Conversations at the AAC&U Annual Conference

Instructional Quality and Data-Informed Decision Making

Academic conferences serve so many purposes. The organizer hopes to drive a new agenda for its community. Attendees network and learn from each other. And as a company, we too, gain so much from the conversations – hearing firsthand what is on the minds of the institutions we serve.

Last week’s AAC&U Annual Conference was terrific. Members of our team attended sessions throughout the conference. We had a great time introducing the work of Faculty Guild to so many higher education leaders who represent liberal arts institutions across the country. The feedback on our reimagined approach to faculty development was inspiring.   

One afternoon, I walked around the conference asking nearly a dozen attendees two questions:

  • On a scale of 1-10, how important is improving instructional quality to your institution, and can you give some examples of how you are accomplishing that?

  • On a scale of 1-10, how important is improving data-informed decision making to your institution, and can you give some examples of how you are accomplishing that?

While admittedly non-scientific, here are some things I heard in response.

How Important?

  • Most people believe improving teaching is very important to their institution (scoring an 8 to 10). The institutions with high student persistence and graduation statistics acknowledged that they were operating from a place of existing strength.

  • Most people believe that improving data-informed decision making is as important or more important (scoring a 9 to 10).

  • Some research universities stated that research was clearly the most important institutional priority and that therefore teaching was less important (scoring a 4 to 6), but this was not universal. Some research universities stated it’s a high priority.

  • I was impressed that faculty, chairs/deans, student support and executive leadership generally provided similar responses, showing that these institutions are programming the culture properly.


  • Most people stated they have a teaching center (called a variety of things) whose mission is to improve instructional quality.

  • There were some institutions, however, that do not have a center or are creating one that was previously shutdown.

  • A few stated they are starting to assess the professional development work around teaching, but no one could relay measures of their success, either data about changing classroom behavior or improving student outcomes.

  • A number of institutions were engaged in curriculum reform from connecting classes to program level outcomes, some to college level outcomes and some to implement Guided Pathways.

Innovations and Trends

Faculty motivation came up as a consistent concern when thinking about new ways to engage faculty in their own development. That said, there were some bright spots that may serve as inspiration to others:

  • Three people indicated they show faculty data about student performance, not just in their class, but longitudinally. A community college in the South has an annual “Data Summit.” One small private college shares data with faculty around high DFW classes.

  • One institution that expressed financial concerns still provides release time to faculty around concerted efforts to improve instruction. Across the country I hear of many colleges with track records in improvement making investment through release time.

  • One spoke about how their collective bargaining agreement enables their part-time faculty to more fully benefit from professional development.

  • A research university said they just moved to faculty having peer observation and feedback on their teaching annually as part of their evaluation system! In our experience, few use this helpful practice and it’s typically every few years per faculty member.

All in all, people at the AAC&U conference know that better teaching leads to better student outcomes. From our conversations, including our fun survey, they aren’t all clear on how to get faculty to adopt these practices or measure that they are working. Teaching centers are a key part of the solution, but models of success with strong metrics aren’t well known or clearly communicated across campus. Luckily, Faculty Guild has some experience in this. If you are interested in learning more, contact us today.