Faculty learning communities

In the past two decades, faculty learning communities (FLCs) have emerged as an important mechanism for higher education faculty development in effective implementation of pedagogical innovation (Cox, 2004). FLCs are groups of approximately ten faculty in related disciplines (for example, physics and physical science) that meet regularly to engage with issues in teaching and learning. Facilitators of FLCs may be faculty development professionals or interested faculty members. More recently, faculty online learning communities (FOLCs) have been used as geographically distributed, discipline-specific FLCs that support and provide resources for faculty implementing Research-Based Instructional Strategies (RBIS) to enhance student learning (Cox, 2004; Dancy et al., 2019; Price et al., 2021). Facilitators use various strategies to achieve the goals of their communities alongside the needs of the faculty members (Andrews-Larson et al., 2017; Lau et al., 2018; Ortquist-Ahrens & Torosyan, 2009; van der Want & Meirink, 2020; Zhang et al., 2011). This article will broadly explore the ways that facilitator goals and strategies can change over time and possible change mechanisms. The findings will help fill a gap in the literature, as research has yet to explore how faculty facilitators’ views and practice of their role changes over time. The findings also provide insights into how faculty facilitator growth can be supported.

Student-focused, active learning, or other RBIS have demonstrated efficacy in improving student learning outcomes, including in undergraduate STEM (Freeman, 2014; Paolini, 2015). However, university faculty who utilize these strategies report a variety of challenges, requiring support to foster continued use of them (Henderson et al., 2007; Henderson et al., 2012). One of the recommendations to assist faculty in implementing RBIS is to provide on-going, people-based support (Henderson et al., 2015), such as FLCs and FOLCs (Corrales et al., 2020; Price et al., 2021). In these communities, faculty can share strategies, materials, and help adapt pedagogical strategies and curricula to each other’s unique teaching contexts and needs (Elliot et al., 2016). Evidence indicates that these groups help faculty to persist in using RBIS (Corrales et al., 2020; Price et al., 2021; Rundquist et al., 2015). However, to attain these benefits, community meetings require structure to encourage and promote productive faculty conversations. To do so, FLCs and FOLCs are typically designed with one or two faculty facilitators (Cox, 2004; Dancy et al., 2019), whose actions can be crucial to faculty’s opportunities to learn from these kinds of meetings (Andrews-Larson et al., 2017).


In many kinds of professional development, facilitators are important to teacher learning; even in highly structured meetings, the absence of an experienced facilitator can lead to weaker learning outcomes (Allen & Blythe, 2018). Facilitators must take on multiple roles, drawing on their subject-specific classroom teaching expertise while also utilizing strategies to promote the professional learning of others (Perry & Boylan, 2018). The facilitator sets the tone of the conversation and helps structure how the participants interact; thus, the methods of experienced facilitators can lead to greater professional growth within peer groups (Allen & Blythe, 2018; Ortquist-Ahrens & Torosyan, 2009). In typical FLCs and FOLCs, facilitators are tasked with the role of encouraging faculty participants to share their own ideas and experiences, as well as helping address the concerns of members, whether by sharing their own experiences or drawing on other participants (Cox, 2004; Dancy et al., 2019). The facilitator helps enable conversation that is productive for the goals of the meeting and for the needs of the participants (Ortquist-Ahrens & Torosyan, 2009). While there has been research on facilitation in K-12 teacher workgroup meetings (e.g., Allen & Blythe, 2018; Andrews-Larson et al., 2017; Schwarts, 2020; Zhang et al., 2011) and university faculty facilitating student activities (Brody & Hadar, 2016; Brown et al., 2018; Hmelo-Silver & Barrows, 2006, 2008), there exists little descriptive research on facilitators in higher education FLCs and FOLCs (Ortquist-Ahrens & Torosyan, 2009), despite the importance of facilitators these settings.

This article focuses on facilitator change, which may occur due to the evolving needs of the community or development in the facilitator. Faculty implementing an RBIS will have different needs as they gain more experience. The Concerns-Based Adoption Model (CBAM) describes the needs of educators at various stages of adopting a new teaching strategy, suggesting that educators’ needs change over time (Anderson, 1997). Educators may initially focus on basic concerns, such as learning what the strategy is and how it works, and then gradually shift their attention to more complex concerns, such as if the strategy is working effectively or could be modified or expanded. Thus, in learning communities centered around RBIS, faculty will likely initially have more concerns that are logistical and practical, but are likely to change over time and become more pedagogical. Indeed, this kind of change towards more reflective thinking around issues of teaching and learning has been observed in studies of teacher change (e.g., Jiang et al., 2021) and more specifically within FOLCs (e.g., Corrales et al., 2020; Dancy et al., 2019). This shift suggests that facilitators may need to adjust their practice according to changing needs. Petrone and Ortquist-Ahrens (2004) suggest that it is necessary for facilitation practice to change, suggesting that FLC facilitators should seek to minimize their own leadership role over time to allow group members to take on more agency.

University faculty facilitating FLCs or FOLCs may also change over time as they gain experience with facilitation. Typically, university faculty members are recruited as facilitators without significant prior experience or training as peer facilitators (e.g., Dancy et al., 2019). An earlier study by Sandell et al. (2004) found that 40% of university facilitators are not given training for the role and the 60% provided with preparation are typically only given readings or one-time workshops. Although faculty may be content and/or curriculum experts, they are not formally prepared to be facilitators of peer learning communities. This is not to say that faculty have no expertise to draw from to fulfill their role; they may have previous experiences facilitating classroom discussions, faculty meetings, committee responsibilities, or other professional activities (Ortquist-Ahrens & Torosyan, 2009; Sandell et al., 2004). Also, in some long-term FLCs or FOLCs, faculty who start out as members of the community may be asked to take on a facilitator role in ensuing semesters. In that case, they can draw on observations of previous facilitator(s) as a resource for their own facilitation (Dancy et. al. 2019). However, facilitators in FLCs and FOLCs are charged with aiding others in developing professional knowledge, which may require skills outside of those learned or observed in other settings.

Of the handful of studies on STEM FLCs and FOLCs at the university level (e.g., Corrales et al., 2020; Dancy et al., 2019; Elliot et al., 2016; Price et al., 2021; Tinnell et al., 2019), only one brief paper focuses on facilitation (Lau et al., 2018). We are not aware of any literature examining how faculty members approach their facilitation role, nor how and why they change their practice over time as the needs of the learning community change. Yet, because of the importance of FLCs and FOLCs to support faculty learning, both facilitators and organizers of learning communities could potentially learn from a detailed study to guide their planning.

This article presents a case study of a faculty member who takes on the role of facilitator in a multi-year FOLC. Our research goals are to describe how a facilitator’s goals and strategies changed over two years in this role, and to point to the specific factors that seemed to contribute to those changes. We aim to inform both the research and professional development communities about how FLC/FOLC facilitators might be expected to change and how these changes might be supported. In the next section, we focus on the conceptual framework that guides our description and explanation of facilitator change, an adaptation of the Interconnected Model of Professional Growth (IMPG; Clarke & Hollingsworth, 2002). We also describe the context of our study and our case study facilitator. The methods section details the emergent change themes about how his goals and strategies shifted over time, and the data sources and analytical methods we used to support those themes. We then describe the results of our analyses and how the results can be represented using the IMPG. Finally, we discuss how our study provides insights into the preparation and evolution of university faculty as FLC or FOLC facilitators.

Conceptual framework

Our focus in this study is on facilitator change. Even with related prior experiences, such as teaching, most facilitators have limited specific preparation for the role. Thus, we expect that many facilitators grow and change as they gain experience. By understanding facilitators’ growth processes, we seek lessons for improving their preparation and support. To describe and better understand the mechanisms of change in professional practice, Clarke and Hollingsworth (2002) developed the Interconnected Model of Professional Growth (IMPG). The model has typically been applied to teacher change, but has been successfully adapted to describe and understand facilitator change (e.g., Perry & Boylan, 2014, 2018). Like Perry and Boylan (2018), we adapt the Interconnected Model of Professional Growth (IMPG) to study facilitator change.

The IMPG builds on prior linear models (e.g., Clarke & Peter, 1993; Guskey, 1986) to account for more complex mechanisms of growth by incorporating multiple domains of influence and different ways change can occur (Clarke & Hollingsworth, 2002). The model conceptualizes teachers’ professional growth as a type of learning, drawing on empirical data of teacher change and on learning theories, including the Community of Practice framework (Wenger, 1998). This framework considers individuals’ learning within a social group, such as a community of teachers; practitioners evolve through their own practice as well as by their interactions with others. Thus, to account for these multiple influences on learning, the IMPG looks at change in terms of four domains of teacher experience—external, practice, consequence, and personal—which collectively comprise the change environment.

In our adapted IMPG, the domain of practice encompasses actions facilitators take to perform their role, including changes in strategies they implement during meetings (Perry & Boylan, 2018). The domain of consequence includes salient outcomes, such as their observations and inferences about what happened during meetings. The personal domain captures their knowledge and beliefs about facilitation, including changes in their goals for their facilitation efforts (Perry & Boylan, 2018). Like Perry and Boylan (2018), we reconceptualized the external domain as the “social” domain to account for the influence of facilitators’ colleagues and peers. We further include influences from co-facilitators or project staff, and teaching experiences, which all originate outside FOLC group meetings. It is important to note that these domains represent distinct types of changes, and that change within one domain can influence change in a separate domain.

To describe the mechanisms of professional learning, the four domains can be connected by the mediating processes of enactment and reflection. Enactment is when a teacher or facilitator implements a new practice informed by changes in one of the other three domains; this is different from acting on an existing belief or idea, as the latter is represented by a change in the domain of practice (Clarke & Hollingsworth, 2002). The mediating process of reflection is when thinking about changes in one domain leads to change in another domain. For example, an IMPG diagram with a dashed reflection arrow pointing from the domain of consequence to the personal domain means that reflecting on the change in outcome lead to a change in knowledge, beliefs, or attitude. A solid enactment arrow pointing from the personal domain to the domain of practice means that actual changes in knowledge, beliefs, or attitudes caused (enacted) a change in practice.

The base diagram (Fig. 1) represents the possibilities for change pathways; IMPG diagrams are created for individuals and may or may not include all domains or connection arrows; the diagram may be simple, with few domains and arrows, or more complex based on the intricacy of the mechanism of change. The connections between domains may occur in a particular order and can be represented with numbered arrows that illustrate an individual’s change sequence. A change sequence is a connection between at least two domains, where information about the domains and the mediating connection arrows is based on empirical data. A change sequence can lead to professional growth if it produces long-lasting effects.

Fig. 1
figure 1

The adapted Interconnected Model of Professional Growth. IMPG figure adapted from Clarke and Hollingsworth (2002), Perry and Boylan (2018)

The current study

Using the adapted IMPG, we account for facilitator change by considering changes within the four domains and the reflection and enactment connections between them. Using the model as our guide, we aim to address the following two research questions:

RQ1: How do a FOLC facilitator’s goals and strategies change over multiple semesters in the FOLC?

RQ2: What factors seem to influence the changes in the facilitator goals and strategies?

We intend to answer these questions by constructing an IMPG diagram for our case study facilitator. Changes described in the personal domain and domain of practice of the IMPG will directly address our first research question involving changes in facilitator’s goals and strategies. After creating an IMPG model of a facilitator’s change over time, entries in the external/social domain and changes in the domain of consequence, plus our interpretation of the enactment and reflection arrows connecting all the domains, will together address our second research question on the mechanisms of change. Answering these research questions can provide insights into how a particular FOLC facilitator adapted to changing needs of their community, as well as helping to understand the process of facilitation and the experiences that enabled facilitator change.

Study context

Next Gen PET faculty online learning community

The context of this study is the Next Gen PET faculty online learning community (NGPET FOLC; Price et al., 2021) consists of approximately 50 faculty who use the Next-Generation Physical Science and Everyday Thinking curriculum (NGPET) (Goldberg, 2015) to teach physics or physical science to future elementary teachers or general education students. The NGPET curriculum is a student-focused, hands-on, guided inquiry curriculum, and its implementation can challenge faculty who are only experienced teaching science in a traditional lecture format (Goldberg et. al., 2010; Price et al., 2021). The NGPET FOLC was established in 2017, to help support faculty implementing the NGPET curriculum and to promote reflective practice and professional growth (Price et al., 2021), and has continued through 2021 (and beyond). Figure 2 lists the major activities during the first 4 years of the NGPET FOLC.

Fig. 2
figure 2

Timeline of NGPET FOLC group member and facilitator activities. Note. The events in blue represent the successive years of the FOLC group meetings. The events in black represent facilitator and FOLC member activities (those in grey represent activities where the case facilitator was not present)

The community is divided into separate FOLC groups of 8–12 faculty, each led by 2–3 faculty facilitators who guided discussions and provided curriculum expertise. A fifth FOLC group was added in the fall of 2018, consisting of faculty new to the community, with one existing community member “promoted” to a facilitator role to help guide the new FOLC group alongside one original facilitator. The FOLC groups met bi-weekly online via Zoom video conferencing each semester to discuss issues related to pedagogy and the NGPET curriculum implementation. The membership of the groups changed each semester based on faculty availability. All meetings were recorded for potential analysis by project staff. During the summer of 2018, project staff interviewed the facilitators and selected FOLC group members to probe their experiences during the first year of the project.

NGPET FOLC facilitators

The FOLC group facilitators were initially chosen for their facilitation role because they had extensive experience teaching either NGPET or one of its predecessors. Prior to their involvement in the NGPET FOLC, the facilitators had no prior experience facilitating FOLCs, although they did have experience facilitating student discussions in the NGPET classroom, and some had experience facilitating faculty meetings at their institutions. It was reasonable to expect that some of those skills could serve as productive resources for facilitating faculty discussions in the FOLC (Borko et al., 2014; Ortquist-Ahrens & Torosyan, 2009; Tekkhumru-Kisa & Stein, 2017). As facilitators of FOLC meetings, they were tasked with multiple roles: helping members to overcome challenges by relating their own experiences and helping to manage and promote group discussion to encourage sensemaking around problems of practice (Ortquist-Ahrens & Torosyan, 2009). The facilitators were provided with a brief introduction to facilitation at the very beginning of the project (described below), but primarily honed their facilitation skills over time as they both led FOLC group meetings and met periodically with the other facilitators and project staff to discuss facilitation issues.

The project team conducted some explicit professional development activities to help the facilitators become more successful. Figure 2 lists these professional development activities. In spring of 2017, the facilitators met for a 2-day workshop to introduce them to the NGPET curriculum and to review some of the research on supporting instructional change (Henderson et al., 2010, 2012). They reviewed some known barriers to the use of RBIS and were provided with strategies for developing a community that engages in productive discussions about pedagogy. The facilitators then met monthly with project staff via Zoom video conference to discuss NGPET implementation obstacles, discuss facilitation responsibilities, and share facilitation challenges and other issues that arose in their FOLC group meetings. During the 2018–2019 academic year, the facilitators met just once with project staff to discuss facilitation issues.

In fall 2019, the project team made a concerted effort to provide PD for the facilitators. The project team sent a brief paper on facilitation suggestions, based in part on work being done by others in our research group, and transcripts of two conversations involving a facilitator and group members from a similar FOLC (Dancy et al., 2019; Lau et al., 2021; see Additional file 1). At the fall 2019 meeting, the suggestions were discussed, including guidance by project staff with a particular focus on the idea of turning towards a problem of practice (Horn & Little, 2010). During one meeting, based on previous research on video-based professional development (e.g., Borko et al., 2011, 2014; Tekkumru-Kisa & Stein, 2017), the facilitators were shown video clips of the transcripts they had read, were asked what they noticed the facilitator doing, and if they would have done anything differently. This led to substantive discussions with facilitators reflecting on their own facilitation experiences the previous year and thinking about strategies they would try to implement going forward. At the end of fall 2019, the facilitators met for a second time, when they were prompted to share specific examples where facilitation went well, or they felt like they were able to put the suggestions into practice. This generated another substantial conversation where several examples were discussed. The PD and facilitator discussions lead to the development of facilitator interviews and reflections prompts that are discussed in the following section.

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