Characteristics of effective professional development

Teachers' professional development is a powerful means to improve student outcomes and it's important to know the sort of professional development that makes the biggest difference. Research shows that professional development (PD) with the following characteristics can positively impact on a range of student outcomes.

Professional development (PD) acquires relevance when it is grounded in practice and closely aligned to specific contextual goals. Explicit, realistic and challenging, and matched to individual, school-wide or system goals, effective PD initiates and sustains changes to practice when it is clearly understood by teachers to be directly related to the needs and requirements of their work. Purposeful PD encourages enquiry and action that is related to real challenges that are relevant to different geographical, cultural and socio-economic contexts.

When PD connects teachers and leaders to their colleagues within and across schools and to external experts, its benefits are magnified and spread. For collaboration to be effective, PD must actively involve both teachers and leaders in its design, participation and evaluation. It should also facilitate support through coaching and mentoring, observation and feedback. In cultivating a professional community of practice, quality collaboration demands more than mere participation. It requires communities to challenge problematic beliefs and evaluate the impact of teaching.

When PD focuses on both teachers’ practice and students’ learning, it can lead to significant, sustained positive impacts on student outcomes. In their meta analyses of the impact of various PD programs, Scher and O’Reilly (2009) and Blank and de las Alas (2009) found that when PD emphasised teachers’ knowledge of subject matter, how to teach it and how students learn, it generated a more positive effect on student outcomes, than those that focused on other areas.

Future-focused PD seeks to build teachers’ capacity to adapt to the changes that arise from our rapidly changing, interconnected world. From pioneering learning models, to emerging technologies, to innovative techniques, exposure to new developments in pedagogy help teachers to deal with the challenges that these rapid changes pose. Since change of this nature can challenge current practice, effective PD provides support for this process. Effective PD helps teachers understand what these new pedagogies mean, when to use them and how to apply them. Future-focused PD encourages innovation and adaptability and equips teachers with the capabilities to generate new responses to existing challenges.

Each teacher, in striving to be the best they can to be, brings with them their unique understanding of what constitutes expert teaching. However, sometimes this understanding has been unintentionally developed in isolation of what research has found to positively impact student outcomes. Effective PD cues teachers’ existing understanding of teaching and learning but challenges it when it is contrary to the wider knowledge that research makes available. In this way it seeks to reshape dissonant understandings. More than an act of awareness-raising, effective PD involves negotiating the meaning of new and sometimes challenging learning, and then supporting its deep integration into practice.

No matter how well-conceived or well-intentioned PD is, without focused and sustained implementation, it can fail to change or impact on practice and student outcomes. Within learning cultures that are sustainable, teachers and leaders model and nurture learning and provide time and resources to support and evaluate impact. Impactful, sustainable PD requires an ongoing commitment over time. To sustain change, Reeves (2010) recommends that teachers move from superficial compliance with a myriad of sporadic PD programs towards more selective and deep implementation of a few areas of focus over an extended period of time.


  • AITSL (2012), Australian charter for the professional learning of teachers and school leaders.
  • Blank R. & de las Alas N. (2009), Effects of teacher professional development on gains in student achievement: How meta analysis provides scientific evidence useful to education leaders, Washington, Council of Chief State School Officers.
  • CESE (2014), The elements of effective professional development.
  • The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (2007), Teacher Professional Learning and Development Best Evidence Synthesis Iteration, prepared by Timperley et al.
  • Reeves D. (2010), Transforming professional development into student results, ASCD, Alexandria, VA.
  • Scher and O’Reilly (2009), Professional development for K-12 math and science teachers: What do we really know? Journal of Research on Educational Effectiveness vol. 2: no. 222.
  • Yoon et al (2007), Reviewing the evidence on how teacher professional development affects student achievement, Issues & Answers Report REL 2007 - No.033:14.

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