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Evidence Matters | Professional Development: What Works

Last updated July 9, 2024

By Kelly Gregory

July 9, 2024

As we noted in our previous post, research has shown that professional development for educators is important for not only teachers’ continued professional growth, but also for teachers’ job satisfaction. However, not just any type of professional development provides teachers with meaningful learning opportunities. In order to be effective, professional development must meet certain criteria.

Published in 2017, a Learning Policy Institute policy brief reviewed 35 high-quality studies of professional development from the previous three decades. In reviewing the outcomes of those studies, researchers found that the most effective professional development for educators:

  • Is content focused
  • Incorporates active learning utilizing adult learning theory
  • Supports collaboration, typically in job-embedded contexts
  • Uses models and modeling of effective practice
  • Provides coaching and expert support
  • Offers opportunities for feedback and refection
  • Is of sustained duration

So what does this mean for administrators and other education professionals who help to plan and provide professional development? In order for teachers to both learn and apply knowledge about effective practices, they must receive information that is focused on their specific content area. While some general topics may be applicable to all teachers, the vast majority of content should be focused on what teachers actually teach during the day. Additionally, this learning should, as often as possible, occur alongside colleagues in order to encourage collaboration and allow teachers to learn from one another. And, perhaps most importantly, this learning should occur over an extended period of time. Just as old adages, such as “sit and get” or “one and done” don’t suggest effective teaching and learning experiences for students, nor do they for teachers.

It is important to note, however, that just as with student-focused learning, learning for teachers does not always have to occur inside the four walls of the classroom, longer lessons do not always mean better learning, and knowledge must be applied in order to be effective. According to a 2022 paper published by researchers at the Annenberg Institute at Brown University, recent meta-analyses conclude that the most effective professional development for teachers ensures that instructional practices, not just knowledge, are changed as a result of the learning that has occurred. And just as importantly, sufficient supports must be in place to ensure effective implementation of newly acquired knowledge.

Because we know that teachers are the single most important in-school influence on student success, ensuring that all educators receive opportunities to reframe and refine their practice is essential. Over the last several decades, high-quality research has pointed us toward professional development practices that are most likely to lead to improvement in learning outcomes for both teachers and their students. As teacher leaders look to creating the best professional learning opportunities for their teachers, it is imperative that this evidence be taken into consideration.

In our final post in this series, we will examine the future of learning for teachers, including new and innovative ways to think about how teachers learn with and from one another. Just as our students deserve to learn in ways that will help them succeed in the future, so, too, do our teachers.

Kelly Gregory is the Riley Institute’s Director for Public Education Projects and Partnerships and previously taught for 11 years in South Carolina public schools. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Psychology and a master’s degree in Special Education. She also holds a National Board certification as an Exceptional Needs Specialist. She can be reached at