Faculty Learning Communities: Recommendations for Initiating and Implementing an FLC at Your Campus

Detailed recommendations for initiating and continuing faculty learning communities can be found in Cox (1995, 1997, 1999, 2003b, 2004). We recommend the following practices for ensuring that such communities are effective. An institution's culture and key players affect the manner in which these suggestions should be employed.

Initiation. The campus teaching center and/or faculty development office should develop one or two faculty learning communities at a time. In the FIPSE FLC projects, a majority of the institutions successfully implemented two the first year, four the second year, and six the third year. The type of initial cohort-based or topic-based community could be determined by a needs analysis. Administrators often are willing to invest funds in early-career faculty and faculty involvement with technology or diversity, so these may be good starting points if your concern is getting administrative support. Faculty and administrators must be convinced that a faculty learning community provides excellent learning, development, and community. To provide convincing evidence, campuses that already have student learning communities can cite evidence that the outcomes for students are similar to outcomes for faculty: increased collaboration across disciplines, increased retention (at Miami, junior faculty participants were tenured at a significantly higher rate than those who did not participate (Cox, 1995)), a more coherent curriculum, more active learning, more civic contributions to the common good, and, over time, a campus community built around teaching and learning.

Initial Planning. Recommendations for Initial Planning:

Application. The application for membership in a community must include a section asking about the applicant's specific teaching needs and what experience or expertise he or she can bring to the community. These form a basis for early group interaction. The application must also have questions that elicit an applicant's openness to new ideas. The applicant's department chair must approve and sign off on the application.

Selection. Choose community members to create a balance across disciplines, interests, experiences, and needs; this will ensure a group with a broad and diverse background.

Prestige. Advertise the community as an opportunity for faculty to engage in learning through conversation, a place for scholarly exploration, innovation, and change. Membership should be considered an honor. The community should be not viewed as a place for remedial activities for broken faculty.

Trust and Safety. Discussion may involve sharing with the learning community about concerns and frailties. Hence, the elements of trust and safety in the community are very important. At the first meeting (and in application information), it is essential to make clear that all discussions are confidential and conducted with respect and openness.

Legacy. For a program in its second and later years, provide an opportunity each year for the new members to meet with the graduating members to share various aspects of the program, for example, what they learned, changes they made in their teaching, improvements in student learning, how they selected and worked with faculty partners and student associates, and so forth. The closeness and spirit of those in the graduating community set a positive tone for the new group.

Activities. Let each new group select seminar topics, projects, and activities to meet their needs, which may be different from those of former groups; yet, provide a scaffolding upon which they can build. Provide a focus book for each member and select an opening seminar topic that interests the new group and that has been well received in past years. Encourage collaborative efforts which give pairs or small groups within a community the opportunity to consult about and present joint seminars or projects.

Scholarship of Teaching. Nurture the scholarship of teaching by incorporating a sequence of developmental events, for example, starting the year with discussion based on a book or reading; developing individual teaching projects with clearly stated learning objectives, literature reviews, and assessment plans for student learning; and providing access to relevant books and journals on post-secondary teaching and learning. Members should present the results of their projects at a campus-wide seminar or teaching retreat, followed by a presentation at a national teaching conference.

Assessment. Accreditation agencies now look more closely at effective faculty development support offered by institutions. Assessment provides evidence of success when a strong case for continued funding and support is needed. It can be used in accreditation reports. Provide a means for assessing the effectiveness of the objectives of the community, both short- and long-term. A mid-year and final evaluation and report in addition to evaluations of each seminar provide evidence of success and ways to improve various aspects of the community. Collect pre- and post-community syllabi to illustrate changes inspired by participation. Have each participant select a focus course. Participants should prepare a course mini-portfolio for their focus course.

Sharing. Near the end of the year, provide an opportunity for the community members to become peer consultants to the campus, for example, by presenting a university-wide seminar. Prepare and advertise a faculty resource list of members willing to consult with others on specified areas of teaching and learning.

Leadership. The facilitator of a faculty learning community should be a well-respected teacher-scholar, be well acquainted with the literature on teaching and learning in higher education, have good consulting abilities, and be a community builder. One of the facilitators of an FLC at Miami says it well:

Stay flexible! Nothing happens as fast you think it will. Be willing to pause, take valuable side trips dictated by the ebb and flow of the group. Don’t push too hard, and listen a lot more than you talk. Good things will happen, but it takes time and will not follow the road map drawn on day one. Also, be sure everyone is having fun and enjoying the process. Do fun things. Eat well. Build a culture of trust and mutual respect. Learn from the diversity and creativity of the individuals in the group.

The Role of FLC Program Director. Faculty developers or teaching center directors play a key role in managing the operations of faculty learning communities. As part of my role as director of the Center for the Enhancement of Learning and Teaching, I facilitate the junior faculty community and oversee the other FLCs. This consists of working with each FLC facilitator. Our center handles room scheduling, meals, travel, publicity, professional expense spreadsheet, and other budget items for all the FLCs.

As developers, within our institutions "we need to promote an understanding of the process of faculty development over time, leading to a full integration of the fragments of academic work" (Kreber & Cranton, 1999, p. 225). Providing a variety of faculty learning communities over the years enables faculty to concentrate on specific issues or developmental needs at various times during their careers.

Compensation and Rewards. Participation in a faculty learning community takes time and work: attendance at weekend retreats, national conferences, and biweekly seminars; interaction with a student associate and a faculty partner; reading the new literature of the scholarship of teaching; development of and work on a teaching project; and preparation of a seminar presentation for the campus and, perhaps, a national conference.

At Miami we have two ways of compensating faculty participants. First, and best, is to provide release time from one course for one semester. This may be done at the rate for adjuncts. If a department chair can create the release time in another manner, then the department receives the funds and usually allocates them to the faculty member, for example, to purchase technology or international travel. Also, each member receives funds to enable his or her learning plan or teaching project. Participants in the Junior Faculty FLC each have $200 available for them and $200 to use to involve or thank their student associates.

Unfortunately, most institutions do not have the budget to provide release time for members of FLCs. At Miami when there is no release time, each participant receives professional expenses of $500 to $1,000. In the teaching portfolio project, each participating department received $5000. At the other extreme, in the FIPSE project we learned that some institutions were able to attract and engage participants for no professional funds or release time. Provision of a focus book and refreshments at meetings was all that was needed.

At Miami each FLC facilitator receives one-course release time for both semesters plus the professional expenses available for his or her particular community. Service as a facilitator must be approved by his or her department chair.

Overcoming Obstacles. Some obstacles must be addressed in order to start and continue faculty learning communities. One obstacle is the length of time needed for an institution to show a cultural change as a result of the community approach—at least 5 years. Other obstacles include cost, participants' time commitment, and the isolated nature of faculty life—the group structure of the community experience is not for everyone. These obstacles are similar to some of those that challenge student learning communities, as Barr (1998) observes: "Faculty experimenting with [student] learning communities are finding themselves hard-pressed to keep them going" (p. 22).

The annual cost for each community of 8 to 10 members plus facilitator varies from $5,000-$30,000. The top expense components, if employed, are release time (or professional expenses) and travel. However, providing excellent treatment for participants earns their generous time commitment, appreciation, and support.

Communities do not appeal to everyone. For example, an excellent teacher, who had served successfully as a mentor in Miami's junior faculty community and also followed a colleague's participation in the senior faculty community, approached me with an enthusiastic suggestion: Perhaps just one meeting of a community at the start of the year would suffice, enabling full concentration on one's individual teaching project the rest of the year. Another faculty member suggested that we bring in an expert at the start and avoid the "amateurish" discussions of the group. With this in mind, developers initiating communities should continue other support for individuals: grants, consultations, and "one-time-only" campus seminars. Over the years one-third of he Miami faculty have participated in FLCs, indicating that the other two thirds may not wish to join FLCs. This may be because they do not have the time to devote to an FLC, they do not want to give up their autonomy, or there has not been a stage in the development of their academic life that calls for community.

Nevertheless, once one successful faculty learning community is up and running, the positive outcomes for participants and the institution should convince administrators to continue and expand funding. Enthusiastic participants may convince some reticent colleagues to join. The long-term rewards of community and collaboration are well worth the effort.

Conclusion. In Miami University's faculty teaching development program (Cox, 2001a), there are many supports to enable faculty to improve teaching and learning: small grants, summer fellowships, teaching leaves, faculty convocations, campus-wide seminars, department grants to improve evaluation-of-teaching systems, course or curriculum effectiveness/learning assessment grants, visiting teacher-scholar grants, learning technologies grants, small group instructional diagnosis, individual consultation, travel grants—but the faculty learning communities and their inherent opportunities for change and growth continue to provide the support with the greatest impact on individuals and the institution.

This project has been supported in part by grants from the US Department of Education Fund for the Improvement of Post-Secondary Education (FIPSE) and the Ohio Board of Regents.