UMass Amherst Awarded $842,571 National Science Foundation Grant Aimed at Improving Undergraduate Education

Gabriela Weaver
Gabriela Weaver, vice provost for faculty development and director of the Institute for Teaching Excellence and Faculty Development

AMHERST, Mass. – With funding from the National Science Foundation, the University of Massachusetts Amherst is part of a $2.8 million federal grant intended to help departments provide a richer evaluation of faculty teaching with the long term goal of supporting the use of educational practices that have been shown to improve student learning.

The funding will support work in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines as well as other departments.

The five-year collaborative project includes the University of Colorado Boulder, University of Kansas and Michigan State University. UMass Amherst’s share of the grant is $842,571, says Gabriela Weaver, vice provost for faculty development and director of the campus’s Institute for Teaching Excellence and Faculty Development.

“Universities have long relied on student surveys as the sole means of evaluating teaching. That approach has hindered the adoption of evidence-based teaching practices, which emphasize student learning as the central outcome of instruction,” says Weaver, the lead investigator at UMass Amherst who will also oversee the project as a whole. “These teaching practices are known to result in deeper learning and greater success for students, in addition to closing performance gaps between underrepresented minority group students and majority group students.”

The project will help departments adapt and implement new evaluation frameworks that draw from multiple sources of evidence, including the instructor’s materials, peer feedback, and student voices – thus providing a more complete measure of the many types of activities that contribute to teaching, especially as we move towards more approaches that involve less in-class lecturing but much more engagement with students and advance planning.  

To develop an alternative, the researchers will draw on two decades of scholarship about teaching and evaluation to implement a new framework for assessing the quality and effectiveness of instructional methods. Overall, says Weaver, the project is intended to help faculty members create a shared vision of good teaching in their discipline, identify appropriate forms of evidence of good teaching, and apply the resulting framework for uses such as mentoring, annual evaluations, promotion and tenure. By better identifying the elements of teaching they value most, academic departments can support and provide recognition for good teachers and ultimately provide better instruction for students.

The teams at UMass Amherst, Colorado and Kansas will use approaches that are best suited to the culture of their own campuses. The work on each campus will center on the development and use of an evaluation process that provides a richer, more complete view of teaching, as well as the evidence that supports using the tool.  Some of this work has already begun at UMass Amherst through an effort begun last year in a faculty working group co-chaired by Martha Stassen, assistant provost for assessment and educational effectiveness, and Weaver.  The faculty working group has developed a set of recommendations for modifying teaching evaluation practices. The grant will allow interested departments to begin adapting these to their needs and piloting the new approaches as soon as next fall. The researcher at Michigan State will conduct case studies to examine the process of transformation within and across the three campuses, focusing on what approaches work most effectively under what circumstances.

“Leaders and faculty members at each campus will also share their experiences with colleagues at the other universities, creating institutional networking that will further support the work taking place at each campus,” says Weaver.

The project grew from conversations at meetings of the Bay View Alliance, a network of nine research universities from the United States and Canada working to improve teaching and learning on their campuses. UMass has been a member of the BVA since early 2014.

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