September 15th, 2011

Lessons Learned from Reflecting on Our Teaching Experiences


I love the fact that some pedagogical journals still publish first-person reflections on teaching experiences. Many of the disciplined-based pedagogical periodicals have moved away from these accounts in favor of more empirical investigations. I regularly highlight research both here in the blog and in The Teaching Professor newsletter because I strongly believe teaching and learning would be improved if our practice was more evidence-based. But I also believe personal accounts of teaching experiences can be first rate scholarship. They can be thoughtful, insightful, and intellectually rich journeys filled with important lessons for both the author and the readers.

I’ve just read such an account written by a neurobiologist who taught a large course for the first time—300 students in an introductory biology course for majors. “Make no mistake, years of experience and training did not prevent my confidence from temporarily waning, given reports about student resistance to innovative pedagogical approaches.” (p.114) The account contains many honest admissions like this which makes it a special gift to anyone teaching a large course for the first time.

But the audience for this article is much larger than those teaching big biology classes. It is filled with teaching ideas and insights of value to any college teacher. For example, the author, Kimberly Tanner, has patterned the article after something she has students do in all her courses. They write a 1,200 to 1,500 word final reflection at the end of the course in which they respond to this prompt: “What have your learned in this class that will continue to influence you for years to come? How have you learned these things?”

“This final reflection inevitably gives me insights into what my students have valued in the course, often things that I did not realize were critical for them.” (p. 114) I can certainly see the value of such a prompt for the teacher, but how equally useful for students to review a course experience by responding to these queries.

And so, this account answers the same prompt—what did Tanner learn teaching this large class that will influence her for years to come? She lists, explores and provides examples of five realizations. There’s space to highlight one here: “It is important to be on the same team as my students.” “One of the most striking things I have experienced as an undergraduate biology educator is the assumption that instructors and students play opposing and sometimes adversarial roles.” (p. 117-118) Quite the opposite occurred in Professor Tanner’s smaller classes but could she create the sense of a team with 300 students?

She did and the strategies she found that worked to cultivate this partnership “were neither specific activities nor anything particularly dramatic, but rather habits of language and interactions that were purposefully collegial.” (p. 118) She treated students as professional colleagues. She regularly solicited student feedback about the course—not asking whether they liked or enjoyed the course, but what supported or didn’t support their learning of its biology content. She tried to think like a student, remembering how as an undergraduate she often felt lost and unclear as to the main point of a class session, and in response to that she posted an agenda for each class session which included the “guiding question” they would be attempting to understand that day. In conversations with students she focused on their learning, not their grades. And finally she writes that that she learned once again how important it is to care about and believe in students. If their teachers do not believe in them, can students be expected to believe in themselves?

There are so many good ideas in this article—ideas for teaching large classes but also ideas for dealing with students, classrooms and content across the board. It is one of those wise and wonderful pieces of scholarship that illustrates the rich lessons to be learned from critical reflective practice. This kind of work so belongs in the canon of pedagogical scholarship.

Reference: Tanner, K. D. (2011). Moving theory into practice: A reflection on teaching a large, introductory biology course for majors. Cell Biology Education—Life Sciences Education, 10 (Summer), 113-122.