Teachers collaborating Photo courtesy of Intel Free Press

Teaching is a skill that never plateaus; it requires diligent training and exercise to stay effective. While it seems intuitive that instructors who regularly participate in professional development will become more effective educators, this is not always the case. While there has been a paucity of research on the measurable outcomes of professional development, a recent study has shown that like physical exercise successful teacher training requires proper form and commitment.

Through the Tracer Project (2009-2011), researchers at Washington State University and Carleton College studied the quantitative impact professional development has on faculty instruction and student success. To gain a comprehensive insight into successful faculty development, the data was gathered through the following methods:

  1. Before and after evaluation of faculty syllabi, assignment prompts, and student assignments
  2. Analysis of faculty participation in professional development activities
  3. Cultural ethnography of academic departments and interviews with faculty
  4. Interviews with students

Each participating instructor demonstrated positive changes in both the quality of their classroom activities and their students’ grades. Unsurprisingly, faculty members with frequent participation rates demonstrate consistently higher levels of improvement. As a result, motivation is one of the most important predictors of success.

An academic institution’s culture plays a significant role in motivating faculty to both participate in professional development and apply their learnings in the classroom. Faculty with tenure are found to be more receptive to experimenting with new pedagogical models and approaches in the classroom because of their job security and generally higher levels of department support. Conversely, the study finds non-tenure track faculty are more likely to participate in professional development; however, they are significantly less likely to implement changes for fear of negatively impacting their careers.

There is no “one-size fits all” approach to effective teaching; participating in any goal-oriented professional development provides beneficial outcomes for both faculty instruction and student learning. The key is for academic institutions to empower all faculty with continuous opportunities to develop their skills and experiment in the classroom.

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About the Author: Dustin is a senior account manager with DesignedUX, providing communications and strategy to organizations in education and technology. Dustin is also board member of the Canadian Public Relations Society and contributes as a communications researcher with McMaster University.