Penn State uses hard data to see if faculty professional development in student engagement actually makes a difference.

faculty-student-engagementHow can institutions know whether or not professional development (PD) programs for faculty are effective? And does student engagement increase when faculty complete PD courses aimed at promoting student engagement in the online learning environment? According to one large university, PD in student engagement makes a significant difference…when applied in practice.

Recently, Penn State’s Online Campus set out to help answer the questions above as part of a pilot study within a large online Bachelor of Science in Business program in the spring and summer semesters of 2014 that included 2,296 students.

The pilot study aimed to measure, through student responses to qualitative, open-ended questions, whether or not faculty who had PD on student engagement made a difference in the level and quantity of student engagement post-PD.

The study addresses these questions in an “effort to think about ways to measure whether and to what extent faculty are applying the material taught in two [PD] courses offered by the Faculty Development Unit at the Penn State World Campus,” notes the report. “The mission of this unit is to support faculty in best teaching practices in order to positively impact student success.”

Though the report’s authors emphasize that the survey response was low (only 159 student scores could be used to answer the research questions)—and hope to increase the response rate in the future—the survey still revealed that 75 percent of respondents who reported that their courses had engaged them were taking courses taught by instructors who had taken one or more of the PD courses offered by the University.

However, 25 percent of the students who had instructors with PD were not engaged in their courses. The majority of student respondents who felt this way cited lack of engagement related to lack of instructor participation and feedback on assignments and/or discussion posts.

Yet, the students with instructors who had not taken either of the PD courses and who reported being disengaged in their courses attributed their lack of engagement to reasons similar to those given by students who were disengaged in courses where the instructor had taken one or more of the PD courses.

Aligning PD to students’ feelings of engagement

Beyond simply asking students whether or not they felt engaged, Penn State Online also asked students to describe the specific actions or course designs used by their instructors that made them feel more engaged with the course.

(Next page: Student engagement broken down)

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