Spotlight on Teaching and Learning: Reflective Teaching

December 15, 2020

Reflecting on our teaching experiences, from the effectiveness of assignments to the opportunities for student interaction, is key to refining our courses and overall teaching practice. Reflective teaching can also help us gain closure on what may have felt like an especially long and challenging semester.

Four Approaches to Reflective Teaching

The goal of critical self-reflection is to gain an increased awareness of our teaching from different vantage points (Brookfield 1995). Collecting multiple and varied perspectives on our teaching can help inform our intuitions about teaching through an evidence-based understanding of whether students are learning effectively. Stephen Brookfield, in Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher, proposes four lenses to use when examining and assessing our teaching:

  1. The autobiographical. What do I see as the successes and challenges of the course? What went well, and what could be improved for next time? If I could do X again, how might I do it differently?
  2. The students’ eyes. What do students have to say about what enhanced their learning and what hindered their learning? What recommendations do students have to help improve the course for next time?
  3. Our colleagues’ experiences. What do my colleagues have to say about what went well for them this semester? What was challenging? If my colleagues are teaching similar courses and/or student populations, what are similarities or differences in our experiences? In our assignments?
  4. Theoretical literature. What are evidence-based strategies for supporting student learning? What does the research have to say about how students learn best in similar courses? What does the research say about how students are experiencing higher education at this moment in time?

Collectively, these four lenses foster repeat engagement with members of our teaching and learning community, both on campus and the broader scholarly community. For Brookfield, however, the most important step to reflective teaching is to go beyond the collection of feedback (i.e., from self, student, peer, and scholarly work) by strategically adjusting our teaching methods and goals. By habitually reflecting on our practice, documenting changes and noting our progress, then making efforts to iterate again, we become student-centered, flexible, and innovative educators.

Selected Examples of Reflective Teaching Strategies

Reflecting on our teaching, or a colleague’s teaching, inherently starts from a place of subjectivity and self-reported experiences -- How do I, as the instructor, feel class went? What do students think about their learning environment? How do I think my assessments compare to a colleague’s in a similar course? Self-reflection, after all, is foundational to recognizing assumptions and biases in how we design and teach our courses. However, we can adjust our approach to reflection by grounding our thinking and feeling to a concrete classroom artifact or objective observation. The following examples for reflective teaching highlight different ways we can start with evidence.

Teaching Journal. Teaching journals are a way to document your teaching experience on a daily or weekly basis. After each class, spend about five minutes recording your thoughts on the day’s lesson and interactions with students. What went well? What was challenging? If I could redo something, what would it be and what would I do differently? At the end of the semester, use your reflections to assess your experience as a whole and make informed decisions regarding future instructional changes. Consider these questions from a 2018 CTL Article.

  1. Were your stated learning outcomes well aligned with class activities and assignments? Did student learning and engagement meet your expectations? Any surprises?

  2. Were there course concepts and materials that students struggled with? Are there opportunities to approach teaching these concepts in a new way?

  3. Are there course policies or other campus resources you can add to your syllabus or bCourses site so students have the information from the start?

  4. Did you encounter any new approaches or practices during the semester, perhaps from a colleague or CTL workshop, that can help you save time and energy?

Assignment Wrapper. The goal of exam wrappers is to guide students through a review of their learning and testing experience to inform future adjustments to their learning process. Adapt this exercise to structure your review of an assignment or activity.

  1. Reflect on the design of the assignment. How is this assignment designed to help prepare students to achieve one or more stated learning objectives?

  2. Reflect on the implementation of the assignment. Did student learning and engagement meet your expectations? Were there any surprises?

  3. Reflect on how you communicated your expectations to students. Did you explain how this assignment connects to the broader picture of learning in the course? Did you describe what an exemplary submission or deliverable looks like?

  4. Reflection on the experience as a whole. What adjustments might you make to set students up for success or enhance their learning?

Peer Review of Materials. Find a trusted colleague who teaches a similar course -- similarities may include disciplinary content, course structure, enrollment size, course placement in a curriculum (e.g., introductory or advanced course), and student demographics. Select one assignment, activity, or lecture material (e.g., presentation slides, handouts) to review and gather feedback on. Use this opportunity to discuss the strengths and challenges of designing and using this teaching artifact in the context of what is similar between your courses.

Literature Scan of a Similar Assignment, Activity, or Digital Tool. Select one assignment, activity, or educational technology tool you use in your course. Then, search the literature on education research for articles describing how other instructors use the same teaching method in their courses. Education research explores the conditions under which teaching strategies, such as active learning techniquesvalues affirmations and social belonging interventions, and inclusive teaching techniques, impact student learning. Scholars consider both lab and authentic classroom contexts, and explore disciplinary-based teaching strategies. When comparing teaching methods, consider the following questions.

  1. What is similar or different to the design or implementation described in the study and my teaching method?

  2. What findings and takeaways can I generalize, adjust, and apply to my teaching context? 

  3. How might my teaching method build on the author’s findings?

New to education research? Consider starting with CBE-Life Sciences Education’s repository of annotated peer-reviewed articles to unpack various aspects of an education study.

Share Your Reflections with CTL!

The Center for Teaching and Learning wants to hear your reflections on teaching during the Fall 2020 semester. Please share your response to one or more of the following questions using this anonymous submission form. We will anonymously showcase selected responses on our website.

  1. What worked well for you? What was challenging?

  2. If you could redo something from your teaching experience, what would it be and what might you do differently?

  3. What advice would you give to a colleague preparing to teach remotely for the first time?

References and resources for further reading

Bailey, K. M., Curtis, A., and Nunan, D. (2001). Pursuing Professional Development: The Self as Source. Boston: Heinle, Cengage Learning.

Brookfield, Stephen. (1995). Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher. San-Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

End-of-the-Semester Reflection from the Teachers Point of View”. Faculty Evaluation and Coaching Department, Academy of Art University.

Fink, L. D. (2003). Creating Significant Learning Experiences: An Integrated Approach to Designing College Courses. San-Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Reflective Teaching”. Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning, Yale.

Toven-Lindsday, Brit. (2018). “No Time Like the Present”. Center for Teaching and Learning, UC Berkeley.

Weimer, Maryellen. (2002). Learner-Centered Teaching: Five Key Changes to Practice. San-Francisco: Jossey-Bass.