Published on 2012/10/30

Reflective Practice in Higher Education Instruction

Learning is a process, not a product, and so is teaching. Educators should take time to reflect on their teaching practice and assess their students’ learning in order to continue evolving and improving their students’ learning experiences.

“Reflective practice in higher education instruction”: It is a fancy name for thinking about your workday, and taking time to process the events in order to make better choices next time. Or, maybe I have a tendency to over-simplify things? The simple truth, though, is that education is a profession based on communications, and demands that teachers and professors be aware of their communication skills. In order to do that, educators must be able to objectively observe their own teaching practice, and reflection is a perfect tool for doing so

Reflective practice has two relevant, yet very different components used commonly within the field of education, often referred to as reflection-in-action and reflection-on-action (Schön, 1983)[1].  Reflection-in-action is private, very fast, and intuitive—so much so that we sometimes don’t even recognize it as reflection. It takes place in the situation, and works as a self-correcting tool when we realize something is not working as it should. In addition to well-planned lessons, this quick thinking and flexibility is an essential tool for a teacher, and should be emphasized accordingly in formal teacher training. Reflection-on-action happens afterward, is often collegial, and preferably systematic. It focuses on intentional improvement; action research is an excellent example of how reflective practice can lead to progressive problem solving. Both of these reflective practices are essential for optimal growth in the educational profession.

Educators make many instant and instinctive decisions during each and every workday.  Where do these judgments come from? How can educators be more aware of the reasoning behind these decisions?  This is where the reflective practice steps in.

Reflecting upon choices not only increases awareness of reasons behind certain decisions, but also often reveals other possible options. Recognizing the availability of these possible choices arises from the awareness of different practices – and this is exactly why having conferences and workshops, lectures and MOOCs, and books and magazines discussing best practices are so crucial. Yet, if education professionals are unable to translate the content of a conference or book to their everyday work and life, one could rightfully ask whether it was time well spent.  Reflecting on and implementing the newly acquired information or skills extends the value of any professional development. Using coaching to supplement conferences and workshops, following their completion, would help participants gain the maximum benefit; working professionals benefit from learning facilitation just like all other learners do.

The best and worst of reflective practice deal with emotions, and sometimes causes cognitive dissonance. Exploring areas that need improvement in teaching practice can invite educators grow professionally, and seeing the strengths allows celebration of their success. This, in fact, is the main idea behind this fancy name for learning about your own teaching: being objective and finding out what works and why.

Maintaining balance is important. Please, be your toughest coach, but also your best supporter at the same time. Using and re-using the functional parts, and discarding the unnecessary or harmful parts—even if they are things you are fond of—helps to improve your teaching practice. It requires lots of honesty to be able to observe your own practice objectively, but doing so increases the integrity of your daily work.

Consciously thinking about the instructional materials and activities while doing the daily teaching, making mental notes about how well they work or don’t work, and planning for improvements is the foundation of reflective practice. To promote effective and student-centered learning, you need to think about the students’ point of view about the activities and materials as well.  Deeper reflection, the intentional improvement, happens after you have finished teaching, and have time to think about your day.

A very simple way to begin your journey to professional reflection is to ask yourself these three questions each day:

  1. What went excellently today and why?
  2. What could have been better and how?
  3. What do I want to change in my teaching?

Processing the events of your workday by recording these three sets of observations makes it easier to focus on things you choose to improve, rather than be sidetracked by an emotion, or become biased by an apparent success or failure. Exploring your own teaching by writing down some thoughts about the day, or at least your week, provides you with a journal, so to speak, that reveals your own thinking habits, and the way your teaching philosophy and practice have evolved over time. It allows you to get some necessary distance from what happens in the classroom and see the patterns and outlines of your teaching style, so that you can improve your practice.

Informal conversations with fellow educators can also fall into the category of reflection-on-action. Teachers have a tendency to share information with each other and collaboratively solve problems related to teaching and learning. These coffee table discussions can be turned into influential professional development opportunities by note-taking and goal-creation, personal or shared, for participants. Trust must exist before this can happen, though, because presenting superficial reflection is destructive for the whole group. This also explains why it is difficult for anyone with a dual function as a supervisor or mentor to be present in such a group. Mandatory reflection becomes shallow and pointless.

Empowering teachers is the beginning of true education reform. Reflective practice is one of the best accountability measures for a teacher. Because it requires ultimate honesty it cannot be implemented by anyone other than the teacher herself/himself. Nor can it be forced. It can, however, be supported and encouraged – just like learning itself.

And in the same way that learning is a process, not a product, also teaching is a process; for being a teacher also means being a learner.

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Smith, M. K. (2001, 2011). ‘Donald Schön: learning, reflection and change’, the encyclopedia of informal education. [ Retrieved: 10/22/12].

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Readers Comments

WA Anderson 2012/10/30 at 11:58 am

I love the idea of reflective practice and I think it can be a wonderful professional development tool; but I think there are some deeper and underlying issues that would need to be addressed among higher education professionals before reflective practice could be implemented.

I believe that many instructors feel demotivated, overworked, and lacking the resources they need, for their teaching and for their students. If reflective practice starts from this kind of environment, I don’t think it would be effective. Some deeper instructor needs must be dealt with before they will be able to even open up to reflective practice.

    Nina Smith 2012/11/05 at 6:24 pm

    Thank you for your comment! I certainly agree with the problems of educational environments, but would like to highlight the fact that we all have choices. Sometimes choosing is not easy. I moved from Finland to Mexico with 4 kids, because I needed more choices to my own life and learning. There I learned to appreciate my teachers, because even without equipment and materials our school would be functional, as long as my teachers showed up.
    Thank you for reminding me about teachers/instructors not being able to open up for reflection, I think this is an important point of view.

Stephen Gotti 2012/10/30 at 3:41 pm

Too often reflective practice doesn’t extend beyond initial teacher education, but it is clearly something that practicing teachers need even more– a step back from their instruction, and their methods, and a self-awareness that would hopefully keep them from ending up in a teaching “rut.” An individual journal is of course a helpful tool for reflection, but I think the most important aspect of a reflective practice is the collaborative aspect, where teachers share these insights with each other.

Smith does suggest this in a very informal setting, but in my opinion it is important that this collaborative aspect be somewhat formalized; the author also alluded to coaching, and I think here in sharing reflections is where a coach is needed, or a teacher needs to take on the role of coach to facilitate a truly effective reflective practice.

    Nina Smith 2012/11/05 at 7:28 pm

    Thank you for your comment! I agree with the importance of coaching, but am also a bit careful about recommending it. Too often the exclusive roles of a supervisor and a coach are given to the same person and this causes problems: it is hard to be deeply honest while discussing with a person who uses power over you. Reflection without honesty doesn’t do much good.
    Collaboration and emotional support are excellent tools for growing self-awareness. I wish we had more coaches and mentors for teachers!

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