Posted by: Gregory Linton | 01/18/2009

The Origin and Purpose of Faculty Learning Communities

The concept of the “faculty learning community” (FLC) was developed at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. In 1975 the Lilly Endowment established the Lilly Post-doctoral Teaching Fellowship Program, which provided three years of funding for institutions that promoted programs focused on enhancing the teaching effectiveness of junior faculty. In 1979, Miami University received one of these grants. After the three years of funding ran out, the program continued as the Alumni Teaching Scholars Program, and it was expanded to include all faculty in order to enhance teaching and learning across the campus.

Milton D. Cox

Milton D. Cox

Under the leadership of Milton D. Cox, who is now Director of the Center for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning at Miami U., these programs developed the FLC concept. The concept has been promoted through nine summer institutes for FLC developers and facilitators and five years of an annual FLC Conference. The most recent institute and conference were held at Claremont Graduate University. As a result of these efforts, over 100 IHEs have implemented FLCs.

Since the pioneering work of Alexander Meiklejohn and John Dewey in the 1920s and 1930s, student learning communities have grown in popularity in higher education. Some take the form of residential programs where students live and learn together with a faculty mentor. Others are targeted at first-year college students in order to ease the transition to college and to increase the retention of first-year students.

Faculty learning communities have transferred the principles and purposes of student learning communities to the faculty. Any kind of learning community seeks to bring together a small group of peers who share common interests in order to learn together and to support and encourage each other (Cox, 2004). FLCs are also closely related to the concept of “community of practice,” which is most closely associated with the work of Etienne Wenger (1998). In a community of practice, people come together to talk about common interests, concerns, problems, and ideas. Learning is a social phenomenon, not merely an individualistic one. Participation in a community of practice results in shared meaning and a collective identity.

As communities of practice, FLCs can serve as an antidote to the “silos” that isolate faculty members from one another. Sandell, Wigley, and Kovalchik (2004) define the purpose of FLCs as bringing together “diverse groups of individuals who share their experiences as they undertake common learning activities” (p. 51). They can provide an opportunity for collaboration and interaction that faculty members rarely experience. Cox asserts that “faculty learning communities create connections for isolated teachers, establish networks for those pursuing pedagogical issues, meet early-career faculty expectations for community, foster multidisciplinary curricula, and begin to bring community to higher education” (2004).

In my own adaptation of the FLC model, I have identified seven goals that FLCs are intended to achieve. FLCs enable faculty members to:

  1. Overcome isolation and promote community
  2. Interact and collaborate between departments and disciplines
  3. Increase knowledge and understanding of effective teaching methods
  4. Share ideas about effective approaches to teaching
  5. Practice and model lifelong learning
  6. Provide mutual support and encouragement
  7. Take risks and experiment with new approaches to teaching.

FLCs can be a useful tool for improving the quality of teaching and learning on campus. Few faculty members have received pedagogical training, and few have time to keep up in the literature on the scholarship of teaching and learning. FLCs provide an opportunity for them to focus on the practical aspects of teaching. They also provide an opportunity to build relationships with other faculty members with whom they might not otherwise interact. Sharing of ideas and experiences would benefit the participants as they learn from one another. FLCs would also serve as catalysts for change and innovation on campus. Participants will be exposed to new methods and approaches to teaching, and they would be encouraged to take risks and experiment with new ways of teaching. In all these ways, FLCs can contribute significantly to team learning on campus, and therefore they can influence a college to become even more of a learning organization.

In the next posting, I will describe the characteristics and components of FLCs.


Cox, M. D. (2004, Spring). Introduction to faculty learning communities. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 97, 5-23.

Sandell, K. L., Wigley, K., and Kovalchik, A. (2004, Spring). Developing facilitators for faculty learning communities. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 97, 51-62.

Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of practice: Learning, meaning, and identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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