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Moving Toward Student-centered Learning: Motivation and the Nature of Teaching Changes Among Faculty in an Ongoing Teaching Development Group

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2018 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


Salt Lake City, Utah

Publication Date

June 23, 2018

Start Date

June 23, 2018

End Date

July 27, 2018

Conference Session

Research in Faculty Development

Tagged Topic

Faculty Development Constituency Committee

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Paper Authors


Jill K. Nelson George Mason University

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Jill Nelson is an associate professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at George Mason University. She earned a BS in Electrical Engineering and a BA in Economics from Rice University in 1998. She attended the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign for graduate study, earning an MS and PhD in Electrical Engineering in 2001 and 2005, respectively. Dr. Nelson's research focus is in statistical signal processing, specifically detection and estimation for applications in target tracking and physical layer communications. Her work on target detection and tracking is funded by the Office of Naval Research. Dr. Nelson is a 2010 recipient of the NSF CAREER Award. She is a member of Phi Beta Kappa, Tau Beta Pi, Eta Kappa Nu, and the IEEE Signal Processing, Communications, and Education Societies.

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Margret Hjalmarson George Mason University

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Margret Hjalmarson is a Professor in the Graduate School of Education at George Mason University. Her research interests include engineering education, mathematics education, faculty development and mathematics teacher leadership.

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Motivation and Background

This research paper describes a study of how faculty participating in ongoing teaching development select and implement evidence-based teaching strategies. Despite evidence of effectiveness [1], STEM instructors can be hesitant to adopt research-supported practices for student-centered learning. To broaden adoption of student-centered practices, we created a network of faculty learning communities [2] to support instructors learning about and using interactive teaching. Through these discipline-specific teaching development groups (TDGs), instructors worked together to become familiar with, implement, and revise/improve evidence-based interactive teaching strategies. We explored participants’ motivations for changing their instructional practices, and we studied the nature of the changes they made. One principle governing the operation of the TDGs is that they are people-driven. Instructors are motivated to participate by their own teaching interests and are introduced to a menu of possible strategies. Similarly, instructors make individual decisions about what strategies they will use and how. Analysis of instructors’ motivations for selecting teaching strategies and their choices around implementing those strategies provides insight about what aspects of ongoing teaching development are most valuable to instructors and about what types of change toward student-centered learning are “digestable” and sustainable.


We considered TDG activity over two years. A total of eight TDGs were active -- two only in year one, three only in year two, and three across both years. Each TDG operated within a different STEM department and met regularly (roughly monthly) throughout the academic year. We conducted annual interviews with TDG leaders and participants and created transcripts of monthly meetings of TDG leaders. In addition, group leaders completed monthly check-in reports about group activities and challenges. Group participants completed individual check-in reports annually. We used a grounded coding scheme to identify common themes characterizing participants’ motivations to explore new teaching strategies and the nature of the practices they adopted.


Common challenges instructors faced included improving student motivation, interaction, and engagement, particularly in large courses; increasing students’ self-efficacy; encouraging students to take risks; and reaching a range of students. Instructors wanted to gain both “technical and mental support” from the TDG, i.e., gather new ideas and strategies and learn from others’ experiences while building relationships around teaching. Many participants described the risks inherent in making changes to teaching and in being part of a TDG. They identified concerns about student resistance to change, about failing in implementing new techniques, and about sharing their challenges and failures. Reflecting on sharing teaching challenges within a TDG, one participant said: “It was challenging to sort of expose yourself and open yourself out to thinking critically about your own ideas about teaching. I think it makes anyone a little bit uncomfortable to put themselves under a microscope.” About the risks of trying new strategies, another participant noted, “Most people think they are doing a really good job, and to take chances where it looks like to the outside world that you are not on top of things – this can be really scary.”

The full paper will present a detailed analysis of the data to more deeply understand the motivations of participants and identify common characteristics of teaching strategies they chose to adopt.


[1] National Research Council, Discipline-based education research: Understanding and improving learning in undergraduate science and engineering, The National Academies Press, 2012. 

[2] E. Wenger, Communities of practice: Learning, meaning, and identity, Cambridge University Press, 1999. 

Nelson, J. K., & Hjalmarson, M. (2018, June), Moving Toward Student-centered Learning: Motivation and the Nature of Teaching Changes Among Faculty in an Ongoing Teaching Development Group Paper presented at 2018 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition , Salt Lake City, Utah. 10.18260/1-2--30828

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