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Faculty Development Matters

Tomorrow's Academic Careers

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The value of professional development experiences, and indeed of any strong move to enhance faculty learning, rests on the ability to improve student learning, a primary goal and economic driver in academic institutions of all kinds.


The posting below looks at the Tracer Project designed to assess how faculty development programs actually impact student learning. It is from Chapter 7 – Faculty Development Matters, from the book, Faculty Development and Student Learning: Assessing the Connections,byWilliam Condon, Ellen R. Iverson, Cathryn A. Manduca, Carol Rutz, and Gudrun Willett. It is a publication of Indiana University Press, Office of Scholarly Publishing, Herman B Wells Library 350, 1320 East 10thStreet, Bloomington, Indiana 47405 USA, ©2016 by William Condon, Ellen R. Iverson, Cathryn A. Manduca, Carol Rutz, and Gudrun Willett. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.



Rick Reis

UP NEXT: Designing the Denouement in Active and Flipped Class


Tomorrow’s Academic Careers

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Faculty Development Matters


Recommendationfor Jump-Starting a Generative Culture of Teaching and Learning: Supporting Faculty Learning about Teaching

This study began with the realization that faculty development is at risk because of a lack of data demonstrating its effectiveness or its value to an institution. Like colleagues at many institutions, the researchers on the Tracer Project are themselves faculty developers, in WAC (Writing Across the Curriculum), critical thinking, quantitative reasoning, portfolio evaluation, and the sciences. As such, faculty developers are continually called upon to document the usefulness of our programming. Like so many others, the research team focused on changes in faculty practice, assuming that as faculty improved their teaching, students would benefit.  That assumption is grounded in the widespread practice among faculty developers of measuring effectiveness by the impact on faculty, and the evidence for such impact is clear and widespread.  When faculty attend formal development opportunities, engage in self-directed improvement processes, or even undergo routine evaluations, faculty practices do change. The evidence is also clear that even in the absence of formal faculty development, faculty spend a great deal of time working on their teaching.  These studies formed the foundation for the Tracer Project.

However, knowing that faculty development impacts teaching is not enough. The value of professional development experiences, and indeed of any strong move to enhance faculty learning, rests on the ability to improve student learning, a primary goal and economic driver in academic institutions of all kinds. For that reason, research must produce data that can indicate whether and to what extent faculty development initiatives added value to a college education in terms of improving students’ learning, as represented in their actual classroom work products. At the end of the Tracer study, the answer could not be clearer. When faculty improve their teaching, students learn more and their performance on course work improves. As greater members of faculty make common cause of improving teaching, the goals of that improvement tend to spread throughout the institution, and the likelihood of incorporating those goals as common values in routine administration processes increases. The conclusive piece in such work is devising ongoing means of measuring the effects of faculty development as they appear in student work products.  Such a systematic approach demonstrates that faculty development adds value in measurable ways to the institution that invests in sound practices to help teachers address the challenges they face in their classrooms.

This work is made easier when we realize that many, most, if not all faculty care about their teaching. Tracer Project investigations indicate that large numbers of faculty are engaged in improving their teaching and participate in formal faculty development of some kind within their institution.  This finding underscores other research that indicates the extent to which faculty put effort into improving their teaching practices, whether supported by formal faculty development or not. Much of the SoTL research consists of faculty designing and testing new ideas in the classroom, evaluating them with sound research methodologies current in their fields, and reporting on the results. Tracer results demonstrate the extent to which such work has penetrated the faculty at large, so that even at a large public university, the project could find no faculty who did not participate at all in faculty development, even though the low-participating faculty engaged at a minimal level. This confirmation refutes the widespread belief that college and university faculty care only about research and that they spend little time and effort on teaching. The Tracer Study found no evidence to support that common perception.  The ability of faculty to focus on improving their teaching and their ability to bring new ideas and knowledge into practice depends on the institutional context. Thus, what many perceive as a failing of individual faculty to value teaching may in fact reflect the absence of a culture that supports teaching and learning.

Service work is often designed to support improved teaching, or does so implicitly; it therefore offers a plethora of under-utilized opportunities to support faculty efforts to improve their teaching. Portfolio rating sessions at both institutions, whether designed as faculty development opportunities or not, were powerful opportunities for learning about teaching. Raters offer more written assignments than their non-rater peers; those assignments are constructed in a more informed way; and students respond to raters’ assignments with higher-rated performances. Furthermore, interviews at both institutions revealed the presence of many more possible opportunities for routine faculty development. The data support the recommendation that institutions pay careful attention to such events as hiring practices, faculty orientations, performance evaluations, curriculum planning, and many others as sites for conversations about good teaching practices.

The study’s conclusions begin to illuminate the tremendous importance of professional development and a productive culture that supports teaching and learning. As strong as the conclusions are, they represent data from only two institutions: a large state-assisted land grant university and a small, elite, private liberal arts college. Would similar results emerge at other such institutions or at institutions of different types, including smaller state-assisted regional colleges, two-year colleges, or other kinds of institutions of higher education?  Nothing in the results suggests that the results would differ, but nothing provides evidence that they would not.

Another limitation is that the bulk of published research to date applies to formal faculty development activities – to intentionally designed opportunities. The Tracer Project has gone one step further by looking at the results of those events, rather than merely at the often-contested value of the events themselves. Faculty professed to like events that had their priorities straight – meaning events that faculty perceived as focused on important aspects of teaching.  They tended to dislike events that were required or that they perceived as addressing more trivial topics, such as learning to use the new course management software. Faculty valued initiatives that provided support and that were iterative in nature. The data from WSU and Carleton demonstrate that the more that faculty value the events offered, the more likely they are to attend and to apply what they have learned to their course syllabi and assignments.

This study does not fully explore the pathways of information into or out of a campus. Faculty live within both an institutional culture and a disciplinary culture. What role does the culture of the discipline, embodied in its professional societies and publication practices, play? When and how do institutional cultures and disciplinary cultures reinforce, contradict, or complement each other? The path is open for investigating the effects from attending disciplinary conferences, participating in residencies at the Carnegie Foundation, utilizing fellowships from other agencies, or taking advantage of the many other sources for development that are external to one’s own institution. How do ideas travel among institutions? What are the effects of those ideas? Such questions need answers, and answers can come from a national conversation about effective teaching in higher education. Local data can address local concerns and contribute to a national conversation, and, in an era of widespread budget cuts, straitened circumstances, and attacks from both inside and outside higher education, such conversations are more necessary than ever.

As institutions look to join that conversation, or merely to provide evidence of teaching effectiveness on their own campuses, this research provides guidance in several ways:

  • Begin by identifying as clearly as possible the goals for changes in instruction and by imagining clearly the role of faculty development in the change process. Note that this study does not address short-term or one-off events, since important changes do not happen that way. Instead, ask the question of how the one-offs (whether a WAC workshop or a session focused on learning the new classroom management system) can become part of the process of promoting a larger or higher-level goal. Think systematically about how each event, no matter its scope, contributes to others and to long-term goals. Think in terms of initiatives rather than single events.
  • Similarly, identify the goals for learning by focusing on higher-order competencies. Look at competencies such as writing, thinking, teamwork, information literacy, or self-efficacy – the kinds of outcomes that are in institutions’ formulations of outcomes for graduates. The more clearly an institution identifies these goals, and the more such goals are evident in every course of study, the more likely an initiative is to draw faculty commitment and to produce measurable change.
  • Promote excellent teaching. Understand the enterprise of cultivating excellent teaching as systematic, not merely as a function of course evaluation. Foster a process of faculty learning that engages outside input, that supports reflective study of teaching practices, research into effects of changes in practice, and follow-up of further learning, change, and evaluation. Faculty who engage in the effort are pursuing good teaching. Some will become great teachers before others do, and some will always be better teachers than others, but all faculty will become better teachers than they were.
  • Search for ways in which teaching and learning goals affect institutional practices that could count as routine faculty development. Orient those processes so that they support, identify, endorse, and promote improvements in teaching and learning. Realize that in most institutions, many of those practices may hamper the development of better teachers. Identify practices that are barriers and change them so that they encourage innovation in the classroom. Design systems so that they help overcome faculty members’ reluctance or fear of exposing the inside of the classroom for an examination of their teaching practices. Performance reviews of all kinds must change from a punitive paradigm or a burdensome task to a set of practices that generate support for developing as a teacher.
  • What educators want in students (higher learning) is what they want in faculty (learning about how to foster higher learning) and what they want in an institution (a context that supports higher learning for faculty and students). Expand the Direct Path model to a systems approach to institutional development. Higher education is a learning enterprise at all levels. A systems approach reveals the connections and interrelations among widely diverging occasions for learning, from introductory course work to grant-sponsored research, and from assessments of incoming students to accreditation studies focused on student learning outcomes. In a systems approach, institutional culture promotes and rewards improvement.
  • The pathways to building a productive culture of teaching and learning on campus differ from one school to the next. Mount a search that can identify existing and potential pathways. Exploit exiting pathways first, and design new pathways with research questions in mind. Collect data based on what current goals require, and do so with a sound research methodology. Plan an investigation that focuses on improving teaching, and allow the results to address institutional needs for accountability. Don’t let the accountability need dominate the more important need for continuous improvement of teaching and learning. In assessment, every exit is an entry. Plan through the present evaluation towards future ones. Focus on process rather than more limited products.
  • Think globally, act locally, and then act globally. Results from local efforts must reach to and beyond the scholarly commons. The most important audience for improving teaching and learning is [E4] within the enterprise of higher education, but the audiences outside still matter greatly. Out there, common assumptions and perceptions are often oversimplified and rarely accurate – but only well-articulated, data-driven findings can counteract them. Again, a systems approach to such explorations can reach beyond the boundaries of higher education to society at large.

To build a productive culture of teaching and learning within an institution is to maximize the ability of faculty to learn and students to learn. This interaction lies at the heart of institutions of higher education. It is because faculty learning and student learning are intertwined that institutions foster and support the scholarly work of faculty. This study shows that these interactions are no less profound when applied to the process of teaching and learning than they are when thinking about disciplinary content and practices. Making visible the substantial faculty learning taking place and the culture that supports its impact will start to address criticism that higher education in America has lost its way. However, the most powerful response will be to build on this substantial base, thereby strengthening opportunities for faculty to learn about teaching and learning, and maximizing the potential for this knowledge to be shared across campus among faculty, students, and staff in a culture that values and sustains improvements in learning for all.