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How to Circumnavigate Common Roadblocks in Changing the Status Quo: Some Guidance from Experimental Psychology

The EvoLLLution | How to Circumnavigate Common Roadblocks in Changing the Status Quo: Some Guidance from Experimental Psychology
Changing minds is hard, but by focusing on new reward and incentive systems to shift behavior instead of stated opinions, higher ed administrators can implement new ideas and minimize faculty resistance to change.
There is much existing advice on what higher education leaders should do to change the status quo: Find a faculty champion, compromise, wait, etc. Here I provide some other specific pieces of advice drawn from experimental psychology, using reform efforts at The City University of New York (CUNY) as examples.

First, similar to any good experimental psychologist, a leader needs data—in order to know as much as possible both about the existing situation and about the likely consequences if changes are made. Otherwise, the instituted changes may not have the desired effects. Collecting data means collecting both quantitative and qualitative data about the leader’s own institution, as well as obtaining and critically evaluating relevant evidence from other institutions.

For example, before undertaking the reform of traditional math remediation, CUNY collected detailed data about the characteristics and performance of CUNY students, as well as data related to remedial math reform at other institutions. Consistent with the characterization of remedial math as the largest single academic block to college student success, CUNY found that many students never take their required remedial math courses, and that a typical pass rate for elementary (remedial) algebra was less than 40 percent. Further, consistent with many studies using descriptive and quasi-experimental research techniques, CUNY found, using a randomized controlled trial and non-STEM majors, that if students assessed as needing math remediation were placed into college-level statistics with additional support (corequisite remediation) rather than traditional remedial elementary algebra, there was a significantly higher pass rate and graduation rate (data to be reported at 2018 CADE). Together, these data are justifying CUNY engaging in remedial mathematics reform, and are providing guidance regarding the characteristics of that reform. CUNY has shared these data widely, particularly with math faculty. Faculty and staff can sometimes be resistant to change, and because they are the ones who interact with the students and who are usually responsible for curriculum, and because their tenures often outlast the tenures of administrators, it is not difficult for faculty to delay or block changes in the status quo. Making sure there is good evidence justifying a change, and that faculty are well acquainted with that evidence, may not eliminate faculty resistance, but it can help.

Second, behavioral psychology and behavioral economics teach us that, in seeking to change the status quo, a leader needs to obtain and analyze information about the institution’s current reward structure. How the faculty and others are currently behaving is in response to the rewards provided by the status quo, and those behaviors will not change over the long term unless the ongoing reward structure also changes. All animals, including humans, do what results in their obtaining rewards, and they generally do those things with the least amount of effort needed, giving them time and energy to engage in additional rewarding activities (such as, for faculty, other job-related activities). Faculty may be concerned that a status quo change will increase the amount of work that they have to do for the same or even fewer rewards. Further, an analysis of the reward structure may show that the rewards that the faculty are currently receiving are primarily for a faculty member’s own behavior, such as a faculty member’s own teaching (often assessed by student teaching evaluations) and own research, as opposed to the faculty member’s work as part of a group. Yet significant higher education reform often involves faculty working in groups with other faculty, and with staff such as advisors and registrars, staff whose efforts are so essential to any significant reform. However, there may be few direct rewards for such faculty work.

In order to engage in remedial math reform, CUNY faculty have needed to work with each other to revise the math curriculum, including spending the time and effort needed to submit revised courses for approval to faculty governance bodies and to ensure that the work was aligned among faculty, advisors and registrar staff. Then the faculty have had to spend time preparing to teach the revised courses. Some CUNY faculty members have expressed fears that their teaching evaluations will deteriorate in teaching the new courses, possibly affecting the faculty member’s chances of contract renewal, promotion, and/or tenure. These fears have been particularly likely with new corequisite remediation courses, because past research has shown that pass rates—which can affect teaching evaluations—often decrease with such courses (however, because with this approach more students are taking college-level math, more total students pass their college-level math requirement).

For all of these reasons, after doing a thorough investigation of the current reward structure, including obtaining information by speaking directly with faculty, leaders need to provide incentives that are structured to obtain the desired results, such as compensation for faculty who do additional work (summer salary, stipends, and/or reassigned time), promotion/tenure advantages for faculty who have been productive reform committee members, a guarantee to take entering student characteristics into account in assessing the effectiveness of a faculty member’s teaching, etc.

Third, related to the importance of incentives and rewards, psychology research is showing that it is easier to change reward structures that result in people’s behavior changing than it is to change people’s stated opinions. Thus, it is easier to increase people getting vaccinated than to increase their stating that vaccination is a good thing to do. And, as suggested above, it is easier to provide faculty with incentives and rewards that increase their participation in the reform of remedial math than to have a conversation with them that results in their stating that the revised remedial courses are better for students. As another CUNY example, when a CUNY-wide general education framework needed to be devised in order to help facilitate the transfer of credits across CUNY colleges, hundreds of faculty agreed to participate in this work in return for additional compensation, though faculty willing to state that this was a good thing to do were much harder to find.

Finally, at least in my experience, it is exceedingly rare for plans involving a significant change in the status quo to meet with no resistance. Therefore it is perhaps reassuring to know that psychology research has shown that once a possible change becomes an effected change, opinions about the change significantly improve. This suggests that leaders who have done the best job possible at (1) obtaining excellent evidence for the need for a change in the status quo, (2) communicating that evidence, (3) ensuring that the change can be made well, and (4) ensuring that there will be appropriate incentives and rewards in making the change, should proceed expeditiously to make the change. Making the change slowly, waiting for consensus to emerge, can prolong the resistance, whereas effecting the change with dispatch can minimize it. However, it is useful to recall here that, for leaders to successfully implement any change to which there is faculty resistance, they must have strong support from their supervisors and/or board.

Making significant change in higher education is difficult. Data and experimental psychology research can help provide support and guidance in the successful implementation of such changes.

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