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Best Practices in Teaching: The Reflective Instructor

An online instructor using self-reflection, one of the best practices in teaching.

Instructors who practice self-reflection in teaching can help raise the success of students who take their courses. A major role of being an instructor is helping students navigate a course while they are gaining new skills and knowledge. Students are willing to put in the time and energy to complete assignments and instructors should be willing to look at themselves as closely as they look at student work. Any instructor may point out where students need to improve their work, but instructors who use regular self-reflection look at what they can do to improve on their own work just as fervently.

Reflective Practice in Teaching

Instructor Self-Reflection

Instructors should take the time to ask themselves what they can do differently when students struggle on an assignment. If there are pain points in the courses they are teaching, and students struggle on certain assignments and seem to lose points consistently on certain parts of the rubric, asking the question “What can I do to make this better for my students?” will help their students be successful. This helps support the use of best practices in teaching. A role of being an instructor is to mark down students' work when there is need for improvement, but it is also just as important to make sure that students have all the resources they need to be successful. That may require extra guidance in announcements or allowing resubmissions of work after outlining what needs to be done to improve their grade. Treating students respectfully requires instructors to sometimes look at how they would want to be treated if they were in the same situation.

Students spend hours on assignments and take time away from family and friends to do their work and when they have little to show for it, it causes them angst. It would be better if their efforts could be rewarded by having the resources upfront to be successful. There will always be students who do not take advantage of help given to them before they start an assignment, but many students would.

The self-reflecting instructor is aware of how and why their students struggle on certain assignments and works to mitigate the obstacles that seem to trip up their students. When students struggle on the same assignments term over term, it’s important to consider changing the teaching method, so students don’t repeatedly experience the same problems.

Catherine Haras, senior director of the California State University Center for Effective Teaching and Learning, states that, “The longer a professor teaches, the more compressed (skilled but unreflective) that practice may become. As a result, years of experience etch in behaviors that are second nature and potentially fixed. Teaching without reflecting on one’s practice risks becoming repetitive and mundane, even for passionate instructors” (ACUE pdf source). Without reflection, how do I begin to know how well I am doing?

Instructors know what they are looking for on assignments, but when the students are not provided ahead of time the tools and information they need to satisfy what the instructor is looking for, assignment points are needlessly lost on grades. The self-reflecting instructor looks at how they can be a difference-maker for their students and provides them with the expectations ahead of time, so the majority are not failing the assignment, but excelling on them. Using reflective practice in teaching should become a part of any instructor’s toolbox to help students be successful.

The Hard Grader

An instructor may believe it is their role to be a hard grader and to have high expectations for their students. I would not disagree with this premise. If an instructor is going to have high expectations for their students should they not have the same expectations for themselves as instructors?

The self-reflecting instructor will be aware of whether their expectations may be unrealistic or not for their students. If an instructor’s students are struggling, the self-reflecting instructor will do what is necessary to change things in the course or provide supports for their students. They will provide good feedback on grades, which is helpful to the student as they move through the course. The instructor that gives poor grades, with little explanation as to why they are being given, and who doesn’t allow for resubmissions is bound to have dissatisfied students. The message being sent may be one of “I do not care.” That really is not the message to send to students.

A Little Compassion Helps

Compassion for students must play into the thinking of instructors as they go about teaching their course. James Lang, an online English professor at Assumption College, argues that compassion should come into play with every interaction that an instructor has with a student. Lang has become aware of the fact many of his students are taking other courses, have full-time jobs, or families to take care of, and the stress of trying to hold it all together can be overwhelming. Compassion for what students are going through should always be at the forefront. Giving a zero for work that a student has spent a great deal of time on while sacrificing time from family and sleep, because it does not meet a preconceived notion an instructor has for an assignment is not a reasonable end. The self-reflecting instructor makes sure students know beforehand what their expectations are for an assignment, especially when there may have been some confusion on them in past terms.

Unsuccessful Students

If an instructor has numerous students that do not pass their courses term over term, are they truly teaching students what they need to learn in the course, or are they more concerned with being a “tough grader?” There is nothing wrong with having high expectations for students but unrealistic expectations, or not explicitly sharing with students what those expectations are, makes students frustrated and leaves them feeling defeated. They are confused about what they need to do and begin to give up.

It is hard for a defeated student to remain engaged. There is no compassion in failing students in large numbers term over term. The self-reflecting instructor will “look in the mirror” and ask themselves what they can do differently to support their students. The instructor that never questions why many students are doing poorly in their courses may be more of the problem than the students. Teaching and grading the same way term over term is not productive if students are not having their needs met.

If students are not successful on assignments, the reflective instructor looks inward for answers and asks themself why is this happening and what they can do as an instructor to make an assignment more understandable for future students. The self-reflecting instructor will realize they are not infallible and will usually allow the students that did poorly on an assignment to resubmit work for a better grade when there may have been confusion on the part of the student. The inward-looking instructor realizes that the confusion on the part of the student may a direct result of not making their expectations clear. The instructor that routinely asks such questions of themself can consistently make things better for their students and will have successful students term over term, rather than having struggling and failing students. These teacher reflection examples are just a few of the ways the self-reflecting instructor can foster success for students.

Self-Reflection in Teaching: Instructor Role in Success

The inward-looking instructor works to make sure their students are successful, and it pains them when they are not. Some instructors still believe it is up to the student as to whether they will be successful, and there is some truth to this belief, but who is ultimately responsible for student learning and success? When students are not successful in a course there are two types of instructors. The first type of instructor will do no self-reflection and continue to lay the blame on the students for “not getting it.” The second type of instructor will ask themselves why that is and is there something that they could do differently as an instructor? This simple question may make all the difference in the world for students.

Dr. Paul Hummel, creator of the website Adjunct Assistance, states that “instructors should use contemplation as a tool for improvement.” For him, contemplation takes different forms. It can be thinking about why students did poorly on an assignment or thinking of ways to better engage your students in the online environment. Regardless, Hummel believes contemplation can be the driving force behind the belief that instructors can always do better and that there is room for constant improvement.

If an instructor demands improvement and accountability from students, should not the instructor demand that from themself? Teaching and learning is a two-way street.

Dr. Thomas MacCarty is associate dean of social sciences. He can be found on LinkedIn.

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