Acting on Active Learning: Successful Faculty Development Strategies

Published in:

A National Symposium

November 16–17, 2018

Stetson University
Miami, Florida

Institutional Support for Active Learning at Johns Hopkins University

Active learning is an essential component for the development of the learner. It is recognized that active learning does not necessarily just occur by happenstance. Typically, faculty members need to be mindful of their own teaching practices and proactive in the implementation of active teaching strategies to be successful in this area (Bonwell & Eison, 1991). However, faculty have many demands on them in addition to their teaching loads, and the classroom may not be the leading priority for some faculty.  This is an area that can be improved on by raising awareness and promoting active learning strategies through support from the institution (Zayapragassarazan & Kumar, 2012). Linking faculty and connecting them to learning technology specialists are among the types of support identified in this article.

Support from the University through funding, programming, and administrative attention are three key drivers to help faculty transform their teaching to encourage, employ, and foster active learning techniques.  Johns Hopkins University provides extensive support to faculty to assist them in broadening their teaching abilities, including the promotion of active learning and collaborative learning with their peers.  For example, the University supports a Lunch and Learn program where faculty come together to talk about their teaching techniques. These collegial conversations are intended to inform all those present about best practices they employ in their classrooms. As a bonus, lunch is provided.

Another program provided by the institution is called Coffee, Classrooms, and Conversations.  This program links faculty to one another through an exchange whereby connected faculty sit in each other’s classroom and observe.  The University provides each participating faculty member with a $5 gift card to the local coffee house, so the two faculty members can meet after they each have a chance to see their colleague lecture/teach/instruct/lead and have a conversation.  This can also occur in a mentoring style.  The goal is to raise awareness of best practices for teaching that facilitates active learning.

Professional development of faculty needs to be prioritized as a goal by all stakeholders interested in improving the learning outcomes of their students.  Promotion of active teaching strategies is a key principle in reaching this goal. In higher education, we must also recognize that the actual technical methods of teaching are not always the expertise of the faculty member. Some faculty have a sole focus on their content area, for which they may even be renowned.  Unfortunately, a gap may be present between the faculty member’s knowledge of the content and the ability to satisfactorily deliver that content to students.  It is hypothesized that this gap is most prevalent in new faculty and graduate students that have teaching duties (Lambert & Tice, 1993; & Lowman & Mathie, 2009).  It is imperative that the institution provides the necessary support and training for these individuals to be successful in their classes.  This training should be inclusive of active teaching strategies.

An Introduction to Cognitive Neuroscience class performed a case study.  The original format of the course was in what some might call a traditional style: strictly lecture with three exams.  Outcomes (student evaluations, professor satisfaction, etc.) from this original course set-up were less than great, even to the point where the faculty member no longer wanted to teach the course.  The faculty member, before giving up, was willing to alter the format of the class.  The faculty member participated in workshops and other trainings offered by the institution. The faculty member decided on a flipped class format with the use of many active learning strategies, including small group work that allowed more direct engagment with the students, along with in-class work, online quizzes, and a mini-proposal.  These new assessments allowed for more dynamic teaching opportunities (Roehl, Reddy, & Shannon, 2013).  The faculty member did keep the three exams from the original format of the class, but made them worth a smaller portion of the total grade.  The professor compared the results of the exams from the traditional course versus the performance of the students that participated in the flipped class.  The professor found a significant improvement in exam performance in the flipped course format.  Unsurprisingly, the professor and the students both enjoyed the course more.

It appears that there is a trend, nearly amounting to a movement in certain circles within the realm of academia, to engage our students differently.  We must recognize that students are learning differently than students of the past.  Technology, and the access to technology, has had a transformative impact on all levels of education, with higher education being no exception.  As the landscape of the college classroom changes, so must the faculty teaching in those classrooms.  The incorporation of active teaching is one way to help positive change occur.  Change is usually never easy, and many are adverse to it.  It is the responsibility of the institution to provide the necessary tools (workshops, discussions, professional development, etc.) for seamless transformation to occur.  Institutions must support changes to include active teaching strategies in the classroom if they want to see consistently high outcomes from their faculty and students.

Technology Support for Faculty at Saint Peter’s University to Promote Active Learning

At Saint Peter’s University (SPU), our learning technology specialist (LTS), learning management systems administrator (LMSA), and instruction technology (IT) staff collaborate with our faculty and administrative staff to promote active learning in the classroom and enhance our students’ on-line learning experience.

Saint Peter’s University’s IT services provide faculty assistance by working one-on-one with faculty in various ways. This assistance includes face-to-face meetings and Google Hangouts. Additionally, our faculty has access to our centralized service desk for requests and inquiries that include accessing classroom technology, accessing accounts, generating reports, and providing guidance for web tools support. Our learning technology specialist emphasizes three factors in providing assistance to faculty: (1) high visibility, (2) relevancy to faculty needs, and (3) open-mindedness.

Whether teaching at a large university or a small college, high visibility of the learning technology specialist, learning management systems administrator, and IT staff is extremely important when promoting active learning to faculty. Faculty need to know at all times who to contact for assistance and how to receive assistance. According to Daher and Lazarevic (2014), with adequate and targeted technology training, instructors are more likely to use instructional technology to assist them in achieving their specific course objectives. Saint Peter’s University provides orientation training for new faculty and continuous training and IT workshops with current faculty to support new or existing course development during the semester.

Personalized emails are created through mail merges and sent to all teaching faculty at the beginning of each term.  Our emails inform faculty that their course or courses are ready, how they can access them, and how they can request assistance with course development or technical inquiries. Also, these emails provide information about new and updated features and tools that have been added to the learning management system over the last few terms. This process ensures that all faculty have the necessary information needed to develop their courses for the new semester.

Alleviating barriers and improving support are crucial steps in facilitating the adoption of instructional technologies at educational institutions (Lane & Lyle, 2011). Saint Peter’s University has created an active and rapidly growing knowledge base, so the most common requests can be addressed before direct assistance from our educational technology specialists. IT services facilitate institutional communication and collaboration needs. These services include email, calendaring, video/web conferences, web content management systems, web application development and hosting, and media development. Our knowledge base also includes instructional technology, tools, and resources directly supporting teaching and learning. These services include in-class and online course development, learning analytics, course evaluation, webinars, and other academic tools for faculty and students.

Saint Peter’s University is currently a Google School. Google Calendar is used as a time-management and scheduling calendar service. Faculty and staff use Google Calendar to schedule one-on-one or group meetings and workshops with educational technology specialists and other faculty. Faculty can also create, edit, and send reminders about specific events. Therefore, increased visibility and proactive communication by our educational technology specialists guide our faculty to instructional technology.

Relevance to faculty needs is the second concern when providing services and assistance while developing a community of active learners. When our LTS assists a professor one-on-one with course development, the LTS may audit the professor’s course to observe how he or she typically delivers content to the class and understands the expectations for their students. Also, the LTS may review the professor’s syllabus and ask additional questions to guide the LTS through a typical classroom experience. When a professor requests access to a specific tool or feature, the LTS is better equipped to address this need because they understand how the professor intends to use this tool or feature in the classroom. According to research conducted by Walters, Grover, Turner, & Alexander (2017), professional development planning that is based upon the articulated needs of faculty, rather than suggestions of learning technology specialists, may be more impactful in meeting the needs of advanced faculty. Therefore, establishing relevance helps the LTS and professor utilize their time together more efficiently and effectively.

Finally, open-mindedness is essential for proper instructional technology services and supports. Our educational technology specialists are always researching and investigating new and improved tools, features, and techniques in our learning management system (Blackboard). Therefore, when faculty make requests, these new tools and features can be addressed and implemented. Recently, based upon numerous requests, our LTS researched and installed a Blackboard date management tool. On the date management page, a faculty member can choose to adjust dates automatically or individually from one location. This feature updates content dates when one copies or restores a course from a previous term. Date types include due date, availability, and adaptive release dates. Once the date management tool was installed, faculty at SPU were immediately notified about this new feature and a faculty development workshop was conducted on campus.

Our LTS addressed another request by faculty. Instead of creating course shells a few days prior to the start of the semester, many of our faculty requested these shells be available a few weeks in advance for development and preparation purposes. As a result of this request, our LTS developed the concept of a holding shell or sandbox course shell. These particular shells allow our faculty to create content in advance of the term and then create an exact course copy in the actual semester course shell.

In conclusion, effective collaboration with the educational technology specialist has optimized, increased, and enhanced active learning options for all faculty at Saint Peter’s University. Faculty relationships with educational technology specialists have facilitated the transfer of ideas and concepts of the active, face-to-face teaching and learning classroom to the digital environment. The collaboration of faculty and educational technology specialists can assist and help the digital learners of today become the effective educators of tomorrow.


Daher, T., & Lazarevic, B. (2014). Emerging institutional technologies: Exploring the extent of faculty use of web 2.0 tools at a Midwestern community college. TechTrends: Linking Research & Practice to Improve Learning, 58(6), 42-50.

Lambert, L., & Tice, S. (1993). Preparing graduate students to teach: A guide to programs that improve undergraduate education and develop tomorrow’s faculty. From a Comprehensive National Survey of Teaching Assistant Training Programs and Practices.

Lane, C., & Lyle, H. (2011). Obstacles and supports related to the use of educational technologies: The role of technological expertise, gender, and age. Journal of Computing in Higher Education, 23(1), 38-59.

Lowman, J., & Mathie, V. (2009). What should graduate teaching assistants know about teaching? Teaching of Psychology, 20(2), 84-88.

Roehl, A., Reddy, S., & Shannon, G. (2013). The flipped classroom: An opportunity to engage millennial students through active learning strategies. Journal of Family & Consumer Sciences, 105(2), 44-49.

Walters, S., Grover, K. S., Turner, R. C., & Alexander, J.C. (2017). Faculty perceptions related to teaching online: A starting point for designing faculty development initiates. Turkish Online Journal of Distance Education, 18(4), 4-19.

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Spring 2019: Transforming Teaching Through Active Learning