Faculty Development in Higher Education

Faculty DevelopmentIn contrast with the K-12 sector of schooling, those in higher education have traditionally come to their careers as teachers and managers of learning with little, if any, formal professional training or experience other than in the content of their various disciplines and perhaps employment as graduate teaching assistants.

The lack of professional training as educators is perhaps understandable as long as relatively little was known about how learning occurs, how adult students develop, and what the effects of the learning experience are on that development. The lack of training was perhaps irrelevant as long as most of students are similar to us culturally and as learners and relatively advantaged both socially and financially.

Now, however, the wide diversity of students, with a forecast of greater diversity still to come, together with the pressing need for truly well-educated graduates and a growing dissatisfaction with the quality of graduates’ knowledge, skills, and values, suggest it is time to systematically use the fruits of research to inform professional practice.

Instruction in courses, the central educational activity traditionally used to produce learning in colleges and universities, is largely comprised of a lecture system in which 70 to 90 percent or more of professors and instructors use the lecture as their preferred instructional method. Academic advising, where it occurs at all, is largely focused on helping students make short-term decisions as they choose from menus of course offerings.

Many higher education researchers and influential reports issued over recent decades have asserted that such educational practices cannot produce the complex kinds of student outcomes required today by employers and for effective citizenship. The shift from a tradition-based, primarily atheoretical educational process to a research- and theory-based process will require not only constant innovation to incorporate new findings about learning but also the high-quality faculty and staff professional development necessary to support this innovation throughout each teacher’s and manager’s career.

Listed here are a number of projected future trends that will likely influence both the way we conduct work in colleges and universities in the years ahead and the role that faculty development will have to play in enhancing institutional quality.

Trends in College and University Teaching

College teaching increasingly will be viewed as a true profession in its own right, underpinned by a solid base of knowledge derived from empirical studies on learning and student development, college effects on students, and the management of learning in complex organizations. Professors will be understood to need solid grounding in both theory and practice in both higher education and one or more disciplinary content areas.

Intended student outcomes will become far richer than they in many cases are now. They will expand 1) beyond what is often primarily factual and low-level conceptual learning in a particular discipline to mastery of diverse higher-order cognitive skills such as critical thinking, complex problem solving, and principled ethical reasoning and 2) beyond the cognitive and psychomotor domains of learning to outcomes that will include significant affective components such as self-esteem and interpersonal and team skills. Together these outcomes can lead to the development of the “whole person,” a result we profess to value but often fail to achieve, and can fit a student for a fulfilling life, a successful professional career in a rapidly changing world, and significant contribution as a citizen in a democratic society.

To achieve these diverse, complex, and often difficult-to-develop outcomes, teachers will use student development theory based on empirical psychological research to adapt their instruction and advising to the needs of individual students.

Teachers will routinely conduct classroom research using input, process, and outcome assessment methods to understand their students and their students’ educational processes and thus to improve learning.

There will be a marked diminution of faculty isolation from colleagues and the “privacy” of individual courses: courses will be viewed as interrelating parts of curricular systems, and faculty will be members of educational teams. Teachers will view these corporate endeavors as important means of improving their effectiveness, not as infringements on their autonomy or as in any way diminishing their academic freedom.

The educational efforts of the faculty will be increasingly linked with those of our colleagues at the secondary and elementary levels as we move toward becoming all one system.

Evaluation of faculty as educators increasingly will be based on the results of modern input, process, and outcome assessments, using multiple criteria and multiple indicators to reveal effectiveness in facilitating learning.

Faculty evaluation will focus on the quality with which teachers implement what is currently considered good professional practice in curriculum design, instruction, academic advising, and other educational activities as appropriate to defined and written intended outcome goals and objectives and the characteristics of their students.

Evaluation of faculty performance as educators also will focus on their informed contributions to improving the quality of their institutions’ educational processes: curricula, courses, and advising and assessment programs.

The system of incentives provided for college and (particularly) university teachers will change substantially. In those institutions where available rewards currently are perceived as undermining educational quality by focusing on activities only weakly related to learning and student development, a wider array of professional work will be recognized as essential to improving institutional quality and effectiveness.  

Being Specific: Some Helpful Questions to Ask

Suggested here are several questions to help a curriculum or faculty development committee, dean, or department chairperson assess an institution’s or subunit’s faculty professional development needs. The questions are general. They can be used in a collegewide program, such as when developing a new general education curriculum, or within an academic department. The questions are equally applicable to the training of staff serving in any educational role, for example, graduate teaching assistants, new faculty hires, or more senior faculty members. An individual teacher can use the questions to identify areas where reading or consulting at the campus teaching effectiveness center might be helpful.

  1. What are the specific intended competency outcomes we have defined for our students in each curriculum? Have these outcomes been articulated as effective written goals and objectives that provide a useful foundation for program design, implementation, and assessment? Are we actively using these statements of intended results to manage learning in every program?
  2. What educational processes does current higher education research suggest can best develop these outcomes with our students?
  3. What specific professional knowledge and skill competencies do the faculty and staff require to implement these educational processes effectively and efficiently?
  4. Does each educator now have these competencies as appropriate to his or her role? Specifically, how do we know?
  5. What types of activities are best suited for developing these professional competencies with our particular people?
  6. Does our faculty development program now have the capacity—the professional staff with appropriate knowledge and skills—to cultivate these competencies? If not, specifically how should it be changed so it can meet our needs at a high level of quality?
  7. How do we know if this professional development program is effective: that staff competencies are being developed and that our people are thoroughly prepared for working with our students?
  8. Are participants in the faculty development program using their new knowledge and skills effectively in their teaching and advising?
  9. To what extent are actual student (or other) outcomes affected by the program? Specifically, how do we know? Are these effects of high quality?
  10. How should the program be modified such that its actual outcomes—its results—more closely approach its intended outcomes?

Colleges and universities today confront growing dissatisfaction off-campus with the actual outcomes we are producing coupled with a remarkable growth in competition for our students’ business from non-traditional educational organizations. Some of these competitors employ trained educators to develop and implement their instruction. Some will be able to offer higher-quality learning opportunities than institutions with untrained faculty and traditional methods. Expert observers of higher education view these organizations as putting many traditional colleges and universities at risk for survival in the years ahead.

High-quality faculty professional development for every teacher is an urgent need and will become essential to institutions’ capacity to compete for students in the years ahead and to survive and thrive. There is a wide array of new knowledge about student learning and development, and there are research-based methods of fostering this learning and development. If used, this knowledge and these methods can permit us to produce learning on a scale never before achieved in colleges and universities and not likely to be duplicated outside them.

Resources for Further Learning


  • Weimer, Maryellen. Improving College Teaching: Strategies for Developing Instructional Effectiveness.
  • Wright, Alan, and Associates. Teaching Improvement Practices: Successful Strategies for Higher Education.

Professional Organization

  • Professional and Organizational Development Network in Higher Education.
    • P.O.D. is the primary professional association for administrators, faculty members, faculty-development professionals and others who are involved in faculty professional development in higher education. P.O.D. sponsors an annual fall conference. https://podnetwork.org/