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Exemplary Professional Development: What Are the Critical Elements?

Exemplary Professional Development: What Are the Critical Elements?

By Tracy Wright, MAED | January 10, 2019
Project Director, ETR

At ETR, we value research and science. We apply those values throughout all of our work and across the entire agency. We encourage other organizations to do the same.

A few years back, ETR conducted a synthesis of current research on professional development (PD) programs. Our goal? To determine the critical elements needed to provide PD that leads to change in learners' practice—that is, PD that has a true impact. Through this syntheses of the research, we identified several necessary elements for effective PD—what we call the Research Based Design Elements.

This is the first post in a series about health education teachers and professional development. Check out the other posts in this series:

Learning Takes Place Over Time

One of the most important outcomes of the synthesis was affirming the critical need that learning be offered over time. To have its greatest effect, PD must include activities before a learning event (Pre-Work), activities during the learning event (Skill Development), and meaningful follow-up to support implementation after the learning event (Follow-Up Support).

We took the science highlighted in our research synthesis and developed a framework for the design and delivery of learning processes. It involves the use of learning touchpoints that are distributed over time. We fondly refer to this framework as the Distributive Learning Process.





One key and often over-looked Research Based Design Element is the provision of impactful follow-up support. The part of the training that takes place after people have headed home is one of the most important parts of the learning process, and an integral part of ETR’s Distributive Learning Process.

Too often, we see professional development offered as a one-time event. Sometimes this is because the organizers are unaware of the current science behind effective training. Sometimes it is because facilitators are not given enough time and resource to intentionally plan a fully distributive process. This type of “drive-through training” may not offer pre-training work. Often, it also lacks the vital design element of follow-up support.

FWISD: Providing Gold Standard Follow-Up Support

The gold standard for follow-up is to provide that support in the form of observations along with coaching or mentoring. We're not always lucky enough to have resources allocated for such robust follow-up support, but it can and does happen.

In fact, recently I was fortunate enough to be able to witness this high standard in action at several schools within the Fort Worth Independent School District (FWISD). This district has used ETR’s signature comprehensive health curriculum, HealthSmart, as its foundation for its middle and high school health education program. They’ve chosen the program, they’ve put it in place, and they want it to work, both for their students and their teachers.

The district fully understands that learning is not a one-time event, but rather a process that occurs over time. They are absolutely committed to providing their health teachers with the support they need to succeed. And that commitment includes designing their teacher PD following a Distributive Learning Process and delivering gold-standard follow-up support as part of that process.

Watching Out for the Slippery Slope

This is the kind of service in action that makes my trainer’s heart sing! As my colleague Debra Christopher has noted, the process of change can be a slippery slope. At the end of a training, learners often feel confident they can implement new knowledge and skills back home. Then they find themselves slipping back down that confidence slope when they actually make the effort to implement, and things don’t seem as smooth or clear as they did at the training.

This is where providing follow-up support is critical.

FWISD has prepared to meet the challenge! Initially, they put forth the resources needed to provide solid training on the HealthSmart program to every one of their health teachers.

Of course, every district experiences some turnover of teachers every year, with new, untrained staff coming on board. Some science-based programs see their efficacy diminish year over year, as fewer well-trained staff remain. FWISD understands this and has taken steps to support the strength of their program in an ongoing way.

They provide a basic training for new teachers. Then they support the presence of trained observers who monitor new teachers as they begin to implement the health curriculum. This includes soliciting teachers’ reflections on how they did, providing feedback on their implementation efforts, and offering guidelines for improvements.

Then they go out and observe again!

Next Step: Learn From the District’s Experience

We are so impressed with FWISD’s program, we’ve asked some of their staff to share their perspectives, processes and experience with us. Look for upcoming posts that address their tailored approach to supporting and sustaining existing teachers while maintaining effective PD to new teachers.

How are your programs supporting the process of learning over time? I would enjoy hearing about other strategies and approaches that are working for you.


Tracy Wright, MAEd, is a Project Director at ETR. She can be reached at

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