While research demonstrates the effectiveness of professional learning in advancing equity-focused change in higher education, there is still much to learn about what it looks like in practice. A recent report, Teaching, Learning, Equity, and Change: Realizing the Promise of Professional Learning from Achieving the Dream (ATD), the Online Learning Consortium (OLC), and Every Learner Everywhere, seeks to shed light on the state of professional learning, particularly in community colleges, minority-serving institutions, and other broad-access colleges and universities.
The report’s lead author, Bret Eynon, is Strategic Teaching and Learning Coach at Achieving the Dream and former Associate Provost and Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs at LaGuardia Community College, and says he and his co-authors hope the report will address an understudied area for these institutions.
“There is a real gap to be filled in the research on professional learning in schools serving racially minoritized and poverty-affected students, says Eynon. “As a field, we need to better understand these crucial institutions and help them more strategically leverage professional learning.”
“We set out to gather a mix of quantitative survey data and qualitative interviews to get a broad picture of the field,” he explains. “We interviewed leaders of exemplary CTLs [Centers for Teaching and Learning] to understand what made these centers so effective.”
“Teaching, Learning, Equity, and Change: Realizing the Promise of Professional Learning” outlines key findings and recommendations for leaders in professional development, for institutions, and for ecosystem partners advancing equity-focused change. Most notably, the level of interest in professional development for faculty and co-curricular educators is not matched by investment or consistent high-impact institutional practices.
Many of the report’s recommendations center on sustainability, assessment, and strategic planning. The body of the report explores specific methods, such as co-constructed professional learning and faculty learning communities.
Aligning professional learning and institutional strategy
“Teaching, Learning, Equity, and Change” finds that institutions with highly effective CTLs explicitly include professional learning in their strategic planning and resource allocation processes.
“Our report and previous literature have found that effective professional learning programs are shaped not only by the way the programs are run but also by the support of the institution,” says Jon Iuzzini, a co-author of the report and ATD’s Director of Teaching & Learning. “If an institution has an effective professional learning design but isn’t supporting professional learning, it is less likely to be successful.”
As an example of a possible lack of alignment, Iuzzini points to stipends; they are a useful tool but on their own aren’t a sign that professional development is an integral part of an institution’s focus, policies, practices, and larger culture. That requires “making sure instructors who engage in professional learning are recognized in the reward structure; through annual evaluations, promotion, and tenure processes.”
Respecting adjunct presence and perspective
The report’s findings suggest that many institutions struggle to engage adjunct instructors in meaningful professional learning opportunities. Spotlighting institutions with exemplary professional learning programs, they outline ways to design programs that address the needs of part-time faculty.
“Adjunct faculty teach a huge proportion of students, especially in entry-level courses,” says Nicole Weber, a co-author of the report and consultant to OLC. “It is critical that adjunct voices are heard and part of professional learning conversations so that their teaching can be thoughtful and powerful.”
Valuing sustained learning communities
The survey data reveals that “one shot” workshops are still the most common professional learning structure, even though current research has shown them to be largely ineffective. “Educators need time to change their practice to aid student success,” says Eynon. “In most cases, workshops can’t offer the kind of support that educators need.”
Instead, the report found that exemplary CTLs tend to offer sustained professional development with opportunities to learn with peers, apply ideas in the classroom, and reflect on those practices. Those approaches result in better learning outcomes than standalone workshops.
The report profiles institutions with effective professional learning strategies, including Wilkes Community College and Valencia College, which are noted for how they sustain faculty learning communities.
“These colleges are jewels in terms of the variety of faculty learning communities they are running,” says H. Ray Keith, a co-author of the report and an Associate Director of Teaching & Learning at ATD. “Their programs have a big impact because they create opportunities for faculty to learn about a new tool or strategy, try it out, come back, and share their experiences in reflective conversations.”
The survey data shows that professional learning leaders are eager for collaborative partnerships. Based on the data, the report recommends that funders and other “ecosystem partners” invest in professional learning and spread awareness of evidence-based resources.Download Teaching, Learning, Equity, and Change: Realizing the Promise of Professional Learning