Best Practices Blog | Professional Learning Clubs for Faculty
By Jessica T. Smith, Ph.D., Instructional Technologist, Teaching and Learning Technology, College of Charleston
When it comes to teaching, many college faculty are untrained and unprepared. Unlike our fellow educators in K-12, most college faculty were never taught how to teach. Perhaps you were solely a research assistant during grad school or, like me, you were handed a roster and a textbook and told to “go teach.”
Exacerbating this problem is a lack of professional development opportunities (when compared to K-12 teachers) and the absence of supportive communities faculty can turn to when they are struggling with their teaching. Furthermore, especially for non-tenured instructors, taking pedagogical risks is often discouraged because of its potential negative impact on course evaluations.
All of this means that many faculty fall back on what they know and mimic how they were taught — lengthy lectures, Powerpoint slides full of text, one midterm, and one final exam. This pattern is repeated with each new cohort of PhDs. As an instructional technologist, I’ve repeatedly heard instructors lament that they are not effectively engaging their students but they don’t know how else to teach. One way faculty can improve their teaching and develop a supportive network of colleagues is to establish a Professional Learning Club (PLC).
PLCs are small groups of faculty members who meet to collaboratively reflect on and improve their teaching practices. These groups provide faculty with a much-needed space to share struggles and successes while asking questions about how students learn and how we can help them learn more effectively.
At the College of Charleston, participation in a PLC involves one academic year of exploring, implementing, and evaluating empirically-grounded instructional strategies with the goal of improving student learning and engagement. Anyone who teaches at least one class per semester is encouraged to participate. Groups are formed based on interest in a particular pedagogical strategy or philosophy, such as flipped classroom, interactive lecture design, Universal Design, or standards-based grading. An effort is made to ensure the groups are interdisciplinary so participants can benefit from multiple perspectives.
Once groups are formed, participants establish expectations, goals, and a meeting schedule. Typically, the first semester of a PLC involves researching pedagogical strategies and instructional technologies while the second semester involves implementation and evaluation. Each month, PLC members meet to share the strategies they tried, work through challenges, and brainstorm ways to improve.
At the end of the year, each PLC produces a report that details how they accomplished their goals (or why they didn’t), what they learned from the process, and how they intend to move forward outside of the PLC. Participants also share their experiences with the larger campus community through roundtable discussions and presentations at our annual conference.
Our assessment of the program indicates it has made a significant positive impact on participants. All PLC members reported benefiting from the opportunity to examine what is working and not working in their classes while exploring new approaches. A few participants noted that the PLC forced them to prioritize self-reflection, which is otherwise put on the back burner. Here’s what a few of our PLC members have said about the experience:
“Your students will thank you for participating in TLT’s PLC. This is a terrific (and cost effective) way to improve your teaching. I love the fact that faculty can share best practices and have the opportunity to implement them over an entire year.” – Lancie Affonso, Lecturer, Computer Science, Management and Marketing
“My best teaching ideas are often stolen from others. PLC was like a thief’s playground! I am very grateful to my colleagues for sharing their best strategies.” — Cindi May, Professor, Psychology
“Join a PLC because it offers great opportunities to reflect on your teaching, which so many of us struggle to find enough time for! I also really enjoyed the sense of community it provided us as we worked together to discuss individual issues we were struggling with in our classes.” – Kelley White, Associate Professor, Teacher Education
This fall we will start our second cohort of PLCs. Interest has grown from our inaugural offering of two groups to four groups of faculty. We are encouraged by the feedback from our past participants and believe the program will continue to be successful. If you’d like to learn more about College of Charleston’s Professional Learning Clubs or offer a similar program at your university and want to share ideas, we’d love to chat! Email us at TLT@cofc.edu.
Jessica T. Smith is an Instructional Technologist and Adjunct Professor at the College of Charleston. She enjoys sharing her passion for tools and applications that will enhance engagement, deepen learning, increase efficacy, and empower both students and professors.
To learn more about Professional Learning Clubs at the College of Charleston, please visit http://tlt.cofc.edu/faculty-services/plc/.
Faculty, staff, and students at Alliance institutions: interested in sharing your best practices, innovative ideas, or recent success on the CAA Academics blog? Email Lindsey Interlante at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information!