Jeff Rients and Cliff Rouder
In Part I of this series, Stephanie Fiore outlined Brookfield’s four lenses of reflective practice: an autobiographical lens, our students’ lens, our colleagues’ lens, and the lens of theoretical literature. Today we’re going to look at the first lens, our own autobiographical understanding of what is happening in our courses. Reflecting on our own practices and the behaviors of our students is an important component of evaluating our teaching for four key reasons:
- The single instructor model of the classroom sometimes makes teaching a lonely business. We only occasionally have a qualified professional in the room to give us feedback (more on that in the next installment). If we don’t take the time to seriously interrogate our daily practices, there’s simply no one else around to do the job.
- A huge amount of the craft of teaching takes place inside your head! Instructors are constantly evaluating and adapting to the inherently fluid situation that arises when real people wrestle with complex topics. No one else can capture this valuable data, because only you know which thoughts drove your in-the-moment decisions. The only way to make sense of it all after the fact is through reflection.
- Although our students’ opinions and insights are invaluable, if we uncritically accept their thoughts and suggestions then we run the risk of spending our teaching careers incoherently zigzagging from one extreme to another. That does neither us nor our next group of students any good.
- We want our students to be reflective learners, so they can apply their learning in new ways and new situations. Well, we need to practice what we preach! If we are not reflective practitioners then our efforts to teach the principles of reflective learning will come off as inauthentic, because that’s what they will be.
But developing a reflective practice can be hard. For one thing, we might wince a little when we think back on mistakes we’ve made or times when our students just didn’t connect with what we were trying to teach them. For another, we’re all busy and it can seem like a luxury to take the time needed to stop what we’re doing, think about what’s working and what’s not, and revise our future actions. But the only way to understand ourselves and grow as instructors is to invest the time in ourselves that we need to turn our past misadventures into future successes.
The key to a solid reflective practice is to develop a specific regular discipline that works for you. Ideally, you would have a few minutes after every class session to reflect on the events of the immediate past, but a time set aside at the end of each day, or certain days of the week, or even one day a week can work. The longer between the end of the class session and your formal reflection time, the more important it becomes to scribble some notes to yourself during class, so you can remind yourself later what transpired. Additionally, you should consider making an appointment with yourself in your Outlook calendar or whatever scheduling tool you use. Not only will that serve as a reminder to do the reflection, but an appointment with yourself makes the task feel “more real” to a lot of us. If you find yourself regularly canceling or moving the appointment for other things, that may be a signal that you need to choose a different time.
Once you can sit down–preferably alone and in a relatively tranquil space–you will need a reflection method. Here are a few possibilities:
Mark Up Your Lesson
In this technique you add comments directly to your lesson plan and/or slide show. This can be helpful if you teach similar material from semester to semester, provided that you review each lesson well enough in advance that you can implement changes the following semester.
We talked about this topic in another EDvice Exchange post. One major advantage of a journal, whether ink-and-paper or electronic, is that it collects all your thoughts together in one place for easy review.
Talking out loud to yourself may sound weird, but it can help you process what is going on in your class. For audio only you can use a voice recorder app on your phone, or something like Audacity. For a video recording, a Zoom room of one and the record feature do the job nicely. Of course, if you’re feeling brave you could publish your ongoing reflections via YouTube or SoundCloud or TikTok! Not enough of us talk publicly about what is happening in our classrooms.
Two other things you’ll want to consider as part of your reflective practice: The first is talking to somebody. A regular debrief with a colleague (or a staff member at the CAT!) can help you put your thoughts into perspective. Even getting together once a month to talk about your teaching can help. The second is that at the end of each semester you should consider a reflection session where you go over everything that has happened in your course and try to synthesize what your big takeaways are. You may even find it useful to write a memo to yourself, with a page or two of ideas of how you want to do things differently next semester.
Whichever options you choose, make sure to go back and review your reflections when you receive your SFFs and when you sit down to revise your course. The former is important because you’ll be able to compare your own insights with those of your students, while the latter ensures that all your reflective work pays off in your future teaching.
In the next installment of this series, we’ll be looking at how our colleagues can assist us in evaluating our teaching.
Cliff Rouder and Jeff Rients both work at Temple’s Center for the Advancement of Teaching.