How does professional development influence math instructors’ teaching practices?

Sandra Laursen, Ph.D.
Senior Researcher and Director, Ethnography & Evaluation Research (E&ER), Center to Advance Research and Teaching in the Social Sciences (CARTSS)
University of Colorado Boulder

Experts have identified professional development as an effective way to increase instructor use of research-based instructional strategies in undergraduate STEM teaching. However, a limited number of studies have demonstrated connections between PD and teaching behavior. This work examined the connection between inquiry-based learning (IBL) PD and teaching behaviors.
Twenty-two four-day intensive workshops, held in summer from 2010-2020, served approximately 700 participants. These workshops sought to increase participants’ capacity (attitudes, knowledge, and skill) to use IBL teaching methods and help them implement these approaches in their own classrooms. The final, four-stranded workshop model incorporated video lesson study, educational research, IBL facilitation skills, and personal work time. Collectively these strands responded to instructor needs, provided engaging, personalized learning opportunities, and supported instructors to implement IBL in diverse teaching settings.

Guiding Question
The study investigated the linkage between PD participation and instructor teaching practices and answered the following research questions (RQ):
1. To what degree does mathematics instructors’ IBL capacity (attitudes, knowledge, and skill) change after professional development?
2. How do teaching practices change 18 months after professional development (IBL intensity)?
3. What is the relationship between teaching practice, professional development, and other factors, including individual, institutional, and teaching contexts?

Survey data from n = 361 respondents was used to conduct t-tests to answer RQ1 & RQ2 and a structural equation model based on the theory of planned behavior was used to answer RQ3. The findings show strong linkages between professional development and use of IBL teaching practices. Participants’ IBL attitudes strengthened positively, their IBL knowledge and skills increased, and their teaching became more IBL-intensive and less instructor-focused after participating in PD.
IBL knowledge and skill had the strongest effect on IBL teaching frequency. Using the theory of planned behavior as a theoretical and analytical framework, we found positive attitudes about IBL teaching, IBL knowledge and skill, and prior IBL experience were positively related to instructors’ intentions to use IBL teaching methods. IBL skills and knowledge also enabled instructors to actually implement IBL. Coordinated courses and small class sizes also aid initial implementation.

Broader Impacts
The study is important in showing that well-designed PD does support implementation and in explaining how this happens using an established psychological model. It also suggests actions for departments, professional societies, funders and institutions interested in increasing uptake of RBIS. Investments should focus on intensive PD models to strengthen instructors’ attitudes about the effectiveness of RBIS and to support development of the knowledge and skill that enable them to effectively use RBIS. Course coordinators or groups of instructors are important targets to encourage uptake of IBL and other RBIS in multiple sections of a given course. Institutions can emphasize support for initial implementation in small class sizes or via team efforts, strategies that may enable instructors to develop skills in more forgiving circumstances before adapting their practices to different teaching contexts.


Stan Yoshinobu, U. Toronto, Toronto ON, Canada; Tim Archie & Chuck Hayward, U. Colorado Boulder, Boulder, CO