I really like writing. This is a startling realization at this point in my career. My relationship with writing was previously one of indifference. During my undergraduate years, I wrote only what was required for class. In graduate school, I felt more freedom in writing, but it was still just a necessary, if sometimes painful, means to communicate research findings. Lately, though, my relationship with writing has been completely transformed. I sometimes even write as productive procrastination. How did I get to this place where writing is enjoyable? I started writing about my teaching.
As an associate professor of teaching at the University of British Columbia, my tenure-track requirements call on me to engage in educational leadership—anything that “advances innovation in teaching and learning with impact beyond one’s classroom”—so I decided to blog about teaching and learning.
I began with minimal forethought. My initial aim was to promote interesting ideas and good teaching practices (and produce something concrete for my teaching dossier). But I quickly had two realizations. First, writing about one’s teaching is fundamentally a process of reflection. Crafting a cohesive explanation of an instructional approach and the evidence behind it takes thought and pushes me to justify my teaching practice. Such reflection has helped me identify what I truly value in teaching and has motivated me to continually revise and improve how I work with students. Second, this reflective writing process brings me joy. I love writing about my interests and passions, and a blog grants me great freedom in tone and register. It’s a type of writing I’d never done before, and I’ve since written on topics such as effective learning strategies, two-stage exams, and the immortal myth of learning styles.
You probably don’t care that I enjoy writing, but you should care that writing about your teaching is a low-stakes, effective way to engage in reflection: a key process of learning and development. If you want to improve your teaching, you should write about it.
While I have personally enjoyed reflective writing in the form of a blog, you certainly don’t need to blog or even publicly share what you write. You can get started in one of these simple ways: writing an end-of-course reflection or a teaching philosophy statement.
An end-of-course reflection can take any form, from a one-page bulleted list to a polished essay. Just an hour or two of reflective writing can set the stage for large improvements in your teaching. I prefer to begin after a course has concluded, but before I’ve read student evaluations, so that my initial assessments are solely mine. As a starting point, you can consider questions based on the Stop-Keep-Start feedback framework (What should I stop doing? What should I keep doing? What should I start doing?). I suggest exploring these more specific prompts:
- What aspects of this course worked well? (Think broadly about learning objectives, specific topics, assignments, assessments, and classroom policies.) Could they benefit from small tweaks?
- What aspects of this course were unsuccessful? Should these be dropped entirely, or are they worth revising? If they warrant revision, how could they be improved? What is missing from this course? What new approaches, ideas, or projects are worth trying next time?
- What other thoughts, suggestions, or warnings would you like to remind yourself of before teaching this course again?
- What insights from this course could be applied to other courses you teach?
These questions are intentionally broad to let you focus on areas relevant to you. As you reflect, skim the syllabus to jog your memory of the term.
After writing my initial observations and ideas, I consider feedback from others. Teaching assistants, if involved in the course, are a great source of feedback. Their unique perspective as both instructor and observer lets them see things you might miss, and they may have fresh ideas. I also carefully scan the comments in student course evaluations for recurring suggestions and constructive criticism, doing my best to ignore any unconstructive feedback.
As an example, students gave me great feedback about my use of two-stage exams in a 175-student forest ecology course, in which students first take an exam individually and then answer the same (or similar) questions collaboratively in groups. The first term I tried this, the timing looked great from my perspective. Some students, however, noted in course feedback that although they finished the group stage on time, they were so rushed in writing down the answers that they had no time for thoughtful discussion.
After collecting this type of feedback, I then revise my reflection draft, considering how the students’ or teaching assistants’ thoughts corroborate or refute my initial thoughts. In the case of two-stage exams, I had been oblivious to the issue the students raised, and I resolved to make the necessary adjustments the next time I taught the course.
This end-of-course reflection can be done in just a few hours, so I make a point of doing it while the course is fresh in my mind. Even if I can’t immediately begin work on the course improvements, the reflection serves as a to-do list to guide me later. For big changes, like developing a new lab exercise or overhauling a course project, I schedule time to complete the tasks. For small tweaks, such as assigning a different pre-class reading or devoting more time to an in-class activity, it may be enough to reread my reflection while I’m revising the syllabus just before the next term. Many of us educators have had insights during a class session about how to improve something but then have forgotten about it until the same session a full year later and thought, “Why didn’t I make that change?” Doing written reflections on how the course went makes that scenario less likely.
While an end-of-course reflection is great at improving a specific course, it is equally important to reflect more broadly on your teaching practice. My second writing recommendation is drafting (and maintaining) a teaching philosophy statement. A teaching philosophy is a reflective personal essay describing your values or beliefs about teaching and presenting examples of how your teaching practice embodies those values. If you’re just entering the academic job market, you’d typically craft one to two pages (concision is key), though your document may grow longer by the time you’ve reached the tenure stage.
If you haven’t written a teaching philosophy before, it may at first seem daunting. If you have limited teaching experience, you can frame the document as how you intend to teach rather than how you have taught. I teach a seminar on teaching and learning for graduate students and postdocs, and when I guide them through their initial teaching philosophy draft, I first present a range of questions about teaching and suggest they begin by writing a paragraph or two in response to the questions that spark ideas. Here are a few questions to start with:
- What teaching practices do you use in the classroom and why?
- What educational theory or evidence supports your teaching practices?
- How do you evaluate student learning?
- How do you cognitively or emotionally engage students?
- How do you foster an inclusive learning environment for students?
- What do you expect of students? What can they expect of you?
As you answer questions like these, themes about your approach to teaching will likely emerge. For example, perhaps you center your courses on student autonomy and self-direction, or maybe community engagement is the core of your approach. Whatever your themes, use them as a basis to outline and craft your initial teaching philosophy draft.
If you’ve recently applied for tenure-track jobs or gone up for review, you likely have a recently revised teaching philosophy. However, outside of these career stages, teaching philosophies often gather dust. Ignoring this document for years at a time, however, wastes the opportunity to thoughtfully reflect on, and improve, how we teach. This task isn’t easy. When I revisit my philosophy more frequently, the process follows a predictable pattern. I dig it out, read it, and think, “Ouch, this is bad!” I revise it and think, “This is pretty good!” Then I repeat the cycle the following year.
Though reading previous drafts of teaching philosophies can be rough on the ego, this reflective cycle is important, and the iteration shows your teaching development over time. For pre-tenure faculty, I suggest revising your philosophy annually to evaluate and improve your big-picture teaching practice. When you go up for reappointment or tenure, you’ll appreciate starting with a relatively fresh and well-crafted draft. For post-tenure faculty, spending half a day revising your statement every two or three years should be appropriate. Even if your teaching practice has matured, reflection can still inspire improvement and prevent you from getting stuck in a teaching rut.
While I can’t promise you that this process will instill a newfound joy of writing, I am sure that, whichever reflection approach you take to writing about your teaching, your students will be the ultimate beneficiaries.
Illustration by Paul Spella