Teaching Tip: Looking back to move forward

At this point in the semester, I’m certainly not going to suggest that you try some new approach to your teaching.   Instead, I’d like to share an idea that could help you develop your own teaching tips.

On my faculty developers’ listserv, we have been discussing the practice of writing an end of semester “case study” of one or more classes.   At one institution, every instructor is asked to critically examine each of their courses and reflect in writing on what went well, what did not go so well, potential ways to improve the course for the next offering, etc. This exercise was not part of the annual summative evaluation (although it might come in very handy), but was meant to provide a useful structure for analyzing and reviewing teaching progress.

Now, I think most of us do some kind of basic looking back at the end of the semester, but I don’t know if anyone at Marymount is doing anything quite this comprehensive (if you are, let me know!).  When I read about it, I first thought that it would take a non-trivial amount of time, particularly if taken seriously.  However, I think that the process would provide benefits that might just make that time worthwhile.  These are the benefits I see (so far anyway):

  • If you only teach a course once a year (or even less), it’s hard to remember what you intended to change unless you keep some kind of records.  While I tend to scrawl a few notes on the old syllabus and assignment sheets and throw them into the course folder, after a year these often seem incomplete and sometimes incomprehensible.  How the future me would appreciate a thoughtful analysis in complete sentences! And since the future me is the only person who gets this, I don’t have to worry about editing it for public viewing.
  • I’m pretty convinced that I would actually process more deeply and learn more from writing up my reflections than even just thinking deeply.  If there is one thing I believe in more every semester, it’s the power of writing to actually help thinking happen, not just record the thinking that occurred.  Writing is learning, and I want to learn things that will help me teach more effectively.
  • I think using this process could help me remember points I want to make about my teaching performance during the annual assessment process, for example by identifying teaching strengths and weaknesses and show how I am addressing them.  So, this process could save time while writing that document, since essentially I will have done some of the work for it in advance.
  • Finally, this process will help me identify where I want to improve as an instructor, what kind of reading I should be doing or what kind of sessions to attend at teaching conferences and what questions I want to ask my colleagues about how they handle specific teaching issues.

A couple of listserv responders suggested possible questions and formats for a course review or case study.  One is fairly structured toward the course itself and asks questions like:

  • What do I think of the course’s learning objectives?  How might they need to be changed and how hard would that be?  Do they feed into other courses or program objectives?
  • How well did students meet each objective?  What evidence am I using and is there better evidence that I could collect?  How well can I even judge how well students met each objective?  Was there an objective I really didn’t measure that well, or at all?
  • Did my assignments help students to meet my course objectives?  Do some of my assignments not really relate to any of my course objectives and goals?
  • Was the time I and my students spent on assignments and activities (e.g. completing assignments, giving feedback for and grading assignments, planning class activities) worth the academic payoff?

Another, more global approach was suggested by independent consultant Alice Cassidy and focuses on the classic paper, Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education, Chickering & Gamson (1987).  Don’t be put off by the title if you teach graduate students.  The concepts are universal.

Good practice in undergraduate education:

  1. Encourages contact between students and faculty
  2. Develops reciprocity and cooperation among students
  3. Encourages active learning,
  4. Gives prompt feedback,
  5. Emphasizes time on task,
  6. Communicates high expectations, and
  7. Respects diverse talents and ways of learning.

Cassidy asks instructors to reflect on how they are implementing each of the 7 principles as well as thinking about the following three questions:

* What do you do in class time, in meetings with students and through design of assignments?  How do you take part in professional development activities to explore more about these?

* In what ways do you document your work through a teaching portfolio/dossier or other material?

* When and how do you explain these to your students?

I’m definitely going to try this approach after my final grades are in.  If you already do something like this, please share your process with us, or other thoughts you have about ways we can learn from our teaching experiences.



Teaching Tip: A Time to Reflect

How often do you build student reflection into your courses?  Sometimes, we get so caught up in covering content or getting stuff done, that we just don’t ask students to reflect on what they are learning.  But regular, critical reflection is a key to deep and meaningful learning.  Truly reflective learners also are more likely to be open and self-aware; they tend to be more independent learners who are curious and motivated to improve.

Reflection at its most basic level just means thinking about what we are doing and why are we doing it.  You may be familiar with the story of the new bride who cut off the ends of the roast prior to cooking it. Asked for an explanation by her new husband, she says “that’s the way my mother does it.”   In her turn, the bride’s mother says “well, that’s the way my mother always did it.”  Grandma matter-of-factly announces that she started cutting of the ends because her pan was too small to hold an entire roast.  Unreflective practice over time becomes rote and meaningless.

Describing the process of solving a problem or writing a paper, reflecting on the strengths and weaknesses of a piece of work, attending an event and then thinking about its impact or discussing how the same process can be used in different assignments or different classes are all forms of reflection that are particularly valuable to us as educators.  It’s also helpful to ask students to reflect back over the course of a semester to help them assess how they have changed and what they still need to do to continue to learn.

There are a number of fairly easy ways to incorporate more reflection into your courses, regardless of the type of assignments and activities you use.   Reflections are traditionally written assignments, but given our new technologies, they could just as easily be videos or audiotapes.  I do believe that the process of writing a reflection leads to deeper processing, but I don’t have any research to back me up on that.

  • Reflective journals are very popular, easy to assign and usually interesting to read.  You can ask students to reflect on classroom discussions, outside readings or pretty much any other aspect of the course.  When using journals, it’s important to clearly explain and model what you expect.  Asking students to “reflect” on a class discussion or assignment without further explanation can often lead to a description of the event or an outline of the article, with no actual reflection.  It can be helpful to ask specific guiding questions, and to read and respond to the first few assignments to give students a better sense of what you expect.  Responding to journals sets up a dialogue between you and the student that shows your interest in their learning.  Grading reflective journals is as easy as checking them off as done or not done.  Or you can use a journal entry as the basis for a longer, critical essay that is graded.
  • Reflections on class learning.  Brookfield (1995) describes the “classroom critical incident” questionnaire he uses as part of a student learning portfolio.  Students turn in a paper once a week that addresses the following questions:
    • At what moment in the class this week did you feel most engaged with what was happening in class?
    • At what moment in the class this week did you feel most distanced from what was happening in class?
    • What action that anyone (student or instructor) took this week in class was most affirming and helpful?
    • What action that anyone (student or instructor) took this week in class was most puzzling and confusing?
    • What about class this week surprised you the most?

    In addition to the copy they turn in, students keep one copy of each week’s entry in their learning portfolios.  They use these to reflect on their own response patterns and develop learning goals for themselves.  Knowing that they will be required to submit these forms also keeps students more focused and aware of classroom interactions.

  • Reflections on their test performances can help students improve their study habits.  Looking over the parts of the test they did well on and the parts that were difficult and relating their performance to how they studied often makes it very clear to students what went wrong (or right) and how to be successful in the future.  On subsequent tests, you could ask students whether they acted on any of the insights they gained in their earlier analysis, and how that worked.  These can earn a few points attached to the test or be graded separately.
  • Reflective “add-ons” to existing assignments.  This process essentially asks students to articulate their process e.g. how did you approach this assignment, what new techniques did you try, how did they work, what are the strengths and weaknesses of the finished work, etc.   Students have to think more deeply about their work, which helps them internalize it.  It also gives the instructor a better sense of how and why a student is utilizing class material.  (This type of assignment also can help you detect academic dishonesty if it doesn’t ring true or is missing.) These are best included as part of the required elements for the assignment.
  • End of semester reflections help students assess their own learning.  I particularly like to ask students about how their knowledge and beliefs on course-related topics has changed since the beginning of the semester, and then ask them to think about what caused the change.  It gives me important information about what worked and what didn’t work in class as well as giving students a sense of accomplishment and closure.


And — what’s good for the students is good for the faculty.  How often do we just “go through the motions”, not taking the time to reflect on our teaching practices, our routines and our choices?  How can we improve as teachers, scholars and practitioners if we aren’t reflecting on our own successes and failures, analyzing our processes and asking why?  Of course, if we truly reflected on EVERYTHING we do, we’d all be paralyzed, but systematically asking ourselves questions about our teaching and sharing our teaching decisions with colleagues is one of the best ways to enhance our effectiveness in the classroom.

How do you have students reflect on their learning?  How do you reflect on your teaching?