Metacognition II: Six Ways for Faculty to Reflect on Teaching

Steve Volk, November 13, 2017

Last week, the “Article of the Week” focused on ways to help students be more aware of how they think – to engage in metacognitive practices – in order to develop self-aware approaches that help them transfer what they learn from one course to the next, from one discipline to another, and from school to life. This week I’ll focus on six ways that we, as teachers, can reflect on our own practice so as to improve our teaching and student learning outcomes.


All images from “The Comical Hotch Potch, or The Alphabet turn’d Posture-Master” (1782)

t the start of the semester I surveyed Oberlin’s faculty on a variety of teaching issues, asking questions such as what aspects they derived the most pleasure from or what gave them the greatest heartburn. Among the questions I asked was one concerning what faculty considered “the best way/s to get help or feedback that could address the issues you face in the classroom?” Of the many possibilities, ranging from attending workshops to talking to deans or department chairs, the winner was “on-the-fly” conversations, those quickie chats squeezed in after you’ve discussed the plot lines that will emerge in Season 3 of “Stranger Things.” These most often unfold in the hallway, parking lot, around the copier, or when walking to or from a faculty meeting. “On-the-fly conversations” was almost always listed among respondents’ top three preferences.

As someone who organizes teaching and learning workshops and “brown-bag” discussions, I would have preferred a different answer, but I get it. Most of us want, or even crave, time to talk about what just went down in our classes, but we don’t have time for the 2-hour workshop or even a 45-minute chat over lunch or tots in the Feve. So “on-the-fly,” Keurig-centered conversations (often much to the annoyance of our AA’s) fill a real need.

Granted that some of these fall into the “can you believe what a student just said” mode; but many more arise from our desire to talk about something that just happened in class so that we can figure out what just happened and learn from it. These incidents could be troubling – a moment when the class seemed on the verge of spiraling out of control – or wonderful, when the semi-magical happens and the class digs down to a deeper level of understanding, a more cohesive way of interacting. The point is that as teachers, we reflect continually on what we’re doing in class, most often in the internal conversations we carry on inside our heads. But these reflections less often take place in ways that can be captured, considered, and fed back into our practice. It’s often not until the train derails at precisely the same place the next semester that we remember and wonder why we didn’t do something about it?

Reflection and Change

Lynne McAlpine and Cynthia Weston, from McGill University’s teaching and learning center, suggested that there are at least five different ways to conceptualize the role of reflection as it pertain to our teaching:

An academic orientation focuses on the organization of subject matter, a social efficiency orientation on how well practice matches what research says, a developmental orientation places priority on understanding students’ thinking, a social reconstructionist orientation sees reflection as a political act, and finally the generic orientation is one in which any reflection is good because teachers can then be more intentional and deliberate in their thinking about teaching.

The lest-costly, generic model is good for me, seeing the point of reflection as relating more to praxis than to philosophy; reflection as a way of thinking about what is off-kilter and what can be done to fix it.

As I was thinking about this kind of reflection, I remembered an essay by Atul Gawande that appeared in the New Yorker a few years ago. In “Personal Best,” Gawande considered his own practice as a surgeon. He describes how, after many years, thousands of surgeries, and results that always improved (measured by a decreasing rate of complications following operations), he leveled off. His performance rate was quite good, but it didn’t get any better. He began to wonder what professionals in other fields did to get off the plateau and keep improving. What about those who everyone would consider at the top of their game, top-ranked tennis players or singers, for example. Are they still coached or mentored in order to continually improve? Surgeons weren’t; teachers aren’t.

ondering if a violinist of the caliber of Itzhak Perlman was still getting coaching, he called him up. (“So I called Itzhak Perlman to find out what he thought.” Of course! Why didn’t I think of that? Pick up the phone and call Itzhak!) Anyway, it turns out the answer is yes. Perlman’s coach for the past 40 years has been his wife, Toby, herself a concert-level violinist whom he met at Juilliard.

“The great challenge in performing is listening to yourself,” he said. “Your physicality, the sensation that you have as you play the violin, interferes with your accuracy of listening.” What violinists perceive is often quite different from what audiences perceive. “My wife always says that I don’t really know how I play,” he told me. “She is an extra ear.” […] Her ear provided external judgment.”

Now, none of us, I’m fairly certain, is a teacher with Perlmanesque talents, but his statement about “listening to yourself” sounded so familiar that I could change “performing” to “teaching” without doing damage to his argument. One of the great challenges in teaching is that we have a hard time judging our own performance. Carrying out internal conversations about how that class just went is not likely to get us where we need to be. We need a deeper mode of reflection.

Which takes us back to Dewey. John Dewey argued that real learning comes from reflection on experience more than from the experience itself. And reflection, as Carol Rogers usefully summarized, is a “meaning-making process” that can move the learner – us, in this case – from one experience to the next “with deeper understandings of its relationships with and connections to other experiences and ideas.” Serious reflection relies on a systematic, rigorous, and disciplined way of thinking. It requires attitudes that value the personal and intellectual growth of oneself and of others. And, above all, it needs to happen “in community, in interaction with others.”

So, here are some suggestions for helping us think more reflectively about our teaching, ways to take the conversations out of our heads by putting them on paper or, better still, by reflecting in community  with others.

  1. Quick Notes:

When you return from a class, quickly jot down some notes on those aspects of the course that you think went well or poorly. Be brief, or you’ll find that it takes up too much time and you’ll soon stop doing it. Note the issue and, if a solution is easily available, add that: The students couldn’t figure a way into the reading: give them better prep questions next time. The energy drained from the room halfway through: break up the session with some activity. Amazing discussion, all initiated by Sam’s statement […]: try prompting the discussion next time with Sam’s observation.

I usually write notes on a copy of the syllabus I keep on my computer for just this purpose. It makes it much easier to locate them when I’m preparing the next iteration of the class. I can add comments the next time through to see if something made a difference.

  1. Self-questions to promote faculty metacognition about teaching.

ancy Joseph, an English professor at Oakland University, over 15 years ago began helping students think metacognitively about their writing projects, urging them to note their thoughts at every step of the writing process: when they wrote a first draft, received peer review comments, and read her comments.  But, she observed, “most responses were void of meaningful reflection, and… I detected no changes in their writing behaviors.” She thought about on what was happening and decided to teach by example, stressing the importance of reflecting on the pre-writing (planning) stage as well as the writing process:

I distributed pages of my own writing from a professional article that had proceeded in fits and starts over the previous half year…I candidly shared my thoughts as the author of this work in progress, indicating what I had been thinking when I added explanations, reorganized paragraphs, and rewrote passages. I wanted to expose my students to the decision-making strategies that writers use to address the needs of their readers. This method enabled me to understand that helping students develop metacognitive awareness requires direct instruction and demonstration, a step-by-step journey into the cognitive process of writing.

Kimberly D. Tanner, author of the article on “Promoting Student Metacognition” that I drew from last week, suggests the following ways to think about your own classes in a form that can increase their potential for metacognitive approaches to teaching.

Activity Planning Monitoring Evaluating
Class session *What are my goals for this class session?*How did I arrive at these goals?

*What do I think students already know about this topic?

*How could I make this material personally relevant for my student? Why do I think this?

*What mistakes did I make last time I taught this and how can I not repeat these?

*What do I notice about how students are behaving during this class session? Why do I think this is happening?*What language or active-learning strategies am I using that appear to be facilitating learning? Impeding learning?

*How is the pace of the class going? What could I do right now to improve the class session?

*How do I think today’s class session went? What evidence do I have for thinking this?*How did the ideas of today’s class session relate to previous class sessions? To what extent do I think students saw those connections?

*How will what I think about how today’s class session went influence my preparations for next time?

Overall course *Why do I think it’s important for students pursuing a variety of careers to learn the ideas in my course? What are my assumptions?* How does success in this course relate to my students’ career goals?

*What do I want students to be able to do by the end of this course? 5 years later?

*In what ways am I effectively reaching my goals for students through my teaching? How could I expand on these successful strategies?*In what ways is my approach to teaching in this course not helping students learn? How could I change my teaching strategies to address this?

*How is my approach to teaching this course different from the last time I taught it? Why?

What evidence do I have that students in my course learned what I think they learned?*What advice would I give to students next year about how to learn the most in this course?

*If I were to teach this course again, how would I change it? Why? What might keep me from making these changes?

*How is my thinking about teaching changing?

 

  1. Seeking Feedback: Once and done

Arrange for a formative observation of your course. Ask a colleague or, better yet, someone from CTIE, to visit a class, take notes, and talk to you about what went on. CTIE has developed a specific protocol (pre-observation, observation, post-observation conversation) to guide the process. As you would expect, the process works best if you have a few things that you would like the observer to pay attention to.

on’t mistake a “formative” observation – one where you invite someone to observe a class and give you feedback – with a summative observation, where you are being evaluated by a member of your department, the chair, or someone else whose job it is to make a formal assessment of your teaching. Formative observations stay with the instructor and aren’t reported to anyone else (unless you choose to include the observation in a personnel file, but that’s your choice alone). Their whole purpose is to help the instructor reflect on what is happening and, if needed, address those issues. It’s all about the fact that we can’t “hear ourselves” when we teach.

  1. Seeking Feedback: A few times is better

Teaching pairs, triangles, squares. No, not an exercise for geometry teachers. These are arrangements in which you invite a colleague (from your department or any other) into your class for a few observations and return the favor by observing their classes. It can be done, as the names imply, with 2, 3, or 4 colleagues. A central aspect of the process is that these are always formative observations that are entered into voluntarily and eagerly. They usually take place between 2-4 times a semester, and feedback is generally offered in a social setting: over lunch, coffee, a drink, or dinner. They groupings can be of “equals” (e.g., all junior faculty); mixed (pairing that bring together junior and senior faculty); colleagues from the same or different disciplines, etc. People in the arrangements can agree on how they would like to see the process develop: an initial meeting; note-taking or not; written observations or not. In short, whatever makes the process more likely to happen and more enjoyable for everyone.

How to get started? Talk to the people you want in the group now in order to begin in the spring semester. If you want some help forming a group, talk to CTIE.

  1. Seeking Feedback: All semester is best

Yes! This gives me another opportunity to talk about the Faculty-Student Partnership.  (I sent around a “recruiting” note earlier this week for those interested in joining the program in the spring; here it is again in this new context.)

One of the faculty participants in the program recently said that, “Reflection is the biggest piece [of the FSP program]. The conversations make you stop and think about what went well and what didn’t.” The research on this is utterly convincing. McAlpine & Weston stress:

“[…] Multiple, repeated observations and interactions … may be necessary [but it is] the analysis of these multiple experiences through reflection which enables one to detect patterns that then lead to knowledge.”

We don’t get that kind of feedback, or the opportunity to reflect on our practice, from the student evaluations collected at the end of the semester. But this kind of extended process of interaction is available through the Faculty-Student Partnership program. The FSP program pairs a student with a faculty partner over the course of an entire semester. The student participants cannot be enrolled in any courses taught by their faculty partners (although they may have taken courses with them in previous semesters). The students attend their partners’ designated classes once a week over the course of the semester, taking detailed observation notes of the class sessions, and meeting weekly with their faculty partners to discuss the class, often focusing on specific issues issues suggested by the faculty partner. Students also meet biweekly with the program’s coordinators to encourage the students to discuss their experiences collectively, and as an opportunity for more training and reflection. Students receive training in ethnographic note taking at the start of the semester, and discuss ways to make discussions with their faculty partners most productive. Program coordinators also meet monthly with the faculty partners to get their feedback on the progress of the partnerships. (Faculty and students engaged in the program last fall discussed it in an article in the Oberlin Review.)

The emphasis of the FSP program is on dialog, stressing the concept that teachers and students mutually benefit from seeking out one another’s perspectives and discussing how these might inform teaching and learning contexts. The goal of partnership work is not change for change’s sake but precisely to open the kind of reflection that is central to a metacognitive approach to teaching.

(My pitch, one more time: If you are interested in applying to the program in the spring 2018 semester, please contact CTIE by filling out this form.

  1. Faculty Learning Communities

aculty Learning Communities (or Faculty-Staff Learning Communities) are another way to develop a collaborative reflective practice. While there are different models for building a learning communities, the most straightforward is for 6-8 faculty (or faculty and staff) to get together over the course of a semester or year to discuss a topic of interest and concern to the group. Some are funded by the dean’s office to provide reading materials, food, or other things that can support the group. Some require the group to produce some work at the conclusion of the process that can be shared with the larger community. As Martha C. Petrone and Leslie Ortquist-Ahrens write,

FLCs provide a collaborative arena in which colleagues have the time and opportunity to reflect on their teaching, their discipline, their institution, and themselves. By creating a safe environment for the honest engagement of ideas and feelings, the FLC facilitator helps to move the faculty outside of their disciplinary comfort zones and into the realm of intellectual and interpersonal connections. Through this process, teaching and learning are meaningfully enhanced and often transformed. [Martha C. Petrone, Leslie Ortquist-Ahrens, “Facilitating Faculty Learning Communities: A Compact Guide to Creating Change and Inspiring Community,” in Milton D. Cox and Laurie Richlin, eds., New Directions for Teaching and Learning: Building Faculty Learning Communities (Spring 2004), Volume 2004, Issue 97, Pages 1–157.]

The best way to initiate a Faculty (or Faculty-Staff) Learning Community around teaching and pedagogy is the most straightforward: talk to a colleague, define a theme, find others who would be interested in joining and talk to them. CTIE would be delighted to help either identify faculty or staff who would be interested or to provide a bibliography that can inform and orient your inquiry.

Conclusion

It has been said many times, but is probably worth saying it again: College and university faculty are among the very few professionals who aren’t actually trained in what we spend most of our time doing: teaching. We are experts in our particular domains and subfields, but few of us have read extensively in the literature on pedagogy, theories of learning, or child and adolescent development. That’s how it has always been. And while there are many developments that can help instructors think about their classroom practices, often coming from teaching and learning centers such as CTIE, we learn most from our own experiences. We can get the most out of that by reflecting on our experiences, by ourselves, but especially in community with others.

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