Have you ever found yourself on auto-pilot when grading stacks of student papers or hastily replying to discussion board posts on Canvas? No matter what the task is, stepping back and looking at what we’re doing with a critical eye can be difficult when we’re in the zone and focused. Often the rigors of teaching and learning come with deadlines and pressure to be productive, but it is helpful to balance our work habits with mindful attention to the larger purpose behind them. With warmer weather finally on its way, now is an opportune time to take a breath and engage in reflective practice about our teaching and learning processes.
As more teaching and learning activities move into the digital world, the persistent nature of how technology tools capture course data gives us an opportunity to view a straightforward record of academic communications. For example, a discussion board from a previous semester’s Canvas course can provide a snapshot of the students’ performance at that particular moment in time. Having the aggregated and searchable text of the discussion is far more accurate than a subjective recollection of what the class was saying. Collecting all this data on course interactions is one thing, but how do we use it effectively to improve instruction?
At last month’s Transforming the Teaching & Learning Environment Virtual Conference from the PA State System of Higher Education (PASSHE), the role of technology in enhancing reflective teaching practices emerged as a common theme. Many of the presenters at the PASSHE virtual conference mentioned ways of engaging in data-driven reflective teaching practices, such as analyzing electronic instructor evaluations, student-instructor emails, and assessment data with the intent of finding new ways to improve instruction.
In a PASSHE session titled “Are You Teaching What You Think You Are Teaching?,” Emily Bergquist and Rick Holbeck of Grand Canyon University discussed three different types of assessment that can guide reflective teaching as well as give feedback to students on their learning. In the view of the presenters, the purpose of assessments is to increase the quality of instruction at several points throughout the teaching process including diagnostic (before learning), formative (during learning), and summative (after learning) assessments. No matter when they occur, these should be geared toward the whole class, relate directly to learning objectives, and identify knowledge gaps that may require re-teaching.
Bergquist and Holbeck shared example assessments and outlined a strategy for designing assessments and responding to students. They recommend a six-step process of identifying, creating, testing, implementing, responding, and analyzing. For example, the minute paper assessment asks students to answer two questions: What was the most important thing you learned during this class? And what important question remains unanswered? This assessment identifies instructional needs because it is specific, measurable, and checks for student understanding. When creating an assessment, the instructor should imagine what a successful outcome would look like and then choose the tool that will lead to that. In the case of the minute paper, a text-entry Canvas assignment or an online short answer quiz may be appropriate. Before releasing an assessment, instructors should first test it by answering the questions themselves from a student perspective and then consider how they will respond to students in a feasible and time-effective manner.
When implementing an assessment like the minute summary, instructors should let students know it is coming and provide them with the underlying reasons, clear directions, and an estimated time to complete it (in this case, one minute). Next instructors think about how they will respond, what they will say, and in what time period. For example, instructors might choose to post feedback to the whole class in the form of a Canvas announcement, rather than respond to each student individually. Closing the feedback loop in a timely manner is key, so students know if they are on the right track and can move on to more advanced concepts. After responding, instructors should build in some time to analyze the assessment and use their findings to guide future instruction.
In her PASSHE virtual conference session “Faculty Development for Engaging Online Discussion Participation,” Laurie Bedford of Walden University shared a method of reflective practice through analysis of online discussion boards. Instead of just responding to each individual student’s posts, she looked at the discussion board holistically in terms of whether or not students were meeting course outcomes through their participation. Some questions to consider about student discussion posts included: In what ways were responses similar and different? How well did students seem to understand key concepts? Was a larger class perspective emerging from the different personal points of view?
After reviewing the data collected from student posts, Bedford coded individual answers and looked for categories to emerge. From this overall perspective, she could identify gaps in student knowledge where large percentages of the class missed important points or failed to reference required reading sources. With this new reflective knowledge, she adjusted her instruction by crafting new, more pointed discussion questions or by providing students with immediate feedback that guided them to more links between concepts and a more informed context for continuing the dialogue. This kind of process shifts the instructor’s role away from a passive monitor and evaluator towards an active participant and collaborator with students in an ongoing learning process.
The examples from the PASSHE session remind us that the job of engaging in reflective practice is multi-faceted and continuous. In his 1998 article “Critically Reflective Practice”, Stephen Brookfield challenges educators to constantly research their assumptions by critically viewing practice through the four lenses of their own autobiography as a learner, the eyes of their learners, the perception of their colleagues, and the theoretical, philosophical, and research literature. After twenty years of technological advancement, we can add educational technology as a fifth lens to show us a different view of our practices and as a tool to help us collect data, find new perspectives, and record our reflections.
To continue your reflective practice, leverage the technology to gather information and then consider keeping a journal, a blog, or audio/visual recordings of your reflections and observations. Use campus information channels to find a mentor among your colleagues by attending campus sharing sessions or by reaching out to others via email and social media. No matter what tool you use, your students benefit when you reflect critically on their feedback and continually improve your teaching practices so that they coalesce well with the changing fields of higher education, technology, and with the greater context of the Lasallian mission.