On Faculty Development

Making instructors more than mere subject matter experts

By Don Arnoldy, Carrington College

Teaching is a professional field with knowledge, skills and attitudes that must be acquired and maintained. Untrained teachers, left to their own devices, tend to teach as they have been taught, which often includes methods that are now years out of date. Oftentimes, beginning instructors at career colleges are not as well trained to teach as beginning professors at traditional colleges and universities. Beginning career college instructors are sometimes subject matter experts with no formal pedagogical or andragogical training, but they teach in an environment that can encourage faculty development.

Over the last dozen or so years, traditional colleges have started addressing the issue of untrained teachers, spurred on by the work of Ernest L. Boyer, President of The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, who introduced the concept of the scholarship of teaching in this book Scholarship Reconsidered: Priorities of the Professoriate. Traditional colleges, however, have been hampered in their efforts by their entrenched culture of faculty tenure and advancement based on research and publication, rather than teaching prowess.

Career colleges have a couple of distinct advantages when trying to promote faculty development. First, there are no competing priorities – no research or publication requirements. Teaching is the only thing our faculty is expected to do. Secondly, we are in the business of preparing people to enter new careers. We should be able to apply the principles, techniques and methods we use to teach our students to become medical assistants, graphic designers or accountants to teach our new faculty how to become teachers.

At this point, some of you might be thinking, “Why bother with all of this? If an instructor can’t teach, get rid of them and hire someone who can.” Such a policy has a very real cost: not only the tangible cost to hire, but the less tangible cost of reduced employee morale and student engagement.

In a 2004 study of faculty development programs at 20 universities spread across eight countries published in Active Learning in Higher Education, researchers found that faculty development programs increase “the extent to which teachers adopt a student focus,” improve “a number of aspects of teachers’ teaching, as judged by students,” and change “teachers such that their students improve their learning.” For this study, the researchers defined a faculty development program as a “coherent series of meetings and learning activities spread over a period of four to 18 months, usually with an element of formal assessment.” The programs in the study were all between 60 and 300 hours long.

Faculty development programs have also been shown to increase faculty engagement and reduce burnout and attrition. College teaching can be an isolating endeavor; faculty development programs help to build communities of practice within campuses.

Some of you may be saying, “We do faculty development! We have regular meetings one day each quarter! We require our faculty to complete X number of online self-study courses each year. We have them attend webinars.” Is this how you want them to teach your students? If this is such a great method for preparing people to enter a new profession, why aren’t you using it with your student population?

I am not saying that these resources are of no value. They are useful, but they are just not sufficient when used alone. Teaching is not just about information transfer. Learning is a social activity. It is the interaction among the students and teacher that creates learning.

Faculty development courses, especially for new instructors, must be taught with the same techniques and methodologies that you want teachers to employ in their classrooms. The methods by which they are taught – the modeling – are more influential than the methods that they are taught – the content.

Learning takes time. Researchers suggest that new faculty development should be scheduled across a full 30 weeks, a standard academic year.  While this may work well in a traditional environment, with two semesters per year and most new faculty starting in the fall, career colleges typically do not operate under that schedule. While 30 weeks is not an inappropriate time frame, an hour and a half meeting over 30 weeks is the time commitment of one three-semester-unit class (45 contact hours), those 30 weeks can be broken up into a sequence of five- or six-week modules to accommodate the structure under which most career schools operate.

In the first course, topics such as classroom management, lesson planning, student learning objectives, testing and assessment, and active learning should be introduced. Outside preparation should include readings, viewing online resources, and inter- and intra-departmental classroom observations. Technology training is important, but needs to be presented within a pedagogical context. Instructors need to be taught not just how the technology works, but how to work with the technology to improve their teaching and their students’ learning.

According to Student Learning Communities, Faculty Learning Communities & Faculty Development, participants in faculty learning communities at Texas A&M University meet for 90 minutes each week, with another 60-90 minutes of preparation time (homework), which was determined to be “the minimal amount of time needed for participants to engage successfully and the maximum amount of time that most participant schedules could allow.”

As instructors gain competence – upon completion of the new teacher course – they should continue their development. Inquiry-guided learning groups work well for this. Small groups of instructors work together on a topic of mutual interest – curricular, methodological or pedagogical – for a set period of time. The expectation should be that this learning will result in actionable recommendations that will shape evidence-based practice in the classroom. These groups then share their learning with the rest of the faculty. Quarterly or even semi-annual symposia work well for this.

In his book Drive, Daniel Pink talks about an Australian software company, Atlassian, that gave its engineers one day each quarter to work on any project that interested them so long as they shared their findings with the rest of the company the following day. These four days resulted in more bug fixes and new product ideas than the rest of the year.

As master teachers complete the circle by going back into the faculty development classroom as instructors of new-teacher courses, we establish a self-sustaining community of practice where learning is valued and improvement is a community cultural norm.

If we care about student engagement, retention, completion and placement and believe that instructional quality impacts these things, then improving instructional quality must be a goal on our campuses. Faculty development is the process by which we improve instructional quality.

Over the last 20 years, Don Arnoldy has worked at several for-profit career colleges as an instructor, department chair and dean. He is currently an instructor at Carrington College in Portland, Ore.

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