What Organizational Features Influence the Spread and Sustainability of Student-Centered Instruction in Departments? Case Studies from Inquiry-Based Learning in College Mathematics

Project No.
PI Name
Sandra Laursen
U. Colorado Boulder

Abstract 1

What Organizational Features Influence the Spread and Sustainability of Student-Centered Instruction in Departments? Case Studies from Inquiry-Based Learning in College Mathematics

Presentation Type
Sandra Laursen, U. Colorado Boulder


Research has shown that undergraduates in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) can and do learn better through active, student-centered forms of instruction. Yet relatively few college students experience these high-impact educational practices. Today, the bottleneck in improving STEM undergraduate education is uptake: adoption of these methods by large numbers of faculty at all types of institutions, and adaptation to their own classrooms.

Most past studies addressing supports and barriers to 'uptake' have focused on individual instructors' knowledge, beliefs and decision-making about instruction, However, STEM instructors are embedded in systems and communities that influence their thinking in positive and negative ways, and that can be mobilized to support their use of student-centered teaching approaches.


In order to better understand the role of systems and communities, we are studying a distinctive example of an educational reform community involving hundreds of instructors across the U.S. . Proponents of inquiry-based learning (IBL) in college mathematics use teaching and learning approaches that engage students in rich mathematical tasks and collaborative critique and refinement of mathematical arguments. Both grassroots elements--hundreds of engaged instructors--and top-down structures have been central in growing this community. Our study takes an ecosystem approach, treating IBL Math as a suite of interlinked human and programmatic components with distinct yet interdependent functions, like the biological and environmental components of a natural ecosystem.


The study seeks to answer: What human, structural, and intellectual elements are important to the past development, current growth and future sustainability of the IBL Math reform movement when it is viewed as a dynamic ecosystem of interlinked people and programs? And what useful lessons are offered to other communities engaged in STEM education reform?

In this report, we focus on one component of the broader IBL Math ecosystem, the IBL Centers. These four research math departments have been supported to implement IBL across the curriculum. Here we focus on the explicit strategies and implicit departmental contexts that help or hinder the uptake of IBL.


Based on interview data and documents, the four departmental case studies reveal both explicit strategies and more implicit features of context that supported (or not) the spread and sustainability of these teaching reforms.. We use Bolman and Dealメs (1991) framework to analyze the structural, political, human resource and symbolic elements of these organizational strategies and contexts.

Among the explicit strategies, human resource strategies were most common, as leaders used a variety of means to support IBL instructors and engage colleagues not actively involved. However strategies that incorporated the political and symbolic aspects of organizations had a more profound impact on the sustainability of reforms.

Contextual factors --especially departmental culture and practices-- tended to shape local beliefs about what was possible and who was suited for an IBL experience, which in turn shaped the nature of where the department offered an IBL experience to students, who taught it, and hw it was taught.

Broader Impacts

Many of the strategies used in these departments can be used by other STEM departments and change leaders. We call change leaders' attention to the crucial but often ignored political and symbolic aspects of their action strategies.

Unexpected Challenges

Nothing to report.


Conference papers only, to date.