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The Mixed Methods Blog
The Mixed Methods Blog

What CUNY Start Can Teach Us About Improving Teaching in Higher Ed

Two students smile in class at Laguardia Community College in New York

Photo credit: LaGuardia Community College

By Susan Bickerstaff and Maria S. Cormier

This post is the sixth in a series that brings you inside the classroom to understand more about high-quality instruction in community colleges. You can read the rest of the series here.

Across the country, faculty recently wrapped up teaching what was one of the most unusual, and perhaps most challenging, terms in memory. As colleges acted quickly to move courses online, instructors faced a steep learning curve to determine the best ways to address student learning needs in a remote environment. And while the circumstances of spring 2020 were dramatic, questions about how best to support students’ academic success started long before—and will endure long after—the COVID-19 crisis.

Yet, in general, the infrastructure to support faculty development related to teaching is relatively limited in higher education. Common venues for professional development include professional association conferences, workshops associated with staff in-service days, and webinars and other online resources that faculty seek out on their own. In these sessions, faculty may find themselves listening to colleagues or experts share strategies or offer examples of teaching practices that may or may not address the questions or challenges an individual instructor is facing. And, when faculty go back to their classrooms, they are on their own to determine how to integrate these new ideas into their courses in service of their learning goals and their students.

To answer their big questions (how do I teach online for the first time?) and their smaller ones (how can I improve student learning on a particular outcome?), faculty need access to more structured and sustained support that addresses challenges with specific courses and students. A new paper on professional development in CUNY Start, a pre-college developmental education program in the City University of New York, highlights how the program supports its instructors to employ a student-centered, conceptually oriented approach through four interconnected components of a professional development model: 1. a staffing approach that values instructional expertise, 2. an apprenticeship for new hires, 3. coaching through observations, and 4. cross-college meetings. Ultimately, CUNY Start’s professional development model points to three design principles that might be adapted more broadly to support improvements to teaching and to student learning.

First, CUNY Start’s model emphasizes the importance of tying professional development opportunities to specific learning objectives for students. To improve student learning and engagement, faculty need the time and resources to consider how they teach particular concepts, the ways students struggle with those concepts, and new approaches for increasing and deepening student understanding. While general teaching strategies—such as focusing on increasing student engagement—may help, ultimately, faculty grapple with engaging students to reach a particular learning goal. Instead of planning professional development based on the availability and interests of facilitators, this first principle encourages us to think about faculty development through the lens of backwards design and consider the following:

  • What do we want students to be able to know and do in our course(s)?
  • What does research in our field suggest about how students learn these concepts?
  • What supports do faculty need to deliver instruction in this way?
  • What kinds of professional development opportunities will help faculty improve in this area?

For example, CUNY Start’s instructional approach aims to build students’ capacity to engage in challenging, open-ended tasks and explain their thinking in small-group and whole-group discussions. CUNY Start’s professional development opportunities, therefore, focus on strategies for creating a student-centered classroom environment that facilitates that type of learning.

Second, CUNY Start’s professional development model points to the importance of ongoing, coordinated, multifaceted faculty learning experiences. These opportunities may include cross-disciplinary conversations, but they must also include time for both full- and part-time faculty to “dig in” with their disciplinary colleagues around specific questions of practice. They can certainly include workshops or webinars, but they must go beyond talking about teaching in the abstract. Faculty must take their professional learning “inside” the classroom, through in-person, non-evaluative classroom observations; review of classroom videos; or careful examinations of instructional prompts and resulting student work. A single learning opportunity is unlikely to be sufficient. Instead, just as we introduce new ideas to students and then support them through guided practice, faculty learning about teaching should be scaffolded and supported over time. In CUNY Start, new ideas are introduced to instructors in workshops and meetings, and coaching and observations provide opportunities for guided practice and refinement. New CUNY Start instructors receive intensive support upon hiring, but experienced instructors continue to have opportunities for growth.

Third, facilitating this type of faculty learning requires expertise that must be intentionally developed. The body of evidence on instructional practice, while uneven across disciplines, is quite robust, particularly in literacy, mathematics, and the sciences. However, most faculty are hired for their content area expertise, not their knowledge of empirical research on instructional practices. Recognizing these challenges, CUNY Start employs full-time professional development coordinators who are instructional experts in literacy or math. Many have taught in CUNY Start, giving them an intimate understanding of its learning goals and instructional approach. In a typical college program, faculty professional development is often led either by faculty who have expertise in teaching but not coaching and developing their colleagues, or by faculty developers who are skilled facilitators but not well versed in specific content areas. To achieve the first two principles outlined above, colleges must invest in and elevate content-specific instructional expertise to build departmental and college capacity to improve instruction.

While historically, instruction and faculty development in higher education have been understudied and under-resourced, there is a growing recognition that high quality instruction must be part of a comprehensive strategy to improve student outcomes and close equity gaps. However, more disconnected, short-term, and one-time professional developmental opportunities are unlikely to meaningfully address faculty challenges in meeting student learning needs. The CUNY Start professional development model offers an alternative vision for a more systematic and sustained approach to supporting faculty learning.

The research reported here was supported by the Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education, through Grant R305H140065 to MDRC. The opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not represent views of the Institute of Education Sciences or the U.S. Department of Education.

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