Toolkit Resources: Campus Models & Case Studies

Preparing Future STEM Faculty for Diverse Classrooms at the University of Wisconsin–Madison

It’s a common criticism of research-intensive universities that teaching is an afterthought for faculty. The characterization isn’t always fair, but it is true that institutional incentives often favor research productivity over teaching, and many graduate students, especially in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), receive little training as teachers compared with the training they receive as researchers in their disciplines. The Delta program at the University of Wisconsin–Madison (UW–Madison) aims to correct this trend by providing education in teaching theory and practice to graduate students in the STEM fields. The program brings a particular focus on improving learning outcomes for students traditionally underserved by higher education and on closing achievement gaps through the use of  high-impact educational practices.

The program is affiliated with the Center for the Integration of Research, Teaching, and Learning (CIRTL), a national learning community for STEM faculty committed to advancing effective teaching practices for diverse students, and Delta works both locally at UW–Madison and as part of the CIRTL network. Delta currently offers credit-bearing courses for graduate students in STEM fields, with a certificate program for students who complete at least two pedagogy courses and a teaching internship, as well as stand-alone workshops and roundtable discussions that draw in a wider community of graduate students and faculty committed to better serving all of their students.

Teaching as Research

Delta’s activities at UW–Madison are organized around the “three pillars” of CIRTL: teaching as research, professional development through learning communities, and learning through diversity. Teaching as research is a process through which graduate students—and faculty—apply the research skills they learn in their disciplinary training to the subject of classroom instruction. Zachary Pratt, a Delta alum and currently assistant professor of biology at Saint Norbert College, interprets the concept as “being in a constant reflective mode about how I teach my class. I’m constantly looking for feedback from my students: What has worked well? What have I done to support you, and what can you do better as a student?” 

Nick Balster, a professor of soil science, teaches The College Classroom, a Delta course that introduces graduate students to different theories of learning and pedagogical techniques. In addition to reading and discussing primary and secondary literature on teaching and learning, students in Balster’s class engage in “micro-teaching” twice during the semester. Students deliver a twenty-minute lesson to their peers, on a subject and in a teaching style of their own choosing. After the first presentation, Balster and the other students give feedback on the lesson, which is videotaped so the presenters can assess themselves. Although the students work hard preparing these presentations, very few go in the first time with a clear sense of their intended learning outcomes, Balster says. “They think about the teaching method they want to use, and focus strongly on the content, but they don’t think about the learning outcomes and how those would be assessed. After the first round of teaching presentations, we meet as a class and talk about backward design and teaching for a learner-centered classroom. The second time around, it’s much clearer what their intent is with their teaching.”

Other Delta courses cover topics such as diversity in the classroom and effective use of technology for teaching. Such courses “changed my classroom from being faculty centered to being student centered,” Pratt says. “Now the focus is on guiding the students toward being able to solve problems. They have me there to support them, but they are the ones going through the process of learning to solve a complex biological problem.”

“Something that became more evident to me after the fact was that not only was I learning from the literature and activities in these courses, I was learning about pedagogy because the instructors modeled good teaching practice in their implementation,” says Elizabeth Becker, a Delta alum and now an assistant professor of psychology at Saint Joseph’s University.  

One of the most memorable classes Becker took focused on diversity in the classroom—“not just bolstering support for students, but using diversity as a way of enhancing learning.” She had low expectations initially because the course was online and she felt it would not be as engaging as an on-campus course, but “it turned out to be one of my greatest experiences as a graduate student.… We connected with students at a number of institutions across the country. We used Skype to communicate outside of class and collaborative software to work on projects together. It was a fantastic way to connect with people around the country that were interested in the same things that I was interested in.”

Helping All Students Succeed

The emphasis on “diversity as learning” that Becker mentions—focusing not only on teaching in ways that achieve equitable learning outcomes for students from a diverse range of backgrounds and learning styles, but also drawing on the diverse experiences of all students in order to enrich the classroom—is another pillar of Delta and the wider CIRTL network.  

In the past, introductory psychology classes at UW-Madison had a number of achievement gap issues, especially negative outcomes for students of color, Becker says.  For her teaching internship, Becker created a separate discussion section of an introductory psychology course for students of color who had been identified by student support groups as having difficulty in science and mathematics. The new section used a number of  high-impact learning practices—“to see if we could help students with different teaching techniques in a small group setting.”  The results were wildly successful, Becker says— average grades in the new section of the course were much higher, and far fewer students dropped out of or failed the course.

Delta is helping lead a similar approach more broadly as one of the partners in the Academic Excellence Initiative, a three-year collaborative project which aims to reduce achievement gaps for underrepresented minority, first-generation, and lower-income students at UW-Madison.  The project has succeeded in elevating the discussion around these students’ performance in the large, introductory courses that were once referred to as “weed-out” courses, says Don Gillian-Daniel, associate director of Delta. The project is now using to using Delta’s teaching-as-research approach to develop sections of these courses that incorporate a variety of active learning practices.

Becker also says it’s important to address the issue of diversity in the classroom head on, citing studies that find the simple act of discussing achievement gaps directly with students can improve student performance. She and Pratt both say they have become more mindful of the choices they make when they prepare lecture slides or write test problems, making sure that people of different races and cultures are represented in their materials. “And I try to draw out of students their experiences—not to make them ‘representatives’ or single them out, but to make them feel comfortable sharing,” Becker says. “It enriches the classroom. “

Incorporating students’ perspectives in a science classroom seems challenging at first, Pratt says, “but it all depends on the way you teach the course. In a straight lecture, the input from students is low, but you can encourage input.” Pratt uses a considerable amount of “flipping” in the classroom—students are expected to read before class and arrive with questions, and to serve as leaders for group activities in class. “That also started to give me a sense of what the needs for my individual students were. If we change the way we teach, it’s not that challenging to incorporate student perspectives.”

Lifelong Learning Communities

Learning communities comprise the third Delta pillar. In this case, learning community refers primarily to communities of faculty—and future faculty—supporting each other as they develop and refine their teaching skills. Delta offers a series of roundtable dinners and workshops that are attended by about 300 faculty members, postdoctoral fellows, and graduate students every year (on top of the sixty-or-so graduate students enrolled in Delta courses every semester). Each roundtable dinner features a guest speaker who introduces a particular topic or issue for participants to discuss.  An upcoming dinner will focus on “Teaching in the Age of Ferguson,” and recent events have addressed flipping the classroom, gender disparities in STEM education, and the use of digital media assignments. 

Both Pratt and Becker stress the importance of the Delta learning community in their development as teachers. “The community-building piece is so important, especially as a young person—you have people to emulate,” Becker says. “I learned so much from the faculty, and they treated me as a colleague rather than a student—that built my confidence.” For Pratt, this was especially important once he left Madison for his position at Saint Norbert. “I already had a tight-knit group of individuals … where we bounced ideas about teaching off each other. That can be tough to find as a junior faculty member.”

Fostering this kind of learning environment requires a shift in culture, especially at research-intensive universities where incentives for faculty and graduate students alike are more aligned with research productivity than with teaching. Even at a program as established as Delta, some graduate students enroll in pedagogy courses without their advisors’ knowledge because they fear disapproval. “At any research-focused campus you run into the barrier of faculty who want their students focused on their research,” Gillian-Daniel says, but Delta worked early on to find faculty advocates across the STEM fields who are interested in teaching and in talking to their students about teacher development.  The program has developed a reputation for improving graduate students’ research skills, too, he says, as students receive additional mentoring and learn the time management skills required to balance teaching and research.

Top-down support can help establish a culture of teaching and learning, Pratt says—“there has to be buy in from the president or chancellor to show that this scholarship of teaching and learning is valued.” Funding to buy out faculty time for professional development goes a long way, too. In the end, though, “if there is an office like DELTA, then those that are passionate will gravitate to it,” Becker says. You’ll never get buy in from everyone, “but if there are more programs, more opportunities to talk to graduate students about teaching, there will be a slow but important culture shift.”


More information about Delta is available at the program’s website. You can also find more resources on inclusive excellence and STEM learning from AAC&U.

University of Wisconsin–Madison