Starting a Reflective Practice Can Help You Grow as an Online Educator

This content first appeared at APUEdge.com.

Podcast with Dr. Bethanie L. HansenDepartment Chair, School of Arts, Humanities and Education

Dedicating time to reflect can help educators assess their teaching strategy and find ways to improve and become more effective. In this episode, Dr. Bethanie Hansen shares what reflective practice means, how to get started, and tips for making the most of reflective writing.

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Read the Transcript:

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: This podcast is for educators, academics, and parents who know that online teaching can be challenging, but it can also be rewarding, engaging, and fun. Welcome to the Online Teaching Lounge. I’m your host, Dr. Bethanie Hansen, and I’ll be your guide for online teaching tips, topics, and strategies. Walk with me into the Online Teaching Lounge.

Welcome to the Online Teaching Lounge podcast. I’m Bethanie Hansen, and I’m very happy to talk with you today about reflective writing. That’s right, reflective writing is one practice that will improve your online teaching quickly.

When you reflect about what you’re doing and think about the habits you’re creating in your online teaching journey, you can then make small adjustments and improve things over time, to save yourself time. Reflective teaching means that you’re going to look at what you do when you’re teaching. Think about why you do it, and think about whether it works.

What is Reflective Practice?

This is an overall process of observing yourself, or self-observation. And, it’s also self-evaluation. When you’re evaluating your own teaching, you won’t be surprised if someone else comes along and evaluates you and sees something similar.

John Dewey said, “We do not learn from experience, we learn from reflecting on experience.” That’s absolutely right. I keep a journal; I’ve been keeping a journal since I was 12 years old. That’s a lot of journaling! I’ve written about many experiences I’ve had, and I’ve also written about thoughts I had, and day-to-day experiences that are pretty mundane. And, I have gone through some of those journals from my earlier life, and I find fascinating things that I wrote. I also remember things afresh because I don’t remember them for real, but I remember them by reading about my experiences as I wrote them. This is been really insight-producing for me, but it’s also helpful as an educator.

Early in my career, when I was a public school music teacher, we were encouraged to write down some reflective thoughts at the end of our teaching day. I found that a helpful way to consider what was going well, as well as what I wanted to fix. I hope you will find this a positive practice to quickly improve your online teaching as well. Here are some things that reflective educators do.

Planning Ahead Makes Reflective Practice Possible

First, dedicate time to reflect. If you don’t plan ahead to set this time aside in your day, you won’t do it. There’s no common time for reflecting, except perhaps when one’s preparing to go to bed. You might have a reading habit, or a journaling habit, at that time, in which case you could add reflective journaling to that routine.

I prefer to do reflective writing about my professional life at the end of the workday, and not at the end of the day. Earlier in the evening is better, because it’s fresh, and I can think about what I did during my workday, and kind of close that part of my day. Dedicate time to reflect by selecting whether this will be a daily habit, a weekly habit, or a monthly habit. Or if you prefer, you might reflect after certain lessons that you’re giving that you’re especially concerned about or excited about.

Reflective Practice Can Help Us Be Intentional

Number two, reflect to make specific teaching decisions. As you reflect on your practice, you’ll be able to see things a little bit more objectively. Some of us are hard on ourselves. We judge our teaching very harshly. Others, we give ourselves a lot of latitude, and we like to acknowledge everything that’s going right.

As you’re reflecting on your teaching, notice where you find patterns. As you notice these patterns, for example, your own teaching is difficult in certain lessons that you’re giving, or you find certain assignments very boring or very difficult to grade, as you notice those kinds of patterns you can make new decisions about the way design your course and about the way you teach the course.

Reflection is very helpful to make specific teaching decisions that improve your teaching and also improve student learning.

Reflective Practice Improves Our Time Management

Number three, reflect about how to approach tasks and challenges. One of the things I do occasionally is note how I spent my time throughout the day.

I will write down how much of my time was spent grading work, how much of my time was spent reading e-mails, how much of my time was spent creating videos to put in my class, and all of those other tasks I do as an online professor. Have you ever done that?

Have you ever written down how you spend your day? When you do that, and you write down the time log, you can think about how to approach the tasks and challenges you face as an online educator and find new approaches.

In fact, as you reflect on the tasks that you do as an online educator, it might even occur to you to research those tasks and find out how other people approach them. The more you think about the way you approach your tasks and challenges, the more you can plug holes in time. Such as where time just slips away from you, or feels kind of wasted. You can pull that in, tighten it up, and make your teaching even more effective.

Reflective Practice Helps Us Consider Our Strategies

Fourth, reflect to consider strategies and andragogy. As you are teaching your course from week to week, or month to month, as you reflect on your teaching, you can consider whether you’re using strategies the way you had hoped and if they went the way you hoped they would. You can also consider what adult learners truly need in the online classroom.

Good principles of andragogy, or andragogy theory, includes ideas like adults having choice in their learning process, adults being able to bring their life experiences into their learning, and many other good principles.

As you think about the principles of andragogy or theory of andragogy and reflect on whether you’re using them in your teaching, or in the design of your course, you might consider new approaches for the future.

Reflective Practice Helps Us Analyze How We Teach

And lastly, number five, reflect to analyze your teaching. Many of the things that I would do to analyze my teaching in a live class would be to notice how I was talking to my students, how I was pacing the lesson, how it was structuring the content, whether we needed a different kind of warm-up activity or closure activity, and that was easy to do, when it was about real time.

When you’re doing it in an asynchronous course, analyzing your teaching in that setting can be a little different. You might need to read through some of the things you’ve written in the class and some of the answers you’ve given your students, or forum replies you’ve posted.

As you look over these things, then you can take out a notebook or a Word document on your computer, and you can type some thoughts about your teaching in those different parts of the classroom.

One of the questions I would respond to when analyzing my teaching was: How did the approach I used land with my students?

  • How did students appear to respond to the approach I used in this particular week?
  • How did students format their assignments for the goals that I put forth for that assignment? Did it land?
  • Does it look like students understood the content enough to answer those questions, or do I need to take some other approach?

Whenever I write about my teaching, it takes some time to think it through. To notice what is really happening in the classroom and how I’m feeling about my teaching. And the more I do it, the better I am as an educator.

How to Make Reflective Practice Work for You

Now that I’ve talked with you a little bit about what reflective teachers do, let’s consider how we do it. This would be the logistical “nuts and bolts” of journaling.

You might use a coaching journal or a teaching journal of sorts, and you can answer these three questions when you think about your teaching.

  • How did I think like an educator?
  • How did I act like an educator?
  • How did I exercise curiosity with my students and a beginner’s mind like an educator? Like a lifelong learner?

You might use a journal if you like the hardcopy version. I personally do, and I’ve read some research out there about how writing by hand has a much bigger impact than just typing or just dictating. But if you don’t like to write by hand, it’s definitely still worth your time to use one of those other methods.

You might consider getting a spiral notebook. These are cheap. You can find them at just about any store that sells pens and paper. You might consider using Post-it notes, scraps of paper, a three-ring binder with some paper in there, or you could use an actual bound journal, where you’re going to write regularly.

If you’re going to use electronic methods, you might use Microsoft Word, Penzu or another journaling software, a Rocket Book or another kind of e-notebook, pen to computer, or you can dictate to an electronic notepad, such as on your iPad, your iPhone, or your Samsung device.

Technical Reflection

If you’re going to make a technical reflection as you’re journaling or reflecting on your online teaching, consider reflecting about your general instruction and management behaviors that you use, based on educational theory and research. Those things you learned as you are preparing to become an educator.

You can also reflect on the various best practices of online teaching and consider how they might or might not be working for you. And then in the quality of your reflection, think about how you can get into some depth there, and think about really what is and is not working.

A management behavior you might reflect about would be whether or not your netiquette policy is helpful or if you need a netiquette policy. What kind of things you notice about the way students respond in forum discussions? And, how have you tried to help them show up even more academically there?

Reflection In-Action and On-Action

If you’re going to do a reflection in-action and on-action, that would be reflecting while you’re in the online classroom and doing the teaching. Or afterwards, when you’re reflecting about the actions you’ve already performed.

This would be you reflecting on your own personal teaching performance. And you might base your decisions on your own situation. There are certainly some circumstances in which our online teaching may be less than stellar for various reasons; maybe we’re in an emergency situation. Maybe we have a crisis in our family, and we are just trying to get through the course and there might not be back up. So we do the best that we can, but whatever’s going on might be part of your reflection.

Deliberative Reflection

You might also consider a deliberative reflection, and this could be on a range of teaching concerns. You might reflect on how you’ve seen other online educators do things or whether you’d like to observe others.

You could also think about teaching methods, strategies, and management that you’d like to try and intentionally write about those. You can weigh different viewpoints or research findings you read about. You might even reflect on what you learn from this podcast right here.

Personalistic Reflection

And then of course, there’s the personalistic reflection, and this might be about your emotional response or your analysis of the entire teaching experience:

  • How are you experiencing being an online educator right now?
  • What’s tough for you?
  • What’s refreshing and new and wonderful for you?

That kind of personal insight that you look at from day to day or week to week can really help you see how far you’ve come. As you look over it near the end of the course, or end of the session or semester, you might see some growth in your confidence as well as the quality of your reflections.

You can of course do it weekly, daily, or monthly, whatever works for you. But I do also can suggest using at least some kind of beginning and end of the course reflection, so you can think about what’s coming up and also reflect on what has been.

Smaller Reflections Get You Started

And lastly, if you’re not really sure you’re interested in a reflection habit, start small and use a timer. Giving yourself five or 10 minutes to reflect, and focusing on just one thing at a time can help you keep it tightly controlled so it doesn’t end up taking more of your time than you’d like to spend.

Over time, reflection can help you grow as an educator. This is particularly important when you’re teaching online, and you might have fewer peers than you do in a live situation. I hope you’ll try starting a reflective practice about your online teaching this coming week, and I wish you all the best in your online teaching.

This is Dr. Bethanie Hansen, your host for the Online Teaching Lounge podcast. To share comments and requests for future episodes, please visit bethaniehansen.com/request. Best wishes this coming week in your online teaching journey.