Why does professional development matter? And what makes for a good approach to professional development?
Academic teaching staff play many roles: they are educators, leaders, managers, researchers, and scholars, as well as the primary contact students encounter in Higher Education. Professional development (PD) helps this group to integrate new skills and philosophies into their teaching and learning practices, which provides a richer experience for students and the teachers themselves. Additionally, community-building and networking which occurs during professional development sessions enables greater peer-to-peer learning, support, and knowledge-sharing.
Academic teachers in CHARM-EU have an additional workload: CHARM-EU brings new and innovative approaches to teaching which relies on teachers to embed novel teaching methods across and within institutions. Founded in 2019, CHARM-EU provides a student-centred, intercultural, and transdisciplinary education founded on principles of inclusivity, challenge-based and research-led learning. What started as an alliance of 5 European universities now counts 8 member institutions, among which students and staff are encouraged to move freely (virtually and physically). While the CHARM-EU educational approach brings benefits, it also creates challenges for academic teaching staff who have not worked within a similar framework before. To offset potential difficulties, CHARM-EU offers professional development opportunities to this group with the intention of upskilling academic teachers and enabling them to create inter-institutional communities and networks.
Sanne van Vugt (Utrecht University), Silvia Gallagher (Trinity College Dublin), and Marjanneke Vijge (Utrecht University) have evaluated participants’ feedback on PD sessions and developed recommendations to improve PD implementation for academic teaching staff. The evaluation focussed on sessions providing PD for CHARM-EU teaching staff but the findings may also be applied more broadly in other Higher Education institutions. Marjanneke Vijge presented the findings during Utrecht University’s 2023 EUCEN conference. The key takeaways are summarised here.
Face-to-face interactive activities are highly rated
Where possible, professional development should take place in face-to-face settings. Feedback from participants shows that interactive, personalised/small-group, hands-on activities are perceived by as most valuable.
As an example, all respondents who participated in an in-person event (called a hackathon) held by CHARM-EU reported that the event helped them to feel more connected and more confident in applying CHARM-EU’s teaching methods to their own practice. Hybrid or offline activities can be combined with regular face-to-face activities (e.g. on-site work sessions, hackathons, and other interactive events) in Professional Development programmes. Potential formats could include ongoing online events and activities, supplemented by day-long or multi-day face-to-face events. This format enables learning and collaborative work between peers in different institutions and gives teachers greater confidence in their teaching.
Personalisation is key
A person-centred approach with hands-on support was found to be most effective. Where an academic teacher lacks experience or knowledge of a novel teaching practice, bespoke training and support can address the individual’s needs. This support may come from an educationalist, PD provider or Knowledge Creating Team (KCT).
Academic teachers report that certain topics are challenging to implement. Difficulties may arise from teachers’ limited experience with certain topics such as transdisciplinarity and technology-enhanced learning. When addressing these areas, future PD should focus on providing personalised, hands-on and face-to-face support with guidance from a dedicated, well-trained educationalist. PD should also be aware of time pressures and organisational capacity which may hinder teachers’ ability to engage fully with PD. This should be considered when establishing timelines for implementation or review with academic teachers.
Focussing on practical applications enhances learning
Lengthy, content-heavy activities and content-overload should be avoided. Educational principles and their implementation can become laden down in jargon and technicalities which can overwhelm academic teachers. Instead, provide specific examples of best practice or technical tools to illustrate a point and encourage reflection on ways teachers could implement that practice. Respondents anticipated that applying new methodologies in the classroom would clarify processes and practicalities that may seem challenging or unwieldy in theory.
Future initiatives could explore new, innovative types of teacher PD such as: peer observation, job shadowing, co-teaching, and (on-site) coaching in the hybrid classroom.
Community fosters support and learning
Respondents reported feeling a sense of community and belonging during their PD experiences. Where good community networks exist, academic teachers can support each other through peer learning and sharing knowledge and experiences. Face-to-face interactions such as the CHARM-EU hackathon contributed to the building of these networks, as did small-group learning and sessions with Knowledge Creating Teams. Building momentum in small groups such as KCTs may be challenging; this can be offset by focussing each group on specific common objective and providing just-in-time skills training. This provides groups with an opportunity to implement their new skills in a well-defined project when supported by their peers.
Successful onboarding packages enable academic teachers to engage in their teaching community and build support networks among peers and colleagues. A person-centred approach encourages relationship-building as well as terminology and technology training as well as face-to-face or virtual events. In all PD, it is important that enough information and context is given to teachers to help them to understand their role, but information overload must be avoided. Time pressures and other commitments must be considered.
Teaching practices and values are changing. With technological changes come new opportunities as well as new pitfalls which professional development can help to offset.
“Joining CHARM-EU was a very steep learning curve for me,” said co-author of the report, Dr Marjanneke Vijge. “As teachers and module developers, we experienced the challenge-based learning environment that we create for our Master’s students, complete with transdisciplinary teamwork, just-in-time delivery of skills, and mentoring by educationalists. The training equipped us with skills to implement the latest educational innovations and make sure all modules and phases are aligned into a cohesive programme and was very helpful in building connections and a community amongst the teaching group.”
This article was based on a conference paper delivered by Marjanneke Vijge at the 2023 Eucen Conference in Utrecht. It draws on a report compiled by Sanne van Vugt (Utrecht University), Silvia Gallagher (Trinity College Dublin), and Marjanneke Vijge (Utrecht University).