Professional Development for Student Success

To promote liberal education, backed by years of research and practice, the Faculty Collaboratives project created a network of faculty and administrative leaders engaged in progressive efforts for student learning and success. The Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) worked directly with educators in ten states (California, Indiana, Kentucky, Massachusetts, North Dakota, Oregon, Texas, Utah, Virginia, and Wisconsin) to broaden access to tools and frameworks and to foster collaboration and alignment. To broaden our knowledge, project leaders gathered and analyzed data using mixed methods research. We intended to gain a deeper understanding of professional learning related to the LEAP and Degree Qualifications Profile (DQP) frameworks. What do faculty know about these initiatives? What do they say they need for professional learning? This article focuses on our data-gathering efforts and highlights our findings.


First, we reviewed research to understand national trends in faculty collaboration and engagement in proficiency-based teaching and learning initiatives. As “the direct, front-line drivers of student success” (FTI Consulting 2015), faculty members are critical to educational change efforts—and we wanted to know how faculty were participating in those efforts. We learned, for example, that faculty members are motivated by the collegiality embedded in teaching and learning communities (Kezar 2015). We also learned that faculty who spend time improving pedagogy also set “significantly higher learning expectations for their students” (National Survey of Student Engagement 2014, 20). Additionally, faculty use “assessment results for instructional improvement” (Ewell et al. 2011, 10). We wanted to take these national findings and go deeper into professional learning in the project states.

In 2015, as a member of the original FC staff team, I interviewed six project leaders from California, Indiana, Texas, Utah, and Wisconsin during a statewide faculty development workshop. During 2015–16, I also talked with sixteen people (mostly faculty) from multiple campuses across two states. I scheduled the interviews at statewide conferences and approached the campus practitioners through convenience sampling. These interviews helped project staff understand the professional development needs in these five states.

To enhance the interview data, I designed a Qualtrics survey for faculty and administrators in the ten project states. Project leaders shared the survey through state-based faculty listservs during spring 2016. We wanted to understand the broad array of professional development opportunities that were offered to educators for student success—including content, focus, and availability. We hoped to identify trends, as well as gaps, in faculty capacity-building and leadership. We wanted to flag what faculty knew about LEAP, DQP proficiency, and student success initiatives. Out of 488 respondents who started our survey, 353 (72 percent) completed it. Faculty made up 74 percent of the respondents (51 percent tenured/tenure track; 14 percent nontenure track, full-time; 9 percent nontenure track, part-time) and 28 percent identified as administrators (some respondents identified as both faculty and administrators). The majority identified as women (65 percent), white (76 percent), and straight (80 percent). Most of the campuses represented in the survey were public (89 percent), baccalaureate+ (83 percent), and primarily white (68 percent), with some Hispanic-serving institutional participation (32 percent).

Key Findings: Project Interviews

When I interviewed state leaders during summer 2015, they identified important professional development work in their states, such as statewide convenings showcasing faculty work, campus centers for teaching and learning (CTL) that were designing programs specifically for contingent faculty, and pedagogy workshops inspiring faculty to share assignments and assessments keyed to student learning outcomes. Leaders emphasized the importance of creating statewide proficiency efforts that are coordinated (not siloed) across institutions. They made the case for continuity and following up with practitioners after workshops to support their efforts in implementing new practices. They recommended that faculty workshops be offered as opportunities for creativity and collaboration, rather than mandates or requirements.

State leaders also cited many of the challenges to implementing new initiatives on campus: faculty are typically time poor, the work isn’t usually recognized in campus rewards systems, and the flow of new projects creates initiative fatigue. But state leaders also focused on how to frame new projects. They recommended avoiding jargon and claims that all innovation is “new.” They saw value in linking reform to current practice, recognizing efforts that faculty are already making. The hook for faculty, these leaders argue, is a steady emphasis on equitable practices for student success. This is what faculty care about: ensuring that underserved students don’t fall through the cracks, particularly as “new” projects take hold.

While interviewing campus practitioners during statewide convenings, I explored their participation in professional development for student learning. Practitioners mentioned activities organized by campus CTL centers and local/regional/statewide workshops on learning outcomes assessment, digital learning, and equitable/inclusive practices. Like the project leaders, practitioners talked candidly about their interest in student learning and success. They shared that they are always pressed for time. They often feel isolated and sometimes unsure how to implement the practices they learn at conferences. Several discussed state budget cuts and the lack of compensation for faculty/staff participation in workshops, as some administrators suggest “doing less with less.” Two interviewees stated that faculty are “doing more with less,” placing student learning/success above everything else.

I also asked practitioners about their familiarity with the national initiatives discussed by conference leaders/organizers (see table 3). Several practitioners said they knew “very little” or “zero” about the initiatives, while a few said they were “pretty” or “fairly” familiar with some or most of the initiatives. A few were very familiar with almost all. Of the initiatives discussed at the conferences, LEAP and VALUE were most familiar to campus practitioners. When interviewees expressed familiarity with VALUE, several mentioned their participation in assessment workshops. One noted an introduction to LEAP through an assessment workshop held at the system level. Several stated that although they weren’t directly aware of these initiatives, they were engaged with the concepts and the work associated with these efforts. In other words, the work itself wasn’t necessarily “new” to them.

Key Findings: Project Survey

Ninety-two percent of our survey respondents reported participation in professional development—a high level of engagement, which may suggest a self-selection bias among educators who were invited to participate in a survey on “faculty participation in professional development activities in institutions, states, and state systems.” Roughly half of these respondents had experience as workshop facilitators, with more tenured/tenure-track faculty (T/TTF) respondents (49 percent) reporting this experience than nontenure-track faculty (NTTF) respondents (33 percent). Ninety-four percent of survey respondents reported that all or some of the workshops they participated in were “free for faculty and staff,” and 98 percent of the respondents reported that all or some of the workshops were “scheduled at a time” that they were available. Conversely, 98 percent of survey respondents reported that some or none of the workshops “included a stipend,” and 93 percent of the respondents reported that some or none of the workshops were “connected to faculty reward structures” (see table 1).

Table 1. Workshop Incentives

Were the workshops that you participated in free for faculty and staff? 45% 49% 6%
Were these workshops scheduled at a time that you were available? 32% 66% 2%
Did these workshops include a stipend? 2% 31% 67%
Were these workshops connected to faculty reward structures (e.g., badge, certificate, employment review)? 7% 24% 69%

When we surveyed practitioners in the ten project states about the types of workshops they typically participated in (offering a prescribed list based on a brief online review of professional development offerings across the country), we found the highest levels of engagement in assessment and pedagogical workshops, followed by workshops that focus on high-impact practices (e.g., writing-intensive assignments, collaborative projects, diversity/global learning, service learning, undergraduate research), diversity/inclusion, and “general professional development” (see table 2). In this same list, respondents reported lowest levels of engagement in workshops that focus on transfer, cocurricular learning, and Title IX/civil rights. T/TTF reported higher levels of engagement than NTTF in all of the categories of workshops listed in the survey, with the exception of workshops on new faculty orientation for contingent faculty and student learning (e.g., learning sciences, student development, student motivation).

Table 2. Workshop Categories

Tools and Approaches to Assess Student Learning (e.g., capstone projects, eportfolios, rubrics) 265

Pedagogy (e.g., active learning, collaborative learning, digital teaching and learning strategies, integrative learning)

High-Impact Learning Practices (e.g., diversity/global learning, first-year experiences, internships, service learning, undergraduate research, writing-intensive courses) 210
Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Cultural Competence 198
General Professional Development (e.g., grant writing, library services, tenure process) 197
General Education Curricular Design/Reform 186
New Faculty Orientation for Tenure-Track Faculty 182
Assignment Design 169
New Faculty Orientation for Contingent Faculty 159
Student Learning (e.g., learning sciences, student development, student motivation) 150
Title IX/Civil Rights 127
Cocurricular Learning 87
Transfer Pathways and Programs 73

Faculty emphasis on learning outcomes assessment reflects institutional priority (Kuh 2014; Hart Research Associates 2015), but it also links to prior research demonstrating that faculty do focus on assessment—and they use assessment results to improve their course instruction (Ewell et al. 2011; Paulson 2012; National Survey of Student Engagement 2014). Assessment results not only include course-level assessments (e.g., capstone projects and rubrics), but also programmatic/institutional student success data—which can inform faculty pedagogical practices, particularly when those data are disaggregated by student demographics (Paulson 2012). Although institutions are expanding traditional notions of student success data (e.g., retention and graduation rates) to include achievement in learning outcomes or high-impact practices (HIPs), many institutions are not yet disaggregating these expanded data (Hart Research Associates 2015). Our survey backs this up; close to half of our respondents reported accessing disaggregated retention or graduation rates on their campuses, while only 29 percent of the respondents reported accessing disaggregated learning outcomes data (versus 62 percent of the respondents who reported accessing aggregated learning outcomes data). Although learning outcomes assessment has become a huge focus in higher education, many institutions have yet to meaningfully and extensively track student achievement in learning outcomes. Nor do they track participation in HIPs (Hart Research Associates 2015), which have been proven to benefit all students, especially underserved students (Kuh 2008).

We also asked survey respondents about their familiarity with a set of initiatives for student learning (see table 3). We chose this list because the initiatives were either related to or convergent with LEAP and the DQP. Many, but not all, are housed at AAC&U. Respondents reported highest levels of familiarity with HIPs, LEAP, VALUE, and Faculty Collaboratives. These findings echo the interview data cited above and reflect the work of the FC project. Familiarity (and engagement, per open-ended responses) with HIPs is notable, reflecting a deep level of commitment to student success. This finding may indicate some additional self-selection bias in the survey (i.e., the invitation email may have attracted campus practitioners who are engaged in this kind of work), but it also indicates general awareness of educational practices that are known to benefit all students (Kuh 2008).

Table 3. Initiatives Heat Map—Color Intensity Correlates with the number of responses

High-Impact Practices (HIPs)* 188 66 44 71 369
Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP)* 143 92 49 81 365
Valid Assessment of Learning in Undergraduate Education (VALUE)* 106 51 33 175 365
Faculty Collaboratives* 81 118 73 95 367
Degree Qualifications Profile (DQP) 69 59 35 197 360
General Education Maps and Markers (GEMs)* 62 103 63 135 363
Quality Matters 56 72 47 188 363
Multi-State Collaborative to Advance Learning Outcomes Assessment (MSC)* 40 53 58 215 366
Tuning Initiative 38 54 27 239 359
DQP Assignment Library 31 48 41 242 362
NILOA Assignment Design Charrettes 30 37 33 259 359
Making Excellence Inclusive (MEI)* 28 57 58 217 360
Complete College America 25 57 48 232 362
The Equity Scorecard 25 44 57 236 362
Quality Collaboratives (QC)* 19 40 53 250 362
Project Kaleidoscope (PKAL)* 15 54 60 235 364
The Delphi Project on the Changing Faculty and Student Success 11 35 62 256 364

* Initiative is fully or partly housed at AAC&U


Most survey respondents, however, were largely unfamiliar with these initiatives. This finding may underscore the need for stronger public messaging about these initiatives. It also highlights the need to avoid jargon and prevent “acronym overload,” as one faculty interviewee stated, when introducing campus change efforts. As another survey respondent put it, “I’m so tired of having jargon attached to practices that have been effective for decades.” We conclude that leaders can establish entry points that are familiar to faculty—and honor the work they’re already doing, meeting them where they are.

Conclusions and Recommendations

Research findings from this project provide helpful lessons for educators and administrators seeking to implement change on their campuses via professional development. For instance, the names/acronyms of initiatives are less important than connecting to work campus practitioners are already doing—and linking this work to campus reward structures (Truong et al. 2016). As faculty roles change, institutions must find ways to include contingent faculty in professional development. Working equitably with contingent faculty by, for example, offering free, incentivized, and conveniently scheduled or online workshops (Truong et al. 2016), would benefit the majority of students since contingent faculty represent the majority of faculty on campuses (The Delphi Project n.d.).

It’s critical to disaggregate student success data to uncover inequity in student achievement and provide practitioners the opportunity to understand how they might best serve all students. The key is to “inextricably combine” equitable practices and “advanced pedagogies” with cultural competence and inclusivity (Mack et al. 2015, 8), and place those intersections at the center of faculty work, making faculty “agents of change” on campus (Witham et al. 2015, 30).

We also found that assignment design workshops provide potentially impactful entry points for faculty engaging in reform. Assignments are often “the sole province of the faculty” (Kuh 2014, 3), and assignment design workshops “put assessment directly in the hands of faculty, who are . . . best positioned and distinctly qualified to make judgments about the quality of student work” (Hutchings et al. 2014, 6).

Research demonstrates that assessment is a clear priority for campuses, and many faculty are engaging in assessment efforts in their courses. To further advance learning outcomes assessment on campus, administrators and CTL staff can take steps to ensure that faculty have ownership of this work (Kuh 2014). Creating communities of practices (COPs) can aid in this goal. Faculty want “the opportunity to dialogue with one another” (Truong et al. 2016), and COPs can bring faculty together across programs, institutions, or regions and “generate greater buy-in among faculty for the work” while providing a pathway to sustainability of project or program efforts (Kezar 2015, 19–20).

COPs require a diverse group of leaders who can ignite sparks and inspire change within a diverse group of faculty. Equity issues, however, undergird these potential collaborations. Of the faculty members that I interviewed, two had extensive experience facilitating conferences or workshops on teaching and learning. Both were white men. In contrast, two other faculty members reported no prior engagement in student success conferences/workshops. One expressed a deep interest in continuous engagement, and the other took time to seek out workshops and sometimes paid for them out of pocket. These two faculty members were women of color. Although it’s not possible to make generalizable conclusions about faculty through such a small set of interviews, the inequity of opportunities available for diverse faculty leaders has certainly been documented (Clayton-Pedersen et al. 2016).

Faculty are dealing with heavy loads. Understanding how to apply tools and frameworks requires time, effort, and continuity. Additionally, faculty benefit from mentoring—and invitations to become leaders for the work. The faculty member I cited above, who was interested in becoming a leader for faculty development, was really excited to engage more deeply on her campus and in her state; her energy was palpable. Institutions must capitalize on this kind of energy and equitably support faculty as educators and leaders for student success.


Clayton-Pedersen, Alma R., Terrel L. Rhodes, Patricia M. Lowrie, and Jennifer M. Blaney. 2016.Preparing Critical Faculty for the Future: Enlisting the Voices of STEM Women Faculty of Color. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

The Delphi Project. n.d. “About Us.” Accessed June 1, 2017.

Ewell, Peter, Karen Paulson, and Jillian Kinzie. 2011. Down and In: Assessment Practices at the Program Level. Champaign, IL: National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment.

FTI Consulting. 2015. U.S. Postsecondary Faculty in 2015: Diversity in People, Goals, and Methods, But Focused on Students.Washington, DC: FTI Consulting Inc.

Hart Research Associates. 2015.Bringing Equity and Quality Learning Together: Institutional Priorities for Tracking and Advancing Underserved Students’ Success. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Hutchings, Pat, Natasha A. Jankowski, and Peter T. Ewell. 2014.Catalyzing Assignment Design Activity on Your Campus: Lessons from NILOA’s Assignment Library Initiative.Champaign, IL: National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment.

Kezar, Adrianna. 2015.Scaling and Sustaining Change and Innovation: Lessons Learned from the Teagle Foundation’s“Faculty Work and Student Learning”Initiative. New York: The Teagle Foundation.

Kuh, George. 2008. High-Impact Educational Practices: What They Are, Who Has Access to Them, and Why They Matter.Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

——2014. “Back to the Basics: Ensuring that Assignments Matter.” Foreword to Catalyzing Assignment Design Activity on Your Campus: Lessons from NILOA’s Assignment Library Initiative by Pat Hutchings, Natasha A. Jankowski, and Peter T. Ewell. Champaign, IL: National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment.

Mack, Kelly, Melissa Soto, Lilliam Casillas-Martinez, and Elizabeth F. McCormack. 2015. “Women in Computing: The Imperative of Critical Pedagogical Reform.”Diversity & Democracy 18 (2): 8–11.

National Survey of Student Engagement. 2014. Bringing the Institution into Focus—Annual Results 2014. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Center for Postsecondary Research.

Paulson, Karen. 2012. “Faculty Perceptions of General Education and the Use of High-Impact Practices.” Peer Review 14 (3): 25–28.

Truong, Michael H., Stephanie Juillerat, and Deborah H. C. Gin. 2016. “Good, Fast, Cheap: How Centers of Teaching and Learning Can Capitalize in Today’s Resource-Constrained Context.” To Improve the Academy 35 (1): 180–195.

Witham, Keith, Lindsey E. Malcom-Piqueux, Alicia C. Dowd, and Estela Mara Bensimon. 2015.America’s Unmet Promise: The Imperative for Equity in Higher Education. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Rebecca Dolinsky Graham, Instructional Consultant, University of the District of Columbia

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