Professional Development Practice – Teaching and Learning Circles

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Teaching and Learning Circles

With tender loving care (tlc) as a foundation for faculty development, our Teaching and Learning Circles (TLCs) bring faculty, staff and students together in an inquiry-oriented learning environment designed to explore the ways in which ePortfolio practices can support and enhance their teaching and learning goals.

In Teaching and Learning Circles (TLCs), small groups (6 to 12) of faculty and staff engage in a collaborative inquiry process in which they seek to understand the ways in which ePortfolio and portfolio thinking can help them meet their pedagogical or programmatic goals.   Throughout four, hour and a half sessions, members of the TLC engage in conversation about their unique and shared goals, they discuss readings about the technological and pedagogical capacities of ePortfolio, and they learn how to design an activity or function within ePortfolio that will help them meet one or more of the goals they have identified.

Author(s): Alison Carson, Jim Frank, Gillian Greenhill Hannum, Kate Todd and Sherie McClam


Part I: Overview and Setting
We began offering TLCs in the fall of 2010. We run two TLCs per semester and two over the summer. TLCs were designed to strike a balance between having enough sessions and enough time on task to really get involved and engaged in the learning process, and not creating a program so intimidating that no one would willingly sign up. The balance we agreed upon was a four-session, face-to-face format of 1 ½ hours each. The scheduling of those four sessions has changed over time and varies based on the time of year. The original design consisted of the sessions meeting every other week because we wanted to give participants more time to complete readings and assignments between sessions and to make space for all of their other time commitments.  This sequencing garnered mixed reviews between those who felt the total process took too long and those who appreciated the time in between sessions.

In the summer of 2012, we experimented with running one TLC on a one week schedule and one on a two week schedule.  Based on feedback that we received from summer participants and facilitators, combined with the reviews we’d received from the semester participants, we revised our fall 2012 semester TLCs.  Now we offer four sessions that meet every week for the first three sessions with the fourth session being held two weeks after the third.  In changing the schedule in this way, we hoped to shorten the overall timeframe in which the TLCs took place and provide ample time between the 3rd and 4th sessions for participants to work on developing their learning activities or programmatic functions with ePortfolio.

Participants in our TLCs are full-time and part-time faculty, adjuncts, staff and administrators representing a wide range of departments and divisions across our campus.  Each session is made up of 6 to 12 participants. In the original design, two ePortfolio Leadership Team members co-facilitated the TLCs.  All of the ePortfolio team members are faculty.  After several semesters of TLC offerings, we observed that TLC attrition rates were relatively high and implementation rates among TLC graduates were relatively low. In response to these trends, we experimented with changing the composition of the TLC facilitators in the fall of 2012.

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We included student eTerns who were very comfortable with the use of ePortfolio in a variety of contexts. In 2012/2013, eTerns assisted in planning for and implementing TLC sessions, and they provide follow-up implementation support for TLC graduates. We did not find any appreciable difference in the rates of implementation with the inclusion of eTerns, so their addition to the TLC facilitation team is now optional and based on their availability.

In the fall of 2012, in a move to include a broader range of faculty in planning for and facilitation of ePortfolio professional development on our campus, ePortfolio team members began facilitating TLCs with faculty who have graduated from a TLC and have shown leadership in their capacity for integrating portfolio thinking in pedagogical practices.  We have found that this practice is providing invaluable additional faculty development for these leaders and is helping us recruit new TLC participants from their departments. It is also helping us to groom potential new members of the overall ePortfolio leadership on our campus.

Part II: Practice Step-by-Step
As mentioned above, one to two TLCs are offered each semester.  They take place in our Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL)—a newly renovated space on the second floor of our Library.  The CTL is equipped with 25 laptops with wireless connectivity and the capacity to project on a large screen from any laptop.  The space is very comfortable with lots of light and flexible furniture arrangements. The TLC session outline below provides details for participant engagement along with links to web sites explored and readings assigned during the sessions.  Each TLC session heading below is linked to the PDF syllabus for that particular session.

TLC Session I 

TLC Session II

TLC Session III

TLC Session IV

Part III: The Role of Inquiry, Reflection and Integration
Driven by an inquiry-oriented design, we ask faculty and staff to participate in a needs assessment process in which they are first asked to identify their instructional/programmatic goals and outcomes.  With these goals and outcomes in place, participants are asked to reflect on the degree to which their current instructional and program practices are working to meet those goals.  Identifying gaps between where they want to be and where they are sets up an inquiry process in which they can ask genuine questions about the ways in which ePortfolio can be used as a pedagogical tool to help them bridge that gap or to transform ineffective strategies/practices.

Reflection is ever present in our TLC, from the very first session, in which we ask participants to come with written reflections on the questions listed below, to the last session, in which we ask them to reflect on the challenges and successes they experienced when designing ePortfolio activities or functions to meet their needs.

  1. How would you describe the ideal context for learning?  What kinds of experiences do you believe foster the greatest, most meaningful learning?
  2. What would you say was the single most important thing you want students to walk away with from their learning experiences with you?
  3. If asked to take a stand, what understandings, skills and habits of mind would you say are truly the most important for your students to acquire?
  4. In general, in higher education, how would you describe the current context for learning?  To what degree do you think this general context provides opportunities for students to achieve the goals and acquire the things you described in questions 2 and 3?

Integration is built into the design of our TLCs through the composition of participants and the nature of the work they do together.  As described above, we actively recruit faculty and staff from across the disciplinary and programmatic spectrum and ask them to collaboratively investigate the ways in which ePortfolios can meet their collective goals for teaching, learning, program development and professionalism.  In this way, TLCs are spaces where a sense of interdependence and shared responsibility can emerge, and ePortfolio can be seen as a thread that weaves together and illuminates a complex system that must work together if their web of interconnected goals and objectives are to be met.


To date, approximately 100 faculty, adjuncts, staff and administrators have participated in our TLCs. We estimate that at least 56 of those participants have integrated ePortfolio or portfolio thinking into their instructional or programmatic practices or have followed through with the goals of our TLCs in other ways. Participants have improved their pedagogies and practices in the following ways:

  1. First Year Seminar and Writing instructors are using ePortfolios to extend the learning space and for creating a community of learners willing to and capable of sharing….
  2. The head basketball coach is integrating ePortfolio and portfolio thinking into oppositional research and game preparation strategies with his team members.
  3. Faculty members in the Psychology department are integrating ePortfolio in two introductory level courses in ways that promote and support collaboration and assist students in exploring the psychology disciplinary identity.
  4. Faculty members from the Music Department have developed and implemented an ePortfolio-based Sophomore Review for music majors.
  5. The School of Education Educational Leadership team has integrated portfolio thinking and practices into their doctoral and teacher leader programs.
  6. School of Education administrators and staff use ePortfolio as communication spaces in which:
    1. Pre-service teacher candidates and student teaching field supervisors can find clear and concise information regarding the requirements and procedures for student teaching.
    2. Faculty can find critical information regarding accreditation and contribute to data collected for that purpose.
  7. School of Education Student Teaching Field Supervisors are transitioning from paper to electronic format requirements for their student teachers’ professional portfolios—recognizing the anachronistic nature of asking potential employers to read overstuffed three ring binders.
  8. Our Center for Career Development is interested in moving towards a model in which all graduating seniors have created professional ePortfolios for use in their job searches or graduate school applications.
Connections to other Sections of the Catalyst Site

This professional development practice is all about supporting integrative, reflective and social pedagogies.  As participants consider goals, objectives and outcomes that they hope to accomplish and develop within their students, we engage them with readings about and compelling examples of ePortfolio practices that incorporate reflective, integrative and social pedagogies. While they are asking themselves questions about improving their teaching practices and increasing student success with the use of ePortfolios, we are exposing them to readings about integrative and reflective learning, about the power of social pedagogies, and we are showing them examples ePortfolio-based pedagogies that have been developed on our campus and in the broader ePortfolio community.

We believe engaging participants in active and reflective inquiries about ways in which student learning might be improved in their courses at the same time as providing readings on and examples of ePortfolio pedagogies that successfully employ reflection, integration and social interaction has been our most effective means for promoting those pedagogies.  We have found that simply exposing participants to ePortfolio pedagogies without engaging them in a process of asking questions about how ePortfolio pedagogies might help them achieve their teaching and learning goals is very limited in its capacity for affecting pedagogical change or for motivating integrative, reflective and social pedagogies.

Scaling Up
We believe that the tender loving care (tlc) that faculty members receive during their participation in our Teaching and Learning Circles (TLCs) and the sense of community and collegiality that they experience have been significant factors in advancing the Scaling Up process on our campus.  The positive and supportive nature of their TLC experience generates tremendous good will, which leads participants to encourage other faculty and staff to join a TLC cohort.  Through their interactions with colleagues from different departments, faculty and staff generate a sense of connectedness that transcends the boundaries of the TLC.  They begin to collaborate on other initiatives that use ePortfolio, and they spread the word to other colleagues who might have otherwise given little thought to the ways in which ePortfolio can be use to meet their pedagogical or programmatic goals.

We also recruit TLC graduates to co-facilitate new TLCs.  This creates a cycle that promotes “ownership” in ePortfolio as a campus-wide initiative.  The ePortfolio expertise does not reside with a small number of leaders who conceive of themselves as “passing on” their knowledge to others.  TLC graduates who become TLC facilitators take their knowledge, their enthusiasm and their professional development capacities back to their departments, and they spread the word.  They help their colleagues think about ways in which ePortfolio might help them meet their goals for teaching and learning.

TLC has become a bit of a branded form of Professional Development on our campus.  People understand it as a longer form of active exploration and engagement with instructional technology.  We now offer ePortfolio TLCs for faculty wanting to build electronic tenure and promotion files as well as TLCs on the use of our learning management system (Blackboard).

Outcomes Assessment
To date, this Professional Development practice has not been focused on institutional outcomes assessment on our campus; rather, the emphasis has been on ePortfolios as tools for learning. That said, two TLC graduates from the Music department have developed and instituted a “Sophomore Review” ePortfolio to be used for assessing sophomores within the department, and the Department of Art History has begun to experiment with an ePortfolio assessing the extent to which its majors achieve the departmental learning objectives by the time they graduate.

We have been very pleased with our platform’s capacities for supporting if not enhancing this Professional Development practice.  One of the reasons why we selected Digication was its ease of use and its visual appeal.  These attributes have certainly helped entice faculty and staff to learn more about how ePortfolio might be used to motivate and engage our students—our 21st century learners.  And these attributes have enabled us to focus much more on exploring ePortfolio as an effective pedagogical practice than on learning how to use Digication as a technological tool.

Attachments and Supporting Documents

Part I
Discussion prompts for TLC session #1:

  1. How would you describe the ideal context for learning?  What kinds of experiences do you believe foster the greatest, most meaningful learning?
  2. What would you say was the single most important thing you want students to walk away with from their learning experiences with you?
  3. If asked to take a stand, what understandings, skills and habits of mind would you say are truly the most important for your students to acquire?
  4. To what degree do you think this general context of higher education provides opportunities for students to achieve the goals and acquire the things you described in questions 2 and 3?

Reading and images assigned for TLC sessions:

  1. The Blind Man and the Elephant for session 1
  2. Catalyst Without a Mandate for session 2
  3. Levels of Engagement for session 2
  4. Designing Learning Activities for session 3

Part II
Faculty and Staff ePortfolio examples:

  1. The TLC ePortfolio:
  2. Katie Cunningham:
  3. Katie’s student:

Teaching and Learning Circles (TLCs) bring faculty, staff and students together in an inquiry-oriented learning environment designed to explore the ways in which ePortfolio practices can support and enhance their teaching and learning goals. The strengths of this practice lie in the care and attention given to participants and the community of ePortfolio practitioners that is created.  Faculty and staff are given the time and a safe space for critically examining their teaching practices and the ways in which ePortfolio might help them enhance student engagement and learning.  They are given opportunities to collaborate with colleagues with whom they would otherwise have little engagement.  They learn from one another and they create a generative network of ePortfolio practitioners.  Faculty and staff can move from participants to facilitators.  In doing so, they become owners of and motivators for our campus-wide ePortfolio initiative.  We have learned or re-learned that professional development takes time, and it takes tender loving care.






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