Guest Blog: Staying Focused – Core Principles of Effective Faculty Development

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This blog was guest authored by Daniel Kelly, Assistant Director for Communications and Marketing, Center for Educational Innovation, University at Buffalo, The State University of New York, and Blackboard Catalyst Award Winner 2020. For more information go to: https://community.blackboard.com/catalystawards.

Creating effective faculty development programming almost always entails navigating and evolving existing university structures and resources to create and bring new ideas and practices. However, getting bogged down in these path-clearing tasks and processes should not deter your office or institution from staying focused on the core principles that will provide the foundation for effective and meaningful faculty development. Below are three key points to consider based on the approaches and lessons learned from our work at the Center for Educational Innovation (CEI) at the University at Buffalo (UB). 

Institution-wide Outreach

Effectively serving the faculty requires that their needs be understood and incorporated into faculty development programming plans. Reaching out to decanal unit leadership in the early stages of your program development helps significantly in two important ways: 1) It allows you to understand the particular teaching challenges that faculty face within each respective unit, helping you to formulate a truly comprehensive plan. 2) It helps you build a coalition of advocates and partners as you look to justify and eventually promote and market your programming.  

In our own efforts at CEI, we initially reached out to leadership from throughout the institution, which entailed meeting with:  

  • The College of Arts and Sciences 
  • The School of Dental Medicine 
  • The Graduate School of Education 
  • The School of Engineering and Applied Sciences 
  • The School of Law 
  • The School of Management 
  • The Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences 
  • The School of Nursing 
  • The School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences 
  • The School of Public Health and Health Professions 
  • The School of Social Work 

Additionally, key administrative offices, who understood and regularly directed the university’s strategic priorities, were essential in informing the trajectory of our faculty development programming. As such, CEI partnered with the Vice Provost for Academic Planning, the Vice Provost for Faculty Affairs, the Vice Provost for Educational Affairs, and Dean of the Graduate School, and consulted a multitude of other administrators and partnering offices to ensure that university strategic priorities informed any future path for CEI. This intensive early relationship-building process also allowed CEI to understand the decanal units and university offices’ needs more broadly and, therefore, recognize the gaps in past Center offerings. Our attention to the university’s needs through comprehensive outreach to key decanal and university representatives enabled the Center to advance a plan that partners had a say in, which invested them in the Center’s success. In sum, key partners could advocate in good faith that their programs and faculty would benefit from CEI’s contingent partnership model.   

Integrate Learning Communities

At CEI, our core faculty development programming (CEI Academies) utilizes a faculty-learning community framework, bringing together small groups of faculty to learn, share and explore the art of teaching and the science of learning. This emphasis on a group learning structure enabled us to break free from the confines of one-on-one instruction by leveraging Blackboard to develop small interactive class-like settings. In this environment, our Learning Designers were able to reach significantly more faculty, while also benefitting from the diverse perspectives of faculty who were approaching problems from a variety of disciplinary perspectives. On the other hand, faculty have benefitted from meeting with colleagues from across the university through sharing ideas and learning and applying lessons from their peers. 

These learning communities serve the much larger goal of building community at the institution. As faculty progress through our development tracks at CEI, they also transition to roles as leaders in teaching and learning themselves. It is particularly important to consider digital credentialing, badging, and past-participant expert groups as you look to grow pride amongst your program’s alumni. Not only can your programming participants meet their own needs and objectives through effective programming, but expert groups can help systematically spread best practices. This was particularly critical to UB when we faced the challenge of transitioning to remote instruction this past spring due to the pandemic. Our emphasis on creating communities at all levels of the programming and post participation processes enabled us to reach out to our growing community of experts to leverage their assistance with helping their colleagues quickly transition during this emergency.  

Faculty Development Is About the Students

 As educators, we come to work every day for the students. They are the reason we have jobs, and their success represents the ultimate purpose of our efforts to provide the most effective teaching possible. However, in Centers like ours, it is easy to lose sight of this as we focus more specifically on the direct day-to-day needs of supporting the faculty. As such, remembering that students are often the ones closest to the vanguard of new technologies necessitates that we regularly steer faculty in the direction of aligning themselves with the technologies and techniques that will resonate the most effectively with their students. In this way, faculty development is not always about merely responding to help instructors navigate familiar paths, but about encouraging them to explore new paths and challenge them to continuously reinvent themselves. This can be through such simple steps as moving to an online grade book, digital assessment, or holding digital office hours. Whatever the circumstances, helping to bridge the gap between instructor content knowledge and the various methods and modalities in which a diverse body of students will effectively absorb this content is the especially critical component that a Teaching and Learning Center must help faculty plan for and implement.    

In sum, as you envision, develop, and implement your faculty development programming, stay close to these three core principles. Think big—be inclusive of the entire institution so you can respond to the full spectrum of faculty needs, while also building a coalition of advocates along the way. Build community through a group learning model and envision ways in which your participants will remain active with their new knowledge, skills, and connections once they have completed the program. Finally, remember to ground your faculty development efforts on the students, for it is our students who continually challenge us to rise to the level of their rapidly transforming world—and we must respond!