Evaluating and Improving your Teaching I

Although most Research Staff don’t do huge amounts of teaching, I thought it might be helpful to write a couple of posts on how to evaluate and improve your teaching. The fact that many researchers don’t tend to do a lot of teaching can mean that you often don’t get the kind of training and support that is offered to academic staff and to Graduate Teaching Assistants (GTAs). You might also find that, with less teaching to deliver you are not integrated into a course team in the same way that GTAs are, and this can mean that you can find it harder to get appropriate help and feedback when it comes to assessing your teaching and making it more successful. It’s therefore important that you have your own strategies for finding out if what you’re doing in the classroom is making a difference to student learning.

In this post I’m going to focus on your own reflections and how you can improve your teaching yourself. I’ll use a later post to explore how you can gain and use feedback from others (like students and peers).

Most departments and schools within the University will have mechanisms for evaluating teaching – these often take the form of end-of-course feedback forms that students are asked to complete. However, there are several potential drawbacks to these forms:

  1. They ask standard questions, and these may not be the questions that you’re interested in knowing the answers to;
  2. You probably won’t receive the feedback from these questionnaires until you are finished teaching a particular module – that means that your opportunity to improve your teaching for that particular cohort has passed;
  3. Response rates may not be very high – students often don’t bother to give feedback on a course once it is finished (or only those students who feel very strongly – either positively or negatively – bother to respond, and this skews results)
  4. You may not get any feedback on your particular part of the module. Students may be asked to comment on the quality of teaching in general so you may not be able to separate comments about your teaching from comments about your colleagues’ teaching.
  5. You may not actually ever see the results of these questionnaires at all – they may be analysed by the school or department to inform policy decisions, but they may not be fed back to individual tutors.

For all of these reasons, it can be useful to think about gaining some feedback on your teaching for yourself. 

Self-assessment and reflection

It may seem odd to suggest that you are a potential source of feedback on your own teaching, but it is possible for you to evaluate your practice by reflecting on your own observations, feelings and thoughts about how your teaching is going.  There are two key kinds of reflection that you might use to help you to evaluate and improve your teaching – reflection in action and reflection on action.

Reflection in action is the meta-cognitive processes that you find yourself engaged in while you are actually delivering teaching. So, you may find yourself noticing that several students are looking out of the window or at their phones and are therefore clearly not engaged with what’s going on in the classroom. Or you may notice confused looks from many of your students or frowns of disagreement. Such signals constitute feedback from your students about what is going on at any given moment – but your ability to interpret and act on those signals relies on your ability to reflect on what is going on in the room while you are actually teaching, evaluate what you are doing and adjust your teaching (if necessary) in response.

Reflection on action refers to taking the time after the class to think about how it went, which areas or approaches were successful and which bits of the session could have been improved.  Reflection on action can take various forms, but some people find it useful to keep some kind of written record of their thoughts. Writing reflections down can help some people to clarify their thoughts, and it can also provide a record reference before teaching future sessions. These written records could take the form of a blog, a reflective journal, or a few scribbled notes in a diary.

Your reflections on your teaching are likely to be strongly influenced by your own experience (both as a teacher and as a student), but it is also important that you don’t rely solely on your own impressions. Clearly, outside perspectives can be gained from colleagues and students (and eliciting these perspectives will be discussed in the next post), but you can also use the increasing body of research literature on teaching in higher education to help you to make improvements to your teaching.

If you are interested in starting to explore the literature on learning and teaching in Higher Education, some good places to start might be:

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