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Faculty Brown Bag sessions: professional development, problem solving, collegiality.

On Wednesdays around lunchtime nearly every week during the school year, Evin Fox, an early childhood education professor, can be seen walking to one of the most meaningful meetings she will have all week on the main campus of the College of Southern Idaho. As a member of the college's Best Practices in Education Committee, she leads the midweek Best Practices Brown Bag lunch meeting. This informal group of faculty meets at various times of the week to discuss the "nebulous" idea of educational best practices. Typically, this meeting addresses a topic of interest to educators, but occasionally, it may be a demonstration or lecture by a special guest. Many current and former attendees of the Brown Bag sessions have said that the sessions have directly impacted the way they teach, how they feel about their jobs and how they interact with others on campus. The simple set of ideas behind these sessions could help other campuses see similar improvements in their campus culture.

Why Best Practices Sessions?

The Best Practices Brown Bag sessions were inspired by a common series of problems that faculty often share. Career and technical education (CTE) program faculty are typically not teachers by trade; they come to education as experts in their field, not expert educators. But even for faculty with knowledge or experience in formal education, most campuses have precious few resources for improving teaching skill. Teachers are also busy people, and so they have very little time to network with other faculty, which limits their options for improvement through networking. These limitations also affect faculty who are doing exceptional things in their classrooms, as most schools have scant opportunities to communicate those discoveries to other faculty.

The Brown Bag sessions grew organically from our new faculty training workshops--simple, but informative, two-day teaching workshops for new faculty--to provide an environment for workshop attendees to continue meeting and discussing how to improve their professional skills. Three years later, these Best Practices Brown Bag sessions have expanded far beyond their initial scope to include a wide variety of campus faculty and staff.


Most of the resources needed to start your own Brown Bag sessions can be found right on your campus. While the creation of our Brown Bag sessions was as serendipitous as it was consciously organized, the organization required remains fairly simple: Find a topic or set of topics, find a place to meet and find a group of faculty and staff interested in meeting. It's really that simple. For the most part, these things require only someone willing to act as the organizer.

The name of our Brown Bag sessions stemmed from the time of day chosen to have the meetings--at lunch time! Breakfast is also a popular time on campus. In addition to these times being available for most people, having these sessions over a meal adds an air of informality and ease, which is a welcome feature in the structure of these sessions.

Our meetings are loosely organized, with times chosen by polling attendees each semester. Since the requirements for a meeting are few, having more than one session a week is a good idea. Currently, the Best Practices Committee sponsors three Brown Bag sessions per week, and the current days and times will be reviewed at the beginning of next semester to make sure they are working for attendees.


The topic is the most significant driver of new attendance. In an informal poll, many of the respondents replied that they started attending because of the chosen topic; and some people only attend topics that interest them. Topics are usually selected by the organizer, with most topic suggestions coming from the attendees or other groups on campus. There are no specific rules about what topics are chosen, though faculty development remains our primary guideline. We've found this area to be a broad enough category to include discussion of on-campus resources, guest speakers on special topics or complex demonstrations of both new and old ideas.


Most of our sessions are discussions focused on a core theme, article or other source that is available for faculty to read or otherwise consider in advance. During the meeting, the organizer acts as a moderator, directing discussion around the topic and helping new attendees engage in the conversation. While the topic may be a popular attendance motivator for new attendees, it's the discussions that turn them into regulars. Attendees also made it clear that discussions that diverge from the topic are still useful as long as they center around learning and the classroom.

In one recent Brown Bag session, we discussed testing primarily for diagnostic purposes, not assessment. The organizer shared in advance a link to a brief interview with Stanford psychology professor Robert Bjork, who advocates testing to diagnose subject matter recall and improving study, and not solely for assessment. After reviewing the video, we used our session time to talk about situations where we practiced this method, as well as instances where this approach might be valuable to our courses.

Guest Speakers

Guest speakers are less common, but still popular, attendance drivers for the Brown Bag sessions, often giving us occasion to broaden our focus. Guest speakers are often non-teaching staff, who provide information about on-campus support resources many faculty are not aware of, such as the variety of tutoring services offered at the Learning Assistance Center, or the test anxiety and time management counseling services offered by our student counselors.


Of all the things we have done in our group, demonstrations have proven to be some of the most memorable events. These demonstrations are usually either how-to topics that illustrate best practices in a specific area (e.g., how to grade an essay, how to improve your online classes) or tutorials on useful tools, programs or other campus resources that many faculty have not used before (e.g., learning management system (LMS) usage, free electronic tools for the classroom).

At some point, most teachers will task students with writing assignments, and that's the reason that this semester's presentation about how to effectively grade essays has proven to be quite popular. Conducted by two of College of Southern Idaho's veteran English professors, attendees were shown two unique (and sometimes opposing) sets of best practices for grading essays. This particular topic inspired considerable debate among attendees, and was commonly cited as one of the most productive activities we have done so far.

Technology demonstrations have also been very popular. Because most faculty regularly use our LMS, Brown Bag sessions demonstrating useful ways to leverage our system to make classroom management easier or assignments more effective have also been extremely well-received. Other popular demonstrations include how to effectively use iPads, tablets and smartphones in the classroom in conjunction with software that can interactively mirror students' iPad screens onto the teaching computer and projector.

Discovering Topics on Your Campus

The best way to discover ideas for topics can be found in your day-to-day discussions with your colleagues. Ask those around you what information they would like to have, but don't have the time or direction to seek out. Talk about faculty pain points with administration. Is there a campus resource that others are overlooking? What about an online resource that isn't well-known? Any of these could be a discussion or demonstration. Don't forget the universal problems: effective use of technology, handy ideas for incorporating projects into classes or even just comparing notes with other faculty about examples of effective classroom leadership.

As you start to look into these potential topics, you'll find that many resources for dealing with challenges can be found right on your campus, though they may not be institutional. Education departments and professors of education can provide valuable insight into classroom performance improvement topics. Seek out veteran educators with experience to share or faculty with interesting projects to share. Don't forget the expertise campus staff (non-teachers) can bring to the table. Though their skills and expertise are commonly overlooked, IT staff, student counselors, advisors and tutors can all provide useful insight.

Staging Your Own Sessions

Once you've selected a few topics and discovered resources to address them, establish a consistent schedule and meeting place. Established habits are hard to break! Providing meaningful information and collegial dialogue in an informal setting will provide people with a classroom-focused habit they will want to stick with.

Initially, word-of-mouth will probably be enough to bring a few people to your meeting. From there, you can find on-campus means to drive attendance: Committee meetings, faculty senate sessions, faculty e-mail newsletters or blogs, and social media are all efficient methods to get the word out.

Powerful Outcomes

Why spend all this time and effort to hold these Brown Bag sessions? Ultimately, it's to improve your skills as an educator. Brown Bag attendees have indicated that session content has directly affected their approach to work in general and their performance in the classroom specifically. This can become a feedback loop, too; when attendees see presenters discussing the concepts or using the skills they learned in Brown Bag sessions, it encourages them to continue the cycle by sharing their own skills.

Furthermore, the Brown Bag sessions afford valuable opportunities for faculty to network. Campus events outside of individual departments tend to be formal or forced. Sometimes, you can get to know other faculty members through committees or workshops, but those usually involve a significant time commitment. Brown Bag sessions allow faculty relationships to form in an informal environment, without the commitment of a committee or the formality of an all-campus meeting.

The Best Practices Brown Bag sessions are here to stay at the College of Southern Idaho. They've created a small, but ever-expanding, pocket of campus culture that continues to draw in more people. These sessions answer an essential question on campus: Can we create ongoing, slow growth in professional development? The answer, at least for us, has been a resounding yes. Tech

By Brian Gergens and Richard Van Noy

Brian Gergens is an instructor of Information Technology at the College of Southern Idaho. E-mail him at

Richard Van Noy is an assistant professor of Information Technology at the College of Southern Idaho. E-mail him at
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Author:Gergens, Brian; Van Noy, Richard
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 2015
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