Reflective Teaching

Published: Tues., April 18, 2017

The end of a semester is a convenient opportunity to consider and record your progress and accomplishments from the previous few months. Updating your CV or résumé as you go is a wise, time-saving practice. But you can do more than just add another line to your CV.

If you had a teaching responsibility, it's worth giving special focus on what went well in class and what you could improve in the future. By continually documenting your teaching effort you can build an impressive teaching portfolio that includes data and substantiation from multiple sources.

Reflective Memos

Asking your students to provide their perspective on the course and your teaching is a common and time-honored way to assess your efforts, but a written account of your personal experience—independent of third-party feedback—can be incredibly valuable.

Record in writing your perceptions about topics such as your performance, your rapport with your students, and the success of assignments and assessments. If you'll receive teaching evaluations, do this before you look at your feedback! Ask yourself questions like the following, and write down your answers:

  • From my perspective, how did the course go this semester? What aspects went really well? What could have gone better?
  • What was the general atmosphere in the class? Did my students seem excited to be there? Did I feel enthusiasm for each class period? If not, what were the factors that prevented it from being a more enjoyable experience?
  • Did my students meet my expectations with respect to attendance, attention, and participation in class? Can I do anything to assist or encourage my future students to do better in this regard?
  • Did my students achieve the course learning goals? If so, how do I know? If not, what should I change to improve student outcomes? Could I do anything differently to communicate the learning goals to my students more effectively?
  • If you also received student feedback: What do I hope to learn from the results of my teaching evaluation? What do I expect my students to report that they liked or disliked about the course or my teaching?

Even in the absence of outside perspectives (e.g., student feedback),  you can reflect on and record your thoughts, feelings, and attitudes about the semester. By documenting your own opinions, you can identify changes you can make and set goals for yourself.  You're also better able to respond appropriately to any feedback you receive, since you've already thought through potential challenges and solutions. These reflections can also be a part of your teaching portfolio demonstrating your efforts to improve your teaching or serve as the basis for a teaching philosophy or teaching statement.

Collecting Student Feedback

While reflecting on your teaching can be a useful exercise, it's helpful to also ask your students for formal feedback on your teaching. If you were the Instructor of Record for a course, your department will probably ask your students to complete a standard teaching evaluation, and you should have access to the results shortly after grades are submitted. However, if you were a teaching assistant, lab instructor, or recitation leader, there may not be a formal evaluation of your teaching in your department. In that case, you'll need to take the initiative! First, ask the course instructor or supervisor if you can get some student feedback for your teaching development. If they agree, ask your students to complete a simple survey. Two or three basic, open-ended questions are sufficient:

  • What did I do as a teacher this semester that helped you in this class?
  • What got in the way of your learning in this class?
  • What changes would you suggest for the next time I teach this class?

Generally, we recommend that TAs step out of the room when students complete the feedback form, so that you do not influence what students might say. You should ask a colleague or a student to collect the forms you use, but you can explain to your students first that you'll use their feedback to set developmental goals for yourself. Ask them to be kind, but honest. Make sure to emphasize that this feedback is not just to help you improve your instruction, but also so that you can improve the learning experience for other students in the future.

Reacting to Student Feedback

  • Address one or two points that your students identified as needing improvement and your plans to improve in these areas.
  • Summarize one or two aspects of the course or your teaching that your students found satisfactory, and correlate that with other changes you might make elsewhere. Could you make changes to bolster these strengths?
  • Discuss how your students’ feedback matches—or doesn't match—your perspectives that you wrote down earlier.
    • Pay special attention to aspects that your students identified and that you hadn’t noticed.
    • Even if your assessments agree, did your students have a different interpretation? (For example, imagine you both noticed low student participation. You thought it was because of inadequate student preparation, while students felt vulnerable to fellow students' reactions to their input.)
    • Explain how the feedback helped you better understand the basis of the observed phenomena and your planned response to the issues.
  • Set some specific, measureable goals to respond to student feedback.
  • Develop and explain strategies you’ll employ to avoid or ameliorate the identified issues or situations if they arise again.

In the end, you'll have produced an illuminating evaluation of your teaching experience and how you incorporate self-reflection and student suggestions. To round out your discussion, consider how your class was structured, the activities and materials you used, and changes you made in the classroom. Discuss your perceptions of change in student behavior, classroom atmosphere, and achievement of learning goals in response to your teaching.