In-service Training You Can Actually Use
The intent of in-service meetings is to help professors become better teachers, but faculty don’t always greet the thought of attending those meetings with enthusiasm. Research has consistently identified several in-service meeting best practices. We’ll address three of those practices here: focus, duration, and collaboration (see Garet et al. 2001; Desimone 2009; Darling-Hammond et al. 2017).
Focus refers to whether the content of the in-service training deals with widely applicable general teaching skills or strategies and skills that are targeted toward specific courses. Duration is how long the training lasts; Is it a one-and-done workshop or a series of related training experiences? Collaboration concerns itself with whether the in-service training is for the entire faculty or limited to faculty subsets, such as professors who teach the same course.
Here are some in-service strategies that can help put focus, duration, and collaboration to work for you.
In-service training often works best when it focuses on course-specific teaching skills rather than general teaching strategies. To apply this principle, consider inviting professors who have many years of experience teaching a particular course to share their insights and best practices. This can be especially useful when they share teaching strategies for upcoming lessons so other professors receive ideas and new approaches that they can quickly put into practice. By sharing their tricks of the trade, experienced professors can help newer faculty members evaluate and practice a wide variety of learning skills. This kind of in-service meeting can improve faculty morale surrounding in-service meetings because the new skills acquired have a rapid and practical use in their classrooms.
Another suggestion is to have faculty members watch each other teach. Periodically invite faculty members to visit other professor’s classes. Encourage them to take notes on what they saw that teacher do well and to consider how they might adopt and adapt those practices with their own students. Both teachers could be invited to discuss with each other what they did and what they saw during the lesson. We also recommend taking time during in-service meetings to share observations and lessons learned from several participants. Observational learning like this can help improve teachers at any stage of their careers.
A few days before a future in-service meeting, you may also wish to announce that you will be discussing a particularly challenging topic—for example, “Please come prepared to share some thoughts about Topic X during this week’s in-service meeting. How do you handle Topic X when it arises in your classroom discussions?” These kinds of discussions can be extremely helpful as they encourage faculty to wrestle with difficult disciplinary or social questions before students raise them during class.
A common criticism of in-service training is that it often relies on short, one-time workshops that don’t create an opportunity for effective follow-up. But improvement and real change seldom happen after a one-hour in-service meeting. For teacher in-service training to be effective, teachers need sufficient time to learn, observe, and practice new teaching strategies. You may wish to reserve the first few minutes of every in-service meeting for attendees to share successes and failures regarding the skill(s) they practiced in previous training meetings. You may also wish to schedule time for teachers to practice skills addressed in previous in-service meetings.
Training should be of a sufficient duration to include opportunities for teachers to reflect on their teaching, receive feedback, and begin to make some adjustments. One in-service strategy is to cover fewer topics in more detail during a semester or term.
But please recognize that there is no right answer to the question, “How often should we hold in-service meetings?” Weekly is probably too frequent, while monthly may not provide sufficient reinforcement and opportunity for growth. Our experience has shown that meeting every other week can work well.
In-service meeting attendance often defaults to the entire department attending the same meeting; however, you can create wonderful synergy by inviting professors who teach the same or related courses to gather for regular in-service meetings. When those professors are given time to work together, they can trade ideas, identify applicable pedagogical principles, practice teaching skills, and discuss problems they are encountering in their similar classrooms.
One of the first steps to implement this strategy is to determine how many in-service groups you should create—providing each with a faculty leader, trainer, or small in-service committee. This can be a trial-and-error process as too large of a group can inhibit participation and reduce feelings of comradery, but creating too many groups can create unnecessary coordination and logistical challenges. The trick is to find a sweet spot in the middle.
Once your collaborative groups have been organized, they can meet for in-service training as well as observe each other teach and share ideas in other settings. Some of the best teaching ideas are shared informally. Over time, this collaboration can help professors create learning communities that exist outside of in-service meetings—further improving teaching within your department.
Putting it all together
Together, these three principles—focus, duration, and collaboration—combine to create an effective framework for a faculty in-service program. Professors who teach the same or similar courses can meet to share best practices, learning activities, lessons learned, and course strategies. As they observe effective teaching, seek to practice good teaching skills in their classrooms, and share what they learn, the quality of teaching and learning within your department should incrementally improve.
In-service meetings are like exercising. You may dread it before you begin, but it’s not nearly as bad as you thought it would be while you are doing it. And after you’re done, you’re glad you did it.
Faculty in-service programs seldom improve overnight, but with forethought, planning, and practice, you can make your program more meaningful.
Darling-Hammond, Linda, Maria E. Hyler, and Madelyn Gardner. 2017. Effective Teacher Professional Development. Palo Alto, CA: Learning Policy Institute. https://doi.org/10.54300/122.311.
Desimone, Laura M. 2009. “Improving Impact Studies of Teachers’ Professional Development: Toward Better Conceptualizations and Measures.” Educational Researcher 38, no. 3 (April): 181–99. https://doi.org/10.3102/0013189X08331140.
Garet, Michael S., Andrew C. Porter, Laura Desimone, Beatrice F. Birman, and Kwang Suk Yoon. 2001. “What Makes Professional Development Effective? Results from a National Sample of Teachers.” American Educational Research Journal 38, no. 4 (January): 915–45. https://doi.org/10.3102/00028312038004915.
Mark A. Mathews, PhD, has taught as an adjunct professor in the Department of Church History and Doctrine at Brigham Young University and is a religious educator for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Kenneth L. Alford, PhD, is a professor in the Department of Church History and Doctrine at Brigham Young University and a retired U.S. Army Colonel. Previously, he served as a professor of computer science (U.S. Military Academy, West Point, New York) and as a department chair and professor of strategic leadership (National Defense University, Washington, DC).