Learning from the Semester

Steven Volk, November 25, 2013

As the semester races (or crawls) to a close, it’s a good time to think about capturing what you (as opposed to your students) learned from the semester.  Here are three different ways to track your teaching, each slightly more intensive. For the Shostakovich fans out there, I’ve labeled each so you can plan your time accordingly.


(1) End of Semester Reflections: Short, think of it as the Gadfly Suite, Op. 97a

While you can reflect on your teaching at any point of the semester (see nos. 2 and 3 below), there are two times that I have found to be particularly productive: Some 2-3 weeks before the semester ends (when you already have a very good sense about how the semester has gone), and about 2-3 weeks after the semester ends (once you have had a chance to read the student evaluations). Granted that everyone is unbelievably busy right now, try to set aside 30 minutes to begin to answer these questions (and return to them when you can). It is useful to engage in this process before you get student evaluations of your teaching. You want to think from your own perspective as to why the semester worked out as it did.

  • What do you feel was the strongest part of your teaching (and student learning) this semester?

What did you accomplish (think of it concretely: the assignment I designed which was intended to help me evaluate whether students were reading the text closely worked really well; the discussions worked much better than previously; their recall of basic material as shown in their exams was better than I had expected; I was able to establish a dynamic in class where student could begin to talk about extremely difficult topics; etc.).

  • Why do you think that happened? Link outcomes to your teaching methods.

What did you do differently? Was it a matter of the composition of the class or of your methods? If outcomes were different than in previous years, try to think why that was the case.

  • Do you think you achieved your learning goals for the course? This, of course, should lead you back to your learning objectives, help you think about them again, and consider whether you can actually answer this question.

What methods of assessment – papers, tests, projects, etc. – do you use that can help you answer this question concretely?

  • What do you think basically didn’t work in the course? What do you feel least pleased, or most uneasy, about?  What left you thinking: next time, I just won’t do that?

Think about this in terms of your teaching approach (pedagogy); circumstances (make sure I’m never teaching in that classroom again; avoid 2:30 PM classes; this is a class that works for 20 students but is a disaster for 8; I let one student assert too much control over the other students, etc.); materials and assignments (too much, improperly paced, directions unclear, etc.)

  • As above: Why did you (or didn’t you) reach your learning objectives? Link outcomes to your teaching approach.
  • Getting concrete: what do you want to at least think about doing differently next time?

Readings; the way discussions are structured; adding more active lecturing techniques, dropping a particular content area, etc.

  • Very briefly: If you are not sure what to do to change the results, who are the people and what are the resources that can help?

Talk to colleagues, mentors here or elsewhere, consult with CTIE, find materials that address the topic, at CTIE, or elsewhere, develop an action plan, etc.

Try to go through the same exercise after you have read and digested the student evaluations of your teaching. (For advice on how/when to read your students’ evaluations, see the “Article of the Week” from Feb. 8, 2010: Reading Student Evaluation of Teaching).  Get a sense of whether your self-evaluation finds resonance in the students’ comments, or whether you come to different conclusions. Think about – or talk to a colleague about – any disparities: just because the students liked your class (i.e., gave you favorable ratings), it doesn’t mean that you met your learning objectives. Just because some students didn’t like certain aspects of the course, it doesn’t mean that they should be jettisoned.


(2) Annotated Syllabus: Medium, maybe the Suite for Jazz Orchestra No. 1

Create a “dummy” syllabus for your class. If your regular syllabus doesn’t include information on what you are planning to do on a class-by-class basis, make sure that this dummy syllabus does. So, for example:

Wednesday, November 27: Classify polysaccharides based on function in plants and animals and describe how monomers join to form them.

Each day, after that class has finished, enter some notes on the syllabus as to how the class went, paying particular attention to whether you think that the class helped the students get to the objectives you have set out (in this case classifying polysaccharides…). Also think about what evidence you have to answer this question (do you ask for “muddy points” responses at the end of class? Do you use clickers or other audience response systems that let you know whether the students are “getting” it?).

Jot down notes of what, to you, worked and what didn’t: was it the way you broke them up into discussion groups? The amount or nature of the reading assigned? The presence or absence of contextualizing material? The literal day you presented the material (Duh! It was the day before Thanksgiving; what was I thinking!).

Finally, enter some notes as to what you would do differently the next time around: Less/more reading; start with a quiz to see where they are at; have them work in groups; make the goals of the class more transparent; work to create an atmosphere where students can talk more easily about controversial issues; etc.

Don’t be hard on yourself if you miss annotating classes now and again. This is a jazz suite, after all, improvise. Maybe your best bet is to try to open a syllabus template that you can get to whenever you can. If you set impossible goals, you won’t accomplish them, and the purpose is not to find another reason to feel guilty (now, where did I leave my hairshirt?) but to begin a practice that can empower you.


(3) The Teaching Portfolio: We’re talking Symphony No. 5

When you’re up to Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5, you’re willing to spend some quality time thinking about your teaching. At some level, the teaching portfolio is an ongoing conversation between #2 (the daily syllabus annotations) and #1 (the end of semester reflections). The syllabus annotation is at the heart of a teaching portfolio, but the portfolio allows you greater space for reflection on your teaching philosophy, pedagogical approaches, readings on – and thoughts about – learning theory, longer blog posts (either public or private), articles that have influenced your thinking, etc.

You can set up a portfolio quite easily using Google sites or any one of a number of (free) commercial products (WordPress, IMCreator, etc.). The main issue is not to get hung up on the technology. Perhaps all you want is a set of folders (on your computer or actual folders) into which you can place these materials.

The main goal of the teaching portfolio, as far as I’m concerned, is to complete the feedback loop that ties together action, reflection, and reformulation. For example: I tried a very directed set of primary source readings in my philosophy class to get the students to understand John Stuart Mill’s concept of liberalism and the individual. I don’t think it worked given that their answers to a short reflection piece at the end of the class and the papers on the topic which they turned in two weeks later were imprecise and often factually incorrect. I’ve thought about what I tried to do in that class, talked about it with a colleague in the department, and read more about what other philosophy teachers do when teaching Mill. Here’s what I’ll do the next time and why I think it might work better (and so on and so forth…).

Again, you may want to simply expand the “dummy syllabus” idea presented in #2 or construct a more traditional teaching portfolio (for more on this, see “Teaching Portfolios” at CTIE’s “Resources” site). But reflection leading to redesign is the key to this approach. It takes some time, but it’s worth it.


The Rehearsal (Flickr-CC, Steve Bowbrick)


The main point, and let me stress this again, is to begin a reflective process about your teaching that you feel comfortable with and, most importantly, works for you. Starting with the Symphony No. 5 will make sense for some, but not many. Maybe you work best with études. But in all cases do as Shakespeare suggested and play on.

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