With a new semester beginning, I find myself thinking about what, if anything, I’d like to change with my teaching this year. I’m a firm believer that there’s always something that can be tweaked; in fact, I tend to be at the opposite end of the spectrum, with all sorts of ideas of things I’d like to try. In my experience, however, moderation is always best, so I’m trying to focus on one or two new/different tweaks this semester.
One thing I plan to do is keep a teaching journal. I teach the same topics in my research course each semester, with the same basic assignments, but of course, nothing is really ever the same. Last semester, for instance, I lectured on a topic I’ve done several times before and barely made it through the lecture content, without any meaningful time for the planned in-class exercise. What did I do differently? How can I avoid that time-suck again? Regrettably, I didn’t keep a journal at the time; I just have an ever-fading memory of the event. The same thing happens with assignments. I typically make new questions for most of my assignments, but I’ll occasionally recycle questions from several semesters ago if I thought they were particularly good. Every once in a while, I’ll discover a problem with a question, whether it’s ambiguous language or the law has changed and the question’s now irrelevant or unworkable, and I’ll think to myself, ‘don’t use this one again‘. Yet, when I decide to recycle a question, I go to a former answer key to grab it; that answer key doesn’t have any notes about what questions worked and what didn’t. And the cycle repeats itself.
How can you avoid those cyclical teaching errors? One method is self-evaluation. We’re used to getting student evaluations at the end of each semester, and those can be great measurements of your teaching; but it’s also important to evaluate yourself. One simple way to do this is the humble journal. In their book Dynamic Lecturing, Christine Harrington and Todd Zakrajsek promote reflective journaling as an effective self-evaluation practice. Several reasons they list for the advantages of maintaining a journal address the problems I noted, above: you’re more likely to actually make changes to your teaching if you’ve written them down; even when you think about things you’d like to change for the future, as time passes, those ideas fade (unless, again, you’ve written them down).
But they also list a few other advantages to maintaining a reflective teaching journal that only served to reinforce my commitment to trying this method out this year: “Keeping a reflective teaching journal can help us be more intentional as we reflect on our teaching practices…. [W]e are more likely to approach the reflection process in a thoughtful, comprehensive way when we write rather than just think about our teaching…. [J]ournals can become an excellent way to reflect on our overall growth as educators. Rereading journal entries can reinforce the changes and improvements that were made” (Harrington & Zakrajsek, 152-53).
I appreciate Harrington and Zakrajsek’s more expansive thoughts on the usefulness of journaling, that it’s not just about the minutia of what went right/wrong in each lecture, but also about seeing how our own teaching styles and philosophies change over time. It’s actually kind of fascinating to go back and look at how your work product has changed over time. I’m doing that for a different course right now, redoing some tutorials for a first-year writing course, and I realized that my method of presenting the same information has changed significantly in just the seven short years I’ve been teaching.
So my initial challenge to myself for the semester is to keep a journal about the course I co-teach each semester, so that I will have a written record of my thoughts on what should and shouldn’t change for the spring. But my further challenge to myself is to consider expanding on this, to create a reflection practice about other aspects of my work. Will this be a journal? Not necessarily. After all, things like the tutorials don’t change every year, so this reflection may not be as regular as a journal entry after every lecture. But I think it would be interesting to look back and see how similar work product (like PowerPoints on a similar topic in 2012 v. 2019) has changed over time and reflect on what that means about my development as an educator. With the school year starting this week, that’s the challenge I set for myself. I’ll report back in May. Stay tuned…