Advancing Strategic Change with High-Impact Professional Learning

Professor teaching class

July 12, 2022 | By Bret Eynon and Jonathan Iuzzini

Community colleges, HBCUs, and other broad access institutions face pressing challenges related to enrollments, equity, and preparing students for citizenship and meaningful careers. Faculty are key to solving all these challenges. To effectively engage faculty in change efforts, such as the one led by the Postsecondary Teaching with Technology Collaborative, we must support all educators through high-impact professional learning that is co-constructed in design and systemic in nature.

Achieving the Dream (ATD) has developed a set of resources to help postsecondary institutions develop high-impact professional learning and deploy it to advance change. As discussed in a recent cover story in Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, this evidence-based approach is applicable to a wide range of issues and change initiatives.

A growing body of research demonstrates that professional learning—historically known as faculty development—offers a powerful tool for engaging faculty, helping them adopt evidence-based pedagogies and advance equity-focused initiatives like guided pathways, open educational resources, and supports for self-directed learning (as in the work of nine college and university partners in the Postsecondary Teaching with Technology Collaborative). Using professional learning to effectively scale such initiatives can advance equity, strengthen retention and enrollment, and help institutions address mission-critical needs. Yet, all too often, professional learning is marginalized, underresourced, and disconnected from strategic change efforts.

Synthesizing the research on proven professional learning methods, ATD has helped develop an approach that empowers colleges to deepen and deploy high-impact professional learning more intentionally to address priority goals and challenges. This field-developed design framework was first published as the New Learning Compact (NLC) and then elaborated on in the ATD Teaching & Learning Toolkit, adding case studies and hands-on planning activities.

Our framework focuses on a common thread: the vital importance of co-construction, engaging faculty as partners in inquiry-driven change processes. Co-construction enhances motivation and effectiveness by valuing faculty expertise. Linking professional learning to everyday practice and nurturing faculty as reflective practitioners engages the experiential capital of an increasingly diverse professoriate while modeling the co-constructive processes at the heart of culturally responsive teaching.

We spotlight the need to approach professional learning from a systems perspective, one that goes beyond having a Center for Teaching and Learning to put professional learning at the core of institutional policy and practice. Such an approach includes attention to faculty hiring and promotion, generating a rewards system that values teaching and professional learning. It centers the integration of assessment with professional learning to effectively “close the loop.” Embedding co-constructed professional learning methods within an agile, systems-based approach to institutional change creates the continuous improvement model needed to ensure that higher education can advance equity and meet other pressing challenges.

ATD’s Toolkit translates these insights into Good Practice Principles organized into four key domains of professional learning practice. The four key domains are:

  • Individual: How do effective professional learning programs engage educators as individual practitioners? What approaches support educators in the sustained process of inquiry and reflection needed to design equity-focused learning environments?
  • Community: How can professional learning bring educators into a community, co-constructing new student learning opportunities? What are the principles for designing supportive, change-focused professional communities?
  • Institutional: Professional learning cannot succeed if it is not rooted in systematic institutional support. What institutional policies and practices are needed to sustain high-impact professional learning?
  • Ecosystem: Colleges are linked to other higher education actors such as state systems, accreditors, and grant-funded collaborations like our Postsecondary Collaborative. How can campuses engage with these actors to advance high-impact professional learning? And in turn, how can funders, disciplinary associations, and other stakeholders more intentionally advance learning, teaching, and change?

In the work of the Postsecondary Collaborative, ATD favors leveraging this approach to offer high-impact professional learning on and across participating campuses, guiding full-time and part-time faculty as they design self-directed learning supports for students.

ATD and the NLC team have successfully tested this approach, working with two dozen colleges to help them rethink institution-wide practices. Combining a sustained seminar with individualized coaching, ATD’s Building Capacity for Change (BCC) program helps campus teams use our Toolkit to rethink professional learning, making it more engaging, systemic, and valuable. With support from coaches, colleges engage in self-assessment and planning through a collaborative, “colleges helping colleges” strategy. The program culminates in a strategic action plan colleges use to transform professional learning and meet pressing needs.

Preliminary results are encouraging. As reported in CHANGE, participants highly valued the seminar’s resources, the strategies they developed, and the collaboration. “My most important takeaway,” wrote one participant, “is that professional learning needs to be part of the university’s strategic plan.” Another wrote, “I learned from this program—from the national coaches, from the Toolkit, and from other colleagues—that change is possible. That you can make a difference for your institution.”

Colleges have diverse starting points for this work and are, appropriately, at varying levels of development. Three examples suggest ways this approach is re-shaping campus work at various levels:

  • An Energized Center. A Westchester Community College (SUNY) team developed plans to revitalize a moribund Center for Teaching and Learning. While the new faculty leaders visited departments to identify programs linked to faculty needs and strengths, they also persuaded the College and the union to set aside a half-day per month for campuswide professional learning.
  • Deeper Practice. Across its multiple campuses, Cuyahoga Community College (Tri-C) had diverse centers for professional learning activities but little conversation about effective professional learning methods. Guided by the Good Practice Principles, the team reframed Tri-C’s Faculty Learning Communities (FLCs). They identified definitions, incentives, and expectations and prepared campus professional learning leaders to design more effective FLCs.
  • Systemic Institutional Action. To broaden and deepen the impact of equity-focused Communities of Practice, Florida State College at Jacksonville has launched a professional learning certificate program, where faculty earn mini-badges (such as Using Data to Improve Teaching and Designing a Culturally Responsive Curriculum) that will be recognized in reward systems. Faculty response has been enthusiastic.

The need for visionary investment in strategic change in higher education has never been greater. Strengthening professional learning systems builds capacity for continuous improvement and adaptive change, ensuring that when institutions like those in the Postsecondary Collaborative adopt innovations like self-directed learning supports, they really stick. The tools are there. Now we just need to begin using them.