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Sensemaking for Student Success: A Cohort-Based Faculty Change Method

A Lumina Foundation-Funded Change Program for Ohio Public Institutions of Higher Education

The challenges facing higher education require leveraging faculty expertise and making system change, rather than focusing on individual classrooms.

Lumina Foundation has generously funded a project to expand an innovative and research-backed program that helps faculty across Ohio join together to solve challenging teaching and learning problems. The project is led by Elizabeth Wardle (Director, Howe Center for Writing Excellence, Miami University) and Alex Arreguin and Stacy Wilson (Maricopa Community College District, Arizona).

Open Information Sessions

Open information sessions are over, but if you would like a recording and slides, contact Elizabeth Wardle,

About the Program

What Is Sensemaking for Student Success?

What Is Sensemaking for Student Success?

The program was developed and launched in 2017 by Dr. Elizabeth Wardle, Roger & Joyce Howe Distinguished Professor of Written Communication and Director of the Howe Center for Writing Excellence at Miami University. 177 faculty members from over 30 disciplines have completed the program at Miami (where it is called the “Howe Faculty Fellows Program”). In 2021, the program expanded to the 10-institution Maricopa Community College system in Arizona (where it is called the “Literacy Partners Program”).

At its core, the sensemaking method, as initially developed by Dr. Wardle, engages teams of faculty from within and across disciplines in naming problems they want to solve; engaging research and theory about threshold concepts, learning, and equity; and then imagining solutions to the problems they name. It is a carefully scaffolded program that engages faculty with scholarship while respecting their experiences and expertise in order to create conditions for collaboration across silos. The combination of scholarship and guided activities to leverage faculty expertise enables faculty to work together to solve hard and systemic problems. This combination of scholarship, activities, and grassroots team problem-solving of systemic problems across time sets this method apart from other faculty development methods such as workshops, webinars, faculty learning communities, and reading groups. 

The sensemaking program proceeds from these principles:

  1. Every problem that programs, divisions, and higher ed as whole face can best be approached as intellectual/scholarly opportunities, not bureaucratic tasks.
  2. Faculty members’ disciplinary expertise is central to higher ed’s ability to innovate and solve problems.
  3. Leveraging faculty expertise for problem-solving requires designing opportunities to engage in intentional scholarly sensemaking.
  4. Faculty must engage as teams and across silos with other members of the institution in order to meaningfully solve problems. 
  5. The problems higher education faces need to be resolved with speed but not haste, considering principles for action and long-term consequences of decisions. 
  6. The systems we have inherited are changeable, but changing them requires leveraging the expertise of all members of the institution.
  7. Access, equity and inclusion for deep learning must be central to any future vision for higher ed.

What Does the 2024-2025 Ohio Sensemaking Program Entail?

Up to 8 faculty teams (each with between 3-6 members from a shared discipline, field or program) will be selected from Ohio public institutions. Together, they will participate in an 18-month effort to leverage faculty expertise for student success and meaningful change.

These 8 teams will have all their expenses paid to engage in an extended effort to solve a problem related to teaching, learning, and equity in collaboration with faculty and stakeholders from other institutions. The program will include:

  • An 8-day intensive seminar at Miami University, July 21-28, 2024, with registration fees, hotel, breakfast and lunch provided.
  • Monthly coaching calls after participants return to their campuses to implement their change projects and connect with other stakeholders, August 2024-June 2025.
  • Continued connection to teams from other campuses for a wide support network of Ohio faculty. 
  • An online Showcase of change projects in June 2025 with relevant stakeholders.
  • An optional “train the trainer” virtual program in July, enabling institutions to learn to facilitate the change method on their own campuses.

All participating teams will receive support for implementation, assessment, and continuation of their projects.

What will be covered in the summer seminar?

  • Day 1 (half day, arrival): Understanding the Program; Understanding Deep Change Through Sensemaking; Introduction of the Threshold Concepts Framework
  • Day 2: The Threshold Concepts Framework: Disciplinary Knowledge and the Challenge of Expertise for Equity;  Introduction of Representational Knowledge
  • Day 3: Representational Knowledge: The Role of Writing in Learning and Gatekeeping
  • Day 4: Learning About and With Learners; Designing Courses, Programs, and Assignments for Learning and Equity
  • Day 5: Designing Courses, Programs, and Assignments for Learning and Equity and Identifying Learning Bottlenecks
  • Day 6: Team Projects
  • Day 7: Team Projects; Sharecase and Closing Reception
  • Day 8 (half day, departure): Understanding Strategies for Making Deep Change as Grassroots Leaders

Who should apply?

This is a program for teams of faculty who want to engage together to solve problems beyond one person’s classroom. 

The teams can be faculty from within one discipline or department, or faculty who teach across disciplines or programs (including general education). 

The teams can be from within one institution or they can be engaged in a similar endeavor across institutions. 

Institutional leaders such as provosts, deans, or directors of centers for teaching and learning can nominate teams to work on particular problems that concern the institution, or faculty can nominate themselves to work on challenges they are facing in their programs, departments, and courses.

What Problems Has the Sensemaking Method Helped Faculty Solve?

The sensemaking method, as implemented at Miami and Maricopa, helps teams of faculty members leverage their collective expertise in order to solve problems related to teaching and learning and innovate new programs and pedagogies for higher education. Together, the faculty who have engaged in the program have taken up problems such as:

  • Intro courses are serving an unintentional gatekeeping function for some students and have not changed in decades.
  • Expectations and conventions in a discipline exclude students of color and minoritized faculty, and there is no extended space for conversation and culture change. 
  • New general education requirements within the institution and changing faculty in a program require new approaches to gateway or capstone general education courses taught within a particular discipline or across related disciplines.
  • Enrollment in a major is low and the curriculum for the major needs to change, with a coherent approach agreed on by all faculty. However, the faculty have not discussed their shared values and commitments or named their fied’s threshold concepts, making any curricular change challenging. 
  • Faculty within a program are unaware of the assignments being given and skills being taught in other courses in the major.
  • Assessments have not been meaningful and little is known about student needs or outcomes of faculty pedagogies. 
  • How AI is changing professions, and implications for the curriculum
  • Traditional assignments and genres are not helping students learn threshold concepts that are transferable to other contexts. 
  • High reliance on part-time labor in a department that teaches large numbers of lower-level general education courses requires re-imagining how the department’s values and pedagogies can be shared with new instructors.
  • Faculty from multiple disciplines teach in a shared interdisciplinary program but have no extended opportunities to think together about their curriculum.
  • High-impact practices like e-portfolios can reinvigorate programs, but faculty need time to learn and study them together, and support for implementation. 
  • Curricula are not coherent and students experience “whiplash” as they move from one disconnected course to another.

Commit to Change At Your Institution

Applications Due by Monday, April 1, 5:00 p.m.
Dr. Elizabeth Wardle, Director for the Howe Center for Writing Excellence

Questions? Contact Dr. Elizabeth Wardle

139B King Library
Howe Center for Writing Excellence, Miami University
Oxford, OH 45056

About Lumina Foundation

Lumina Foundation is an independent, private foundation in Indianapolis committed to making opportunities for learning beyond high school available to all. They envision higher learning that is easy to navigate, addresses racial injustice, and meets the nation’s talent needs through a broad range of credentials. They are working toward a system that prepares people for informed citizenship and success in a global economy.

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