How do we begin to incorporate changes in higher education?

In a world that is constantly changing, how instruction and education are imparted must coincide with those changes, it should be representative of the world we live in. Education serves as the major tool for academic formation, knowledge development and overall understanding of how things and the world function. In order to break barriers and enhance a global understanding, instruction in higher education needs to evolve. There are a variety of changes that could be made within higher education to improve its development, expand its reach and make it a place that is more appealing for a broader group of people.

Where do we start when thinking about implementing changes in higher education? An evaluation of how the institution works, overall performance of students, faculty and staff can be an initial step to determine what works and does not. It is very important to understand and acknowledge the weakness and strengths of a school, program, department, etc. Acknowledging this allows to have a clear understanding of the areas that need to be prioritize in order to be successful when transitioning to the changes that want to be incorporated.

As a person that has been participating in higher education for over 7 years in different states and territories of the Unites States of America (USA), I have identified things that I would like to improve or change within its structure and function. These observations became more evident once I started teaching in graduate school. One of the things I first noticed when I became a laboratory instructor for an introductory biology course was the lack of interest and engagement of students. Additionally, the expectations of the course were not aligned with the prior preparation of the student. This often resulted in taking additional time to go over material that was expected for the students to already know.  The students I taught were mainly freshman, which meant that certain skills for this introductory course were assumed to have been learned and developed during high school. I think the fact that students often struggle to engage in the class is due to the lack of confidence that can come from not having acquired certain skills yet (e.g. data analysis in Excel). 

A way to strengthen students skills prior to when major assignments are due can be through an early assessment of their standing. For the upcoming semesters the TA’s of the course prepared an ice-breaker activity that incorporated some data collection and analysis. This provided the perfect opportunity to review material or introduce data analysis to the students. As a way to continue the development of these skills, I opted for having a data analysis activity at the end of each class as a way to review steps, answer questions and overall maintain students active and constantly thinking about how to work with data. Keeping this material fresh in their brains proved to be highly beneficial for when students had to design their own research projects. 

The four semesters that I taught this course allowed me to identify what worked and did not for the students and myself. Having a guided tutorial during the first day of the class served as an explicit layout of the major expectations of the course and the opportunity for students to understand the importance of understanding data, how to analyzed and interpret it. As students understanding of data analysis software’s increased, their participated and engagement in the course also became more active. Students that were more advanced would help their classmates which all promoted for interaction and teamwork.

Implementing changes like this one in the classroom can be scaled to the institutional level. As higher education institution’s begin to work towards a more inclusive environment and becoming accessible to a broader group, things such as acknowledging the changes that need to be incorporated and developing a plan to work towards that goal can highly influence its accomplishment. Additionally, building a support network of a community that seeks to make change happen and its held accountable for the progress that is made can significantly impact the long-term effects of the new implemented changes. Lastly, a key thing to keep in mind is that in order for a change to work and evolve according to how the world changes is the need to revisit the plan and make sure that is still working and if not determine what modifications are necessary for it to work again.

One Reply to “How do we begin to incorporate changes in higher education?”

  1. Hi Katherine,
    I applaud your application of assessment-for-instruction to make sure you’re a) aware of what students know before teaching and b) consequently able to tailor lessons to meet their needs! This approach seems so intuitive to me, but I’d agree with you that–despite this–it’s rarely implemented in higher education. Regarding your point about transferring this practice to academic institutions, as a whole, units like the Office of Analytics and Institutional Effectiveness at Virginia Tech ( are well-equipped to carry out this complex work. With so many variables to weight, year-by-year, I imagine this work is challenging, but absolutely essential for institutions aiming to remain knowledgeable about where they stand relative to their goals. Great piece!

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