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Faculty Development

To Improve Outcomes for Students, We Must Improve Support for Faculty

The doctoral programs that prepare faculty for their positions often fail to train them on effective teaching practices. We owe it to our students to provide faculty with the professional development they need to help learners realize their full potential.

Students are capable of learning dramatically more than they typically do. In his groundbreaking 1984 paper, Benjamin Bloom demonstrated that the average student taught using highly effective teaching methods outperforms 98% of students taught using the traditional methods commonly found in classrooms. This breathtaking finding begs several questions that remain relevant today. Why do we allow so much student potential to go unrealized? Why are well-researched, highly effective teaching practices not used more widely?

In higher education, one of the main reasons is that many faculty are simply unaware of highly effective teaching practices. This isn't intended to be a criticism of faculty. The doctoral programs that are supposed to prepare them to become faculty in physics, philosophy, and other disciplines don't require them to take a single course in effective teaching practices. And, after a moment's reflection, it's easy to understand why their doctoral programs don't require this training — the faculty who design those programs graduated just a few years earlier from physics, philosophy, and other programs that also failed to require training on effective teaching. The entire faculty preparation enterprise seems to be caught in a loop, unintentionally but consistently passing on an unawareness that some teaching practices are significantly more effective than others. How do we break this cycle and help students realize their full potential as learners?

We must begin by acknowledging that faculty, like everyone else, are completely exhausted from the effects of the pandemic and other turmoil at home and abroad. They lack the time, energy, or resources necessary to earn a master's degree in instructional design, learning science, or pedagogy. Supporting faculty in learning about and adopting highly effective teaching practices in order to further unlock student potential requires a healthy dose of pragmatism which, in all honesty, is occasionally difficult to come by in the academy.

This pragmatism recognizes that there are many instances where simply the awareness of effective teaching practices is sufficient and a deep understanding of the underlying research isn't required. Some effective teaching practices can be embedded within learning technologies, allowing students to benefit from them without faculty needing to understand them thoroughly. This embedding principle can be explained by analogy to smartphones. Phone users don't need to understand the differences between forward error correction techniques used in the 5G and 4G networking standards to enjoy the benefits of faster data speeds on 5G phones. The improved algorithms are simply "built into" the 5G phones, making them faster and leading people to want phones with 5G.

Similarly, faculty don't need to understand the equations that govern memory decay in order for their students to benefit from learning technologies that prompt them to review key concepts just before they're about to forget them. The algorithms for optimizing study time can be "built into" learning technologies, helping students learn more in less time. While faculty don't need to understand the underlying details of these kinds of effective teaching practices, they do need to be aware that they exist. This awareness allows them to thoughtfully evaluate and select appropriate learning technologies for their students and themselves.

But some of the most important and effective teaching practices can't be delegated to learning technologies. These include practices like building relationships of trust with students, expressing unwavering confidence in students' ability to succeed, showing empathy as students navigate the life difficulties we all inevitably encounter outside of school, and helping students feel like they genuinely belong in the classroom. A student can't make an authentic connection that inspires self-confidence, extra effort, and persistence in the face of hardship with a piece of software. And because these human connections are particularly critical to the success of at-risk and traditionally underserved students, the mainstream educational technology agenda of "replace faculty with tools powered by machine learning and artificial intelligence" actually moves equity in education backward instead of forward.

Education is a fundamentally human, relational endeavor. We owe it to those students who are not achieving their full potential to provide faculty with the support, training, and professional development they need. Specifically, institutions with a desire to improve the success of their students must invest more time and resources in helping faculty learn about, adopt, and implement highly effective teaching practices.

About the Author

Dr. David Wiley is co-founder and chief academic officer of Lumen Learning.

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