A Departmental Action Team (DAT) is a new type of departmentally-based working group that aims to sustainably improve undergraduate education across the CU and CSU campuses while simultaneously developing the DAT participants’ capacity to lead future change. DAT participants identify an educational issue of broad-scale importance in their department, with the aim of making sustainable changes through the creation of new structures or processes to address educational needs on an ongoing basis and through shifting departmental culture with respect to teaching.  DATs are externally facilitated by members of our project team. The facilitators support the participants both in implementing the DAT activities and and by helping DAT members develop skills that will help them successfully lead other change efforts without the support of our team.

For more information, check out the sections below or view our DAT 1-Page Project Overview.

DATs address a persistent challenge in educational reform: despite significant investments of time and resources, educational “problems” rarely “stay solved” on their own. This can be true for a number of reasons: a reform tied to a particular person is likely to decay in the absence of that person, a reform that is at odds with the dominant culture is likely to be resisted, a reform that cannot adapt to changing circumstances runs the risk of becoming obsolete or turning into a new problem itself. Moreover, typical approaches to supporting change in departments have focused on working with individual faculty members and/or courses, without regard to the departmental context in which these people and courses are embedded.

The DAT model is rooted in the idea that the locus of change in academia is the department, rather than the individual, and that changes must attend to issues such as sustainability, culture, and continuous improvement from the outset. Thus, rather than simply “solving a problem,” a DAT aims to create new structures and processes in a department so that positive changes do not atrophy over time and so that it will be easier for the department to make further improvements down the road. Additionally, DATs think explicitly about departmental culture when planning and implementing their changes. In fact, part of the DAT’s work may involve facilitating a cultural shift within the department to support the achievement of the goals that motivated the creation of the DAT in the first place.

These are ambitious goals, but our team’s work is supported by an in-depth study of the literature on organizational change, which has a long history of understanding and supporting change in mostly business settings. Part of our research is adapting the lessons from this body of literature to the context of higher education.

A DAT consists of a self-selected group of about 4 to 8 faculty members, students, and/or staff, ideally representing various constituencies within the department (e.g., both tenure-track and non-tenure-track faculty, both undergraduate and graduate students). The focus of the DAT is typically chosen by participants after the DATs formation, based on their own shared interests and their understanding of the needs of their department. Thus, DAT participants should have agency over both their participation in the DAT and the work that the DAT engages in.

Participants meet regularly for sixty to ninety minutes every two weeks for two or more semesters. Between meetings, participants assign their own “homework,” determining what needs to be done and how much time they will commit to it. Participants also decide whether or not they would like to schedule additional meetings during particularly critical periods of the DAT’s work.

DAT participation is incentivized in various ways.  For faculty and staff, department chairs typically agree to count participation in the DAT towards service credit for faculty and as part of performance reviews for staff.  Additionally, our grant provides funding for stipends for students participating in the DAT and snacks for everyone at DAT meetings.

External facilitators play critical roles in the DAT.  These facilitators bring expertise in educational research, institutional change, and supporting collaborative groups.  Their primary goal is to create an environment in which DAT participants are likely to achieve success at their chosen goal by focusing on the DAT’s process in addition to its content.  In practice, this means doing things like keeping the group organized, helping the group create a shared vision and set concrete outcomes, asking for appropriately-interpreted evidence (not anecdotal) to guide decision-making, highlighting early wins, attending to power imbalances and interpersonal tensions, and introducing conversational tools and collaborative norms to help the group function effectively.  Because it is not sustainable for a member of our team to work with one department indefinitely, an explicit focus on process serves the additional function of teaching DAT participants new skills that they can use in other contexts in their department, thus increasing the department’s overall capacity for creating functional teams and sustainable change in the future.

Pilot DATs at CU have had a variety of goals. These have included:
  • Integrating courses across the curriculum by facilitating faculty communication and developing common learning goals and shared student experiences across courses.
  • Increasing the inclusion and support of women and students of color in the major.
  • Creating a major from scratch, and creating metrics for assessing student success and improving the major on an ongoing basis.
  • Developing learning outcomes for the major and aligning courses to the outcomes.
  • Redesigning “middle-division” courses so that students are better prepared for upper-division coursework and providing clearer advising to students on how to succeed in the major.
  • Improve student satisfaction with major and sense of belonging in the department

DATs originated at CU Boulder as a key outcome of the STEM Institutional Transformation Action Research (SITAR) Project, which was funded by the Association of American Universities (AAU). The SITAR project successfully launched six DATs at CU during the 2014/2015 and 2015/2016 academic years. The success of these DATs and the initial research into the DAT model convinced the National Science Foundation to award our team a four-year grant in August 2016 to further implement and study DATs. With this support, our team is continuing to refine the DAT model, support improvement in undergraduate education, and develop resources so that teams at other institutions can begin to use DATs as well.

DATs are designed to create sustainable change in departments. Similarly, in designing the DAT project, we wanted to ensure that DATs themselves would be sustained as a model for change at CU and CSU. To do so, we are partnering with teaching professional development units on both campuses [the Academic Technology Design Team (ATDT) at CU and The Institute for Learning and Teaching (TILT) at CSU]. DATs on each campus are co-facilitated by a postdoc and by a member of one of those units, both of whom are supported by grant funds. Over the course of the grant, facilitation will shift entirely to ATDT and TILT, who will ideally be able to secure permanent funding to incorporate DATs into their normal suite of services. Our team will work with the leaders of these units and relevant administrators on both campuses to demonstrate the effectiveness of the DAT model and make the case for its institutionalization.

We have discussed how DAT increases institutions' capacity for change in a white paper.

On the CU Campus, we will create an open soliticitation for DAT proposals this summer. Check back here for more information or contact us directly with questions!