What’s DAT? A new approach to departmental change

Title: Departmental Action Teams: Supporting Faculty Learning Through Departmental Change
Authors: Daniel L. Reinholz, Joel C. Corbo, Melissa Dancy, Noah Finkelstein
First author institution: San Diego State University
Journal: Learning Communities Journal, 9, 5-32 [Closed access]

Developing a new learning or teaching technique isn’t really useful if it isn’t distributed to instructors. Just as important is that its integration is supported and that the integration is sustained. Previous studies have found that sustaining new techniques is difficult, which may contribute to why there hasn’t been widespread change in teaching. Today’s paper introduces a new type of faculty working group, a DAT, that attempts to create and sustain change within an academic department.

So what is a DAT? A DAT is a departmental action team, which consists of 4-8 members of a single department (faculty, postdocs, students, and staff) and 2 DAT facilitators who are not part of the department, who regularly meet over the course of a year or so. The DAT has three mains goals:

  1. Influence departmental culture by addressing an educational issue of departmental interest
  2. Sustain improvements related to the issue by creating long lasting structural changes
  3. Provide a collaborative community-building experience for DAT members

So what exactly do all of these mean? The first one is pretty typical of faculty groups, picking an issue of interest to address. A DAT specifically tries to achieve an outcome rather than solve a problem, since this has been shown to lead to more positive results. In addition, the DAT looks at a departmental issue in contrast to the more common faculty learning communities which tend to focus on issues relevant to the individual.

The second goal is about making sure the outcome is long-term and is sustainable. For example, a professor choosing to switch their course from a traditional lecture course to an active learning course is not sustainable because the progress can be lost if that professor no longer teaches the course. In contrast, if the department transforms the course into an active learning course, any instructor would use the active learning methods and hence the change is sustainable.

The third goal focuses on the community aspect. Unlike faculty learning communities, every member is part of the same department. In addition, the DAT works toward a common goal rather than supporting each member with their own personal goals.

To best explain how a DAT is created and functions, the authors included an example of DAT with an unnamed university department. First, the authors describe forming the DAT and recruiting participants. To get started, the DAT facilitators meet with the chair of the department to get their approval to start a DAT, ensuring that any proposed outcome of the DAT will be taken seriously. Second the DAT facilitators meet with faculty members in the department to gain background about the department and to find possible participants. In the example DAT, two of the interviewed faculty became part of the DAT and then recruited an additional three faculty members.

With the DAT now formed, the facilitators help the members to develop a shared vision for the purpose of the DAT. The first few meetings of the DAT are devoted to defining goals and reaching group consensus on what the desired outcome is. The example department chose greater coherence in the curriculum of the department as its goal, meaning the group wanted to revisit, update, and expand learning goals beyond just content and to make sure the learning goals of single courses fit into a larger whole.

Once the group has decided on an outcome, it can begin to collect data and explore possible solutions. In the case of the example department, the group met with a member of the department’s teaching committee to learn more about the curriculum and to learn how students progress through it. They learned that many of the department’s majors are transfers from other institutions and hence do not take many of the prerequisite courses offered by the department or take the courses in the standard sequence. With the help of the facilitator, the group was also able to get enrollment data to see how students actually progressed through the major. With the data in mind, the group was able to begin to create proposals to reach the desired outcome. The group initially thought about creating a new introductory course but perceived that logistical difficulties would outweigh possible benefits. Since the DAT is outcome based rather than solution-based, the group could freely switch to a different approach rather than be stuck in trying to make the original proposal work.

Finally, the DAT members decided that their desired outcome would best be achieved by creating three “curriculum coordinator” positions who would be responsible for updating and integrating learning goals across the courses. The department chair approved the DAT’s recommendation and even offered faculty who took the role time off from teaching so they could focus on the department’s curriculum. With the creation of the new positions, the outcome of the DAT was sustainable as curriculum coordinators would regularly be returning to and updating the learning goals.

So what can we take away from this paper? The main takeaway is the introduction of DATs as a participant-driven method for creating sustainable, long-term change in a department. Given that this study was completed within the last year, the authors note that they have not been able to assess the impact of the DAT in the example department and if it is actually long term. For more background on DATs than this summary can provide and to keep up with the project, check out the DAT homepage at https://www.colorado.edu/project/dat/

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