Critically Reflective Teaching

What is Critical Reflection?

Critical reflection requires hunting assumptions that interfere with our teaching and learning. There are three main types of assumptions that teachers need to look for are paradigmatic (structural) assumptions, prescriptive (what should be) assumptions, and causal (this causes that) assumptions.

An example of a prescriptive assumption is “students should already know how to use PubMed to find appropriate scientific journal articles”. In an upper level nutrition course, students are often asked to write a paper evaluating the evidence from multiple scientific papers.  Searching for and identifying proper studies is an essential skill for that assignment that more and more students simply do not know how to do. As a teacher, I must not punish, resent, or belittle students for what they do not know.

If I find in the middle of my course, that students are falling behind because they lack those research skills, I have a few options:

  1. dedicate time in class to demonstrate what I expect,
  2. invite a speaker from the library to demonstrate the skills,
  3. provide information on useful seminars students can attend outside of class,
  4. provide links to web resources.

I can then modify my syllabus for subsequent semesters either explicitly listing web search skills as a prerequisite or carving out time in my lesson plans to address it.

Critical reflection has many benefits for both the teacher and the students: it informs actions, develops teaching rationale, and increases trust between teachers and students.  Teachers who do not engage in critical reflection assume that how they perceive themselves and their teaching is exactly the way students perceive them. Critical reflective teaching requires teachers to understand how power complicates their relationships with their students and to challenge the “common sense” assumptions.

An example from a TA experience

As a graduate TA two years ago, I was part of a course that did benefit from critical reflection. The instructors would team-lecture twice a week to introduce the nutrition content. Then we, the graduate TAs, would interact with the undergraduates in a discussion section that allowed the students to approach us with their questions. Both of the instructors were very approachable in class and encouraged students to ask questions. However, they both understood the power difference between professors and undergraduates and knew that some students would never feel comfortable addressing them in class. They created a space in the discussion sections where the undergraduates could interact with each other and with a graduate student TA.

How to Incorporate Critical Reflection in my Teaching

In order to incorporate critical reflection in my teaching, I will invite a trusted senior instructor to sit in on my classes and evaluate both my teaching style and my interactions with the students.

From Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1995.