Culture, Cognition, and Evaluation of STEM Higher Education Reform (CCHER) : A Mixed-Methods Longitudinal Study

Current challenges to U.S. global competitiveness in math and science are reaching crucial dimensions due to the nation’s need for improved scientific literacy to address the unprecedented physical and social problems (e.g., climate change) facing our world. Although federal and private agencies have invested significant amounts in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education reform, the slow rate of change in IHE instructional practices suggests the need to understand the processes by which educational reforms are resisted and/or adopted by individual faculty members. To explain institutional inertia and individual reactions to pedagogical reform initiatives, researchers are increasingly drawing on situative and cognitive theories of learning. Yet there is little empirical research on the relationships between the contextual attributes of Institutions of Higher Education (IHEs) and individual faculty mental representations for pedagogy and learning, and their subsequent implications for educational reform.

This line of inquiry is further hindered by the following conceptual and methodological challenges: (a) identifying the appropriate unit of analysis, (b) systematically accounting for the multi-dimensional conditions that make up IHEs, particularly the cultural attributes of different administrative units (e.g., Colleges, departments), and (c) identifying the relationship between these organizational conditions and individual mental representations for teaching and learning.

The goals of the Culture, Cognition, and Evaluation of STEM Higher Education Reform (CCHER) are to advance our understanding of these fundamental issues, and to apply findings from our research to enhance the evaluation and design of STEM education reform efforts. Specially, we aim to (a) integrate cognitive and cultural factors into a useable evaluation design, field-test this design in the area of higher education reform, and to widely disseminate the design and findings to researcher and practitioner communities, and (b) use our findings related to the organizational dynamics that impede or support reform efforts so that practitioners can better diagnose their institutions and design interventions.

The research questions guiding the CCHER study are as follows:

  1. What mental models do individual faculty have of effective pedagogical approaches for undergraduate STEM courses?
  2. Which groups (e.g., department, professional rank) exhibit cultural consensus on these cognitive structures?
  3. How do individual and institutional characteristics co-vary with individual cognitive structure and group cultural consensus?
  4. How do individual- and group-level variables co-vary with teaching practices?
  5. Which individual- and group-level characteristics, if any, contribute to changes in cognitive structure or cultural consensus over time?
  6. What effect does participation in a reform effort have on individual cognitive structure, group cultural consensus patterns, and individual teaching practices?

To answer these research questions we draw on theory and method from cognitive anthropology, cognitive psychology, organizational learning, and multi-level modeling. The CCHER study is taking the individual in interaction with their environments as the unit of analysis, in order to deepen our understanding of the relationships between individual cognition and organizational contexts. The CCHER project is a longitudinal, mixed methods study that follows STEM faculty from mathematics, life sciences, and physical science departments over three years. Data on faculty mental representations for teaching undergraduate STEM courses, their actual classroom practices, and attitudes toward reform activities are being gathered through Web-based surveys and ethnographic interviews.


National Science Foundation - REESE Program

Project Website


Completed on September 30, 2012

Contact Information

Matthew Hora