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Self-Reflection and E-Portfolios: Practices to Improve the Quality of Teaching

By Elena K. Abbott, Ph.D. Candidate, History, Georgetown University

What kinds of practices are institutions of higher education using to improve faculty teaching? This is the question tackled in the conference session "Improving the Quality of College Teaching: What Really Works," led by Peter Seldin, Distinguished Professor of Management at Pace University, and John Zubizarreta, professor of English and director of Honors and Faculty Development at Columbia College.

Several years ago at the AAC&U Annual Meeting, Seldin was inspired by a dinner conversation to re-read and consider anew a 1992 study reporting on the frequency with which higher education institutions implemented specific practices designed to improve faculty teaching. Reflecting data collected from a wide range of institutions, the study ranked a variety of practices, such as classroom observation, use of grants to develop courses, and systematic ratings by students (listed from most to least frequently used). But what had changed in twenty years? In 2012, Seldin conducted a survey using the same 1992 questionnaire in order to assess the frequency with which institutions now use those exact same practices. With the participation of over 200 institutions from across the Carnegie classification spectrum, Seldin came up with some surprising results. Of the ten sample practices shared in the session, several remained relatively stable in their ranking: systematic student ratings rose from the third (1992) to the second (2012) most frequently used practice, while programs to help faculty improve research skills held steady at tenth. Seldin discovered, however, that certain practices had experienced significant shifts in their use rankings. In 1992, for example, workshops helping faculty use technology in their teaching had ranked ninth of the ten sampled practices; by 2012 this practice had risen to become the third most frequently used practice. In a similarly dramatic shift, faculty self-reflection on teaching performance had risen from eighth place to first, displacing teaching methods workshops as the most frequently used practice designed to improve teaching.

But what does faculty self-reflection really mean, and how can it be used to best effect among faculty? According to Zubizarreta, meaningful reflection, rather than a "loosey-goosey" narration of accomplishments, is the key to successfully using the practice to improve teaching. In the self-reflection model, he points out, evaluating the process of teaching is far more important than evaluating the product, and the goal must always be improvement. The act of evaluation cannot be the goal in of itself. Toward the end of the session, Zubizarreta pragmatically connected the process of faculty self-reflection to the ongoing process of e-portfolio development and documentation. For example, regular reflection feeds right into one's statement of teaching philosophy, which then becomes the living document we all want it to be. Documentation of teaching strategies and outcomes through e-portfolios then reciprocally facilitates more meaningful reflection on the relationship between teaching philosophy, implementation, and outcomes.

Seldin and Zubizarreta certainly introduced a compelling snapshot of what practices institutions currently use to improve faculty teaching and how the preeminent among them can be used to best effect. But I was left wondering if the practices (including self-reflection) that are currently used most frequently are, in fact, the best practices available to improve the quality of higher education teaching. Furthermore, how well might the best (or at least the most frequently used) practices serve the needs of higher education's evolving work force? Specifically, as one attendee asked, how can practices designed to improve teaching best contribute to the professional development of an adjunct professoriate? The ongoing conversations that this informative session produced are ones we can all hope to continue discussing at next year's conference.