Shawn Bushway, Professor of Public Administration and Policy

Long before coming to UAlbany or working with ITLAL, Dr. Bushway was able to express clear ideas about his course learning outcomes. He was passionate about teaching, and had an advanced sense of what he wanted his students to do: develop their analytical-critical thinking and apply formal conceptual knowledge to real-world scenarios. And early in his career he had developed a set of practices that were successful with his students. For example, he engaged students through mini field research projects, asking students to collect, analyze and report on economics data in their local environment. He experimented, too, with in-class techniques, such as asking students to work with cases or solve puzzles.  In so doing, he had applied the evidence-based logic that informs his criminal justice research, and he had even published a quasi-experimental evaluation of these techniques in the Journal of Criminal Justice Education.

A change in institutions in 2005 brought Dr. Bushway into contact with a new population of students and a different academic culture.  The transition was challenging and at times painful. With his existing approach to teaching he met broad resistance from students and found it difficult to maintain a positive, supportive classroom atmosphere, in spite of his efforts and intentions. He described his classroom environment as one in which “it felt like me and the stuff against the students” rather than everyone working toward some common learning goal. This situation endured for two years, and was beginning to have an effect on his promotion to full professor.  Dr. Bushway continued to experiment with various techniques in order to defuse the tension of his classroom and better engage students, but only about half the students responded positively.

Working with ITLAL

Dr. Bushway at first resisted going to the teaching center for assistance. His expectation was that the best he could get from ITLAL would be suggestions for additional techniques, all of which would be marginally effective and very time-intensive. But by summer 2007 he decided that a change was inevitable, as much for his personal satisfaction as for his professional advancement.  He made an appointment and began working one-on-one with an ITLAL consultant, who listened to his story and matched his particular need and challenge with a method that would target the kinds of learning outcomes he valued. The consultant shared documents and provided Dr. Bushway with resources on Team-Based Learning, and then put him in contact with two other UAlbany users of Team-Based Learning. The contact with colleagues supported his decision to plunge into a full adoption of the method in a single semester.

Dr. Bushway discovered in the TBL implementation an unexpected resonance with his own goals for students, and also found a process and tools that could motivate students to work at a higher level.  He was drawn to the way the method’s incentivizing structures fostered student self-determination and autonomy. From the very beginning, he found relief from a stressful classroom in a system that allowed him to set up a structure, then step aside while students worked through the process without micromanagement. He began to recognize that within this structure he could play a more productive role: that of consultant and resident expert, rather than the keeper of the grades. This change was highly attractive at multiple levels.

In the course overhaul, Dr. Bushway changed everything. This meant reducing the use of lectures as the primary mode of information distribution, and setting up procedures that held students accountable for their own reading and preparation.  Having prepared students opened the door to the goal he had always held: getting students to step into the role of professional decision-makers, who use research and conceptual thinking to inform their decisions. In his undergraduate course on the economics of criminal justice, for example, he asked students to practice applications of economic principles by examining the real-world functioning of cartels and monopolies. In his graduate course (research methods) he asked students to conduct an analysis on actual police data and prepare a report for the NY State Police, who came to class for the final presentation. 

An ITLAL consultant visited Dr. Bushway’s courses during the first semester of TBL implementation. The feedback focused on refinement of a generally effective process: minimize instructor interaction with student groups during tasks; make lectures more focused and shorter. Additional classroom observational visits took place over subsequent semesters and Dr. Bushway continued to meet often with ITLAL staff.

Changes in Learning Outcomes

Overall, Dr. Bushway’s undergraduate students responded extremely well right from the start. The classroom climate immediately warmed up and students recognized that the process was designed to help them learn. An unexpected benefit from the new decision-driven approach of TBL has been that Dr. Bushway is now better able to see students’ thinking processes

and logic. This is useful feedback, as it helps explain students’ prior reluctance to engage with the course content. Before, students remained at the periphery of economic thinking, memorizing facts and concepts, but not developing a capacity for using the concepts. In the new approach students studied the concepts on their own, then got a great deal of practice using those concepts during class. As a result, they were quickly able to advance to more complex, more sophisticated work and thinking.  Exam questions and other assignments have now become considerably harder, but students do not score lower than they did in the past when the goals were much less ambitious. Students now leave the course with a clear sense of what it means to apply economic thinking to issues of criminal justice. For a final exam Dr. Bushway uses a scene from a movie to get his students to demonstrate their ability to apply course content in an explanation of a complex crime scenario. Before adopting the new method, few students could conduct the required analysis and reflection. Now it’s clear from student responses that they are able to “think like economists.”

Changes in Student Satisfaction

Of equal importance is the overall change in student attitudes. Although the economics content of the course had previously been that for which CJ students showed little enthusiasm, in more recent semesters, Dr. Bushway’s course has become intriguing for them. The team structure of the course creates a level of interaction that makes students want to attend and tackle the hard material. Students routinely now comment in course evaluations that the course “Challenged us to think and argue…” or taught us “to think about criminal justice in a whole different way.” Even though the course is now pitched at a higher level than before, there has been no reduction in student interest. In fact, the course is now regularly oversubscribed, in spite of its reputation for “making [students’] heads hurt.”

In his first undergraduate course at UAlbany, before his first visit to ITLAL and before adopting the new approach, Dr. Bushway hit a low point in his undergraduate student evaluations of Course-1.8/Instructor-2.0. Since then he has averaged Course-4.32/Instructor-4.43. In Spring 2011 he received a rare perfect (5/5) score for both the class and the professor, despite the fact that the median student reported working over 5 hours (high for UAlbany) on the course each week outside of class. Another telling statistic is scores on student responses to items measuring students’ perceived level of “intellectual challenge” (4.70) and “stimulated interest” (4.56). Dr. Bushway’s evaluation scores are consistent with the broader research showing that students respond positively to an instructor who respects them through authentic challenge coupled with a clearly indicated pathway toward success.

The response by students in Dr. Bushway’s graduate course is also steadily improving, albeit less dramatically, although the student evaluations in Fall 2011 were at an all-time high of Course-4.67  and Instructor-5.0. Using TBL techniques in the graduate courses, Dr. Bushway has been able to assign much harder work and see students perform at a level that would have been unimaginable in prior semesters.  For example, students who knew virtually nothing about research methods (and nothing about basic data management tools such as Excel) were able to effectively and credibly conduct a raw data analysis, and then make a professional presentation to inform real policy for the NY State Highway Patrol.

Impact on Career

One of the more significant outcomes of Dr. Bushway’s experience in major course renovation is how it has affected the way he understands his capacity and effectiveness as a teacher: “For the first time in my career I can say that students consistently seem to enjoy having me as their teacher—and truly believe that I am there to help them learn the material.  It is now me and the students versus the stuff, rather than me and the stuff versus the students.  Since I genuinely enjoy helping people learn difficult concepts, this has been a boon for me as well.  I love going to class every week.”

Dr. Bushway’s experience has also opened up new, unexpected but productive lines of professional activity. He co-authored with an ITLAL staff member and another Criminal Justice colleague an article for The Criminologist, the newsletter for the American Society of Criminology, and then co-presented a very well-attended workshop with the same authors at the annual 2011 ASC conference. Several CJ faculty members nationwide have subsequently sought Dr. Bushway’s advice on teaching criminal justice and criminology. He was also invited to present a paper at a special workshop on teaching for the Association of Public Policy Analysis and Management.  The paper from that workshop, co-authored with a member of the ITLAL staff, will be published in the Journal of Public Affairs Education.