A few months ago, I posted about how I’ve shifted to using more constructivist activities and formative assessments in classes. I wrote about how I think these pedagogical frameworks have helped me to strengthen student learning and engagement. I said things about how–by developing opportunities for students to experiment in classes with tools, strategies, and concepts in order to construct their understanding, at least in part–they can deepen and expand their learning. And I wrote, too, about how these activities serve as informal assessments of students’ knowledge, such that I can adjust instruction in real time to better meet students where they are. I’m still feeling rather enthusiastic about all of this. I’m sure there are a million ways for me to do this better still, but in every instance so far this has been an invaluable shift in my thinking and teaching, not to mention a welcome revitalization for my frame of mind.
The data I’m informally gathering have helped me learn a lot about my students and my teaching. About where they’re coming from and how they approach and interpret concepts and strategies. About what I assume or where we don’t connect. I worry, though, that I’m not maximizing the data. I want to grab hold of it a little more and put it to more use. The activities, approaches, and assessments I’ve been doing, though, are largely informal and the data sometimes feel fleeting and anecdotal. Without tangible artifacts of student work (such as worksheets, write-ups, polls, quizzes, or papers) to ground my analysis, I’ve been struggling with how to do that. Couldn’t I somehow compile it across classes for broader understanding of student learning? If I could analyze it more rigorously, could I better gauge the effectiveness of my pedagogy? I want to use it more thematically and systematically to inform improvements I can make in the classroom, assess and document students’ learning, and (hopefully!) demonstrate the impact of instruction. So how do I effectively turn this into recordable data for documentation, analysis, and reflection?
At a session at the ACRL conference this past spring, it was suggested to me that I try using a reflective teaching journal. If you’re like me, the skeptical (or even cynical) voice in your head just kicked in. A reflective teaching journal? Maybe it sounds a little hokey. I admit that it did to me. But then I started thinking about the intensively qualitative nature of the data I’m interested in. I started thinking about how productive reflection often is for me. And then I read Elizabeth Tompkins’ article, recommended to me by a colleague, which opened my eyes a bit to what shape(s) a teaching journal might take.
In “A reflective teaching journal: An instructional improvement tool for academic librarians,” Tompkins reviewed relevant literature and described her own experience keeping a journal to document and reflect on instruction. A reflective teaching journal isn’t the same as a diary or a log, Tompkins noted. A journal brings together the “personal reflections” of a diary with the “empirical descriptions” of a log in order to “examine experiences, and to pose questions and solutions for reflection and improvement.” Tompkins reviewed a variety of journaling methods, as described in the literature:
- Hobson (1996) used a double-entry format to “separate out descriptive writing from reflections. For example, an author would describe an experience on the left side of the journal while placing his or her reflections on the right.”
- Shepherd (2006) used guiding questions to “make sense of complex situations.” For example:
- “How do I feel about this?”
- “What do I think about this?”
- “What have I learned from this?”
- “What action will I take as a result of my lessons learned?”
- “What have I learned from what I’ve done?”
- “What have I done with what I learned?”
- Gorman (1998) concentrated on “concrete issues that were problematic in his classroom.” The journal also “served as a record keeper, capturing his students’ progress before and after he instituted new instruction techniques.”
- Jay and Johnson (2002) classified three levels of reflection: descriptive, comparative, and critical.
- “Central to the descriptive phase is asking questions about what is taking place. […] It is crucial to find significance in the problem under consideration. It is important to separate out the relevant facts with sufficient detail to avoid jumping to conclusions.”
- “Comparative reflection involves looking at the area of concern from a variety of viewpoints. […] Examining a situation from the outlook of others may result in uncovering implications that may otherwise have been missed.”
- “Employ critical reflection to search for the deeper meaning of a situation. […] Contains an element of judgment, allowing the practitioner to look for the most beneficial method of resolving a problem. Ideally, critical reflection will lead the educator to develop a repertoire of best practices. […] Not the ‘last step,’ but rather ‘the constant returning to one’s own understanding of the problem at hand.’”
Still not convinced? If this seems cheesy or prescriptive, I feel you. Or maybe it seems like nothing special. Tompkins cited one critic who “dismisses reflection as a trendy buzzword for merely thinking about what one is doing.” What’s the big deal, right? To me it’s partly about intentionality. As E.M. Forster wrote, “How can I tell what I think till I see what I say?” I want to increase and focus my attention and devote more time and mental space to processing. Time and mental space are always in short supply, it seems, so the structure of a journal feels like it might force my hand. It’s also about data collection. I want to try to move from the instance and the anecdotal to the bigger picture and the systematic. In her article, Tompkins concentrates on using journals for instructional improvements, and therefore the instructor’s perspective. Students are inherent therein, but I hope to spotlight the student perspective and learning more.
So I’m going to give it a shot. I’m not yet committed to any single approach, other than the doing of it. So far, I seem to tend toward models of guiding questions with descriptive, comparative, and critical lenses. I plan to experiment with different structures, though, as described by Tompkins and others–or make it up as I go–and see what works, as long as I can work toward the goals I have in mind:
- Document what I’m doing and learning so that it’s less transitory
- Direct and heighten my attention to what I care about in the classroom, what works and doesn’t, what helps students
- Facilitate my thoughts on how to teach better
- Capture evidence of student learning in individual classes and across classes
- Consider how this work demonstrates the value that the library and librarians contribute to student learning
- Generally try to connect some dots
Your thoughts? How do you grab hold of your daily teaching and learning experiences and make meaning of them? I’d love to hear your ideas in the comments.