., Hancock, T. S., Cummings, K., & Nguyen, P. D. (2019). Fostering agency to overcome barriers in college science teaching: Going against the grain to enact reform‐based ideas. Science Education, 103(4), 770-798.

Ferrare, J. J. (2019). A multi-institutional analysis of instructional beliefs and practices in gateway courses to the sciences. CBE—Life Sciences Education, 18(2), ar26.

Woodbury, S., & Gess-Newsome, J. (2002). Overcoming the Paradox of Change without Difference: A Model of Change in the Arena of Fundamental School Reform. Educational Policy, 16(5), 763–782.doi:10.1177/089590402237312

Podcasts on learning and teaching, career development, and mental health in academia

Over the summer, I’ve really gotten into podcasts, mainly to get new perspectives and ideas on university teaching, and also on life in academia. Here are several that I listen to regularly when I’m going for walks and that I can fully recommend! And by “fully recommend” I mean that I listen to all new episodes that they put out, and browse the archives when I am looking for inspiration… So here is who you should be listening to, too!*

Podcasts on university teaching

Lecture breakers

Barbi Honeycutt’s “Lecture Breakers” is — quite literally — on things that break up a lecture and engage students in active learning, which she talks about from her own experience and with many different guests. This podcast I would highly recommend to people who want to get tons of new, actionable ideas to change things up in their teaching practice, for example great ideas for reflection prompts (My take on this here: “take on a role and write a summary from that perspective“), or creative ways to end the semester, or sooo many more! There are, in fact, so many cool ideas that I am not even going to attempt compiling them here. Check it out!

Teaching in higher ed

Bonni Stachowiak has insightful conversations with different guests, and listening to “teaching in higher ed” is getting kind of expensive because I keep ordering the books recommended on there (like “invisible learning” that I wrote about earlier, where the interview with the author was great and the book even better).

The first episode I ever listened to (on “becoming a minority“) blew me away because it exposed me to a way of thinking about minorities and experiences connected to being in the majority vs the minority that was completely new to me, especially by seeing it through the eyes of someone who grew up in the majority, then moved, and then “became” a minority, so knows both sides of the coin.

The next episode (on “teaching effectively with zoom“) then provided me with great ideas right when I needed them, and the rest is history. I love how different the different episodes are, I usually feel like I have been exposed to completely new ways of thinking. I take so many actionable ideas and tricks away from it that I don’t want to imagine what my online teaching would look like without the input from this podcast!

Tea for teaching

This is a series of informal conversations between a core team and invited experts on different topics. Experts can be researchers in educational sciences, experienced teachers, students, or anyone else with relevant expertise.

My first episode there (and the one that made me subscribe) was on “gender and groups“, a conversation about a recent study that showed that in a setting where women are the minority when planning small group work, spreading them out over as many groups as possible is actually doing them a disservice. For the women, it is better to be the majority in the groups they are in (and then just not represented at all in others). Interestingly, being in the majority is good for the women, being in the minority doesn’t have a harmful effect on the men, so there seems to be no downside to just implement this going forward!

Another memorable episode was on “engaging students“, where students were included in a project to figure out how they actually like being engaged in class, and asked for the advice they would give their teachers. While there wasn’t a big newsflash happening for me, it was still very interesting to be reminded of how important it is to learn student names (or even just call them by their name that you read off of zoom or a name tent — it’s the intent that matters), and similar small-ish hacks.

Another recent episode dealt with the impact that faculty mindsets have on student achievement (an instructor with a growth mindset leads to more learning!), and by what mechanisms the mindset is communicated to students (e.g. by what they say, how they give feedback, what type of assessment they use, …). And there might actually be mindset interventions that we could do on instructors to change their mindsets towards a growth mindset, which would then have an effect on many many students down the line!

Other episodes focus on super courses (meaning courses that deal with fascinating, big questions throughout that students can identify with and want to actually work on), or capstone experiences (“a course with no content” at the end of a study program that “can provide students with a rich learning experience full of analysis and insights”).

And browsing past episodes now, I noticed that I really want to revisit the one on “critical race theory“. Love this podcast, always inspiring!

Dead ideas in teaching and learning

Is literally about “dead ideas”, i.e. beliefs about teaching and learning that have been proven wrong but that keep persisting. For example using a few high-stakes essays: that’s not teaching, that’s assessing.

Coping with all kinds of challenges in academia

The academic imperfectionist

The academic imperfectionist” is a coaching podcast with episodes on topics as awesome as “how to work as efficiently as you procrastinate“. This is the only podcast where I actually went back and listened to ALL available episodes, and it is the first one I catch up on if I didn’t listen to podcasts for a while. You NEED to listen to this yourself!

The agile academic

The agile academic” is a podcast for women in and around higher ed, on their experiences and the strategies that they have developed to cope and strive. I love that I knew some the inspiring women interviewed on this podcast already from different contexts (for example Bonni Stachowiak from her awesome podcast “Teaching in higher ed” (see above), and Susanna Harris from her mental health advocacy work Twitter), and that I get to see them in a new light now that I learn more about them.

The professor is in

The professor is in” is super helpful for a new perspective on “passion” as the driving force in academia that lets us put up with crappy employment situations. If we are really so passionate about our jobs, can we complain? Or, on the other side of that coin, is “passion” really something we should value this much? (Spoiler alert: nope)

Squiggly Careers

This podcast is about non-linear career paths and is SUPER interesting. The episode that got me hooked was on “how to redefine success in a squiggly career“. They are clearly speaking my language when they talk about thinking about what being successful means. The picture they use to describe impact on people beyond ourselves is that of making bigger and bigger ripples that grow wider and wider. So how can we make sure that ripples become as large as possible and reach as far as possible? We could throw a pebble into the sea, make ripples more defined, reach further, or interact with others! Might be just me, but this image (and this approach of thinking in an analogy) really spoke to me.

Another episode, on “how to build a personal board for your career“, very much reminded me of our ESWN “mentoring map”, but in a complementary way.

What they do really really well (and other podcasts do this, too, but I specifically love theirs) are one-page summaries. And I find it super useful that they have transcripts readily available, because as much as I like listening to podcasts, sometimes I just want to skim over the content, and then reading is a lot faster for me!

So this is it, my current list of go-to podcasts. Hope you’ll check some of them out! :)


*Keep in mind, though, that there are many more awesome podcasts on the same topic out there, and that these are my personal favourites. And what makes them my favourite is, for example, how long they are and if they fit well with the typical amount of time I want to spend on a podcast, i.e. the length of a walk or run (all these 10 minute episodes give me way too much opportunity to consider pausing a run, I need a substantial amount of time immerged and not thinking ;-)). I am noticing that they are all the podcasts I list here are hosted or at least co-hosted by women, for example, and it is quite likely that that is a bias I introduced because these just happen to be the podcasts I enjoy listening to, where I relate to the hosts and their stories. So please take this list only as a starting point and find the podcasts that are the best fit for your preferences!

P.S.: In the summer, my blog was mentioned in the newsletters of Teaching in Higher Ed and Lecture Breakers, both on the same day! How cool is it that those people that I pull so much inspiration and so many ideas from are aware of this blog and even think it worth sharing? Makes me feel very proud!

 

8 steps to accelerate change in your organization (Kotter, 2018)

I’ve been thinking a lot about driving change recently (especially in the context of the “leading educational change” course by iEarth and BioCEED), and found the Kotter Inc. website on the topic super helpful. They provide a free e-book on the “8 steps to accelerate change in your organization” which I want to summarise here.

The 8 “accelerated” steps build on a previous version from 1996. The old version of leading change was about discrete, finite projects that were dealt with in a systematic, linear way, by a small group within a hierarchy. The new version, however, is about dynamically addressing changes when opportunities open up while continuously working towards change, using a broad coalition of people throughout the organisation as well as the traditional hierarchy.

Four change principles

It is worth keeping in mind four change principles that support the change process:

  1. Leadership + Management: The change process needs a group of people taking on responsibility for it and managing the efforts, as well as providing the vision and positive reinforcement
  2. Head + Heart: Logic alone is usually not enough to inspire action, but if people are involved emotionally and see a worthy goal that they can contribute to, they are often willing to invest a lot of time and energy
  3. Select Few + Diverse Many: Change does not only need to happen top-down, but a change process should open up opportunities to contribute to change to everybody who wants to be involved, and this might reveal to date unknown potential for change
  4. “Have to” + “want to”: If the goal seems meaningful and people feel genuinely included in the process, they will want to contribute beyond their role as defined by their job description

Keeping in mind these four principles, there are 8 steps to the change process as described by Kotter.

8 steps to accelerate change in your organisation

1. Create a sense of urgency

People are a lot more likely to come together and put in a lot of effort if there is an opportunity opening up now, that will not be there forever. Creating this perceived urgency to change things before a window of opportunity might close again helps get people together and willing to act now.

What does this mean for our own change project?

  • We need to be able to identify an opportunity that can be used to create such urgency when it opens up. How would we recognise it if it appeared, what kinds of criteria are we looking for?
  • We need to be able to communicate that THIS is THE OPPORTUNITY. And for that, we need a plan.
  • We need to have a realistic idea of the change we want to create. What would be the impact if all went well, and what would be worse case scenarios?

2. Build a guiding coalition

The idea behind the guiding coalition to drive change is that if the coalition consists of the classical team that would always be assigned to lead change, the results are very likely the same as they’ve been up to that point (i.e. not fundamentally challenging the status quo). Therefore, it makes sense to assemble a team that is diverse on all metrics, but especially from different functions within the organisation, including all geographic locations of the organisation, etc.. But everybody has to be willing to actually work in a team that is built across hierarchies and functions, and needs to be committed to the common goal.

3. Form a strategic vision and initiatives

A strategic vision and initiatives is what other people might call a theory of change: How will the changed future be better from where we are now? How will we get there; i.e. where exactly are we now, what are initiatives that need to happen, how will we get people to support and adopt the change, how will we know that change is happening, …?

4. Enlist a volunteer army

We need a critical mass of people supporting the change initiative. That means, we need to invite and inspire people to take part, but then also give them the agency to become part of the change in whatever way they decide. 15% of people involved in an organisation are enough to get a change process going, 50% are needed for the change “to stick”. But recruiting and inspiring once is not enough — we also need to look after our volunteers and make sure they stay motivated and engaged and receive recognition for their work.

Kotter also writes that no outsiders need to be bought in, “the existing people hold the energy”, which I found really interesting.

5. Enable actions by removing barriers

Historical structures can effectively prevent change, so breaking up old structures that are no longer serving a purpose might be a good step towards enabling change.

Barriers that need to be removed can be found by considering why previous change attempts failed. Were decisions made by the wrong people, were people sticking to beliefs that weren’t helpful (“this is just not going to work in our context”), were procedures slowing things down so much that people gave up, was support from the leadership missing, …?

6. Generate short-term wins

Anything moving us towards the final goal is a win — an action that has been taken, a lesson that is learned, a new product that is created, something that happened in a different way than it always did. And if we can recognise and communicate wins, we can use this to sustain momentum over a longer period of time by motivating all our volunteers, and to create a narrative of how the change happened.

And we can also plan for those wins in advance, and how we’ll use them to generate momentum or show change happening across the organisation etc.

7. Sustain acceleration

When you see things beginning to move, don’t relax. Now is the time to press even harder, because clearly what you did is working! If you slow down now and then don’t reach the goal, it is going to be a lot harder to motivate people a second time, seeing that the efforts “failed” the first time round… So remind yourself (and everybody else) about the goal and why it’s urgent to take action now, and if you started out with some sort of campaign to create urgency, maybe it would be a great time to bring it back, to re-energize the existing team and to recruit more members, that will come with new energy and a fresh perspective on things.

8. Institute change

Now that we have changed something within our organisation, we need to make sure that people stick to this “new normal” and don’t fall back into old routines or practices. Therefore, we need to create the narrative, supported and disseminated by leadership, relating the way things are now to the organisation’s current and future success, and for management to set in place a framework that supports this new way of being (i.e. creating the “barriers” against unwanted change that we tore down in step 5 ;-)).

All of this might change parts of the organisational structure, but it won’t overthrow hierarchies but rather work with them to create the change we want.