How to Assess Professional Learning Communities

In the beginning of our tenure as directors of the Teaching & Learning Center, we were happy just to find facilitators for our professional learning communities (PLCs) and happier still when faculty and administrators signed up for them. Then reality set in. Most PLCs would finish with approximately half of those who originally signed up, and our cost (food, books, travel) didn’t seem entirely justified by what we were getting out of them.

That’s when we asked the question: what ARE we getting out of our PLCs? Numerically, we discovered that if we sponsored three PLCs per semester, every academic year we reached approximately 10% of our faculty (our programming reached 10% also, but some of those were also PLC participants).

Phase 1: Developing Products

In the beginning—Phase I–we had some really effective PLC products. Our creativity PLC, for instance, presented a plenary session at the annual state-sponsored conference on teaching and learning. That same PLC also spun off a minor in Applied Creative Thinking as well as a series of books for New Forums (e.g., Introduction to Applied Creative Thinking). The PLC we ran of Senate Bill 1 and seamless transitioning Common Core-raised students into higher education produced a highly effective piece of intellectual property, the embedded PLC. And the last two years we have run a PLC on metacognition that is helping us create a book for New Forums, It Works For Me, Metacognitively, as well as a repository for informative and instructional videos we call the Faculty Innovation Network (FIN).

Phase II: Administering Surveys

But what was the effect of the PLC on the individual participants? For Phase II we decided to create and administer a survey of participants, the Enhanced Professional Learning Community Evaluation Form. We created a five-point Likert Scale (ranging from “Strongly Agree” to “Strongly Disagree”) and asked each participant to rate seven statements:

  1. I learned much from the scholarly component of my community.
  2. I have a greater appreciation of the Scholarship of Teaching & Learning (SOTL) and am more willing to try it on my own.
  3. I developed a real sense of community with my colleagues.
  4. I have a greater sense of what my colleagues are trying to accomplish in their courses.
  5. I will be able to use some things from this community in setting up my course goals and objectives, teaching strategies, and course assessment methods.
  6. This community was well-facilitated.
  7. I find myself more willing to try to create a student learning community within a course I teach.

In addition, we asked participants what they found most helpful and to suggest what could be improved/revised.

Phase III: Reevaluation

As our PLCs evolved, so too did our assessment of them. Now, as we enter Phase III, we find ourselves once again revising our evaluation form. Our main reason is that we want to reduce the form to its most fundamental and powerful concepts, and in so doing we have decided to focus on what we consider the main impact of the PLC, learning and application. So far, we have three basic questions:

  1. What do you consider the most important thing you learned from the PLC?
  2. How did you apply that insight to your teaching?
  3. Have you seen a positive change in student learning based on that application?

Sure, the earlier questions about facilitation and sense of community are important, but less so.

The major thing we have learned from our experience with PLCs is that faculty are very busy. At a teaching-centered institution of higher learning that has a 4-4 load as average, faculty, especially the non-tenured ones who must demonstrate proficiency in teaching, scholarship, and service, want simpler, less time-consuming professional development, even when they are fascinated by the PLC. And since we try to obtain a 100% response rate to our PLC evaluations, the shorter we can make them, the more likely faculty are to respond. More importantly, as the assessment movement gains greater and greater traction, the most important thing on which we can focus is still student learning. No matter what we do in a PLC, if it doesn’t contribute to enhanced student learning, then we have not been effective.

After all, our unit’s motto is “Helping teachers help students learn deeply.”

Achieving Excellence in Teaching book


Russell CarpenterDr. Russell Carpenter is director of the Noel Studio for Academic Creativity and Program Director of the Minor in Applied Creative Thinking at Eastern Kentucky University. He is also Assistant Professor of English. Dr. Carpenter has published on the topic of creative thinking, among other areas, including two texts by New Forums Press. In addition, he has taught courses in creative thinking in EKU’s Minor in Applied Creative Thinking, which was featured in the New York Times in February 2014. Meet Russell.