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A different version of this article appeared in Academic Leader as "In-service Training You Can Actually Use" (July 18, 2022).
The intent of professional development is to help professors become better teachers, but it is sometimes unclear what efforts bring the most improvement. Research has consistently identified several best practices in teacher professional development. We’ll address three of those practices here: focus, duration, and collaboration (see Garet et al. 2001; Desimone 2009; Darling-Hammond et al. 2017).
Focus refers to whether the content of teacher professional development deals with widely applicable general teaching skills or strategies and skills that are targeted toward specific courses. Duration is how long the professional development lasts; Is it a one-and-done workshop or a series of related training experiences? Collaboration concerns itself with whether the professional development training is for the entire faculty or limited to faculty subsets, such as professors who teach the same course.
Here are some strategies that can help put focus, duration, and collaboration to work for you as you attend professional development training.
Teacher professional development often works best when it focuses on course-specific teaching skills rather than general teaching strategies. To apply this principle, you may consider asking in-service leaders to invite professors experienced in teaching a particular course to share their insights and best practices during an in-service meeting. This can be especially useful when they share teaching strategies for upcoming lessons so other professors receive ideas and new approaches they can quickly put into practice. By sharing their tricks of the trade, experienced professors can help less experienced faculty members evaluate and practice a wide variety of teaching and learning skills. Even if your inservice meetings don’t follow this approach, you can ask more experienced professors about their strategies for teaching upcoming lessons. In this way, professors can acquire new skills that have a rapid and practical use in their classrooms.
Another suggestion is for faculty members to watch each other teach. As professors interested in professional growth observe other teachers, they can take notes on what they saw that teacher do well and consider how they might adopt and adapt those practices with their own students. Teachers could then discuss with each other what they did and what they saw during the lesson. You might consider requesting time during in-service meetings to share observations and lessons learned from teacher observations. Observational learning like this can help improve teachers at any stage of their careers.
For particularly challenging topics, you might request that time in inservice be spent sharing various ways to address that topic. You might also ask some professors to share how they treat challenging topics. These kinds of discussions can be extremely helpful as they encourage faculty to wrestle with difficult disciplinary or social questions before students raise them during class.
A common criticism of professional development is that it often relies on short, one-time workshops that don’t create an opportunity for effective follow-up. But improvement and real change seldom happen after a one-hour in-service meeting. For professional development to be effective, teachers need sufficient time to learn, observe, and practice new teaching strategies. You may wish to request that some time be reserved during in-service meetings for attendees to share successes and failures regarding the skill(s) they practiced in previous training meetings. You might also set apart a regular time to meet with trusted colleagues independent of in-service meeting to share successes and challenges.
Professional development efforts should be of a sufficient duration to include opportunities for teachers to reflect on their teaching, receive feedback, and begin to make adjustments. One strategy is for professors to choose an area of professional development where he or she would like to improve and focus on it for an extended period, such as a semester. As professors consistently seek ways to improve, it will help them identify skills and lessons from in-service training and informal experiences that they can implement with their students.
In-service meeting attendance often defaults to an entire department attending the same meeting; however, meaningful synergy can be created when professors who teach the same or related courses gather together. This can be done formally through in-service training groups or informally as professors interested in collaboration form teaching groups organized around the same or similar courses. When those professors take time to work together, they can trade ideas, identify applicable pedagogical principles, practice teaching skills, and discuss problems they are encountering in their similar classrooms.
One of the first steps to implement this strategy is determining how large of a collaboration group to create. This will probably involve some trial-and-error, as too large of a group can inhibit participation and reduce feelings of comradery, but creating groups too small can limit creativity and the consideration of differing viewpoints. The trick is to find a sweet spot somewhere in the middle.
Once you have a collaborative group organized, you can meet for in-service training as well as observe each other teach and share ideas in other settings. Some of the best teaching ideas are shared informally. Over time, this collaboration can help professors create learning communities that exist outside of in-service meetings—further improving teaching within your department.
Together, these three principles—focus, duration, and collaboration—can combine to create an effective framework for teacher professional development. Professors who teach the same or similar courses can share best practices, learning activities, lessons learned, and course strategies. As they observe effective teaching, seek to practice good teaching skills in their classrooms, and share what they learn, the quality of teaching and learning within your department should incrementally improve.
Darling-Hammond, Linda, Maria E. Hyler, and Madelyn Gardner. 2017. Effective Teacher Professional Development. Palo Alto, CA: Learning Policy Institute. https://doi.org/10.54300/122.311.
Desimone, Laura M. 2009. “Improving Impact Studies of Teachers’ Professional Development: Toward Better Conceptualizations and Measures.” Educational Researcher 38, no. 3 (April): 181–99. https://doi.org/10.3102/0013189X08331140.
Garet, Michael S., Andrew C. Porter, Laura Desimone, Beatrice F. Birman, and Kwang Suk Yoon. 2001. “What Makes Professional Development Effective? Results from a National Sample of Teachers.” American Educational Research Journal 38, no. 4 (January): 915–45. https://doi.org/10.3102/00028312038004915.
Mark A. Mathews, PhD, has taught as an adjunct professor in the Department of Church History and Doctrine at Brigham Young University and is a religious educator for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Kenneth L. Alford, PhD, is a professor in the Department of Church History and Doctrine at Brigham Young University and a retired U.S. Army Colonel. Previously, he served as a professor of computer science (U.S. Military Academy, West Point, New York) and as a department chair and professor of strategic leadership (National Defense University, Washington, DC).