Becoming a Reflective Teacher

Chemistry 110. First day of classes.

August 20, 2018. Photo by Craig Chandler / University Communication.

As an instructor, you never teach the exact same class twice. Different students bring different interests, values, expectations, and abilities that require you to adjust what you do and how you do it. Over time, you also adjust as you learn more about what makes for an effective and engaging educational experience.

Adding an intentional reflective component to the changes you make can be a powerful way of helping you understand the impact of what you do in the classroom. The reflective process is designed to help you think more about why you make particular changes as well as what evidence you’re using to support maintaining the practices that you’ve kept around. The intent isn’t to make you change what you’re doing, but rather to help you notice what’s working well, what’s not working well, and what factors might be important drivers of both.

Lenses of Reflection

To help inform your thought process, it can be useful to bring together perspectives from different sources and see how well they fit with your own perceptions. The different lenses that you might consider include:

  • Self: In some regards, you are the best evaluator of your own experiences. Listen to your intuition and judgement and factor that into your reflection.
  • Peer: Intentional peer observation can illuminate things you might not have otherwise noticed about your teaching habits, and watching others teach can give you ideas for what you might try.
  • Student: Course evaluations have numerous flaws, but it’s also important for students' voices to be heard. How can you collect meaningful student feedback to let them know that you’re listening?
  • Literature: We often teach the way we were taught, but there is a vast body of literature on effective teaching practices that can provide valuable insights.

While this guide is largely designed to help you use the Self lens, as you engage in reflection, we highly encourage incorporating the perspectives of the other lenses.

The Reflection Process

Sometimes, the hardest part of being a reflective teacher is remembering to engage with it regularly. We recommend building reflection into your regular routine so it becomes a normal part of your teaching practice. Some things you might try include:

  • Creating a space for reflection. This might be a physical notebook or a digital space.
  • Organize your reflection. Create separate spaces devoted to individual courses, each of which has space for different types of materials and assessments and reflection at different points in the semester.
  • Set aside time daily. Maybe this means taking 5 min right after class every day or setting a daily alarm or calendar reminder at the end of your workday.
  • Reflect midway through each course. Consider pairing this with a midsemester feedback survey from your students to pair your perceptions with theirs.
  • Reflect deeply at the end. Set aside debrief time at the end of each course to do a deep, thoughtful reflection.

A key part of developing a good reflective practice is to be intentional about your reflection prompts. Otherwise, we have a tendency to focus on only what we remember best, which are often the things that have happened most recently and the things that have gone really terribly. To help structure your reflective teaching, we’ve developed some prompts you might think about at 3 different points in time: before the semester starts, at regular intervals during the semester, and after things have wrapped up.

Pre-semester: What are your expectations?

Before the semester starts, it can be useful to write a bit about your expectations for the course. The pre-semester time is often busy and can be chaotic, so this isn’t intended to take you long – just a short written statement about what you’re expecting for the course in the coming semester. You might consider using the following questions:

  • What is the most important thing you want students to take away from the coming semester?
  • What are the biggest challenges you think you and your students will face?
  • What are you most looking forward to?
  • If you’ve made large adjustments from the last time you taught the course, what impact do you expect them to have?

During the semester: What’s happening?

We often wait until the semester is over to reflect on how things went, but that can result in forgetting important things that happened – assignments that really helped motivate students, points of frustration that you could fix for next time, brilliant ideas for the future that you completely forget about, etc. You can help your future self by keeping track of this when it’s happening rather than waiting for the semester to end.

How often you engage in reflection is up to you – some folks do it after each class period while others wait until the end of each week or unit of material. We recommend choosing a structure that you know you can stick with and ensures that you won’t have forgotten important aspects of what’s happening in your course.

The structure also depends on what works well with your general workflow. We recommend setting up a space for each course you’re teaching – an Excel spreadsheet, Word doc, a space in other project management software, etc. – and then set up a structure within that space to track the following information, along with anything else you think might be useful:

  • Class activities & materials
    • What went well that I want to keep doing in the future?
    • What didn’t go well that I should change before next semester?
    • How engaged were students with this section of the course materials?
  • Assessments (exams, papers, projects, etc.)
    • What aspect of this assessment works well?
    • What changes should I make before next semester?
    • Were any aspects particularly frustrating for students? Is there additional preparation or alterations that may help students be more successful?
    • How engaging did students find this assessment?
  • Your overall workload
    • How much time did you devote to teaching this week? How does that compare to an average week?
    • Were there any tasks that unexpectedly took up lots of time (for example, a flurry of student emails or extra preparation for particular class activities?)
    • Are there things you might do differently next semester to reduce your workload?

End of semester: What to do next?

The end of the semester is when you should take the time to do a major reflection on what happened in your course. This is where you’ll take stock of what worked, what didn’t, and what you can do to improve for the future. Even if you don’t complete pre- and mid-semester reflections, this end of semester reflection is essential for your growth as an instructor as well as being important documentation for your teaching portfolio. There are a lot of things you might think about, but here are a few things you might try to get started:

  • How are you feeling? How do you think the semester went as a whole?
  • If you made them, read through your pre-semester expectations. To what degree did the course fit with your expectations? Did students fully learn the thing you identified as most important?
  • Read through the reflections you made during the semester.
    • Overall, what things went well? What things seemed to most energize and engage your students?
    • What things didn’t go as well? Is there any pattern of similarity across those things?
    • What units, materials, and assignments could most benefit from revision before teaching this course again?
  • How have you grown as an instructor over the last semester? What growth do you hope to exhibit in the future? What additional knowledge or experiences could help you with this growth?
  • Of particular importance is reflecting on the assessments that you used during the semester. You’ll want to take a close look at how students performed relative to things like your own expectations of where students should be, the objectives or the course, and student demographic backgrounds. Important questions to ask here include:
    • Based on the results of the assessments in the course, did all students that passed the class meet the stated course objectives? If not, you may need to revise your learning materials or assessment system to ensure that students are meeting objectives.
    • If you used exams in the course, you may want to reflect on overall exam scores as well as looking at subsets of questions related to particular course objectives. Are students demonstrating the same level of learning for all objectives? Are there particular topics that they struggle with? Using the exam analytics available within Canvas, are there any questions that are potentially problematic and in need of revision?
    • If you use essays or papers in your course, you may want to reflect on how well students are supported in their writing. Do you dedicate time in class to instruction in expectations for student writing? Are you giving students the opportunity to improve by revising multiple drafts? If students have good ideas but struggle with the writing itself, what additional supports may help? If it isn’t a writing emphasis course, could you give students the option of doing a presentation or other creative activity instead?
    • If you use projects in your course, you might think about how students are supported over the different phases of the project. Is the project broken down into manageable pieces with students responsible for completing each part by a specific deadline? Do students get feedback at each stage with appropriate time to incorporate changes before the next stage is due? If there are particular aspects that students struggle with (research, content, deliverables, presentations, etc.), can that part get additional support or be broken into multiple, smaller pieces? If the project ends with a formal presentation, do they have the opportunity to practice giving formal presentations before that takes place?

Help is Available!

Developing a good reflective practice that you can consistently stick to takes time and a bit of creativity. The instructional designer assigned to your unit is available to help with:

  • Developing a reflection process that works for you
  • Helping interpret student or peer feedback
  • Updating your course based on reflections
  • Developing new assignments, materials, or entire syllabi


If you would like to learn more about effective teaching reflection, we recommend the book Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher by Stephen Brookfield.

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