Thursday, January 21, 2010

The power (?) of incentives in changing faculty behavior

I am at the AACU Conference in Washington DC. I spent yesterday at a pre-conference gathering of the Leadership Coalition, a consortium of 50 or so colleges working on "transformational change" initiatives, esp. those that focus on developing the whole student and ensuring a broad view of student well-being.

The Coalition has sponsored a survey of faculty to see what sort of innovations they prefer and why. They reported findings from a pilot survey yesterday. (They are doing a bigger survey using the same tool this spring.) Two interesting things:

1. 87% of faculty report changing their syllabi, and 34% report adopting a new pedagogy at least once a year. I'm not sure if this is a sign of innovation, but it does mean faculty play with the content of their courses more than their approach to teaching.

2. When asked what sort of incentives exist on their campuses to support innovation in teaching, faculty said the most common was "a culture that values excellent teaching" followed by "recognition (i.e. teaching awards)," "administrative support," and at the bottom, "course release" and "stipends". When asked what sort of incentive would get them to change their teaching, by far the two most powerful were "stipends (76% of faculty agreed)" and "course release (73% of faculty agreed)." The least influential, by far, were teaching awards (33%)

Now this second finding alone is unsurprising, even if it is a bit disappointing. (Here I will refer you yet again to two of my favorite TED talks: this one by Barry Schwartz and this one by Dan Pink both questioning the power of financial incentives to bring about positive, lasting change.) Its implication is that faculty will change their behavior, for a time, for between $500 and $3000 dollars.

But one further bit of data was more interesting: there is no correlation between the existence of stipends (or course releases) and faculty satisfaction or stress level. Nor is there a correlation between awards and satisfaction. Or, put another way, a stipend might change faculty behavior for a while, but it won't make faculty feel better about their work.

Why? Because stipends really function as a way to get faculty to temporarily change their priorities in a context where they already feel overwhelmed. But they do nothing to respond to that feeling of being swamped. (In fact, they might heighten that feeling.)

Interestingly, faculty who frequently revise their syllabi, or who adopt new pedagogies, do score higher on satisfaction. And, as the overall number of types of support for innovation increases, faculty feel more satisfied and flourish more. Why is this? Two theories (these are mine, though influenced by the conversation at the session): 1. that course revisions are signs of faculty control of their own core activities, and 2. the number of types of support for innovation is a sign that the institutional culture values the creative work of faculty.

What does this mean for people responsible for faculty development or change on campuses? Some simple but important things:

stay busy--providing lots of development options not only increases the possibility that you will influence more faculty but it also makes faculty as a whole feel like the institution values their work

start where the faculty are--find out what sorts of changes are already going on, and support them. Doing so builds on the intrinsic motivation that faculty already have. It also means that healthy faculty development will be obvious when small groups of faculty have chosen to work together (with institutional support) on topics of their own choosing. And a healthy campus culture will be when a large proportion of faculty are involved in these small groups.

Not rocket science I know. But also not general practice, which is instead characterized by a single approach to faculty development (ie workshops) and a set of initiatives that may or may not appeal broadly to faculty.

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