Barriers to Faculty Development/Enrichment & What we can do about it.

I recently conducted an in-person survey of those involved in some dimension of faculty development/enrichment. I was speaking at a conference and took advantage of the opportunity. All worked in higher education. Some were upper administrators looking for institutional alignment related to programs and initiatives. Others were Teaching and Learning Center directors, assistant directors and various types of consultants searching for additional ways to promote authentic faculty engagement. Some held split appointments teaching and leading faculty development initiatives. Despite our diverse perspectives, roles and purposes, all saw faculty as one key to furthering our respective goals.

The purpose of my talk was to highlight an approach for soliciting authentic faculty engagement. To get there, I decided to make explicit the barriers to substantive faculty development learning experiences and programs. I surveyed the attendees (approximately 25) asking them to merely list such barriers. Of course there are short-term and long-term obstacles as well as fairly simple and complex challenges. Surfacing the often discussed barriers enabled us to pursue three objectives.

First, by aggregating all the various perspectives in the room one may see something that s/he is currently struggling with, but has yet to articulate and, therefore, confront.

Second, creating a list of topics allowed us to formulate each item into the form of a question. The question tells us the direction of our thinking: a.k.a. reveals the settlement conditions. For example and stated simply here, questions that begin with “What” may indicate that we are looking for information, examples or resources. “Why” questions search for underlying reasons; “How” questions tell us we are looking for methods, procedures, strategies, etc. “To what extent” questions explore a range of relevant factors. Each formulation exposes our assumptions on the topics we surface. The majority of questions this day were “how” questions, which allowed us to question our assumptions and preconceptions of a particular topic.

Third, making such obstacles explicit helps us, as a group, manage our frustrations, disappointments and expectations. I find that it helps move us toward configuring constructive actions.

The group listed the following barriers/obstacles:

  • how to get them to show up for center events
  • poor motivation to invest in center programs/events
  • developing relevant topics when research trumps teaching
  • best practices vs. emergent practices
  • teaching schedules and logistics
  • time to experiment
  • comfort zones
  • new ideas
  • involving and helping adjuncts
  • teaching from a distance
  • faculty conceptualizing their end goals
  • tenure and promotion process
  • time
  • balance between structure and unstructure
  • danger of just having conversations
  • identifying faculty leaders
  • ego/turf issues
  • trust issues
  • mindset

Our group successfully identified the most often cited obstacles facing authentic faculty engagement in center activities. Not surprising actually, but meaningful as far as our workshop was concerned. Moreover, not terribly surprising given what leaders and scholars in the field have identified and discussed.

For example, many of these challenges are addressed in various chapters in anthologies like A Guide to Faculty Development and To Improve the Academy (here and here) often frame their recommendations around various obstacles. Additionally, Brownell and Tanner (2012) discuss similar barriers facing faculty development in the life sciences focusing. They focus on the lack of pedagogical training, lack of time, lack of incentives and tensions with professional identity as significant challenges to shifting practice away from strict didactic, instructor-centered instruction and toward more iterative and evidence-based practices. Montero, Trivino, Sirhan, Moore and Leiva (2012) address similar challenges focused on faculty in medical education, but add one that did not explicitly surface in my conference workshop: many faculty see “teaching is seen as a natural skill that is difficult to be trained.” This last concept is not unique to medical education, but it does highlight the need to help faculty see that they too can develop, that they can learn new skills, and that they have unique contributions to make to their students’ educations. A recent article in Inside Higher Ed by Colleen Flaherty reinforces this notion.




What do we do about it?

I want to go on record (although I already have many times in this blog) and say that I think that a lot can be done. I wouldn’t be in this field if I believed otherwise. It is beyond the scope of this post to outline the various methods and approaches centers for teaching and learning take. However, I will briefly articulate principles I use to organize the programs I design and facilitate. They have proven very intuitive for faculty.

First, begin within. In order for faculty development to be authentic, it must begin with those we are working with. Our programs must speak the language of academia; faculty’s language. The lexicon involves not only tenure and promotion, service and teaching, it involves those canons of scholarly thinking that we long for our students to embrace and put into regular practice. It involves understanding that incentives are important but only take one so far, which leads to a second principle.

Cultivate meaningful relationships. I reflected on this in an earlier post. If faculty development programs are viewed as exclusively top down, episodic, impersonal events, then their fruitfulness is limited at best. However, if we view faculty development as built on cultivating substantive relationships, then the programs we design and facilitate are positioned as collaborative enterprises. I understand that there are logistic considerations that limit our relationships, but I want this idea to be foundational for all collaborations.

Challenge with love and plan with conviction. What moves programs and initiatives forward in ways that point toward transformation, impact, development, and enrichment? Another way to think about this question is to think about it in terms of our instruction: If our students are not genuinely trying to figure something significant out, what are they doing? I apply the same type of thinking to faculty development relationships. I find that some of the most rewarding and transformative experiences emerge when we can challenge each other respectfully.

Help faculty see themselves within the initiatives we promote. How do we get students to take ownership of course content? One way is to help them make deep, personal connections with the ideas, theories, controversies, and methods that inform each discipline and make it exciting. Once again, this principle can be a significant lens through which to view faculty development programs and relationships. It speaks to the importance of organic involvement with the definition and implementation of university and/or department level initiatives. This does not mean that everything must start from scratch; rather, it suggests that ownership comes from deep involvement.

These are just a few principles I see as foundational for thinking through faculty development and enrichment efforts. However, there are more that I will work to surface in later posts.
Articles Cited 
  1. Brownell, S.E. & Tanner, K.D. (2012). Barriers to Faculty Pedagogical Change: Lack of Training, Time, Incentives, and…Tensions with Professional Identity? CBE Life Sci Educ. Winter; 11(4): 339–346. doi: 10.1187/cbe.12-09-0163 PMCID: PMC3516788
  2. Flaherty, C. (2016). Professors Can Learn to Be More Effective Instructors. Inside Higher Ed. Accessed February 12, 2016.
  3. Montero L1, Triviño X, Sirhan M, Moore P, Leiva L. Barriers for faculty development in medical education: a qualitative study. Rev Med Chil. 2012 Jun;140(6):695-702. doi: 10.4067/S0034-98872012000600001.