Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Reflection as a Tool for Improvement

All of us in the GTC likely strive to improve our teaching, and we do so in any number of ways: we assign new material, tweak our lesson plans, try out different classroom techniques, develop our presentation skills, or make other modifications to our practice. However, many of us don’t consciously reflect on the reasons for the many changes we might make. In fact, we often don’t consciously reflect on our teaching at all.

In last week’s GTC, we talked about integrating reflection into our regular teaching schedules. Rather than waiting to reflect when a situation specifically calls for it -- during pre-service training and pedagogy classes, or when asked for a teaching philosophy statement -- reflecting more often can improve our teaching and enrich our understanding of our roles as educators.

We opened the session by offering GTC members the chance to practice reflection. You can try this too! We offered the questions below as starting points and spent five minutes writing. (If you find yourself sitting and thinking instead of writing, just write what you are thinking!)

Sample Pre-Teaching Reflection Questions
  • What are my learning goals for this lesson/course/class?
  • What do I want to improve about my own teaching today?
  • What assumptions do I have about my students when they enter my classroom? How do these assumptions affect my interactions with them, and what and how I teach?

Once group members had written for a few minutes we asked everyone to share their thoughts about the process. Instead of focusing on ideas and answers to the questions, we discussed what it was like to reflect and also how writing like this before every class might help us as educators. Several group members commented that even this brief freewrite had provided them with new perspectives on their teaching and had inspired new plans for future practice.

After this practice run and debriefing conversation, we introduced the cycle of Prepare ---> Enact ---> Reflect and acknowledged that many of us get stuck solely preparing and enacting, without reflecting or without incorporating this reflection into our next phase of preparation. Reflection can actually be an important way of completing the cycle.

We moved on to discuss different reflection frameworks to use when deciding the types of questions we’d like to ask ourselves about our teaching. Based on Pete Adamy and Tyrone Howard’s work, we identified three modes of reflection that take place at different depths:
  • Procedural Reflection: Focuses on the events that take place in the classroom (What happened?)
  • Task Analysis: Focuses on how each activity plays out (What worked and how or why?)
  • Critical Reflection: Explores the larger significance of our roles as educators (How does my identity play out in the classroom? What does my teaching practice mean for me as a teacher/scholar/member of the university community?, etc)
According to to professional development literature educators typically experience an evolution in their focus, from teacher to curriculum and finally to student, and we discussed this in terms of the different perspectives that reflection might take. At different points, reflection might focus on:
  • The Teacher (Am I speaking clearly? Am I making eye contact?)
  • The Curriculum (How can I organize my content? What is important for students to know?)
  • The student (What are students taking away from my classroom? Are my students engaged?)

For the remainder of the session, we shared different reflection practices and ideas and briefly addressed post-teaching reflection questions, although we didn’t have time to complete another reflective freewrite. Below we have posted a few prompts for you to use after the next time you teach, as well as a few activities and ideas to encourage reflection and some discussion questions for this post’s comments section.

Sample Post-Teaching Reflection Questions
  • What went well, what could have gone better, or what can I do next time?
  • What did class feel like today?
  • Did I accomplish the goals I set up?

Reflection Practices and Possibilities
  • Keep a regular blog or journal that you write in as soon after teaching as possible
  • Have students submit comments and/or questions on index cards at the end of class
  • Ask students to reflect on their learning and, based on their responses, reflect on the class as a whole
  • Conduct written midquarter evaluations
  • Contact the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning to request their services, including midquarter interviews with students and videorecording of instruction
  • Find a teaching colleague and make plans to talk regularly after teaching, to observe each other teaching, or to support each other in other ways

Discussion Questions for Comments Section Below
  • Can you think of any other pre or post reflection questions? What are they?
  • What kinds of reflection techniques do you use? How are they helpful to you?


Adamy, Pete. “The Value of Reflective Frameworks for Pre-Service Teacher Reflection in Electronic Portfolios.” (DRAFT)
Howard, Tyrone. “Culturally Relevant Pedagogy: Ingredients for Critical Teacher Reflection.”

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Teaching physics/chemistry in the kitchen

Ok, not a new idea, but using a kitchen-lab to teach physics and chemistry (and I'd add microbiology!) can be: hands-on, "real-life" relevant, fun, possibly culturally diverse and inclusive...what do you think? any other example of cross-discipline classes you found effective?

e.g., see last yeast's post on this art-science fusion class!

Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Writing Process

This week we discussed the writing process, why it is fundamentally challenging for students, and an activity that might help them overcome some of these problems. We tried to keep our brainstorming broad, so that it could apply to most kinds of writing and writing assignments with which students are presented.

We began by acknowledging that writing is a multi-phase process which includes (but is not limited to):
-Understanding and addressing the question/prompt
-Brainstorming with peers/group discussion
-Reading critically/researching the topic
-Evaluating sources as reliable (this can be particularly challenging if students are allowed to use internet sources)
-Peer editing

Once we had evaluated the steps inherent in the writing process, we were able to identify some common pitfalls of writing that make the process difficult for students. These difficulties might include trouble with:
-Understanding the goal of the writing assignment
-Understanding writing as a multi-step process
-Being comfortable with jargon/vocabulary specific to the discipline
-Organization of the paper
-Overall confidence
-Staying on topic
-Transition sentences
-Command of the English language (particularly applicable to ESL students)
-Effectively researching/use of resources/using the library
-Being convinced that their writing and the topic is of importance
-Being aware of their writing style/voice
-Willingness to be flexible during drafting and re-drafting
-Ability to think logically and convey ideas in a logical manner

In order to effectively help students become better writers, it is important to acknowledge these pitfalls and address them individually, as separate skills and issues. As an example, in order to address the difficulty students might have with presenting their ideas with logical progression of thought, we suggested a group exercise one might use in their classroom.

The exercise involved deconstructing a short, well-written essay into individual paragraphs (or sentences) and asking the students to piece the essay back together. This will encourage them to consider the progression of thought followed by the author and help them think about thought progression in their own writing. The class could then discuss the activity: What was difficult about that exercise? What was helpful to think about while you were doing this exercise? What did the author of this essay do well? What did the author do poorly? How can we apply this to our own writing?

Useful links related to this discussion:
-http://lsc.ucdavis.edu/ (Academic Success Center)
-http://uwp.ucdavis.edu/ (University Writing Program)
-http://stenzel.ucdavis.edu/ (Professor John Stenzel's Home Page. Includes many useful links to other resources)

We welcome your comments and additions to this post!


Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Thinking about learning theory

Yesterday we kicked off the Fall quarter discussing NY Times article, Forget What You Know About Good Study Habits. 

After opening with neighbor check-ins over coffee and cookies, we had a recap discussion of the article's surprising conclusions,
they directly contradict much of the common wisdom about good study habits, and they have not caught on.
For instance, instead of sticking to one study location, simply alternating the room where a person studies improves retention. So does studying distinct but related skills or concepts in one sitting, rather than focusing intensely on a single thing.
The essential theme seemed to support interleaving variety in location, content, and testing.  Someone asked how this impacts block-scheduled schools, which study only one subject at a time.  This also raised several issues about how to apply these lessons in our classrooms.  

We then broke into smaller groups to workshop specific things we could learn from this and apply with our own students.  We tried group sharing by jigsaw, rotating members of a group to the next group.  Did anyone feel like that was too many transitions?  

Meanwhile, also check out the original literature on the topic: