This post discusses how instructors' beliefs about educational practice are influenced by their self-experience, which is formed by their experiences as students and as practitioners in the classroom. The post notes that early experiences tend to form beliefs that are highly resistant to change and that people may avoid confronting contrary evidence or engaging in discussion that might harm these beliefs. Additionally, there is evidence that the greatest resistance to change in academia comes from cohort effects, which form during an individual's coming of age in academia. To address this, the post suggests creating professional development programs for experienced faculty to help them gain a fresh perspective on teaching and learning.

The non-italicized portions below are excerpted from portions of my dissertation-in-progress.  Just so we’re clear, the quoted material in this post is strictly copyrighted (not licensed under the CC for the rest of the blog).

There is little doubt that self-experience influences beliefs (Nespor, 1987 and Goodman, 1988 as cited by Pajares, 1992). Instructors’ self-experience regarding educational practice comes first from their own experiences as a student (e.g. how they experienced instruction from a students persepective), and second, from their experiences as a practitioner in the classroom (e.g. the outcomes they observed as a result of their instruction). Early experiences tend to form beliefs that are highly resistant to change (Pajares, 1992). These beliefs are so strong that people will go out of their way to avoid confronting contrary evidence or engage in discussion that might harm these beliefs (Pajares, 1992). Instructors may present particularly resilient educational beliefs they spent years experiencing the system of education and likely, and most had positive identification with education to be motivated to pursue a career in it (Pajares, 1992; Ginsburg and Newman, 1985).

There is some natural resistance to change as a result of the human aging process, but there is also evidence that the greatest resistance to change in academia seems to come from cohort effects (Lawrence & Blackburn, 1985). In the cohort effect, new propositions may be in conflict with the longstanding core beliefs of an individual, which formed during the time that they came of age in academia. Faculty careers are best explained by the cohort model – that is, “…professors who complete their graduate work and achieve tenure during the same historical era are enculturated with a particular set of values that remain constant over time” (Lawrence & Blackburn, 1985, p. 137). Further evidence of this can be found in the 2004-2005 HERI Faculty Survey, which found that there were considerable differences in the use of student-centered instruction versus teacher centered instruction across the different faculty career stages (see figure below). Early-career faculty were more likely to use a variety of student-centered instructional practices (i.e. group projects, student presentations, reflective writing) and advanced-career faculty were more likely to use extensive lecturing (Lindholm et al., 2005).


Recognizing that an instructor is most likely to change during the time they “come of age” in academia, many faculty development programs target brand-new faculty.  What follows are descriptions of two of the math-specific programs that are aimed at new faculty.

Project NeXT and Project ACCCESS are professional development programs, sponsored by MAA and AMATYC respectively, that focus on brand-new college math faculty. Project NeXT (New Experiences in Teaching) is for new or recent Ph.D.s and provides training on, among other things, improving the teaching and learning of mathematics (LaRose, 2009). Project ACCCESS (Advancing Community College Careers: Education, Scholarship, Service) is a mentoring and professional development initiative that was conceived originally as a version of Project NeXT for community college faculty. ACCCESS is now wholly administered by AMATYC, and its mission is “to provide experiences that will help new faculty become more effective teachers and active members of the broader mathematical community.” (Project ACCCESS website, 2009).

So, let’s be clear here.  I don’t think we use the cohort effect as an argument to give up on mid- and advanced-career faculty. But given the cohort effect, it may be necessary to give experienced faculty an intense and lengthy experience that causes them to “come of age” again in academia. For example, many participants in our week-long Math & Technology workshop have told us that they had forgotten what it was truly like to be in the student role. After a week of being confronted with lots of new technology and experiencing learning in new (and much more active) ways, these faculty tell us they have fresh perspective on teaching and learning.  Will that translate into more student-centered instructional practices?  I have no idea.  But I’d like to see AMATYC and MAA create a professional development program for a cohort of experienced faculty every year, using the model already established for Project NeXT and ACCCESS.

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