Monday, June 26, 2006

The 3 Rs for Effective Teaching: Risk, Reflection and Renewal

(This was originally published in the Center's weekly Teaching Tips, Spring 2006. View other tips at our Teaching Tips Archives)

As educators, a fundamental role that we must take on is that of learner. We must constantly strive to learn what works best for our students, what doesn't and where to learn more because, as you know, all aspects of teaching and learning are constantly changing - the tools, the students, the knowledge base or content, and even ourselves. Accomplishing this goal of perpetual improvement toward effective teaching requires the consideration of a different set of "3 Rs" - risk, reflection and renewal.


David Kreiner’s essay, “Taking Risks as a Teacher” describes a variety of risks one can take as an educator, including: not lecturing, trusting students, being funny, class activities, using technology, and not having fun. For some, these may not seem like risks, but for anyone not used to doing it or not “a natural” at it, they can be great risks.

In addition to the list provided by Kreiner, perhaps one more risk can be added: “The Risk of Opening our Classroom.” Whether done in an informal manner (i.e., peer coaching, mentorship) or something more formal like a planned peer observation session, a great deal can be learned if coupled with introspective thinking and reflection.

For those of you who may be wary of another person observing your teaching or syllabus, consider this: Larry Keig and Michael D. Waggoner comment that
“having classes observed and materials assessed by colleagues for the purpose of instructional improvement no more should be considered a threat to academic freedom than would having colleagues critique a proposed manuscript for publication.”

Characteristics of an Effective Observer
Below is a list of characteristics provided by department faculty members at UNC-Chapel Hill who were asked to describe the qualities of an effective observer.
“These characteristics consistently appear in the literature on peer observation, and successful programs emphasize the necessity of keeping them constantly in mind when visiting classes. The basic task of a peer observer is to ascertain if the method being used seems to be effective, not whether it conforms to notions of teaching derived solely from personal experience. There are many ways to be effective.”

1. Has sensitivity; empathizes with the person being observed
2. Sees improvement as the primary objective of the evaluation process
3. Is an experienced teacher
4. Is a good listener
5. Gives specific, constructive feedback and advice
6. Has integrity; takes the process seriously; prepares for the observations
7. Sees different styles of teaching as valid and acceptable
8. Is not doctrinaire about teaching methods

It’s interesting to note that extensive discipline-specific content knowledge is not mentioned. Depending on the type of feedback one may want, this could be a critical characteristic, but it’s not necessarily essential when identifying and suggesting effective teaching strategies.


In addition to the importance of allowing our students time to reflect on their learning, it's just as important that we take time to reflect on our learning and teaching. Moreover, finding methods to determine or assess your effectiveness is essential to accurately guide your decision-making toward increased student learning. Below are two links that describe ways to be a more reflective teacher and take steps to improve student learning based those reflections. As Tice mentions, it is a cyclical process toward continued improvement.

The Getting of Wisdom: What Critically Reflective Teaching is and Why It's Important By Stephen Brookfield (From the book: Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher)
This is the first chapter of Brookfield's book, providing an overview and basis for critical reflection as a teacher. It's fairly long, but will offer some good starting points as well as let you decide if the other chapters deserve review.

Reflective Teaching: Exploring Our Own Classroom Practice by Julie Tice, Teacher, Trainer, Writer, British Council Lisbon

- Think, talk, read, act
- Reflective teaching is a cyclical process, because once you start to implement changes, then the reflective and evaluative cycle begins again.
- Questions to ask:
• What are you doing?
• Why are you doing it?
• How effective is it?
• How are the students responding?
• How can you do it better?


As we move further into spring, the season of re-growth and renewal, take some time to reflect back on your semester or year to consider what types of changes you’d like to implement for next year and beyond. Do you want to try a new teaching strategy? What about developing a research plan centered on your teaching effectiveness? Are there others in your department who want to meet regularly to talk about teaching strategies, effectiveness and student engagement? Do you want to start a teaching portfolio for reflection? Is it time to make the time to focus more on your teaching? Any of these changes allow opportunities for you to become renewed, invigorated and rejuvenated as you enter the summer or fall semesters.

Here are some other ideas for ways to renew yourself as an educator:

Ten Ideas to Encourage Renewal
(Courtesy of Lee I. McCann and Baron, professors in the Department of Psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh)
1. Collaborate – team teach a course or design a research project
2. Experience life as a student – enroll in a course
3. Enhance your office – invest in a new chair, put new artwork on the walls, or turn your desk a new direction
4. Get more involved in your community – campus or otherwise
5. Take time to reflect – attend a teaching conference, read teaching journals or books, or keep a teaching journal
6. Try a new approach – include something fun for you and your students in each class period, change your assignments, or change your mode of delivery
7. Create a network of people with similar teaching or research interests, or with whom you enjoy spending time
8. Get to know new faculty – in and outside your department
9. Invite guest lecturers to your class, or volunteer to do the same for a colleague
10. Temporarily exchange positions with someone on another campus

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