Reflecting on Teaching

Believe it or not, right now—as classes finally come to a close and we immerse ourselves in assessing our students’ learning—is the perfect time to pause, reflect, and assess our teaching as well.  At no other time will we likely be as tuned in to what worked, what didn’t, and why.

Ideally, we would revise the course now, when it’s fresh in our minds, but we may not have time to do that.  What we can do, though, is take some notes and write short reflective pieces that we can refer to later, when we do have time to revise the course.  Consider these guidelines for reflection:

Take notes on your student-learning outcomes:  Did students achieve the goals you set?  If so, did anything specific account for the success?  If not, what were the barriers?  What can you do next time to avoid those barriers?  In retrospect, were the outcomes you expressed really the ones you were seeking?  If not, take notes on how you might revise them.  If you didn’t articulate student-learning outcomes at all, draft ideas for a few now; students are more focused and receptive when they have a clear understanding of your expectations for their learning.

Comment on your course materials:  Note which texts worked and were well received by students.  Was a text outdated, poorly written, or otherwise insufficient?  If so, note the problems and make a list of the attributes you’d like to see in a replacement text.  Would other texts or additional technology (YouTube videos; TED Talks; news feeds; links to documentaries, music, articles, etc.) enhance the course?  Make a wish list.

Consider the flow of the course:  Were there instances in which the transition from one topic to the next was stilted and in need of a smoother transition? Did students need information from a later unit earlier in the semester?  Should you spend more time on one topic and less on another?  Mark up your master syllabus to remind yourself of these issues.

Reflect on how you used class time:  Did you take the time to introduce your course’s student-learning outcomes and discuss their value to your students at the start of the semester?  Which classroom activities were particularly successful?  Did you spend too much time lecturing on material students could have learned from the reading, at the expense of interacting with that material in class?  Would you like to record some of your lectures for presentation to students online, leaving more class time for activities?  Do you wish you had incorporated more opportunities for active learning?  Did you refer back to your student-learning outcomes as you wrapped up the course?  What energized or deflated student enthusiasm?  What energized or deflated you?

This need not be a formal, drawn-out endeavor; even an hour or two of reflection can make a world of difference later on.  Now may not feel like the perfect time for deep introspection, but you may not teach this course again for several months—maybe even years—so take advantage of the moment to make the next experience easier.

While you’re reflecting, why not update your teaching philosophy?  Attend a CETL teaching talk on writing or revising your teaching philosophy on May 8 from 1:30 to 2:45 in ROWE 319; register here.

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Teaching Philosophy

Writing teaching philosophies has become a common practice among educators, as these documents can be useful—and are often recommended or required—in job applications for faculty positions and in the promotion and tenure review process.

Instructors also find the writing process instrumental in making their own teaching more deliberate and intentional:  We often teach without ever really thinking about long-term goals, but the process of writing a teaching philosophy encourages the kind of consideration and reflection that can ultimately improve our effectiveness in the classroom.

Before you start writing,

  • Review current research on the scholarship of teaching and learning in your field
  • Reflect on the situational factors that have influenced your teaching
  • Ask yourself general questions about your teaching as you seek to characterize your particular style
  • Consider creating several versions (e.g., a paragraph-long version and another that’s closer to a page in length, or perhaps separate teaching philosophies for each course)

Though you might find it helpful to read others’ teaching philosophies, recognize that your philosophy is unique to you and your specific teaching situation, so there is no one-size-fits-all model.  Contact CETL if you would like help devising a teaching philosophy of your own.

Active Learning Strategies

We’ve been hearing a lot about active learning these days, but what, exactly, does active learning mean? Neal (2010) defines active learning as “educational methods in which students are involved in higher-order thinking (analysis, synthesis, evaluation). The term therefore primarily reflects what is going on in a student’s mind, whether or not the body (or the mouth) is physically active.” Studies show that active learning can increase students’ attention in class, as well as their retention of ideas, leading to more effective, gratifying, and memorable learning outcomes. In fact, most people learn better from actively engaging with material than they do from passively listening to a speaker or reading from a textbook.  Active learning strategies have students “doing” things—analyzing, creating, role playing, experiencing, reflecting, etc.

According to the Center for Teaching & Learning at the University of Minnesota, the four Basic Active Learning Activities are the same elements you are probably already using in your class:

  1. Talking and listening – Students actively process information when they ask or answer questions, comment, present, and explain. When students go beyond passive listening to relate, analyze, and use what they are hearing, they are engaged in active learning.  Discussions and Interactive Lectures are useful strategies.
  2. Writing – Students can actively process information by putting it in their own words; this can help students organize their thoughts and reflections and prepare them for discussion. Check out these suggestions for Informal Writing Activities from the University of Minnesota.
  3. Reading – Instructors often expect students to learn through reading. It’s easy for students to read passively in order “to get it done.”  Providing questions, summary exercises, opportunities for posts or reflection, etc., can transform it into an active process.  Students can often benefit from instruction on Active Reading.
  4. Reflecting – Class periods are often packed with information. Students sometimes need time to process the material and connect it to what they’ve already learned.  Reflecting on the applications and implications of new knowledge can help develop higher-order thinking skills and Metacognition.

Visit Active Learning Strategies for an explanation of several individual, paired, and small- and large-group active learning activities.

Planning a Service Learning Course

Service Learning develops students as active learners who become stakeholders in their own education. The integration of course content, community work, and reflection fosters an active learning environment that strengthens students’ social, moral, professional, and civic development.  It connects disciplines to help solve multidimensional issues that our society faces in mutual collaboration with our communities. It enables faculty to be creative and innovative with their research questions pertaining to community needs and allows students to be part of that reciprocal process.

Unfortunately, instructors often make the mistake of simply “adding” a service learning component to an existing course without ever fully thinking the project through.  It’s no wonder, then that half way though the semester they find themselves compromising their coverage of content, requiring more work than usual of students, mired in conflict resolution and logistical details, and utterly exhausted.

It makes far more sense to choose a focused, systematic approach to service learning that avoids these common pitfalls—one that recognizes the significance of the following:

  • choosing a reciprocal service project that is mutually beneficial
  • teaming up with responsive and reliant community partners
  • considering the situational factors associated with service learning
  • aligning student learning outcomes, assessments, content, and activities (including service) into a fluid and well-designed course
  • articulating the purpose and value of service learning in the syllabus and occasionally in class throughout the course
  • assigning continuous opportunities for reflection

If you are considering designing a course that includes service learning or adding a service learning component to an existing course, please attend the CETL teaching talk “Planning a Service Learning Course” on Monday, March 27th, from 10:00 to 11:15 a.m. in ROWE 319; register here.  Visit the service learning website for information on developing a service learning course or project and obtaining SL designation for your course.


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Formative Student Self-Assessment, Mar. 2017

Instructors often spend a great deal of time designing and grading assessments and administering surveys aimed at objectively measuring student learning.  Though such objective assessments are necessary, don’t lose sight of the value of asking students to consider what THEY are doing to achieve success in the course.

We’ve all had students ask, “Why did you give me this grade?” as if they played no role in the outcome.  A better question might be, “Why did my work warrant this grade?” or “What can/should I do differently next time?”  Students may not even think to reflect on how their own actions facilitate or impede their learning; a few well-timed questions could encourage them to think more critically about themselves as learners.  Consider asking questions like these:

  • How much time are you putting into your preparation each week?
  • Do you do readings in advance of the classroom presentation/discussion?
  • Do you participate in discussion?
  • Do you give the contributions of other students your serious attention?
  • Have you talked to the instructor on a one-on-one basis?
  • After your most recent exam, did you reconsider your study strategies?

Challenging students to reflect on and take responsibility for their learning helps focus their energies in a productive and mature direction.

Much of this information comes courtesy of Professor Jean Givens; contact her to learn how she uses this technique in her classroom.

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Formative Mid-Semester Assessments, Feb. 2017

Do you wonder how your students are responding to your course this semester?

Consider administering a formative assessment to gather mid-semester feedback that you can use to improve your teaching while your course is underway.  Formative assessment can help you recognize when your students are struggling and enable you to address problems in the middle of the semester.

Many instructors choose to create and administer their own surveys, student self-assessments, or feedback forms.  CETL, in conjunction with OIRE, also offers you the option to have a mid-semester survey sent directly to your students.  See more about the surveys here, where you may choose the appropriate survey for your course.  Unlike end-of-semester student evaluations of teaching, mid-semester surveys are optional, and the results are completely confidential.  You can use these formative assessments privately, or you may decide to share them with your department head, along with the resulting course modifications, and include the same in your teaching portfolio.

Results of these surveys can provide you with valuable opportunities for reflection and course improvement, and studies show that when students know that you intend to use the results to improve your course immediately, response rates are typically high and the students’ critiques are carefully thought-out.

Please request yours here no later than March 10, 2017.  Contact CETL if you would like to learn more about formative assessment or arrange for consultations or classroom observations.

Maintain Academic Integrity in Writing Assignments, Feb. 2017

Academic Integrity in Writing Assignments

Most undergraduates at UConn have taken a First-Year Writing course, and they should be well versed in the procedures for properly incorporating researched information into their papers, yet experience warns us that—whether they are freshmen or seniors—several students need refreshers on this topic.  For example, students typically know that they must cite direct quotations, but many are not so sure about citing material they have paraphrased or summarized from outside sources.

Review the Guidelines and Provide Resources—In order to mitigate any confusion, consider using class time to review your course’s citation style and the UConn library’s Plagiarism Resources, familiarize students with UConn’s Plagiarism Policies, and emphasize the consequences of committing plagiarism in your course; maybe even ask your students to complete this Quick Tutorial or this interactive Plagiarism Module.  Note that students can also work with tutors in the Writing Center if they have any questions about information literacy or academic integrity in writing.  The Writing Center provides walk-in sessions and appointments.

Use HuskyCT Tools—Don’t forget about the option to have students submit their papers via SafeAssign on HuskyCT.  SafeAssignments deter students from committing plagiarism and help you to identify plagiarism in papers.  SafeAssign compares submitted assignments against a set of academic papers to identify areas of overlap between the submitted assignment and existing works.  SafeAssign is effective as both a deterrent and an educational tool: Use SafeAssign to review assignment submissions for originality and create opportunities to help students identify how to properly attribute sources rather than paraphrase.  See this Information on Using SafeAssign.  SafeAssign itself probably shouldn’t be used as the final arbiter in making a determination about plagiarism; it’s a helpful tool, but an experienced teacher is still the best final judge.

Know your Roles and Responsibilities—It is very important to work with the Office of Community Standards to follow appropriate procedures for academic misconduct. The Academic Integrity FAQ page clarifies the instructor’s role in maintaining academic integrity at UConn; visit the Community Standards Academic Misconduct Procedure Review to learn more.  You can also find information about your roles and responsibilities regarding misconduct in the Academic Integrity/Misconduct section of the Faculty and Staff Resource Guide.

Contact Community Standards if you have questions about these procedures.