How to select professional development that works 

As a language teacher or school administrator, you are used to hearing that professional development (PD) is critical for improving student outcomes and is a worthwhile investment in any educator’s career. And of course, you sign up (and encourage your colleagues to sign up as well) for any remotely interesting workshop and spend valuable PD time attending it, just to find you have learned a lot of interesting things that are not very useful or applicable to your teaching. You may think to yourself: What am I doing wrong? And you are not alone.

Educational researchers have been working on figuring out the main factors that contribute to effective PD for some time now. While the complete recipe for effective PD’s secret sauce is still in the works, some of the primary ingredients have been identified and field-tested.

Considerable duration.

Consistent evidence has emerged from a number of studies that one half-day workshop without any follow-up is as effective as no PD at all. For example, Beatrice Birman (2000) and colleagues from the American Institutes for Research (AIR) found that the most effective PD is characterized by longer duration, preferably spread out over a full year or a semester. The best-recommended structure for extended PD is a high-quality workshop (more about what contributes to the quality aspect of PD in #2) followed by in-class observations, modeling, and expert coaching with support from the district coordinator or another PD expert. Birman also notes that even if the initial PD session does not meet all of the criteria for a high-quality intervention, the extended structure of the intervention through follow-up and self-reflection later in the academic year helps support the effectiveness of the PD.

Active learning.

Do teachers have an opportunity to develop instructional materials? Do they receive meaningful feedback on their own preparation and teaching? Experiential learning is just as important for teachers as it is for students. Teachers who engage in active learning consistently demonstrate increased knowledge and skills. Linda Darling-Hammond (2017) and researchers at the Learning Policy Institute identify active learning as a PD model that engages teachers directly in the practices they are learning and in connection to teachers’ classrooms and students, as opposed to traditional learning models that are “generic and lecture-based.” Opportunities for active learning may be available to teachers as a component of a structured PD program, or as part of their daily experience when teachers share their expertise with their peers, actively process feedback from a trainer, or independently apply knowledge to their lesson plans. Regardless of the format, when teachers reflect on their practice and seek feedback, they increase their chances of achieving professional growth and improving student outcomes.

Focus on subject matter.

Many PD workshops pride themselves on offering teachers a better understanding of the learning process or general principles of effective teaching. However, these types of PD interventions show little impact on teaching practices. As Thomas Guskey and Kwang Suk Yoon (2009) suggest after analyzing findings from over 1,300 studies about the effect of PD on student learning outcomes, so-called educational “best practices” are a myth. They write: “The most effective professional development comes not from the implementation of a particular set of ‘best practices,’ but from the careful adaptation of varied practices to specific content, process, and context elements.” Focus on specific educational content—for example, science, math, or language—in light of high-impact practices is the key to providing teachers with concrete practical tools that they can bring to the classroom and apply in their teaching.

Outside expert.

Who conducts a training is as important as its focus. The effectiveness of a PD intervention is significantly higher if it is led by an outside expert rather than an in-house PD professional. Research suggests that since in-house PD is typically led by experts who are also district supervisors, teachers are more withdrawn and disengaged from training (Sandholtz 2002). The reason is that the teachers perceive the trainers as persons of authority, who are tasked with conducting their evaluations and making decisions affecting their career. Teachers are reluctant to reveal their weaknesses and afraid of being judged by their supervisors, and therefore, they do not fully benefit from in-house PD. With an outside expert, this is a nonissue, and teachers are more open to seeking support in the areas where they may need help the most.

Collective participation.

It is not always good to march to the beat of your own drum, especially when it comes to PD. Even if you are a trailblazing educator, it is hard to do it alone. Being involved in PD with other teachers with similar institutional constraints and teaching approaches allows teachers to internalize the training content as it applies specifically to their teaching situation (Yoon et al. 2007). In addition, motivated teachers can have a positive influence on those who are less confident in their practice through collective engagement in training (Turner et al. 2017). This is one situation where peer pressure is not only allowed but also encouraged!

Alignment with district policies.

Not all PD recommendations can be integrated into a program of teacher learning. The content of PD should be consistent with national, state, district, and school-level reforms and policies; otherwise the training, naturally, will have no impact on teaching practice (Desimone 2009). If the district does not require teachers to create lesson plans, for example, then any PD related to the improvement of lesson plans or their structure will not be effective for the sole reason that lesson plans are not an integral part of the teaching process. It is a good idea to participate in PD endorsed by your district to make sure that it is well-aligned with the policies and expectations for teacher performance at the district level (Whitworth and Chiu 2015).

As a popular expression goes, knowledge is power, and now you have it. Before you commit yourself to a PD opportunity, make sure that it meets all or most of the criteria identified above to assure your success and satisfaction with your PD experience.


Birman, Beatrice F., Laura Desimone, Andrew C. Porter, and Michael S. Garet. 2000. “Designing Professional Development That Works.” Educational Leadership 57, no. 8: 28–33. 

Darling-Hammond, Linda, Maria E. Hyler, and Madelyn Gardner. 2017. Effective Teacher Professional Development. Palo Alto, CA: Learning Policy Institute. 

Desimone, Laura M. 2009. “Improving Impact Studies of Teachers’ Professional Development: Toward Better Conceptualizations and Measures.” Educational Researcher 38, no. 3: 181–99. 

Guskey, Thomas R., and Kwang Suk Yoon. 2009. “What Works in Professional Development?” Phi Delta Kappan 90, no. 7: 495–500. 

Sandholtz, Judith Haymore. 2002. “Inservice Training or Professional Development: Contrasting Opportunities in a School/University Partnership.” Teaching and Teacher Education 18, no. 7: 815–30. 

Turner, Julianne C., Andrea Christensen, Hayal Z. Kackar-Cam, Sara M. Fulmer, and Meg Trucano. 2017. “The Development of Professional Learning Communities and Their Teacher Leaders: An Activity Systems Analysis.” Journal of the Learning Sciences 27, no. 1: 49–88. 

Whitworth, Brooke A., and Jennifer L. Chiu. 2015. “Professional Development and Teacher Change: The Missing Leadership Link.” Journal of Science Teacher Education 26, no. 2: 121–37. 

 Yoon, Kwang Suk, Teresa Duncan, Silvia Wen-Yu Lee, Beth Scarloss, and Kathy L. Shapley. 2007. Reviewing the Evidence on How Teacher Professional Development Affects Student Achievement. Washington, DC: US Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Regional Educational Laboratory Southwest.