The Reflective Teacher

“We do not learn from experience…we learn from reflecting on experience.”

—John Dewey

Reflective teachers regularly dedicate time to evaluate their teaching practice. They consider the scope of their pedagogy — from the structure of the course to the classroom community — and reflect on how their specific teaching decisions impact their students’ learning. As they analyze their teaching, they consider how they might approach particular tasks or challenges in the future.

As we conclude the semester, this is the perfect time to reflect on your classes and consider teaching decisions for the spring.

Building a Reflective Practice

Below are useful questions that can guide your reflective process. The questions are organized around the four main components of teaching, as outlined by Dee Fink:

  • Design of instruction: Have you clearly defined the learning goals you have for your course? Do the assessments in your course measure the goals you have for student learning outcomes? Do the activities you facilitate (lectures, discussions, readings) create experiences for students to reach those goals?
  • Course management: Did your schedule of readings, activities, and assignments work well? For instance, do all of your assignments fall at the same time, or are they evenly spaced out? How do you organize assignment deadlines and manage grading?
  • Knowledge of subject matter: Is there new scholarship in your field that you would like to explore and perhaps address in future iterations of your course?
  • Teacher–Student interactions: What are the different ways you interact with students? Are you “the sage on the stage,” a facilitator of learning, or something else…? How do you relate to students during outside of class during office hours and via email?

Other opportunities for reflection through the Teaching and Learning Center

All TLC programs are designed to encourage reflective practice in a community of peers, and to orient colleagues toward learning-centered approaches. While many of our programs entail two or three meetings, the Provost’s Teaching Academy (PTA) is the TLC’s most substantive opportunity for reflective practice and development as an educator.

According to Donald Schön, reflective teaching practice is best supported by collaboration and dialogue with peers. He recommends that educators engage in individual and group reflections and take advantage of opportunities to learn from experts and peers.

The PTA offers just such an opportunity. Now in its fifth year and with a cumulative roster of more than 70 members, it is one of the TLC’s signature programs. The PTA brings together a diverse, interdisciplinary group of faculty members and academic administrators who are uniquely knowledgeable about the research on how people learn and best practices, and who serve as mentors in teaching and learning.

Each new cohort makes an impact on the educational culture at Temple University. We invite you to apply for the summer 2014 cohort.

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This post was co-written and edited by our communications extern, Alexa Mantell, Assistant Director Carl S. Moore, and Pamela Barnett, Associate Vice Provost and Director.

This blog will only allow those with a Temple University account to comment directly on the blog. If you do not have a Temple University account, we would still like to hear from you.  

Practice and Assessment, Grading and Feedback

This post highlights key takeaways from Chapter 5 of How Learning Works: 7 Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching, by Susan A. Ambrose, Michael W. Bridges, Michele DiPietro, Marsha C. Lovett, and Marie K. Norman. This book has become an essential resource for TLC programs and initiatives, so much that we have invited Drs. DiPietro and Lovett to keynote at our annual conference on January 17, 2014! See below for details.– – – – –

Clear expectations. Hours of grading. Ample feedback. No improvement.

The fifth chapter of How Learning Works, on practice and feedback, starts with testimonials on student performance that most instructors will find all too familiar. The first example tells of a professor who spent hours grading assignments and offering substantial comments for improvement. Yet his students’ subsequent efforts on different assignments were just as disappointing. What went wrong?

Drawing on our summary of best practices in course design, this situation suggests a misalignment between learning activities, assessments, and course goals. Here, students were not given the opportunity to incorporate the professor’s feedback into further practice activities. Perhaps they would have applied new understandings, but they weren’t given the chance to try again with the specific task. Furthermore, the sequence of assignments was an issue; the professor was assessing different skills with each assignment, instead of giving students additional opportunities to demonstrate and master the targeted skills.

In a well-designed course, each learning goal is matched with the appropriate quality and quantity of activities and assessments. Scenarios like the one above are all too common. This begs the question: How can we better approach these processes of practice, assessment, grading, and feedback to improve student learning?

Key Considerations from the Book

The authors of How Learning Works proclaim that students will miss crucial learning opportunities if the professor’s practice and feedback activities do not “work smarter.” It is “smart” to offer multiple opportunities for practice and to give feedback that is clear and specific. Students need sufficient practice in advance of assessments, wherein their knowledge and abilities are measured.

The more opportunities students have to practice, the more chances the instructor has to observe their performance, evaluate their progress, and provide targeted feedback, which students can then incorporate to improve their subsequent performances. This mix of practice and feedback will guide students toward eventual achievement of the course learning goals.

The Cycle of Practice and Feedback

Similarly to Fink’s work on course design, the authors suggest that all practice and feedback elements center around designated learning goals. This is explained as a cycle (pictured below) wherein “practice produces observed performance that, in turn, allows for targeted feedback, and then the feedback guides further practice. This cycle is embedded within the context of learning goals that ideally influence each aspect of the cycle” (How Learning Works pp. 126-127).

Practical Implications

The authors provide some guiding principles for directing this cycle effectively: 1) Focus students’ efforts “on a specific goal or criterion.” 2) Set standards at a “reasonable and productive level of challenge.” 3) Provide multiple opportunities for practice, both in and out of class. The research reiterates that “time on task” is essential. Both quality and quantity matter.

The authors’ recommendations for “strategies that address the need for goal-directed practice” include:

  • “Conduct a prior knowledge assessment to target an appropriate challenge level” (p. 145)
  • “Be more explicit about your goals in your course materials” (p. 145)
  • “Use a rubric to specify and communicate performance criteria” (p. 146)
  • “Give examples or models of target performance” (p. 147)

Professors should also maintain open and specific communication about students’ progress and improvement throughout the course. It is not helpful to comment on every error in an assessment; prioritize your feedback to focus on where specific learning goals are (or are not) met. It is best to give feedback quickly and frequently, the authors note. They recommend a number of ways to achieve effective feedback, such as:

  • “Look for patterns of errors in student work” (p. 148)
  • “Balance [student] strengths and weaknesses in your feedback” (p. 149)
  • “Provide feedback at the group level” to communicate common errors (p. 150)
  • “Require students to specify how they used feedback in subsequent work” (p. 151-152)

The authors note that as students internalize the lessons learned from regular practice opportunities and from targeted feedback, they can become independent, self-regulated learners. According to the authors, the ideal goal of these approaches is for students to actively engage in and direct their own learning. Ultimately, these goal-driven practice and feedback opportunities are examples of how students and teachers can work “smarter,” not harder.

Let’s Exchange EDvice…

What practice opportunities do you give your students in order to prepare them to complete an assignment or exam? What EDvice do you have for colleagues who want students to learn from and use their feedback?

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This post was co-written by our communications extern, Alexa Mantell, and Assistant Director Carl S. Moore.

This blog will only allow those with a Temple University account to comment directly on the blog. If you do not have a Temple University account, we would still like to hear from you.  

Composing a Course for Significant Learning

Course design is to teaching and learning what sheet music is to performing a symphony. Both require careful composition, indeed, but to deliver the best outcome, the most satisfying result, all parts must work together harmoniously. A well integrated course provides structure and is characterized by a reciprocal alignment among the essential course components: goals, assessments, and teaching and learning activities.

At the Teaching and Learning Center (TLC), Dr. Dee Fink’s work (concisely represented in A Self-Directed Guide to Designing Courses for Significant Learning) provides the foundation for many of our programs and initiatives. We always design our own programs with his model of integrated course design in mind, and we encourage colleagues to do the same. Lessons on integrated course design are a key component in our most robust faculty development programs, such as the annual summer Provost’s Teaching Academy and the Teaching in Higher Education Certificate program.

The Model

Fink’s model (pictured below) challenges educators to not only articulate intended course goals but to ensure that assignments, activities, and assessments all lead to the achievement of those goals. He also highlights the presence of situational factors, which are contextual issues in any given course environment that could affect the learning. These could include but are not limited to: the age of students, their prior knowledge of the subject matter, and the size of the room.

As illustrated in the diagram, Fink stresses that all components of a course are interdependent and impacted by situational factors. A course designed with Fink’s framework in mind results in a more student-centered and intentional pedagogy.

Fundamental Features

The core course components discussed in Fink’s work are: goals, activities, and assessments, defined below:

  • Goals are the final learning results of a semester-long experience. Teachers should ask themselves: “What will students learn or be able to do once they complete my course?” A Primer on Writing Effective Learning-Centered Course Goals offers excellent guidance for articulating clear, measurable goals.
  • Activities are the teaching strategies and learning experiences that comprise the day-to-day of the course. In the best courses, each element is used to prepare students to successfully complete the assessments. What do the students need to read, hear, see, practice, do if they are to meet the goals measured by the assessments? Fink recommends that activities directly link to the overarching course goal(s) and stimulate active learning. Examples of classroom activities that Fink provides include debates, simulations, guided discussion, small group problem solving, and case studies.
  • Assessments give students the opportunity to demonstrate where they are in relation to achieving the course learning goals, and you an opportunity to evaluate the students’ performance and give feedback.

The goals must be determined first; once they have been articulated an educator can begin the work of thoughtfully integrating each component with the others. So, as an example, if a professor’s course goal is for students to be able to evaluate the quality of an argument, an aligned teaching activity might be for students to read a successfully argued article, then hear a brief lecture where the teacher identifies the components of the good argument such as a clear thesis and evidence. A professor might then ask students to read a sample article and engage in a think-pair-share learning activity, using a rubric to evaluate those same components together. An aligned learning activity might look very similar to the assessment; after all, it is not fair to ask students to demonstrate mastery without having had some practice first. In this scenario, students might be asked to put their evaluations of a sample article’s argument into writing.

Payoff Potential

Integrated course design requires that instructors are intentional about how each individual component is significant to the final outcome. This method fosters a more coordinated experience, Fink writes, so that at any given moment in the semester, students can understand the importance of assignments and activities as well as which goal(s) they are working toward.

If intentional about design, educators can maximize the potential for a course that is stable in its structure, steady in its pacing, purposeful in its direction, and meaningful in its instruction. Integrated course design, Fink posits, enables students to better retain knowledge and extend their involvement in the material beyond a single course. Fink encourages each teacher to “increase [his or her] power and effectiveness as someone responsible for the quality of other peoples’ learning experience” (original emphasis).

Let’s Exchange EDvice…

As you reflect on courses you have taught or taken, can you share an instance where the key components were not fully aligned? or were? How do you plan to better align the goals, activities, and assessments in your course?

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This post was co-written by our communications extern, Alexa Mantell, and Assistant Director Carl S. Moore, and edited by Alexa and Pamela Barnett, Associate Vice Provost and Director.