This semester, I'm taking the Introduction to Academic Practice course delivered by the IAD at the University of Edinburgh. The aim is to improve my teaching by learning about pedagogical theory, widening my repertoire of classroom techniques, and reflecting on my methods and approaches to teaching. Upon passing the course, I will become an Associate Fellow of the Higher Education Academy (AFHEA). Here, I write about my journey to AFHEA.
I had to complete the final workshop of the AFHEA course remotely due to the snow. In preparation for the final reflective essay, I had to think about reflective writing, and what kind of teacher I am.
What might be the focus of ‘reflective writing’ about teaching? What could be included in such an account?
We can identify five things that may be the focus of reflective writing:
1. Course Context
This can refer to the place the teaching activity takes within the course, the type of teaching, as well as the physical setting or space that the teaching takes place in and how appropriate it is for the task. For instance, my tutorials are discussion-based classes that act as an active complement to a taught lecture series. These take place in small seminar rooms with up to 15 participants and one tutor. The best room set up for class is a horseshoe shape table, which allows for large and small group discussions.
Thinking about the background and characteristics of the students, both as individuals and as a group as a whole, is an important possible focus of reflective writing about teaching. Students come into the classroom from all kinds of different backgrounds. For example, many of the courses I teach are first year undergraduate courses, and they are often popular outside options. In the first session of the semester, I always ask my students what their ‘major’ degree subject is so that I can get a feel of what their background is in the subject area. My students range from experienced learners, perhaps with a Higher or A-Level in the subject, to students studying the subject for the very first time.
3. Teaching Process
This focus concerns what I do in the classroom and why. For instance, I lead discussion-based tutorials. I use PowerPoint presentations to introduce the subject matter and focus the students on the discussion questions at hand. This means that when students are having small-group discussions, the question or topic to be discussed is always present on the board to keep the focused. Small-group discussions are a big part of my teaching process; I believe these make students feel more comfortable contributing their ideas to the class, as they get a smaller arena to break the ice and try out their thoughts first.
4. How well did it work?
Planning a lesson and delivering it is one thing; reflecting on how well it went is another. It can be difficult to assess the success of one’s own work in the classroom. Reflecting on how it went and writing it down and getting a peer to observe you are both ways to combat this. For instance, last semester, I was observed during a very difficult tutorial session: the students were having trouble understanding the subject material, and I felt like I was failing to help them understand it. However, the observer praised me afterwards, as I had managed to direct the discussion well.
5. What would you do differently next time?
Feedback from students and colleagues and my own personal reflections on performance can both contribute to the answer to this question. It is especially important to write these reflections down. For instance, I have recently been teaching a course for the second time. Last year, when I taught this course for the first time, I wrote notes on my tutorial handouts about how well the group activities I had designed for the classes worked out. These have helped me consider what I would do differently this time round and incorporate that into my lesson planning.
What kind of teacher am I?
Asking this question is another core activity of a reflective teacher. My teaching philosophy is that, in small group tutorial teaching, I am merely guiding my students into discussing their own ideas and views about the subject. They attend the lectures, do the reading, and then tutorials are for them to test out their ideas in active discussion. The ideal tutorial would be the one where I say nothing at all outside of setting the topic and parameters of the discussion. I create discussion questions that help the students explore the topic together, and act as a moderator to steer the debate and keep it on track and on topic. I also see myself as a resource for students; I can tell them how the topic relates to the rest of the course content and subject area as a whole, as well as show them the resources available to answer their own questions.