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Looking Backward to Move Your Courses Forward: Reflecting on a Year of Teaching
BY NATASHA PATRITO HANNON, EDUCATIONAL DEVELOPER, TEACHING SUPPORT CENTRE
If I listen closely enough, I can hear it. The collective sigh that escapes from Western faculty on that day in late April or early May when final grades are due, when the race to stay one lecture ahead of your students is momentarily over. If you are anything like me, you try to make a clean break, hiding the course textbook in a neglected corner of the bookshelf, wiping the desktop free of any traces of lecture notes. I tell myself that distance makes the heart grow fonder. That the course could use some rejigging, but that I’ll get back to it soon…in a couple of weeks…once I’ve had a bit of a break…
And then suddenly it’s late-August. Perhaps the updating of that course will have to wait? I guess I’ll run with what I’ve got...
In an ideal world, each of us would reflect on our teaching in an on-going and structured way throughout the year, embedding mechanisms to collect and act on student feedback at multiple points in the semester, keeping a teaching log to note successes and course elements that will require revision. Caught up in the torrent of the academic year, however, many of us wait for the summer months to cast a critical eye on our courses and renew or redesign our teaching efforts. In this article, I’ll offer some guiding questions to structure your reflections over the summer months and suggest tools that will help you translate your thoughts into meaningful course improvements.
Critical reflection on teaching and learning, as described by Brookfield (1995), requires self-discipline and a willingness to examine our unspoken assumptions about education. He suggests that if we view our practice through four ‘lenses’ – self, student, peer, and literature – we can gain unique insights into the pedagogical choices that we make, the positive, neutral or negative impacts these choices have on student learning, and alternative approaches that might improve learning moving forward.
I recently came across a fascinating paper by neurobiologist, Kimberley Tanner (2011), in which she challenged herself to complete the same end of semester assignment as her introductory biology students – a 1500 word reflection piece responding to the prompt, “What have you learned in this class that will continue to influence you for years to come? How have you learned these things?” Not only did she emerge from the process with five action-oriented insights that were broadly applicable to many of the courses that she teaches, she did so without becoming mired in the ‘problems’ that she experienced when teaching the class.
As academics, our teaching reflections often turn directly into analyses of what ‘went wrong’, which can leave us feeling demoralized. Instead, I suggest that at the end of this winter term, you take a few minutes to jot down your responses to the following questions: Over the past academic year, when have I felt most effective as an instructor? When were my students most excited about or engaged in my course(s)? Consider the conditions that surrounded these optimal experiences. Are there any commonalities or themes that emerge? How might I embed more of those moments into the next iteration of my course(s)? By focusing on what has worked in the past year of teaching, you may uncover unknown strengths, and by creating more opportunities for those effective practices to take root in your classrooms, you will automatically ‘crowd out’ less fruitful activities.
As I was perusing websites and blogs in preparation for writing this article, I came across a suggestion from a University of Winnipeg guidebook, Students Rating Teaching (2006) that was staggeringly simple and yet novel. Consider filling out Western’s Student Evaluation form yourself (keeping a specific course in mind) in advance of reading any student feedback from that class. This provides a baseline against which you can compare student ratings and helps you to quickly identify points of convergence and divergence. You are then free to focus your attention on any unanticipated points of weakness that were highlighted by students. This strategy helps to eliminate some of the ‘noise’ that can be associated with reviewing and acting on student feedback and gives you a concrete starting point from which to address their concerns.
In my daily encounters with graduate students and faculty, I am continually continued from page 1 astounded by the collective teaching wisdom that exists in our community of scholars. All of us have wrestled with the problems of communicating complex ideas, engaging and motivating students and posing effective questions, and much can be gained from sharing these experiences with one another.
If you have a close colleague or group of colleagues with whom you are comfortable sharing your teaching concerns, set dates to meet monthly throughout the summer to chat about your respective course renewal processes. Standing meetings will give you momentum and provide incentive to turn your reflections into concrete syllabus changes. Multiple sets of eyes and ears will offer new ideas to help you overcome challenges or offer different approaches to assessment, sequencing of course material, promoting participation, etc.
If you would like to meet with an interdisciplinary group of faculty, the Teaching Support Centre will be introducing its first ‘Course Renewal’ summer learning community. Throughout the summer, interested instructors will gather informally during the last week of each month to dialogue about their course ‘renovations’ and to gather ideas and feedback from colleagues. For more information about this learning community, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
There is a great body of literature related to effective course design, authentic assessments of student learning, and motivating participation. Engaging with this research and coming to understand that there are teaching practices that offer demonstrated and measureable benefits for student learning allows us to “take informed actions in our classes that can be justified and explained to others,” (McLean, 2007). However, wading through hundreds of studies outside of your area of expertise is a daunting task. If you were to ask me to help you navigate this research and suggest just one paper that encapsulates the connection between critical reflection and a renewed approach to teaching and learning, I would offer David Whetten’s Principles of Effective Course Design: What I wish I had known about learner-centered teaching 30 years ago (2007).
For a more robust and consolidated overview of key course design and teaching and learning literature, consider attending the TSC’s Course Design & Renovation Workshop (May 27 & 29, 2014), a two-day intensive seminar designed to help you create a course with well-aligned learning outcomes, assessments, and teaching strategies. Visit our website for more information on this program or to register.
Brookfield, S.D. (1995). Becoming a critically reflective teacher. San Francisco: Josey-Bass.
Lawall, M. (2006). Students rating teaching: How student feedback can inform your teaching. Retrieved from http://intranet.umanitoba.ca/ academic_support/catl/media/ seeq_booklet.pdf.
McLean, J. (2007). Reflecting on your teaching. In Teaching at the University of Manitoba: A handbook (Section 5.9). Retrieved from http://intranet.umanitoba.ca/ academic_support/catl/media/5_ lr_UTShandbook.pdf.
Tanner, K. D. (2011). Moving theory into practice: A reflection on teaching a large, introductory biology course for majors. CBE Life Sciences Education, 10 (2), 113-122.
Whetten, D. (2007). Principles of effective course design: What I wish I had known about learner-centered teaching 30 years ago. Journal of Management Education, 31 (3), 339- 357.