Reflective Teaching

By David Papendorf

As most of us know, the way that graduate students in history survive is by teaching—or at least that’s what our stipends pay us to do.  It can be both incredibly frustrating and rewarding to teach undergraduate students. However, I think too often in a moment of frustration or the busyness of our schedules, we can get caught up in a false dichotomy of crediting a bad class experience to “bad” students. It becomes so easy to chalk up classroom disappointments and poorly-written papers to disinterested, under-equipped, underachieving, and lazy students that we can easily mistake student performance as the ultimate judge of classroom success.  Alternatively, we can just as easily chalk up great classes to brilliant students and not attempt to understand exactly why things went well.

While I think it important to focus on the students’ experience, we must also not let our highs and lows of teaching be dependent on student response and energy in the classroom as the only metric. By examining each class through the prism of our teaching with some reflective method of evaluating our teaching, we can more readily find what works and doesn’t work and adjust our teaching plans accordingly.

Troubleshooting and diagnostics are incredibly important in reflecting on why the classroom experience went poorly. It can be difficult to think through why things went the way they did.  But I think we owe it to ourselves and our students to take a few minutes and reflect on each class.  I have learned from a former mentor and professor of mine one tip that I have tried to implement.  He suggested I write four sentences after every class/section/seminar summarizing the overall effectiveness of the class time.  This summary should include not just an evaluation of the class time, but at least one success and one area for improvement.  Each summary, he suggested, should be class specific and could even use the names of students directly.  He then suggested that, when preparing for the next week, I should consult these short summaries in order to be more reflective in my preparation.  When I have done this, I have found it extremely helpful. 

Think of it this way: we sometimes have our students write journals following class time to synthesize and summarize their experience.  New methods of pedagogy have taught us how helpful this is for long-term retention and synthesis of new information.  Let’s turn the pedagogy back on us to make us better teachers. This is one way, I believe, that we can begin to grow as instructors.