Ongoing challenges in higher education require innovative thinking, but we have few structures in place to support learning to address these challenges. While we have standing groups (e.g., committees and councils) and episodic groups (e.g., task forces), few groups focus on learning together to improve practice across the campus. One exception is faculty learning communities, which are becoming more common as a way for instructors to come together and read about a pedagogical strategy, such as active learning, and work collectively to alter their approach to teaching.
But we lack professional learning communities (PLCs) that bring together administrators, faculty, and staff from across campus to learn together to improve campus operations and work—such as student retention, workplace climate, mentoring needs across groups, and leadership development. PLCs are common in K–12 education and other workplaces but have not been used as frequently in higher education. The tradition of ongoing committees and task forces rarely provides for deep and continuing learning that could propel innovation.
The Promoting At-Promise Student Success (PASS) Project at the University of Southern California’s Pullias Center, in collaboration with University of Nebraska practitioners, is facilitating PLCs at three Nebraska campuses aimed at implementing culture change to help students succeed. We leverage our research-based approach of creating a culture of ecological validation (EV) to frame both the learning and implementation stages of the PLC (link to pass site info on EV). A culture of ecological validation involves providing holistic, strengths-oriented, proactive, identity-conscious, and developmental support for low-income, racially minoritized, and first-generation college students (i.e., at-promise students). The framework argues for educators engaging in reflective practices and using collaborative approaches that include cross functional work with educators across campus.
To effectively change culture, campuses need all stakeholders—administrators, faculty, and staff—to think differently about how they do their work. PLCs provide an avenue for deep learning that can equip institutional change agents to spread this culture-transforming idea broadly across campus. At each of the three campuses, we brought together PLCs ranging in size from 11 to 20 key faculty, staff, and administrators to learn about EV for a year, to rethink their work within their units, and to reimagine how each campus functioned so that it would support EV.
Novel ideas emerged from the learning stages of the PLC. Participants are
The groups are evolving into a coordinating committee that will connect EV work across campus, conduct assessment and mapping activities, and monitor and identify gaps. The groups are confident that such ideas would not have emerged without the time and space the PLCs have provided.
From observing and analyzing data from the PLCs, we identified key insights that may be useful for other institutions interested in creating cross-functional learning communities focused on improving at-promise student experiences and educational outcomes:
We are continuing our research on PLCs over the next few years, so stay tuned for more at the Pullias Center for Higher Education at the University of Southern California.
Adrianna Kezar, PhD, is the Dean’s Professor of Leadership and Wilbur-Keiffer Endowed Chair at the University of Southern California.
Ronald Hallett, PhD, is a professor of education in the LaFetra College of Education at the University of LaVerne and a research associate in the Pullias Center for Higher Education at the University of Southern California.
Zoë Corwin, PhD, is a research professor at USC’s Pullias Center for Higher Education with expertise in college access and success, digital equity, and research-practice collaborations.
Mariama Nagbe, PhD, is a postdoctoral research associate in the Pullias Center for Higher Education at the University of Southern California.
Liane I. Hypolite, PhD, is an assistant professor of educational leadership in the College of Education and Integrative Studies (CEIS) at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona.