Reflecting on Teaching
By Esther Jordan, Ph.D.
Just as reflection is essential in a scholarly approach to research, it is central to taking a scholarly approach to teaching. As Winchester and Winchester recently found, faculty who reflect on their teaching perform better on student evaluations of teaching, and those who reflect at a higher level receive even higher student evaluation scores (2014). Yet, when faculty reflect on their work in this domain, it can be tempting, and perhaps habitual, to remember and react in an ad hoc fashion, or in a manner that is not conducive to transformative learning (Mezirow 1990, 1991; Kreber 2004). The purpose of this article is to provide a framework for reflecting on teaching that increases the rigor of the process, and in turn, its value to faculty.
The framework presented here is built on the assumption that reflection must be purpose-driven if it is to be most useful. We will consider four purposes for reflection within the teaching domain, organized by lenses. Each lens “refers to the knowledge that is being used to interpret or make meaning of specific features of an experience” (Consortium for the Promotion of Reflection in Engineering Education 2015). This article will address how we seek to make meaning of our teaching experiences to:
- improve our own professional satisfaction and happiness (the Satisfaction lens)
- improve learning in our courses (the Development lens)
- make a case for promotion and tenure (the Advancement lens)
- share effective practices with colleagues (the Scholarship lens)
- The Satisfaction Lens: To improve our own professional satisfaction
We begin with the Satisfaction Lens, because one cannot function over the long term with optimal productivity and impact on student learning without tending first to one’s self. Despite increased corporatization and bureaucratization of the academy, and an increased emphasis on learning outcomes, we as faculty are whole beings who thrive in our teaching role when we find pleasure in it (Berg and Seeber, 2016). As much as we are conditioned to compartmentalize our intellectual and emotional selves -- to check our emotions at the door as we enter the classroom -- we cannot deny the relationship between enjoying what we do and our teaching effectiveness (Hooks 1994; Berg and Seeber, 2016). As Berg and Seeber note, “The current emphasis on ‘evidence based practices’ and ‘processes to measure impact’ in teaching and learning entirely overlooks pleasure…; yet it may be the case that pleasure – experienced by the instructor and the students – is the most important predictor of ‘learning outcomes’” (p. 34). In addition, Boice has found that faculty who are most effective at navigating through the challenges of an academic career are those who: moderate overattachment and overreaction, let go of negative thoughts and moderate emotions, build relationships and community, work with balance, work with constancy and moderation, and limit wasted effort, among other things (Boice, 2000).
Whether you are in the early stages of your career, about to retire, or somewhere in between, reflection is an important part of the pursuit of professional satisfaction. There are many guides to reflection through this lens. This article will focus two that can be used to address the predictors or satisfaction just described.
- PACE practices of peak professors (Robison, 2013)
This model is based on the idea that “peak performing professors spend the majority of their time and energy in interesting work and enjoyable personal time.” (p. xvii) Robison has found that by aligning purpose and goals as follows faculty waste less time and find greater pleasure in their work.
“Power your work and life and life through purpose.
Align all of your activities with that purpose.
Connect with people who support you.
Energize yourself to thrive in this interesting and engaging career.” (p. xvi)
She lays out a path to achieve one’s goals through the four-step process of reflection (The Pyramid of Power) listed below. She contends that we should use this for both big picture planning as well as the basis for daily routines such as developing to do lists. Her book is filled with other related reflection exercises that are designed to help faculty reach their peak levels of performance and satisfaction.
- Identify your purpose: Why am I here?
- Describe your mission: What will I do about my purpose?
- Articulate a vision: What will result from my mission?
- Set goals: What tasks lead to living out your purpose, mission and vision?
- IDeAS Process (Boyd, Baudier, Stromie 2016)
This tool applies Dweck’s work on mindsets (2006) to help us improve upon sub-optimal experiences to find greater satisfaction in teaching. As Boyd, Baudier and Stromie note “It is important for our own professional growth to learn to move forward through moments of failure and to not be satisfied with “good enough” or avoid reflecting on less than optimal results.” (2016, paragraph 1). The following reflection exercise is designed to help us move from, as Dweck terms it, a fixed mindset to a growth mindset.
IDeAS process Created by: Josie Baudier, Diane Boyd, and Traci Stromie. Imaged used with permission from the authors.
2. The Development Lens: To improve learning in our courses
McKeachie (2006) adds that we are more likely to enjoy teaching throughout our careers if we continually seek to learn about effective teaching practices. In addition, it can be so easy to fall into teaching ruts, without taking the time to reflect about how our teaching is helping students to learn or what can be changed to improve their learning within the situational constraints we each face. In addition, faculty too often spend all of their time preparing lectures and grading while being dissatisfied with the learning outcomes. It is important to find the pedagogical practices that fit our individual strengths and that are also an effective investment of our time in terms of the level of learning our practices yield. There are many frameworks an instructor may use to reflect on teaching for developmental purposes. This paper will highlight three. It is recommended that you pick the one that most resonates with you.
- Phases of reflection (Dewey 1993; Rodgers 2002)
Dewey (1933) identifies six phases of reflection that provide a simple guide one can use to proceed step by step through the reflective process, by describing each of the following (as summarized by Rodgers)
- An experience
- Spontaneous interpretation of the experience
- Naming the problem (or the question(s) that arise out of the experience)
- Generating possible explanations for the problem(s) or question(s) posed
- Using the explanations to devise full-blown hypotheses
- Experimenting or testing the selected hypotheses
Note that this is reflects the scientific method that so many of us employ in our disciplinary research. The idea here is to transfer that in an informal and simple way to apply it to our development as teachers.
- Transformative Learning (Mezirow 1997)
Mezirow describes this type of development as transformative learning. He adds to the reflective process thinking about content, process and premises. In particular, as we reflect on our teaching, it is helpful to ask the following three questions:
- What am I doing? How is it going, for me and for my students?
- What experience led me to adopt this practice?
- On what basis, or with what reason, did I choose to adopt this practice?
When instructors reflect in this manner, we often realize that we have adopted pedagogical practices on the basis of what was familiar from our own learning experiences. This is in contrast to what is possible through the adoption of research-based best practices. Questioning our own assumptions about teaching and learning, and becoming mindful of the bases on which we are making our teaching decisions, is an important step in our development as instructors.
- Understanding by Design (Wiggensand McTighe 2005)
The teaching cycle advocated by Wiggens and McTighe’s Understanding by Design, commonly referred to as the Backward Design process, is also a useful reflection tool. It advocates goal-based teaching. In contrast to teaching which uses the content itself to plan a semester, this model challenges us to first identify what we want the students to be able to do by the end of the course. It is from there that we should determine what assessments will best determine to what extent the students have achieved the learning outcomes we identified. Only then, should we begin to consider what course materials, technologies and activities will best support the achievement of the outcomes. If these three things flow together as they should, the course will be aligned. If we find that our students are not learning as much as we would like, mal-alignment is often one of the causes. For more information on how to use the Backward Design process as a tool to reflect on course design, see: Basics of Course Design, by Josie Baudier and Traci Stromie.
3. The Advancement Lens: To make a case for promotion and tenure
As we seek to advance in our careers through promotion and tenure, we must reflect on our teaching in two ways. First, demonstrating our teaching effectiveness requires reflection about what we are doing well and how we can construct a narrative with supporting evidence to make that case (see Documenting Teaching Effectiveness by Tom Pusateri, for detailed information on this.)
Second, it requires the creation of a plan for future development in our teaching. This can be as simple as identifying a couple of teaching practices to focus on for development purposes. It is recommended that faculty prioritize development in areas in which they see consistent trends in student feedback and/or related dissatisfaction in student performance on learning outcomes (as defined by the faculty member). Examples of elements of teaching one might choose to focus on for development include but are not limited to the following
- Visual Aids
- Learner Activities
- Educator-Learner Interaction
It is recommended that faculty identify the specific element of teaching they seek to improve, consult the teaching and learning literature, identify the research that will inform a change in practice, identify how improvement in the practice will be determined in terms of evidence (again, see Pusateri’s Documenting Teaching Effectiveness article referenced above), and then report on the change in practice and its outcomes in our annual review and promotion and tenure narratives. In essence, this should be an informal research study on our teaching practices. The Development Lens frameworks described above provide a useful guide for structuring this inquiry.
4. The Scholarship Lens: Sharing effective practices with colleagues
While we are devoting all of this time and effort to reflecting on our teaching, why not share it with our colleagues? This can be done formally or informally. For detailed information about reflecting on teaching through a scholarship lens, see Engaging in SoTL by Tom Pusateri.
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