How One Institution Makes Faculty Development Exciting While Keeping Costs Down

Image of an astronaut


With minimal budget for faculty development, McKendree University has taken a unique approach to:

  • Making faculty development more engaging and fun for faculty
  • Taking a just-in-time approach to faculty development
  • More effective timing for delivering faculty development

Here is the story of what McKendree University has tried and what is working.

At McKendree University, the idea to attach a theme to a week of faculty development activities was initially a bit of a fluke according to Tami Eggleston, associate dean for institutional effectiveness and professor of psychology. She was preparing for a series of professional development workshops offered in conjunction with provost Christine Bahr after classes ended in May, and they decided to decorate the conference room. She bought some beach balls and sand buckets as decorations, and faculty liked it enough that they specifically mentioned it in their post-workshop evaluations.

Since then, the university has raised the bar each year to keep faculty development engaging and fun while also addressing specific themes to improve teaching. We talked with Eggleston to learn more about how McKendree spices up their development activities on a small budget — and why she advocates for May as the perfect time to tackle faculty development.

Keeping Faculty Development Fun

After classes end in May, McKendree faculty are invited to participate in a couple of faculty development opportunities: the McKendree Faculty Retreat and the Teaching Boot Camp.

The week after graduation, faculty have the opportunity to attend traditional assessment workshops and then participate in the retreat, which is led by Bahr. “We talk about what we accomplished this year, what we feel good about, what things are on the horizon, what things we want to focus on next year,” Eggleston explains. The boot camp, held the following week, focuses attention on a specific topic, such as active learning strategies or teaching online.

McKendree’s Academic Retreat: Going to the Moon

The theme of this year’s retreat was “Going to the Moon,” and McKendree University used the theme to promote the idea of faculty as adventurers.

During the event, faculty have time to talk about accomplishments and goals in small groups, and at the end they get together to identify the most common themes across those groups. Two years ago, Eggleston notes, everyone wanted a better way to showcase research and scholarship on campus. Faculty and administrators tackled that issue over the next two years and established an event that fills that need.

Eggleston describes how the theme for the event transports faculty out of their daily work and into a unique place for brainstorming and reflecting together. The event’s theme is carried out with decorations, food, and more. Participants don’t know what the theme will be until they walk in the room. Previous themes have featured going to Italy or going to Mexico. This year’s moon theme featured silver plates, blow-up planets, and an astronaut cutout hung in the doorway so people could take pictures. The names of the conference rooms were changed to match the theme with names like the Challenger Room and Discovery Room.

McKendree Faculty Development

Lunch was hosted at the university-owned golf course, which offered themed food items like Saturn Onion Rings and Mercury Hot Wings. Back in the conference rooms, Eggleston had Tang available for breakfast and freeze-dried ice cream in the breakout rooms as a snack.

“You don’t want to miss some of these activities, not just for the content but for the fun factor,” Eggleston adds. “It’s a nice way to build community. One of the ways to try to build relationships is have activities that people come to, where they get to have lunch with people they don’t usually have lunch with. Good things happen when you get twenty people who don’t usually spend time together, together.”

McKendree Teaching Boot Camp

The boot camp is a three-day, 9 am – 3 pm workshop that focuses on a specific teaching issue. The first boot camp at McKendree targeted active learning strategies in first-year classes. Last year’s boot camp targeted active and engaging strategies for online learning, and this year’s boot camp focused on capstone courses, culminating experiences, and service learning.

While the boot camp is open to all full- and part-time faculty, McKendree limits the camp to 20 participants, as larger numbers can make it more difficult to have effective team activities. Faculty are required to submit an application, and Eggleston sends out celebratory acceptance letters before the event.

This year’s event followed this three-day schedule:

Day 1

  • Features the welcome, goals, and covers basic active learning strategies and resources.
  • Each faculty member brings a specific class they would like to work on, and faculty are challenged to think about their goals and how they would like to modify the class to make it better.
  • At the end of the day, participants take a survey to determine what needs they would like to see addressed (such as making videos or flipping the classroom).
  • After the faculty leave, Eggleston gets together with IT and other departments, reviewing the surveys to develop a schedule and breakout sessions for Day 2 based on the survey results.

Day 2

  • Features just-in-time teaching in response to the survey responses.
  • A large conference room is available for everyone to gather and work, and multiple breakout sessions are conducted in rooms just down the hall. Breakout sessions are arranged so that faculty stay as long as they need in order to learn about their topic and figure out what they want to apply to their class.
  • Some participants attend all the sessions; others only pick one or two and spend the rest of the time working on their course.

Day 3

  • Showcases a learning technology that the university wants to promote.
  • Last year, they focused on Blackboard features and video. Each participant received a small video camera and learned how to use it to make videos for their class.
  • This year, participants each received an HP Mini preloaded with Word, PowerPoint, and other software. The $79 tablets can be connected to the projection units across campus for only $40. They were affordable enough that Eggleston could purchase one for every participant and equip them with something they can use while walking around the classroom and interacting with students.
  • The rest of the day focuses on discussions of how to use the technology better in the classroom.

The 2015 boot campers had fun while learning strategies to use tablets to engage students inside and outside the classroom.

The tech gifts are a surprise — and part of Eggleston’s strategy. “How are we really going to get good at using them if we don’t have a group of people playing with them?” she asks.

On other campuses, a teaching office may offer a free iPad for faculty who fill out a grant application, but Eggleston notes that faculty who may not be as committed to integrating the tool in the classroom may still fill out an application just to get one. In contrast, at McKendree Eggleston is giving the tools to people who have already made a commitment to faculty development without knowing they were going to get a tech gift as part of it. “We feel like we’re getting the technology into the right hands,” she adds.

The biggest challenge of the boot camp? Being ready to respond to the Day 2 requests quickly. For example, this year faculty asked for alternatives to PowerPoint, so Eggleston and IT director George Kriss were working to familiarize themselves with Emaze and Prezi later that evening. “You kind of have to have people running the show who are willing to learn the night before,” she explains. “We’re not all experts on everything, but that’s ok.”

Fun Isn’t Budget-Dependent

McKendree is a small private institution without a big teaching center or large budget, but that hasn’t stopped Eggleston’s office from focusing on what the university can do to provide and promote professional development.

One of the keys to achieving this has been to focus on doing fewer things, but doing them well. The other approach — where there are many activities but fewer people showing up for each — doesn’t meet needs, Eggleston points out.

Besides the boot camp and academic retreat, McKendree offers teaching workshops in January and August. Eggleston also offers a faculty book study in the spring, and her office purchases the book on pedagogy for each participant. McKendree’s IT department sponsors “E-Fridays,” which are 40-minute sessions on topics like how to buy a computer, how to use a specific technology, highlights of a new technology, and pop-up sessions on how to use new features of recently-updated programs.

Focusing on where money is best spent is critical. Although the theme of the academic retreat is about going somewhere (whether to Mexico or to the moon), the retreat is always located on campus. “We have thought about going off-campus, but if you go off-campus just to rent a hotel or a conference center, you’re going to spend a couple thousand dollars pretty easily just to have a facility, and I don’t really know if that”s money well spent,” Eggleston explains.

In many cases, the advantage to going off-site is to remove faculty from the day-to-day, to invite them into an environment especially set aside for their own learning and development. What Eggleston has realized is that this same effect can be achieved by means of her themes — by bringing the new environment into campus space, rather than renting it off site.

Eggleston also advises:

  • Don’t be afraid to have fun. This approach doesn’t trivialize strategic planning or working on gen-ed revisions. “Those things are important. But I think it is important to show that part of it is to have fun and build community. Sometimes, as people in academia, we don’t ever want to have fun because we somehow think we’re not doing good work.”
  • Keep it voluntary. “Don’t force people to go to things, but try to make it worth their while so they’ll want to go to the things they find valuable.”
  • Involve other campus leaders. At McKendree, the provost leads the retreat and participates in the boot camp a week later. “Having the provost involved and participating also helps build community and people see that it is truly valued.”

Why Choose May?

Both the academic retreat and boot camp take place in late May during the two weeks after graduation. The reason McKendree chooses May instead of August is simple: it’s more effective.

“If you do it in May, then they can learn these new things and have all summer to let that percolate and incorporate into their classes. If you do everything in August -– and we still do plenty in August -– there’s no time to integrate that,” Eggleston explains. “We found that May, for us, works really well so people have a little more time to learn it, to use it, and really integrate it into their classes.”