Using project principles to anchor changing departments

Joel Corbo, University of Colorado Boulder
Courtney Ngai, Colorado State University
Gina Quan, San José State University
Sarah Wise, University of Colorado Boulder

published Jan 8, 2021 11:44am

The Departmental Action Team (DAT) Project supports departments as they make changes to their undergraduate programs. Project team members use the DAT Project's six Core Principles to guide their decision-making around change efforts. In this post we share why a principles-based approach supports successful change. This post is a great introduction for our free upcoming webinar on Tuesday, March 30, 2021 about facilitating change using the DAT model. Register for the webinar here

What are project principles?

Departmental Action Team Book
As Patton (2017) states, "A good principle provides guidance for making choices and decisions, is useful in setting priorities, inspires, and supports ongoing development and adaptation" (p. 9). These principles can influence the focus of the project's work, potential outcomes of the work, and the way in which team members interact. Project principles may be influenced by team members' personal values, norms, experience, and knowledge, as well as the perceived institutional values and norms. Every project operates on some set of principles, but they are often not explicitly expressed.

We have articulated the DAT Project's Core Principles, which we use to inform our work. Since the mission of the DAT Project is to support departmental change, our six Core Principles are grounded in research about best practices for change in higher education, helping us connect theory to practice.

Why is it useful to articulate project principles?

Project principles are often rooted in deeper, implicit knowledge and culture. Because they influence many aspects of projects, explicitly articulating and sharing a project's principles can have many benefits. First, project principles serve to outline the logic guiding a team's work, which supports teams in "being on the same page" as they carry out their work and make decisions. Similarly, the anchoring function of principles supports leaders or facilitators in guiding the group. Second, a project's principles can help a team adjust their work to different contexts. Furthermore, when principles are explicit, they can guide a team in evaluating their progress toward goals.

In what ways can project principles support departmental change efforts?

We have articulated six Core Principles (Quan et al., 2019) for the DAT Project that we use to guide our work:

  1. Students are partners in the educational process.
  2. Work focuses on achieving positive outcomes.
  3. Data collection, analysis, and interpretation inform decision-making.
  4. Collaboration among group members is productive, enjoyable, and rewarding.
  5. Continuous improvement is an upheld practice.
  6. Work is grounded in a commitment to equity, inclusion, and social justice.

We have found that teamwork aligned with these Core Principles supports successful change efforts (Ngai et al., submitted). There may well be additional principles useful for guiding departmental change efforts.

The DAT Project's Core Principles were intentionally designed to support teams in making positive and sustainable change in undergraduate education. For each Core Principle, we outline examples from our experiences facilitating DATs of how a team's behavior aligned with each Core Principle. The teams were all engaged in a departmental change effort.

1. Students are partners in the educational process.Many of the teams we work with include undergraduate students. One team valued the perspective of their undergraduate student, Marley, so highly that they recruited another student to the team in anticipation of Marley's graduation. This team consistently demonstrated through their words and actions that they respected the work and feedback provided by the undergraduate members.

See Reinholz et al. (2020) for additional examples of Principle 1
2. Work focuses on achieving positive outcomes.We support teams in developing a shared vision for their work. During exit interviews, some team members reflected on how the shared vision developed early in the process served to guide the rest of their work. They frequently revisited their shared vision to assess how their current activities supported their journey toward the shared vision.
3. Data collection, analysis, and interpretation inform decision-making.One team was focused on improving the sequencing of courses in their major. Initially, they made decisions anecdotally, until a facilitator challenged them to support their decisions with data. Ultimately, the team used institutional data to inform the changes they made to their course sequencing.
4. Collaboration among group members is productive, enjoyable, and rewarding.A collaborative environment can be created in many ways, and for one team, a few minutes spent learning about conversational norms every meeting supported the development of a productive and enjoyable environment. The team members committed to practicing these conversational norms during their meetings, and were so enthusiastic in their application that they often announced to the group when they were practicing a certain norm during conversation (e.g., "I am going to pause before sharing my response to give others a chance to reflect on what has been shared.")
5. Continuous improvement is an upheld practice.Finding ways to sustain the outcomes of their work was a goal for one team. They started by identifying the "easy wins" for their work, and publicized them widely to increase the visibility of their work in the department. This generated momentum for their work which culminated in successful completion of several other larger projects for their team.
6. Work is grounded in a commitment to equity, inclusion, and social justice.During the development of an assessment for student learning, one team focused on the accessibility of the assessment. They discussed ways to assess mastery of skill without conflating mastery of the English language. Their assessment avoided jargon and included definitions of concepts in the context to create a more equitable assessment of students' knowledge.

If you are interested in learning more about project principles, please check out our paper on the development of our Core Principles (Quan et al., 2019), our book for additional examples on how to use Core Principles to guide your change efforts (Ngai et al., 2020), and the free resources hosted on our website that are organized by their alignment with the Core Principles. Stay tuned for additional posts about supporting departmental change efforts using the DAT Model and be sure to register for our webinar on Tuesday, March 30, 2021!


Ngai, C., Corbo, J. C., Falkenberg, K., Geanious, C., Pawlak, A., Pilgrim, M. E., Quan, G. M., Reinholz, D. L., Smith, C., & Wise, S. B. (2020). Facilitating Change in Higher Education: The Departmental Action Team Model. Glitter Cannon Press.

Quan, G. M., Corbo, J. C., Finkelstein, N. D., Pawlak, A., Falkenberg, K., Geanious, C., Ngai, C., Smith, C., Wise, S., Pilgrim, M. E., Reinholz, D. L. (2019). Designing for institutional transformation: Six principles for department-level interventions. Physical Review Physics Education Research, 15(1), 010114.
doi: 10.1103/PhysRevPhysEducRes.15.010141

Patton, M. Q. (2017). Principles-focused evaluation: The GUIDE. Guilford Publications.

Reinholz, D. L., Pawlak, A., Ngai, C., & Pilgrim, M. E. (2020) Departmental action teams: Empowering students as change agents in academic departments. International Journal for Students As Partners, 4(1), 128-137. doi: 10.15173/ijsap.v4i1.3869

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