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Reflective Comments

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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I'll never forget that day. My first thought was: "Why is that student talking to me like this?" I can still picture the classroom, a snapshot, as though looking over my own shoulder toward the student. No one moved. And I can still feel the silence, the long, long silence. My cheeks burned. My throat shriveled shut. Finally I mumbled something that was supposed to be coherent. Later in my office, after the shock had worn off, I tried to come up with a better answer, but every attempt was pitiable. They were all pitiable because the student was right: There was no reason for them to learn what I had told them.


The posting below, a bit longer than most, looks at the importance of generating "reflective comments" on your lectures and other teaching activities. It is from Chapter 3: Change can be Piecemeal, in Leaving the Lectern: Cooperative Learning and the Critical First Days of Students Working in Groups, by Dean A. McManus of the University of Washington in Seattle, WA. [ISBN 1-882982-85-1]. Published by Anker Publishing Company, Inc. Bolton, Massachusetts. []. Copyright ? 2005 by Anker Publishing Company, Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis UP NEXT: Reinventing the Research University

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning


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Faculty can be quick to cut and run before even considering how they might begin to change the way they teach. (Don't let that notion nudge you toward the door.) An all too handy excuse given to me for this behavior is that they don't have time to sit down and work out changes for the whole course. Although you certainly can change the whole course, you don't have to. I didn't. You can make the change step by step. This is easier to do when you have the end in mind so that you know where you are going. Nevertheless, you may already have taken some of those preliminary steps without thinking of them as being part of charging the way you teach.

I was surprised to find that my lecture notes for the first course that I taught, notes I had not looked at for years before writing this book, contained a few reflective comments in the margin that indicated I had begun making changes while teaching my first course. As I have mentioned, most of them dealt with reorganizing the topics or adding or dropping topics, but a few dealt with presentation. For example, beside the lecture notes for one topic is a marginal scribble, "very unsatisfactory," in triple underline, no less. The section on another topic is condemned: "This is terrible!!" An abbreviated comment suggests a different presentation for a concept that is particularly difficult for students to understand on first hearing, but the comment is crossed through, apparently a record of the failure of that presentation. No sign of what happened next. Finally, a diagram sketched on the back of a page of notes as an alternative illustration of a certain natural process bears the comment: "This works very well on the blackboard."

As you can see, most of these reflective comments record my dissatisfaction at not being able to present the material clearly to the class. My guess, in hindsight, is that dissatisfaction arose from insecurity, from lacking the command of the material that would have enabled me to use a depth of understanding to present the content as simply and clearly as possible. But though restricted solely to content, the comments also must have been my early desultory attempts to enhance student learning. Therefore, if you have written such comments as these in your lecture notes, then you, too, may have already begun to make piecemeal changes in the way you teach. If you haven't, now is a good time to begin.

These comments are one type of information to go in a teaching portfolio (Davis, 1993, Teaching Dossier; Seldin, 2004). For now, though, you aren't interested in creating a teaching portfolio, but you should know what it is. A teaching portfolio is your collection of information about your teaching. Think of it as similar to artists' portfolios of their work, or photographers' portfolios of their work. It contains several types of information about your teaching and your students' learning, some that you create, some that come from your colleagues, and some that come from your students. The basic piece of information is you self-reflective statement about your teaching, which includes your teaching goals, perhaps as you have determined your general goals by completing the Teaching Goals Inventory. The portfolio would also include the changes you made in the materials in the course and in the methods you used to teach that material, your reasons for making the changes, and the results of the changes.

So you see, the little reflective comments on your lecture notes about making even minor changes in the content or the presentation are an inchoate self-reflection, albeit not very critical yet. The teaching portfolio is the collection of all this information. We'll come back to the subject of this portfolio collection from time to time. Incidentally, whereas the teaching portfolio is a record of your teaching in all your courses, either for your use to improve your teaching or for your department's use to consider you for tenure or promotion, there is a course portfolio that you may develop for your use to improve your teaching in a single course. (Hutchings, 1998; Peer Review of Teaching, 2001).

Making Small Changes

Let's return to the senior-level course that I changed. We'll consider first the small changes I made in it during the first three times I taught it alone. Then we'll at a bigger change I made that turned out to be a transitional stage to the final change from lecture to a form of active learning called cooperative learning.

It will suffice for us to consider active learning as all the formats or arrangements which "require students to apply what they are learning" (Meyers & Jones, 1993, p. xi). Many of these activities can be carried out by individual students or pairs of students. (For a more thorough description and various examples, see Meyers & Jones or the following online references: Center for Teaching Excellence, n.d.; McKinney, 2004; Paulson & Faust, 2003.) Some activities require groups of students, such as cooperative learning (Johnson, Johnson, & Smith, 1991; Millis & Cottell, 1998; see online Cooperative Learning Center, n.d.). Other group formats include problem-based learning (Duch, Groh, & Allen, 2001; see online University of Delaware Problem-Based Learning, 1999) and case studies, the latter being common in business, law, and medicine (for science see online National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science, n.d.).

My course met four days a week for 50 minutes. (We are on a quarter term.) It was now my course, after years of team teaching. During the last year or two, I had made a few changes, mainly in the presentation. For instance, I had begun showing slides of the geologic shoreline features I was lecturing on so that students could see what I was describing. I guided students' assigned reading by providing them with study questions. And I even tried writing two or three questions on the blackboard at the beginning of each class period to prime their attention for the important points of the lecture. I cannot take credit for these innovations. I copied them from a couple of colleagues. I also noticed that the other instructor in the course, while we team-taught it, used problem sets (homework) effectively, and I stored away the observation. In other words, I had begun to copy some teaching methods that I saw other instructors use of that I heard about their using. You, however, can discover other teaching methods more easily. You can read about them in the books I have cited, in other books, on the web, or from the staff at the teaching center on your campus, as well as from colleagues.

Because the course was no longer team-taught, now I had to cover all the topics, which meant I had to expand my lecture notes, always a lengthy task. The course outline was the usual list of topics, one or more for each day. I also had my own outline, however, on which I noted what I actually covered in each class period. What I covered was invariably less than what I had planned to cover, a situation that would call for adjustments before the end of the term.

Although I see from my notes for the first day of class that I told the 25 students "class time will be more question and discussion than lecturing," I'm sure the long list of topics caused me to lecture all the time. The significant point, however, is not that there was little discussion but that I would have had the gumption to tell the class to expect more question and discussion than lecturing. I obviously wanted to change the was I taught but didn't know how to make the change and fell back into just covering the material, the easy way out, the old habit.

On the first day of class I also asked the students about their main sub-disciplinary interest in their oceanography major, which was my first attempt to learn something about my students. I found out that most of the students in my marine geology course were biological oceanographers, not marine geologists and geophysicists, but I did not make use of the information in the way I taught the class. It never entered my mind to do so-and if it had, I wouldn't have known how to do it (Davis, 1993, Responding to a Diverse Student Body).

I also had come to know myself well enough as a teacher to realize that I was not comfortable preparing study questions about the reading or attention-guiding questions to write on the blackboard. So I dropped both activities. Rather, I chose to spend my time preparing weekly homework problems, which provided the students with something to do, rather than think about. (I'll elaborate on this "doing" in a moment.) The homework was graded by the TA, an arrangement that continued the TA's responsibilities in the course but also kept me at a distance from the students. In retrospect, I think this arrangement supported my ambivalence toward the students; I wanted to know more about them, but from a distance. The need to distance myself from them must have been grounded in my anxiety. I suppose I could have been lumped into what Palmer (1998) calls a "bad teacher," by which he means those teachers who "distance themselves from the subject they are teaching-and in the process, from their students" (p. 11). But I must have been making progress in overcoming my anxiety, for no longer did I need to wear the white lab coat to class.

I also told the students on the first day that the problems in the homework were of the type that would be on the exams. As you recall, the students had always complained that my exams were impossible for them to study for. My exams consisted of questions about data that would be presented with the exam itself, on a map or chart in the room during the exam, or as a sample on a table. It finally dawned on me that the students had never experienced the situation they encountered during an exam; that is, they had never worked any problems like the exam problems. No wonder they couldn't study for the exams. Now, however, they would have solved some problems in the homework that were of the type on the exam. Although I stumbled onto this improvement in testing the students, I remained ignorant of other aspects of testing that could have enhanced my students' learning (Davis, 1993, Testing and Grading; McKeachie, 2002, Assessing, Testing, and Evaluating).

Probably the most significant little change I made was to begin the practice of writing myself more informative comments about the course for the next year. My first comment suggested revisions in the homework, which I made. It also recommended giving more time for certain topics that I had rushed through, rearranging the order of some topics for a more logical connection, and dropping one topic. Dropping the one topic gave me the extra time for the rushed topics. But oh, the topic I dropped! How I hated to drop it, because I understood this topic very well, unlike topics I had dropped in the past because I didn't understand them. It was some research I had done, and I found it very interesting, so interesting that I wanted the students to know about it. (Did you catch that? "To know about" it! How vague!) But the day I was lecturing on it, a student raised his hand and asked: "Why are we learning this?"

I'll never forget that day. My first thought was: "Why is that student talking to me like this?" I can still picture the classroom, a snapshot, as though looking over my own shoulder toward the student. No one moved. And I can still feel the silence, the long, long silence. My cheeks burned. My throat shriveled shut. Finally I mumbled something that was supposed to be coherent. Later in my office, after the shock had worn off, I tried to come up with a better answer, but every attempt was pitiable. They were all pitiable because the student was right: There was no reason for them to learn what I had told them.

I had included the topic because it was about my specialty in the discipline, my own research. (So much for being close to the subject you are teaching!) What is so sad about this incident is that I was totally unaware of being on the receiving end of a teaching moment, or as Palmer (1998) would call it, a "critical moment"; that is, a learning opportunity, in this case for me rather than the students. I dropped my interesting but irrelevant topic, but what I failed to learn from this moment was the need to define what I expected students to learn in my course; call it my goals or my expected learning outcomes (Davis, 1993, Deciding What You Want to Accomplish; Fink, 2003, Appendix A: Planning Your Course: A Decision Guide; McKeachie, 2002, Write Objectives, Goals, or Outcomes). As you have read, that failing had dogged me from the beginning and would continue to do so. It was just too easy for me to say that I wanted them to learn everything I told them. After all, everything I told them interested me. When I began teaching not everything I taught interested me, but all of it had now become important to me.

Examining my course folders for the next two times I taught the course, I see that I kept adding to the course with great enthusiasm. Oh, I added more topics to the outline; each topic was important for them "to know about". I added more papers to the reading list; there were so many really important papers they should "know about". I added displays of the kind of data that would be on the exams. In computing there grade I added to the usual two midterm exams, final exams, and weekly homework, a quiz about shoreline features as shown in 35mm slides and a two-page paper of independent research on a shoreline hazard assessment.

In part, what I was adding to the course were additional ways for the students to do something with data or observations. In an undesigned and unfocused manner, I was making them more active in the course. Being ignorant of the research on student learning, I didn't even think about student learning as a goal, strange as that may sound today. Learning was something that just happened, an activity, not a result. Rather, I took the track of preparing them for the practical needs of employment. For employment, it seemed to me, they needed to be able to do things with what they had learned, although I didn't know just what they should be able to do, having never been employed with a bachelor's degree, not having talked to employers. That said, I still lectured to them four days a week, unaware of the contradiction between my ill-formed goals of their things and my method of teaching that had them merely recording my words.

No longer, however, did I tell then on the first day of class that there would be more questions and discussion than lecturing. I had wised up. Instead, I told them: "I'm assuming you could be a practicing oceanographer a year from now, so I'll treat you more like scientists that students. I'll expect you to learn some fundamentals of marine geology, develop your ability to derive your own opinions by accepting or rejecting observations and data and making different interpretations." It certainly sounds good, doesn't it? But my expectations for them were still vague. I'm sure I had no idea how to achieve those goals.

Nevertheless, I must have been doing something right, for after the second time I taught the course I received my best teaching evaluation thus far and, on the students' nomination, was awarded the College of Ocean and Fishery Sciences award for distinguished undergraduate teaching. That was simply unbelievable. What a thrill! Quite possibly owing to the excitement of receiving that award from the students, I added even more to the course, and as you might guess, I ended up overtasking the students the next year. I hadn't meant to do that. They were not happy. I sank from a marvelous emotional high to a deplorable low. It was obvious that I had to make a major change for the following year, and I did. Little did I know that the change was actually a transitional change into a completely different type of teaching-and student learning.