Faculty Development: Is it Important?

By Susan Sportsman, PhD, RN, ANEF, FAAN

“You’ll never know everything about anything, especially something you love.” ― Julia Child

A core belief of nursing educators is that a life of professional inquiry is an essential component of a successful nursing career. Standards promulgated by nursing professional organizations speak to life-long learning. Many state nurse practice acts and certification bodies require documentation of continuing education for continued licensure and/or certification. And certainly, each of the nursing education accrediting bodies (CCNE, ACEN, and CNEA) require evidence that  curricula prepares students for life-long learning and faculty members are afforded a similar opportunity for development.

Nurse educators, like many other health professions, face a particular challenge in maintaining a robust continuing education plan for their career trajectory.  Faculty members in these disciplines must maintain their competence in their practice area, while becoming an expert educator.  This is particularly problematic for new nursing or health professions faculty who, although they hold graduate degrees, may be able to draw only on their experience as a student for effective teaching strategies.

Becoming a good teacher is based on the premise that “good teaching is not just a ‘you have it or you don’t’ skill, nor is it an automatic companion of terminal, disciplinary degrees. It is an action, process, and way of thinking and as such, constitutes serious, complex intellectual work. It requires regular reflection and exposure to new ideas and information that are inherently a part of good professional development activities” (Altany, 2012).  Faculty development can provide a framework for the serious, complex intellectual work required to become a good teacher.

Altany (2012) succinctly outlines the benefits of faculty development to improve the teaching skill of nursing faculty, including providing:

  • Recognition that professional faculty development is not remedial or something only for those who have problems, but rather an integral part of every faculty member’s efforts to become more effective in the classroom.
  • An opportunity to improve teaching competence based not just through trial and error, but also upon available evidence and best educational practice.
  • An opportunity to connect faculty across disciplines and career stages, serving to increase a teaching-learning community within the program, college or university. Without such professional development opportunities, faculty members are often isolated and unaware of beneficial, innovative pedagogical approaches.

In short, Altany (2012) suggests that professional development is the conscience of the professional academic. It makes teachers aware of what they do in the academic environment, why they choose the strategies they do, and what challenges them to continually be better teachers.

Despite these apparent benefits, evidence documenting the link between faculty development and student outcomes has been “spotty.”   The challenges of (and variables involved in) tracing the effects of professional development to student outcomes are gigantic. For this reason, research on the effects of faculty development relies primarily on self-reported measures (Flaherty, 2016).  However, in 2016, a study, “Faculty Development and Student Learning: Assessing the Connections,” by Condon, Iverson, Manduca, Rutz, and Willett, reports the results of a multi-year study undertaken by faculty at two very different organizations: Carleton College (a small liberal arts college in Minnesota) and Washington State University (a large land-grant institution). The authors of the study report that faculty participation in professional development activities positively affects classroom pedagogy, student learning, and the overall culture of teaching and learning in a college or university.

Specifically, despite the differences in the organization, the authors found similar outcomes at both institutions. Using a variety of evaluation measures, including faculty self-report as well as unbiased review of faculty teaching materials and student work, the authors found that:

  • Faculty members report that they can identify changes in their teaching as a result of past development activities. This is confirmed by independent analysis of faculty syllabi, assignments, teaching methods, and grading scales, as well as independent reviews of student outcomes.
  • Participants who have a more extensive faculty development history show larger, measurable changes in their teaching strategies than faculty whose participation is slight.
  • Faculty development experiences that stem from informal, self-directed instruction are effective because the participants are engaged in their own development.
  • Faculty members with a strong sense of self-efficacy who perceive little risk in trying out new teaching styles are more likely to make changes to improve their teaching skills than those who fear negative results from risks.
  • Institutional cultures that value educational experimentation and accept associated risk also support changes in practice.
  • Improvement in faculty competencies as a result of faculty development activities is cumulative.

The results of this study provide ammunition for nurse educator leaders who in this time of limited budgets must “fight” for funds for faculty development. These findings may also suggest some criteria for choosing effective faculty development opportunities. Some suggestions for administrators and/or faculty committees responsible for faculty development decisions include:

  • Base planning for faculty development activities based upon needs of the organization and the majority of faculty members. This involves listening to faculty needs, identifying new technologies or trends in nursing education, and/or concerns related to student outcomes.
  • Choose faculty development activities that:
    • Reflect topics important to faculty;
    • Allow experimentation and self-directed learning in a low-risk environment;
    • Support opportunities for ongoing learning after the faculty development activity is completed; and
    • Allow participants to evaluate their satisfaction with the learning activity and their performance following the completion of the faculty development.

Effective faculty development is critical to the ongoing improvement of the competencies of nurse educators, as well as student outcomes.  As Florence Nightingale once said, “ For those of us who nurse, our nursing is a thing, which, unless in it we are making progress every year, every month, every week, take my word for it, we are going back.”  (Ulrich, 1992)

Collaborative Momentum Consultants is committed to effective faculty development activities which meet best practice standards.  You can find more information here.

References

Altany, A. (2012) Professional Faculty Development:  The Necessary Fourth Leg.  June 29. Reprinted from The Teaching Professor, 25.6 (2011): 5. https://www.facultyfocus.com/articles-development/professional-faculty-development-the-necessary-fourth-leg/  Last accessed July, 2018.

Flaherty, C. (2016) Professors can learn to be more effective instructors.  Inside Higher Ed.  February 10. https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2016/02/10/new-study-suggests-faculty-development-has-demonstrable-impact-student-learning.  Last accessed July, 2018.

Condon, W., Iverson, E., Manduca, C., Rutz, C., Willett, G.  (2016)  Faculty Development and Student Learning:  Assessing the Connections.  Indiana University Press.  Indiana University Bloomington. http://www.iupress.indiana.edu/product_info.php?products_id=807752

Ulrich, B. (1992) Leadership and management according to Florence Nightingale.  Norwalk, Connecticut:  Appleton & Lange.

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