Learning through conversations: How can we research informal professional development?

  • Kate Thomson
  • Gabriela Pleschová
  • Torgny Roxå
  • Peter Felten


There is growing recognition that informal professional development is important for improving the quality of teaching within higher education (Pataraia, Falconer, Margaryan, Littlejohn, & Fincher, 2014; Roxå & Mårtensson, 2009; Thomson & Trigwell, 2018; Van Waes, Van den Bossche, Moolenaar, De Maeyer, & Van Petegem, 2015). Informal professional development, such as engaging in conversations with colleagues, is distinct from more formal models of educational development as the emphasis is on autonomous, relational, and emergent learning, enabling it to serve academics’ future needs. Developers have long advocated for the facilitation of informal learning opportunities(Boud & Brew, 2013; Knight, Tait, & Yorke, 2006) and we would argue that these opportunities serve a role that complements the plethora of available activities for developing individuals, groups, and institutions (Gibbs, 2013, pp. 6- 7). Despite historical support, informal conversations as a form of professional development has only recently emerged as an area of research. Conversations about teaching occur within small networks of trusted colleagues (Roxå & Mårtensson, 2009) and they can serve different roles in developing university teaching (Thomson & Trigwell, 2018). We are mindful that the relationship between informal and formal professional development can be complex (Thomson, 2015), and departmental cultures may influence the capacity of academics to learn about teaching and learning (Trowler & Cooper, 2002).