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Promoting Evidence-Based Teaching through Evidence-Based Faculty Development

Mary Dean Sorcinelli, Anne Austin, and Mary Huber were true to form in their session Thursday afternoon, providing a rich, research-based reminder of the value of faculty development in improving teaching but with the caveat that we have to be smart, intentional, and driven by evidence-based practices if we want faculty development to have meaningful and lasting impact on the quality of teaching and learning. The presentation was full of substantive information derived from these three scholars’ collective experience in the field of professional development, and they practiced what they preach by engaging the audience in interactive, shared work that made the room buzz with spirited conversation.

The session started off with attention to what we know about evidence-based practices among faculty, posing questions about who are the faculty on campuses most eager to embrace evidence-based teaching, who are the motivators, what are the typical road blocks, and more. The audience contributed a variety of answers: “My faculty don’t even know that evidence-based teaching exists”; “Program reviews can be a vehicle for adopting productive change”; “A few rare institutions actually require evidence-based teaching as part of the tenure and promotion system” (this one drew gasps of astonishment!); “We need to scale up our faculty development efforts to make a real difference across the entire campus”; and “The issue of time is a ubiquitous problem: faculty are stressed by workloads, advising, service, research.”

One strong theme that came from such discussion is that change is hard . . . for both teachers and students. One reason for such resistance is that in order to achieve deep, systemic change, we have to consider shifting the balance of authority in the classroom, inviting students to accept more responsibility for their learning. This theme, of course, harkens back to Bruffee’s seminal work on collaborative learning, which, as I tell my faculty and students, too, is not so much about group work but more about sharing authority for learning, making students co-creators of constructed knowledge. This is a tough paradigm change but one that has the potential of remarkable learning outcomes when students are not only more self-directed but also more critically reflective and self-assessing. Faculty development, especially when it uses the efficacy of evidence to help faculty use research-based approaches to improving teaching and changing paradigms, is key to making such positive changes.

But there is much hope already in the wind. Huber shared an anecdote about how at Washington State University, researchers could not conduct a study about teaching practices as planned because they could not find enough instructors for a control group of teachers who had not engaged in some form of faculty development. I suppose that is good news about the still-growing influence of faculty development in higher education.

Clearly, as the presenters stressed, faculty development provides important scaffolding for evidence-based teaching innovations. But there are other “centers” on our campuses which also contribute the encouragement and support needed for fostering a climate of continuous improvement and teaching excellence. The audience suggested some examples, and I was sorry not to have had the opportunity myself to identify honors programs, which, by their very missions are rooted in and dependent on pedagogical innovation and subversion. Teaching in honors is, in fact, a form of faculty development (honors as incubator, so to speak), since the teacher has to redesign courses and rethink how to teach in the honors setting. Such work helps to promote better or at least different teaching in other courses, and because honors programs are compelled to provide evidence of their special learning outcomes, they also can be models of how to document the effectiveness of creative teaching and its influence on deeper student learning.

One of the key lessons of the session was that whether we turn to faculty development centers, honors programs, technology, libraries, learning communities, or other sources of inspiration to help us improve teaching and produce evidence of good practice and its effect on student learning, we have to work from the power of evidence. We have to extend our change efforts to reach into all corners of our institutions and promote change among all teachers. We have to listen to feedback from colleagues and students. We have to provide incentives and rewards for teachers to improve and incorporate evidence-based practices in their instruction. The session ended with an inspiring call for change, for better and more research on the connection between good teaching and deep learning. It was definitely a highlight of the day.

John Zubizarreta is professor of English and director of Honors and Faculty Development at Columbia College in Columbia, South Carolina.