Using Faculty Learning Communities to Support Program-Level Assessment
Faculty learning communities (FLCs) can be useful in addressing a wide variety of faculty development needs. The California State University System uses FLCs to address systemwide priorities, such as faculty leadership development, use of innovative pedagogies, and program-level assessment.
CSU uses a model based on the work of Milton Cox, engaging groups of up to 15 faculty members in a structured, yearlong experience with defined goals and required deliverables. When Wayne Tikkanen, director of the Institute for Teaching and Learning at CSU, put out a call for proposals to faculty development centers within the CSU system to develop ways to employ FLCs to meet institutional needs, several directors proposed using them for facilitating program-level assessment.
One of the advantages of the FLC approach to faculty development is the amount of time on task it provides. Amy Liu, director of California State University, Sacramento Office of Academic Program Assessment, facilitates FLCs on program-level assessment. “The faculty learning community gave us a longer time for faculty to really talk about why we’re doing assessment,” Liu says. Other faculty development efforts such as workshops and one-on-one consultation are typically short-term efforts that typically focus on how-to information. By offering yearlong FLCs, participants learn how to do program-level assessment as well as internalize why it’s necessary, which is important because, as Liu says, “If faculty don’t know why we’re doing it, then they have all kinds of misconceptions and they’re not going to be motivated to do it.”
“Think of an FLC as a class for faculty,” Tikkanen says, “where you have a curriculum [that] has readings and assignments—in our case, we refer to the latter as deliverables. When you design such a course, you want to make sure that the deliverables are things that will be used when [participants] are done with the FLC.
For example, if you’re doing program-level assessment, one of the deliverables might be a set of outcomes for the program, an assessment instrument, or a rubric. These are items that they develop to put into use in the program. This is not make work. They see exactly what the work contributes to the FLC’s goals, and they’re being guided by facilitators who have content expertise and know how to keep the conversation going.”
Participation in FLCs at CSU Sacramento is voluntary and open to all faculty; however, each program needs to have more than one representative. Liu has found that interested faculty members tend to come from departments that are under review or soon will be. This sense of urgency often provides the initial motivation.
Liu further helps motivate participants by reminding them that assessment is not an added duty; it’s about improving student learning, something that is already part of what they do as faculty members. In addition, she reminds participants, “It’s a learning process. You don’t have to be perfect as long as you keep student learning and student success in mind.”
One of the strengths of the FLC approach is that it brings together a diverse group, which, Tikkanen says, “will often give you the best solutions.”
The facilitator’s role is to focus the discussion. Liu typically limits the scope of the FLC to two or three learning outcomes common to all programs (e.g., critical thinking, written communication, information literacy). The goal is to get faculty to learn from each other through discussions about reading assignments and individual deliverables.
Each FLC has a detailed syllabus, but facilitators need to balance that structure with the needs of the individual faculty members. “Some of them are not going to be as adept as others on certain topics,” Tikkanen says. “[Facilitators] need to have some flexibility to be able to accommodate them and bring them up to speed with the rest of the group. Facilitators have to use dialogue protocols so they can make sure the discussion involves all participants.”
Trust is an important element of any FLC, and it can take some time for the group to develop a sense of community where participants feel free to express their opinions without feeling judged. Regular meetings over a long period help build community.
In addition to the tangible deliverables of the FLC, Liu wants to create assessment advocates and mentors. “Our hope is that through the faculty learning community, we change the culture of assessment on our campus,” Liu says.
Tikkanen offers the following recommendations for using FLCs:
- Prepare, but be flexible. Have the curriculum fully mapped out even if you digress from it. “No battle plan survives contact with the enemy,” says Tikkanen, quoting German military strategist Helmuth von Moltke. “But having a plan at least tells the faculty where you want to go.”
- Provide incentives. Show faculty that you value their participation by providing incentives such as stipends.
- Have FLC participants sign a contract. Outline requirements and meeting times and dates. Defer paying development funding to participants until after they have completed their assignments.
- Keep it confidential. “The deliverables can be as public as you want them to be, but whatever happens in discussion should stay confidential,” Tikkanen says. “This helps develop trust and helps faculty work better together.”
- Don’t give up on faculty who aren’t making progress. “Sometimes it takes time for all the pieces to get sorted out,” Tikkanen says.
- Pace yourself. Keep an eye on the big outcomes, and don’t try to get everything accomplished in the first few meetings.