At the end of the 1986 movie Platoon, the protagonist (Chris Taylor, played by Charlie Sheen) provides a very moving monologue that starts “I think now, looking back, we did not fight the enemy, we fought ourselves. The enemy was in us. The war is over for me now, but it will always be there, the rest of my days.”
When Platoon was first released in theaters I was in high school. I was enthralled with Platoon, and it has held a very special place in my memories ever since. The ending monologue has echoed through my mind at the end of almost every semester that I have been a faculty member (albeit with a few changes. No insult or mocking of the movie is intended, this is simply my effort to take a powerful cinematic scene and apply it to my personal situation). My end of semester monologue goes something like this “I think now, looking, back, I did not teach the students but I taught myself. The student was within me. The semester is over for me now, but it will always be there, the rest of my days.” And with that, I begin reflective assessment of my teaching.
For many educators, assessment is a dirty word and a necessary evil. Hall and Hord (1) reported that faulty experience anxiety about assessment because of a lack of understanding of the process or importance of assessment. Faculty may also disdain participating in assessment due to concerns about accountability, or due to concerns about accreditation negatively impacting their careers (2). Often, faculty also view assessment reports as things that need to be prepared and submitted to meet requirements imposed on faculty from an administrative office within their institution, or some outside accrediting agency, but think that assessment reports are not really pertinent to the day-to-day work of education (3). To help overcome hesitancy to fully engage in the assessment process Bahous and Nabhani (4) recommend that institutions hire a full-time assessment officer to work one-on-one with faculty. All of these are relevant to the formal process of assessment and submitting data and reports to meet institutional or organizational requirements. When done the right way, these assessment reports can be valuable tools in education. But what I want to discuss in this blog post is a more informal form of assessment that I think all educators should do, and probably already do, which is reflective assessment.
Students and faculty alike perceive Physiology as a very challenging academic subject (5, 6). The concepts are difficult, and there is a lot of terminology. Our understanding of physiology is continually expanding, but yet students often still need to have a firm concept of the basic fundamentals before moving on to more complex and in-depth information. Physiology is often taught in a system by system approach, yet the systems do not operate independently of one another so at times it may feel like the cart is put before the horse in regards to helping students to understand physiological processes. All of these issues with the difficulty of teaching physiology make reflective assessment an important part of teaching.
Quite simply, no matter how well we taught a class or a concept, as educators we may be able to teach better the next time (7, 8). Perhaps we can tweak an assignment to make it better fit our needs. Or perhaps we can provide a new resource to our students, like an appropriate instructional video or a scholarly article. Or maybe it’s time to select a new textbook. Or maybe we have seen something in Advances in Physiology Education or on the PECOP Blog that we would like to incorporate into our teaching practice. Whatever the reason, reflective assessment provides an opportunity for us to ask ourselves two very simple, but very important questions about our teaching:
- What went well in this class, and what didn’t go as well as planned?
- What improvements are we willing to make to this course to improve student learning?
The first question is important for identifying strengths and weaknesses in our courses. We can ponder what went well, and ask why it went well. Has it gone well each semester? Or did it go well because of changes we made in our teaching? Or did it go well because of other changes, such as a change in prerequisite courses?
As we ponder what didn’t go as planned, we can also contemplate why things didn’t go as planned. I think anyone who has taught through the COVID pandemic can identify lots of unforeseen and unusual disruptions to our courses. But we can also use reflective assessment to identify ongoing problems that deserve some attention. Or we can identify problems that have previously not been problems, and make a note to monitor these issues in future courses.
The second question, about what changes are we willing to make, is also extremely important. Sometimes a problem may be outside of our control such as course scheduling, who teaches the prerequisite course, or other issues. But if the identified problem is something we can control, such as the timing of the exams, or the exam format, or laboratory exercises, then we need to decide if the problem arises from something we are willing to change and then decide how and what to change. Can the problem be addressed through the acquisition of new instrumentation? Can the problem be addressed by changing textbooks? Some of the problems may be easy to solve, while others might be more difficult. Some problems might require funding, and so funding sources will need to be identified. But this is where reflective assessment can really help us to prioritize changes to our teaching.
I ask myself these questions throughout the semester as I grade tests and assignments, but in the midst of a semester there is often not time to really ponder and make changes to my classes. During the semester I keep a teaching diary to make note of the thoughts that come to me throughout the semester. Then, after final grades are submitted and before the next semester begins there is more time to read through the teaching diary and to reflect and ponder about my teaching. Often, in this less pressured time between semesters, by reviewing my teaching diary I can take a step back to reflect on problems during the semester and determine if this has been an ongoing issue in my classes or an isolated issue limited to only this one semester. I often find that what seemed like a problem in the middle of the semester has resolved itself by the end of the semester.
Of course there are many other questions that can be asked as part of reflective assessment (7, 8), and any question can lead to numerous follow up questions. But I think these two questions (1. What went well in this class, and what didn’t go as well as planned? 2. What improvements are we willing to make to this course to improve student learning?) form the cornerstone of reflective assessment. And reflective assessment can then lead to a career long endeavor to engage in action research to improve our teaching skills.
- Hall G, Hord S. Implementing change: Patterns, principles, and potholes (5th ed). New York: Pearson, 2019.
- Haviland D, Turley S, Shin SH. Changes over time in faculty attitudes, confidence, and understanding as related to program assessment. Iss Teacher Educ. 2: 69-84, 2011.
- Welsh JF, Metcalf J. Faculty and administrative support for institutional effectiveness activities. J Higher Educ. 74: 445-68, 2003.
- Bahous R, Nabhani M. Faculty Views on Developing and Assessing Learning Outcomes at the Tertiary Level. J General Educ. 64: 294-309, 2015.
- Slominski T, Grindberg S, Momsen J. Physiology is hard: a replication study of students’ perceived learning difficulties. Adv Physiol Educ. 43:121-127, 2019.
- Colthorpe KL, Abe H, Ainscough L. How do students deal with difficult physiological knowledge? Adv Physiol Educ. 42:555-564, 2018.
- Pennington SE. Inquiry into Teaching: Using Reflective Teaching to Improve My Practice. Networks, An Online Journal for Teacher Research 17, 2015. https://doi.org/10.4148/2470-6353.1036
- Reflective Teaching Practices. Int J Instruc. 10: 165-184, 2017. NM, Artini LP, Padmadewi NN. Incorporating Self and Peer Assessment in Reflective Teaching Practices. Int J Instruc. 10: 165-184, 2017.