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Pathways to Faculty Learning and Pedagogical Improvement


January 2013, Volume 26, Number 1

By Susan Bickerstaff and Nikki Edgecombe

Scaling Innovationis a project led by researchers at the Community College Research Center, Teachers College, Columbia University, studying the implementation of developmental education reforms at community colleges across the country. In the course of this research, we have observed that when colleges enact such reforms, new opportunities emerge for faculty to engage in instruction-focused professional development. The reform process allows faculty to try new things in the classroom and to work with colleagues to refine and improve curriculum and pedagogy. However, even in a context that encourages—even demands—robust instruction-focused learning, it can be difficult to enact effective and sustained faculty development activities.

Institutional norms and structures in higher education do not typically foster instruction-focused professional learning. Conceptions of academic freedom discourage colleges from interfering in matters of curriculum and pedagogy. Heavy faculty workloads and reliance on adjuncts also deter collaborative efforts to strengthen classroom practice. Consequently, many faculty members have few opportunities to reflect on their teaching in a formal setting, and when they do, their learning experiences are not always directly applicable to their teaching practice. In typical professional development activities, discussions are rarely grounded in the concrete, day-to-day issues that instructors encounter in the classroom. In addition, facilitators often do not have the requisite skills and expertise to address the variety of questions and needs that arise among attendees.

Nevertheless, well-crafted faculty engagement activities are critical to generating improvements in teaching and learning. Drawing on fieldwork with Scaling Innovationpartner programs, this article explores the nature of faculty learning related to instruction, and argues that the most productive faculty learning opportunities have a clear purpose and create direct linkages to instructors’ everyday work of classroom teaching.

Fullerton College: A Case Study of Professional Learning

During the fall 2011 semester, a team of four English faculty members at Fullerton College began developing a pilot version of an accelerated approach to developmental writing, the second course in a three-course remedial English sequence. The pilot course was designed with a level of rigor to allow high-performing students to skip the final developmental English course and enroll directly into college composition; lower performing students would be referred to the subsequent developmental course. 

To help students meet the objectives of the upper-level developmental course, instructors had to integrate challenging reading and writing assignments into the curriculum. The team elected to use common course materials for the pilot semester and met several times during the fall to design the curriculum, select course readings, and create assignments. The college offered four sections using the accelerated approach, and throughout the first semester the team met weekly to discuss their classroom experiences, troubleshoot challenges, and evaluate and refine the curriculum.

A full-day planning meeting held in the fall illustrated the range of curricular and pedagogical issues that faculty considered, and the relevance of these issues to classroom practice. The meeting began with instructors sharing and discussing readings that they had used in previous courses. As they deliberated over which books and articles would be most appropriate for each course unit, a conversation emerged about how to assess students’ comprehension of challenging texts. For nearly 30 minutes, the instructors discussed strategies for strengthening students’ reading comprehension skills. One instructor shared that she reads aloud in class and asks students to annotate the text with comments and questions as they follow along. When we observed the courses in action the following semester, we noted that all of the instructors had adopted this strategy.

As the first semester progressed, instructors reported that it was challenging to keep students engaged and motivated as they completed more advanced reading assignments, and faculty sought additional strategies to support students. Instructors viewed these challenges as surmountable, however, in large part due to the support and communication network they had established amongst themselves.

Creating Opportunities for Purposeful, Contextualized Faculty Learning

Typically, college-sponsored professional development consists of presentations by consultants, off-site conferences, whole-college convocations, or one-time workshops. These activities may present faculty with new and interesting information, but because the information has to appeal to a broad audience, it is often abstract and not directly applicable to an individual instructor’s classroom practice.

In contrast, the Fullerton team meetings and email exchanges had clear connections to the day-to-day work of teaching the accelerated pilot sections. The course development process resulted in concrete, in-depth explorations of curricular materials, student writing, and other aspects of their day-to-day work. Because of their direct relevance, the information, strategies, and solutions shared among the Fullerton team were regularly put to use in the classroom.

What we saw at Fullerton we also observed at other Scaling Innovation partner sites: Faculty members who were involved in shaping or refining a new reform often participated in ongoing, collaborative activities that resulted in changes to their teaching practice. The process of developing and refining a developmental reform built comfort with unfamiliar or challenging pedagogies and allowed faculty to experiment with new teaching strategies, consult with colleagues about outcomes, and return to the classroom with specific ideas for improving their approach. This kind of experimentation can be further supported when curriculum development groups, steering committees, or implementation teams create a sustainable infrastructure for instructor collaboration.

Faculty learning activities appear to be particularly successful when they are directed towards a clear goal, as they were at Fullerton College. The reform team at Fullerton had to develop a curriculum that integrated reading and writing, and they put into place meeting structures and communication vehicles that supported this goal. Such alignment between goals and activities was typical at colleges where faculty felt the reform had had a significant impact on their teaching.

To gain further insight into this association, we categorized professional learning opportunities in terms of their purpose, activity, and venue. The purpose is the learning objective. This might include introducing a new pedagogical approach or troubleshooting a particular challenge that is emerging in the classroom. The activity is the means used to reach that objective. For instance, participants might observe a teaching demonstration, listen to a presentation, or engage in interactive activities with fellow instructors. Finally, the venue is the forum for learning. Venues may include ongoing in-person meetings, conference calls, a one-time workshop, or online forums.

Using this framework, we analyzed the professional learning opportunities we observed at Scaling Innovation sites. Our analysis revealed that purposes were not always clearly defined, and that activities were often selected without attention to how they would achieve their purpose. For example, colleges sometimes invited a speaker or held a workshop without having a clear idea of how the information imparted would address impediments that instructors encountered in the classroom. In contrast, the Fullerton team’s activities and venues—collaborative review of classroom materials at regular in-person meetings supplemented with team-wide email communication—sprang directly from their stated purpose.

The Complexity of Creating Meaningful Faculty Learning

Conversations about teaching are relatively rare in higher education: Most faculty members are disciplinary experts with little formal pedagogical training or experience talking about the specifics of classroom practice. Consequently, even in the context of implementing a new course, it can be difficult to keep conversations grounded in classroom practice. In our observations, discussions about teaching tended to be free-wheeling conversations in which instructors shared strategies with each other. In our interviews with faculty members, respondents consistently characterized sharing strategies as “interesting,” but they were rarely able to name particular changes to practice that had resulted from such conversations.

Discussions about teaching can be more effective when they are led by a skilled instructional leader who can structure and guide conversations to stay focused on classroom practice, and can employ curricular materials or student work to probe deeply into how teaching strategies might be applied in particular contexts. Such leaders can also scaffold supports so that faculty can try new techniques and report on their experiences. Unfortunately, few instructors have had training in the leadership and facilitation skills needed to support their colleagues in this way. Even faculty members with a track record of success in reformed classrooms can feel uncomfortable and ill-prepared taking on this role; they are often apprehensive about appearing prescriptive about pedagogy, particularly with more senior colleagues. This apprehension can dilute the professional learning goal and result in less structured and less useful venues or activities.

Another challenge is that faculty may differ in their pedagogical philosophies, their dispositions toward professional learning and collaboration, and their willingness to participate in the reform. Faculty leaders must manage these inevitable conflicts by engaging different faculty in different ways during the early stages of reform. Some faculty may want to examine how to prepare students for assessments; others may want to focus on motivating seemingly disengaged students; others may desire information on the rationale or need for reform.

No single activity will address all of these issues. Reform leaders must make strategic decisions about which faculty to engage and how to do so effectively. At several colleges, we observed a small core group of faculty working intensively on course development and refinement. Typically, this group would share information at department meetings, where those less engaged in the reform were kept up-to-date on reform activities. One college recruited faculty members to voluntarily participate in a group focused on pedagogical improvement. This group wrote and shared journal entries reflecting on classroom practice, reviewed and critiqued videos of each other’s instruction, and conducted and debriefed peer observations of one another’s classrooms. These professional learning opportunities appeared effective in part because faculty were not forced to participate.

The complexity of creating meaningful faculty development opportunities derives from a higher education culture that has traditionally underemphasized reflection on classroom practice. Yet, when activities and venues are aligned with an authentic purpose, faculty members are more likely to feel that discussing teaching is natural and useful.

Opening Up New Possibilities for Pedagogical Improvement

Our research strongly suggests that effective professional development must be grounded in the day-to-day work of teaching. Well-structured professional development—with purpose, activities, and venue all clearly aligned—is germane to reform efforts; it helps create a culture where pedagogy is not invisible, where experimentation is expected and embraced, and where continuous improvement subject to rigorous assessment is the norm rather than the exception. Well-designed instruction-focused faculty development can have additional benefits like a deepened and broadened sense of ownership among instructors. This may contribute to the sustainability of the innovation and yield improved student outcomes beyond those seen during early implementation.

Though we have focused on opportunities for faculty learning provided by instructional reform in developmental education, it is also possible to enact contextualized faculty learning in colleges that are not implementing new reforms. Colleagues can collaborate to measure learning outcomes, reassess curriculum, or identify opportunities for improvement. When these activities allow for in-depth discussion of classroom materials, student work, and other artifacts of practice, they can prompt information sharing, feedback, and collaboration, and introduce a focus on pedagogy that extends throughout and beyond developmental education.

This article is a compressed version of Inside Out, Volume 3, a periodic publication of the Scaling Innovation Project. Visit www.scalinginnovation.org for more information.

Susan Bickerstaff and Nikki Edgecombe are Scaling Innovation team members at the Community College Research Center, Teachers College, Columbia University.

Opinions expressed in Leadership Abstracts are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the League for Innovation in the Community College.

Posted by The League for Innovation in the Community College on 01/01/2013 at 12:00 AM | Categories: Leadership Abstracts -