A Philosophy of Faculty Development

Several blue glass bottles for sale
Is there a way to bottle my approach to faculty development and let others use it? Maybe!

As I reflect over my years in faculty development and think through the next steps in my career, I’ve realized it might be helpful for me to draft something of a philosophy of faculty development. How do I conceptualize and go about the work of supporting faculty as they make intentional changes to their teaching practice? What follows is a very rough draft of such a philosophy, drawn from my experience consulting with faculty and other instructors.

Just as our students aren’t blank slates when they walk into our classrooms, faculty aren’t blank slates when they walk into our consulting offices. They come with a set of beliefs about teaching and learning, a set of teaching practices they use regularly, probably a set of teaching practices they’ve stopped using, and what is often a complex set of feelings and motivations regarding their teaching. Without getting a sense of this landscape, it can be hard to help them make meaningful changes in their teaching. Fortunately, a few questions at the beginning of a conversation can go a long way here. “Tell me about your teaching experience over the last few years?” “What does a typical class session look like for you?” “What can you tell me about the students who are taking your course?”

Often faculty come with a problem or question they want to explore. It’s important to acknowledge and address that problem or question, but it’s also important to realize that what the faculty member presents is not always the thing with which they really need assistance. Sometimes an instructor asks about a solution without identifying the problem driving that solution. For instance, an instructor might ask for help using an in-class polling tools, but not say explicitly that they’re wanting a way to motivate more students to do the pre-class reading, a goal that lends itself to polling but also other strategies. In other cases, an instructor might share a surface-level concern and need some help identifying underlying challenges that are leading to that concern. Maybe students aren’t participating in class discussions (a surface-level concern) because there’s a lack of alignment between how class time is used and the summative assessments in the course (an underlying challenge).

Asking good questions is a key skill for a faculty developer. You ask questions to understand an instructor’s beliefs about teaching and to figure out what’s driving some problem they’ve identified. You also ask questions to help an instructor explore possible solutions or changes to their teaching practice. “How do you think your students would respond if you asked this new type of discussion question?” “What would happen if you didn’t grade class participation?” “Have you ever considered inviting students to submit something other than a research paper for this final assignment?” I could easily answer some of these questions for a faculty client, but my answers don’t matter nearly as much as their own answers. Faculty are professionals, and if they’re going to make a change to their practice that’s successful, they need to own that change. Leading with a non-directive consulting approach is usually the best approach.

That said, one can be too non-directive when working with faculty, particularly if they have come with a question or problem. They’re looking for solutions, and asking them “How do you feel about that?” too many times can be frustrating. If they see you as someone with expertise on teaching and you’re not sharing that expertise, that can breed mistrust. It’s better to get a sense of the problem or question, share a few possible solutions, and see what direction the faculty member wants to explore. This is true in the consultation space, but also in the workshop space. There’s a lot of value in faculty reflecting on their own teaching beliefs and practices and in learning from peers and colleagues, but if there’s an expert at the front of the room, at some point that person needs to share some of that expertise.

Also, it’s okay to cite research that might motivate particular teaching changes. The Freeman et al. (2014) meta-analysis of studies of active learning instruction is conclusive: active learning instruction works better than “continuous exposition by the teacher” in STEM fields. There’s no need to hide that in an attempt to be non-directive. When there are evidence-based teaching practices that are relevant to the question or problem at hand, it’s important to share and advocate for them.

When I’m working with faculty, I think a lot about scaffolding. Where are they coming from, in terms of their teaching practices and beliefs about learning? Where do they want to go and how can I help them identify those directions? What options do they have and which ones do they want to try? My goal isn’t to change everything about their teaching, it’s to help them decide to take a two or three next steps in their development as a teacher. “Next” is a key word here. What is a good experiment in teaching practice for one instructor might not be a good experiment for another. I want my faculty clients to identify those next steps and feel confident about taking them, knowing that they might need to circle back and debrief those experiments as they continue their professional development.

I’m sure there’s more I could here, but this works for a first draft! If you’re still reading, thanks for taking the time to let me think out loud, and please feel free to share your thoughts on faculty development in the comments.

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