Using your reflections about teaching to become a better teacher

One of the things I love about psychology is that it encourages people to be courageous about looking inward and evaluating self honestly. This kind of thinking, in my opinion, should extend to your teaching practice. If you think honestly about “how things are going,” in the classroom or in the home, or inside your own motivations (i.e. are you bored with your teaching?), it provides you with an opportunity to think about what you can do differently to produce a different outcome. Be brutally honest about where the gaps are between what you want from your students, and what you are getting, and then, use those reflections about teaching to craft new approaches. When working with (or parenting) children, it is important to remember that you are in control. While there are certainly a lot of other influences on children’s behavior, while a child is in your care, you have the authority to dictate the climate and the rules in that situation.

In short, teaching and parenting is most usefully thought of as a connection between inputs and outputs. The inputs are your behaviors and decisions, and the outputs are the responses of the children. For me, the essence of being a good parent and teacher is a matter of intentionality. Think about what you intend to teach, what lesson you intend to communicate, and what type of learning you intend to inspire, and then intentionally craft lessons and practices that are most likely to produce those intended results. I wish to provide you with a quick overview of how I used this focus on my reflections about teaching and intentionality in my own teaching practice.

I began my academic career as a researcher. When I accepted my current job as a professor, I used the typical combination of papers and exams to assess students’ comprehension of the material. In my experimental psychology course, the textbook that had been adopted before I arrived seemed perfectly fine. It introduced key strategies for experimental design, and gave examples from recent research. I would lecture on a chapter, give an exam, and then move on to the next chapter. Lather, rinse, repeat.

As my third year of teaching approached, my own research on learner-centered assessment had convinced me that in-class exam scores had all sorts of interpretive problems. My students, who were primarily African-American, had high levels of test anxiety that compromised their performance on exams. I had encountered many examples of students who participated in class and seemed to understand the material, only to then perform poorly on the exam. Curious, I would bring them into my office and ask them questions about the material directly.

When they could demonstrate a mastery of the concepts, I would ask them, “You sound like you know the material. Why do you think you got such a low grade?”

“I just don’t do well on tests,” some would say. My research alarm bells began to ring. The data were telling me that in-class exams did not have the characteristics that I wanted in a good assessment – namely, reliability and validity.

Later, in an experimental study that I carried out with my classes, I discovered that when my students were allowed to take assessments home and work on them, their longer-term retention of the material was significantly greater than when they studied for and took an in-class exam. Same exam, different results.

I asked the students in my class, “Why do you think you remembered more of the material when I let you take the test home?”

“Well,” one of my students said. “If you do poorly on an in-class exam, you can make all sorts of excuses. But if you get a bad grade on a take-home test, you’re just a chump.”

The spring semester of my third year was the last semester that I used any in-class exams, favoring papers, projects and presentations instead.

By the end of my fourth year, I was feeling bored with the textbook I had been using, so I ordered examination copies of other research texts from different publishers. None of them excited me. I asked myself, “What is it that I want from a textbook?”

First, I was interested in engaging students in the reading and evaluation of actual research. If I wasn’t going to give exams, I wanted to give students some high-quality assessments that would require them to wrestle with the vocabulary and decision-making that published articles could provide.

Second, I wanted the articles that the students would have to master to be about interesting topics that were relevant to my students’ lives. We were all tired of reading about salivating dogs and hungry rats. When I came to the section about Pavlov, I used examples about salivating men and women on the dating scene or engaged the students in conversations about the rewards and punishments their own parents used when they were children.

My own research on a popular deductive reasoning task had taught me that couching cognitive material in relevant, familiar scenarios facilitated the demonstration of competence. My teaching practice demonstrated this concept in real time. Why shouldn’t my book include articles that were about topics that 20 year olds would care about? Academia seems to be one of very few areas where the interests of the customer (in this case, the students) are irrelevant.

Finally, I wanted the flexibility to craft my lectures and creatively construct assessments that were fluidly informed by the feedback I was receiving as the course unfolded. This would make me a better teacher, because I was paying attention to what my students needed me to help them learn, and because I could change what I was doing each semester to keep myself interested. I enjoy the adventure of tackling new material and figuring out new ways to tackle materials I’ve already used. I would use overt responding methods – like – to let students anonymously text the degree to which they understood a concept or strategy that I had just taught, and then responded to that feedback by going back over anything that my students weren’t understanding.

It was for these reasons that I challenged myself to teach from a reader that I had a publisher construct for me. Every two years, I select 10 new experimental articles that include a variety of designs, instrumentation, levels of writing, and strategies. I choose 5 each semester, and engage students in activities like summarizing, collecting data on campus using the measures that accompany the article, statistically analyzing those data, and using the discussion section of each article to recommend future experimental studies that could take their findings to the next level.

I’ve found that my students appreciate the hands-on focus, the opportunity to engage in conversation about topics they care about, and the challenge involved in doing graduate-level work. Of course, I have to do a lot of hand holding along the way, but I feel a sense of accomplishment in having transformed a lecture-and-exam style course into a dynamic experience that is teaching not just facts, but also skills.

My message for you is not that you ought to use these same strategies or techniques. Rather, I wish to encourage you to think honestly about what outcomes you hope to produce in your students, and then use those reflections about teaching to move closer to your ideals. There is nothing more enervating for my own work than to decide to try something new, or retry something I’ve tried before with more vigor and some tweaking. And that new enthusiasm of yours, if nothing else, will impact your students in a positive way.

* For a great book on this subject, click on the image below:


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