Faculty Development’s Evolution: It’s Time for Investment in Higher Education’s Greatest Resource

This issue of Peer Review highlights innovative faculty development practices and signals the arrival of a moment for renewed engagement and investment in faculty development across higher education. Completion, quality, and affordability are among the greatest challenges facing higher education students and their success. At the same time, the public is increasingly questioning whether higher education is delivering on its promises.

Across higher education, there are compelling narratives showing how institutions have responded to these challenges by developing portfolios of solutions. For example, Georgia State University (n.d.) has developed interventions based on predictive analytics, implemented a new GPS advising program, provided financial management support, and offered retention grants to address completion and affordability concerns. These strategies have had a positive impact on the university’s completion rates and attainment gaps on its campus. Arguably the more difficult challenge to address is quality learning outcomes. While initiatives developed by administrators are key elements of an institution’s portfolio, the primary way institutions change and improve is through the imagination, pedagogy, and scholarship of its faculty. At this current moment, our understanding of how students learn has developed significantly, and evidence-based faculty development strategies have been verified. As we contemplate ways to positively address quality student learning in our current context, faculty development opportunities should be central to our efforts.

A review of the history of faculty development is also a review of the student success challenges that higher education has faced. That history reveals a great deal about how faculty development has evolved in concert with institutional efforts to address concerns about quality within a larger national narrative, and this history also provides meaningful context for our current moment.

Faculty Development Since the 1960s

For the vast majority of institutions, prior to the 1960s, faculty development comprised sabbatical leave, guest lectures, financial assistance to attend conferences, aid to complete advanced degrees, and research support. Very few organized faculty development programs were in place, although Columbia University had a program that resembled modern faculty development as early as the 1920s. For the most part, the focus through the first half of the twentieth century was on assisting faculty in their attempts to increase their knowledge of their academic specializations (Gaff 1975). A number of national trends helped to change this focus.

Between the late 1800s and the mid-1960s, there was little change regarding the roles and expectations of college faculty; however, as the 1960s progressed, enrollments in colleges and universities were driven higher by the postwar baby boom and public policy that strongly promoted higher education. In the twenty years prior to 1972, US college enrollments increased by 223 percent to 8.4 million students (Mulkeen 1981). Coupled with this growth was a feeling that “traditional curricula and teaching approaches were not responsive to the insistent demands of the new generation of college students” (Brookes and German 1983, 4). Students, empowered by the Free Speech Movement at the University of California and related protests that followed, were becoming more comfortable voicing their concerns, which parents and legislators often echoed. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, a realization emerged that good teaching did not happen by default or by being an expert in a given domain or field, and Freedman and Sanford went so far as to say that “higher education [had] virtually no pedagogy” at that point in its history (1973, 3).

These problems became more acute as college enrollments leveled off and higher education experienced a general decline in its rate of growth. As a result, faculty mobility decreased somewhat, and fewer new faculty—who could have brought new vitality to institutions—were hired. Although faculty development was of little concern to faculty and administrators before the 1970s, the increasing societal pressures to improve postsecondary instruction, coupled with a clear sense that existing faculty would have to embrace new instructional practices, resulted in what Gaff and Justice called the “decade of faculty development” (1978, 85).

As a gauge of growth during this period, Centra’s (1976) survey of faculty development practices in the United States found that more than one thousand institutions (approximately 60 percent of respondents) had or were developing faculty development programs. At the same time, the Professional and Organizational Development (POD) Network was formed as one of the results of an American Association of Higher Education convening. While pressure on higher education to change created a supportive climate for the creation of faculty development centers, it is unlikely that the rate of growth could have been as quick or as great without help from several federal agencies (e.g., the National Education Association, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education) and private foundations (e.g., Danforth, Kellogg, Ford, Exxon, Mellon, and the Lilly Endowment).

As the 1970s concluded and the 1980s began, some in higher education voiced concerns regarding the effectiveness of faculty development programs. This perception of ineffectiveness likely contributed to Gustafson and Bratton’s (1984) findings that, in a random sample of seventy-two faculty development centers, 28 percent had closed in the late 1970s or early 1980s. While the literature often cites this study as an indicator of faculty development’s decline in the 1980s, Erickson’s (1986) survey replicating Centra’s (1976) study found a slight increase in the overall number of centers across higher education in the United States. With that said, the growth of faculty development in the 1980s by no means matched the pace of the 1970s.

Faculty development in the 1980s was also responding to a new set of needs. In 1977, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching stated that general education within higher education was a “disaster area” (Gaff 1999). The fallout that followed contributed to the education reform movement of the 1980s, which resulted in institutional efforts regarding larger curricular issues. Among these broader needs were reconsidering general education, reviewing majors and minors, embedding writing across the curriculum, addressing diversity issues, and incorporating international perspectives. Faculty development again was tapped as one of the mechanisms to foster the needed institutional change. During this time, due to significant targeted funding from the Sloan Foundation, cognitive theories of learning were beginning to challenge behavioral views in higher education. As a result, faculty development programs focusing on teaching strategies began to discuss mental processes and conceptual constructs in addition to overt student behaviors.

In the 1990s, the emerging Information Age and new educational reform efforts contributed to growth patterns in faculty development that were similar to the 1970s. During this time, there was also an emerging recognition of higher education’s diversifying student body. Millis (1994), for example, raised the concern that current teaching practices might not effectively reach students who may be underprepared, ethnically diverse, or part-time. Emerging teaching practices, built upon cognitive research on learning, became more student-centered and embraced the notion of socially constructed knowledge. Barr and Tagg’s article “From Teaching to Learning—A New Paradigm for Undergraduate Education” (1995) may be the most recognized work from that decade highlighting this shift. General education reform efforts evolved with the recognition of the instrumental role faculty play, as their “commitments and capabilities make or break the implementation of curricular change, and they are central to sustaining program vitality” (Association of American Colleges 1994, 44).

As the 2000s began, many noted that the challenges acknowledged in the previous decade were becoming more pronounced. James Duderstadt, who was the recently retired president of the University of Michigan, made the following observation:

There is also a rapidly growing gap between today’s generation of students and the faculty responsible for teaching them. Today’s students come from very different backgrounds than their teachers; they have different intellectual objectives, and they think and learn in different ways. They are far more diverse in every human characteristic—race, gender, nationality, economic background—than the rather homogeneous faculty that teaches them. This mismatch between instructor and student is an important factor in the new tensions surrounding teaching, particularly at the undergraduate level. (Duderstadt 2000, 22)

AAC&U’s Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP) framework emerged later that decade as a practical, evidence-based, and applied response to these concerns, giving faculty development professionals new opportunities to address quality student learning within and beyond the classroom.

The Current Quality Challenge

While faculty development efforts in higher education today often address every aspect of the faculty career arc, including future faculty preparation, improving quality learning outcomes is still a persistent, significant, and ongoing challenge. In addition to the quality concerns that have emerged over the past half century, the current quality challenge is exacerbated by evolving and more demanding employability patterns. For example,

  • 91 percent of employers say that “the challenges their employees face are more complex than they were in the past.”
  • 93 percent of employers say that they are asking employees to “take on more responsibilities and to use a broader set of skills than in the past.”
  • 93 percent of employers say that “candidates’ demonstrated capacity to think critically, communicate clearly, and solve complex problems is more important than their undergraduate major.”
  • 95 percent of employers put “a priority on hiring people with the intellectual and interpersonal skills that will help them contribute to innovation in the workplace” (Hart Research Associates 2013, 4).

In light of evolving employer expectations and an increasing national focus on completion efforts, AAC&U’s board of directors voiced concerns about quality a decade ago. Consisting largely of university presidents, the board summarized the notion of a quality imperative by concluding that “the quality shortfall is just as urgent as the attainment shortfall” (AAC&U 2010, 1). This concern recently was echoed by the Commission on the Future of Undergraduate Education, which stated as its first national priority to “ensure that all students—whatever their program of study—have high-quality educational experiences that prepare them for success in the twenty-first century” (2017, 22). Indeed, quality education is a national imperative for higher education that grows in importance and complexity with each passing semester.

The largest initiative associated with quality in higher education to date has been AAC&U’s LEAP initiative, in which high-impact educational practices and authentic assessments of student learning are cornerstone components (AAC&U, n.d.). High-impact practices, when done well, are exceptionally efficacious in terms of deepening learning and closing equity gaps. As a result of the research supporting their effectiveness, higher education is striving to find ways to take these practices to scale (Kuh and O’Donnell 2013).

The vast majority of students’ educational experiences while in college, however, take place in or result from assignments and approaches employed in traditional classroom settings. Extensive meta-analyses of higher education teaching conclude that

good teaching matters. It really matters. Across all outcomes . . . (including those related to persistence and degree attainment) . . . good teaching is the primary means through which institutions affect students. In addition, high-quality instruction was generally more effective in promoting the learning, cognitive, and educational attainment outcomes of students from historically underserved populations than those from majority groups. Importantly, these practices also promote desired outcomes for all students. (Mayhew et al. 2016, 592)

This summation of the value of teaching in higher education has been well-documented in K–12 settings as well. In that context, research more than two decades ago concluded that “the most important factor affecting student learning is the teacher,” and “if the teacher is ineffective, students under the teacher’s tutelage will show inadequate progress academically regardless of how similar or different [the students] are regarding their academic achievement” (Sanders, Wright, and Horn 1997, 63).

Instructional preparation, training, and improvement are built into the K–12 profession. A key tenet of the National Education Association (NEA) is that professional development is a requirement for those who teach throughout their career. The organization believes that “to have high standards for students, there must be high standards for the staff members who work with them” (NEA, n.d.).

Some suggest that those who teach in college lean heavily on the models of teaching that were used to teach their younger selves. While this likely oversimplifies the sources of higher education teaching expertise, without a doubt, professional teaching training in higher education lacks consistency and rigor. In some contexts and disciplines, this training is nonexistent, even though copious research shows the fundamental relationship between teaching competency and student success. Research also provides clear direction for teaching practice based upon what we now know regarding how humans learn.

There likely are myriad causes for the disconnect between classroom practice and what we know about learning. Today, the majority of doctoral programs focus, sometimes entirely, on preparing students as researchers, often with little emphasis on or opportunity for teaching preparation. As doctoral students become faculty members, they often arrive at institutions with reward structures that place little emphasis on success in the classroom. Further, there are greater numbers of short-term, non-tenure-track instructors teaching at the undergraduate level who, because of their institutional status, received little training, mentoring, or support in their roles as instructors. Little progress has been made regarding these concerns, even though

  • public opinion regards teaching excellence as the most important factor in what makes the “best” university (Pizmony-Levy and Pallas 2017);
  • calls continue for instructional improvements in the service of quality learning (e.g., AAC&U 2010; Commission on the Future of Undergraduate Education 2017; Winter, Kent, and Bradshaw 2018); and
  • the evidence base is growing regarding higher education pedagogical practice that results in the achievement of defined student learning outcomes (e.g., Bowen and Watson 2017; Brown, Roediger, and McDaniel 2014; Eyler 2018).

A Moment for Renewing Investment

Since the 1970s, the practices and research base of faculty development have diversified and matured as well. Significant research has shown the efficacy of specific faculty development approaches (e.g., Cox 2000; Cranton 1994) and verified the connections between faculty development and student learning, including helping faculty to develop practices intended to foster specific student learning outcomes, such as writing, critical thinking, and quantitative reasoning (Condon et al. 2016). Researchers have developed and documented roadmaps for Centers of Teaching and Learning (CTLs) to engage in similar assessments of their impact (Beach et al. 2016; Haras et al. 2017), and a robust tool for evaluating CTLs across seventeen domains and three levels is freely available online (American Council on Education and POD Network 2018).

Within the context of diminishing public opinion about higher education and data-informed calls for quality student learning outcomes, redoubling efforts in the service of students and student success—including quality learning—continues to be a central imperative for colleges and universities today. With a deeper understanding of how students learn, coupled with an emerging era of evidence-based faculty development, the moment has come for more investment in higher education’s greatest resource—its faculty and future faculty.



AAC&U (Association of American Colleges and Universities). 2010. The Quality Imperative: Match Ambitious Goals for College Attainment with an Ambitious Vision for Learning. Washington, DC: AAC&U. https://www.aacu.org/sites/default/files/files/about/Quality_Imperative_2010.pdf.

AAC&U (Association of American Colleges and Universities). n.d. “About LEAP.” https://www.aacu.org/leap.

American Council on Education and POD Network. 2018. A Center for Teaching and Learning Matrix. https://www.acenet.edu/Documents/Center-For-Teaching-Learning-Matrix.pdf.

Association of American Colleges. 1994. Strong Foundations: Twelve Principles for Effective General Education Programs. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges.

Barr, Robert B., and John Tagg. 1995. “From Teaching to Learning—A New Paradigm for Undergraduate Education.” Change 27 (6): 13–25.

Beach, Andrea L., Mary Deane Sorcinelli, Ann E. Austin, and Jaclyn K. Rivard. 2016. Faculty Development in the Age of Evidence: Current Practices, Future Imperatives. Sterling, VA: Stylus.

Bowen, José Antonio, and C. Edward Watson. 2017. Teaching Naked Techniques: A Practical Guide to Designing Better Classes. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Brookes, Michael C. T., and Katherine L. German. 1983. Meeting the Challenges: Developing Faculty Careers. Washington, DC: ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Research Reports.

Brown, Peter C., Henry L. Roediger III, and Mark A. McDaniel. 2014. Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning. Cambridge, MA: Belknap.

Centra, John A. 1976. Faculty Development Practices in U.S. Colleges and Universities. Princeton, NJ: Educational Testing Service.

Commission on the Future of Undergraduate Education. 2017. The Future of Undergraduate Education: The Future of America. Cambridge, MA: American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Condon, William, Ellen R. Iverson, Cathryn A. Manduca, Carol Rutz, and Gudrun Willett. 2016. Faculty Development and Student Learning: Assessing the Connections. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

Cox, Milton D. 2000. “Faculty Learning Communities: Change Agents for Transforming Institutions into Learning Organizations.” In To Improve the Academy, Vol. 19: Resources for Faculty, Instructional, and Organizational Development, edited by Devorah Lieberman and Catherine Wehlburg, 69–93. Bolton, MA: Anker.

Cranton, Patricia. 1994. “Self-Directed and Transformative Instructional Development.” Journal of Higher Education 65 (6): 726–744.

Duderstadt, James J. 2000. A University for the 21st Century. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Erickson, Glenn. 1986. “A Survey of Faculty Development Practices.” In To Improve the Academy, Vol. 5: Resources for Faculty, Instructional, and Organizational Development, edited by Marilla Svinicki, Joanne Kurfiss, and Jackie Stone, 182–196. Stillwater, OK: New Forums Press.

Eyler, Joshua R. 2018. How Humans Learn. The Science and Stories behind Effective College Teaching. Morgantown, WV: West Virginia University Press.

Freedman, Mervin B., and Nevitt Sanford. 1973. “The Faculty Member Yesterday and Today.” New Directions for Higher Education. https://doi.org/10.1002/he.36919730104.

Gaff, Jerry G. 1975. Toward Faculty Renewal: Advances in Faculty, Instructional, and Organizational Development. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Gaff, Jerry G. 1999. General Education: The Changing Agenda. The Academy in Transition. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Gaff, Jerry G., and David O. Justice. 1978. “Faculty Development: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow.” In Institutional Renewal through the Improvement of Teaching: New Directions for Higher Education, no. 24, edited by Jerry G. Gaff, 85–98. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Georgia State University. n.d. The Student Success Life Cycle. https://success.gsu.edu/initiatives/.

Gustafson, Kent, and Barry Bratton. 1984. “Instructional Improvement Centers in Higher Education: A Status Report.” Journal of Instructional Development 7 (2): 2–7.

Haras, Catherine, Steven C. Taylor, Mary Deane Sorcinelli, and Linda von Hoene, eds. 2017. Institutional Commitment to Teaching Excellence: Assessing the Impacts and Outcomes of Faculty Development. Washington, DC: American Council on Education.

Hart Research Associates. 2013. It Takes More than a Major: Employer Priorities for College Learning and Student Success. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities. https://www.aacu.org/sites/default/files/files/LEAP/2013_EmployerSurvey.pdf.

Kuh, George D., and Ken O’Donnell. 2013. Ensuring Quality and Taking High-Impact Practices to Scale. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Mayhew, Matthew J., Alyssa N. Rockenbach, Nicholas A. Bowman, Tricia A. D. Seifert, Gregory C. Wolniak, Ernest T. Pascarella, and Patrick T. Terenzini. 2016. How College Affects Students, Vol. 3: 21st Century Evidence that Higher Education Works. San Francisco, CA: John Wiley and Sons.

Millis, Barbara J. 1994. “Faculty Development in the 1990s: What It Is and Why We Can’t Wait.” Journal of Counseling and Development 72 (5): 454–464.

Mulkeen, Thomas A. 1981. “Higher Education in the Coming Age of Limits: An Historical Perspective.” Journal of Higher Education 52 (3): 310–316.

NEA (National Education Association). n.d. Professional Development. Washington, DC: NEA. http://www.nea.org/home/30998.htm.

Pizmony-Levy, Oren, and Aaron Pallas. 2017. Public Opinions on Education, Health, and Psychology. New York: Teachers College, Columbia University.

Sanders, William L., S. Paul Wright, and Sandra P. Horn. 1997. “Teacher and Classroom Context Effects on Student Achievement: Implications for Teacher Evaluation.” Journal of Personnel Evaluation in Education 11: 57–67.

Winter, Kate, Julia Kent, and Ryan Bradshaw. 2018. Preparing Future Faculty: A Framework for Design and Evaluation at the University Level. Washington, DC: Council of Graduate Schools.


C. Edward Watson, Associate Vice President for Quality, Pedagogy, and LEAP Initiatives and Chief Information Officer, Association of American Colleges and Universities

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