Marilyn McCoy on the “Life-Changing” Experience of Reflecting on her Teaching
When Marilyn McCoy, Adjunct Assistant Professor of Music, heard about the Center for Teaching and Learning’s Reflective Teaching Seminar program, she was curious to find out what it would be like to reflect on her experiences after more than 20 years of teaching at the university level.
Upon acceptance into the Spring 2017 cohort, McCoy joined a community of like-minded faculty and instructors who were committed to improving student learning through their careful reconsideration of their teaching methods and habits. Throughout the process, McCoy and her fellow cohort members systematically reflected on their teaching by applying the latest research on the science of learning to their pedagogical practice, peer-reviewing draft course materials, and completing a teaching observation facilitated by the CTL.
The Reflective Teaching Seminar will be offered in an online format for the first time in Fall 2017. (The CTL is currently accepting applications from faculty, postdocs, and staff.) The new format allows more flexibility for participants who aren’t able to make the multiple face-to-face commitments demanded in past seminars, but want a similar, engaged community experience in a small cohort.
We asked McCoy to reflect on her experience of the seminar and to consider how the program might help other faculty consider who they are as teachers.
Adjunct Assistant Professor of Music
Participant in the Spring 2017 cohort of the Reflective Teaching Seminar
My take-away: “Our students certainly benefit from instruction that actually enriches their lives, but we professors benefit from knowing that we changed our students minds, and maybe even hearts, because we balanced their needs against our own.”
- Why do you think it’s important for faculty to pause and reflect on their teaching?
To be effective teachers, we need to be aware of habits we learned from our former instructors, and others that emerge from our own learning style. Instead of writing a list of activities, assignments, exams and readings that we copied from our former instructors and colleagues, it makes a lot of sense to begin by asking: “What do I want my students to know/be able to do when they walk out of my class?”
I’m not sure that many faculty ever ask themselves this crucial question; I know that I never had. Once I did think about this, it made me rethink everything I did, and consider whether the things listed on my syllabus would actually lead students to the knowledge, experience and pleasures I had in mind for them. It took time, but now I feel that my courses are actually meeting the goals I have in mind for my students. I am also confident that students can read my syllabus, clearly understand the goals of my class, and have a sense of how we are going to reach them.
- What would you say to colleagues who may not feel like they do not have the time or the need to engage in this kind of meaningful reflection?
I imagine that many senior faculty would be unwilling to spend the time to think about these issues. It takes time to change a course that one designed long ago, and that seems to be good enough. There are also demands for research, publication, and department committee work, activities that eat up time, and might seem more important. I would argue, however, that everyone benefits by going through this process at least once. I said above that it took time—but it didn’t take a ridiculous amount of time. The feedback from mentors and peers made the process of reflection much easier and faster. Our students certainly benefit from instruction that actually enriches their lives, but we professors benefit from knowing that we changed our students minds, and maybe even hearts, because we balanced their needs against our own.
- What was your personal experience with the process like?
My experience with the seminar was very positive, even life-changing. I have been teaching at the university level for over 20 years. I consider myself a very experienced teacher, and one who is always trying to find new and better ways of reaching my students. The seminar offered me many suggestions for new and sometimes better ways of doing things.
What made the seminar especially effective however, was that we were asked to reconsider carefully the building blocks of a course design, and find the clearest possible language to describe our learning plans and goals. Since we received feedback from peers and a single mentor every step of the way, I feel that I emerged from the seminar with a very specific view of what I do in the classroom, how and why I do it, and how all of the things I do fit together into a unified approach. I don’t think I would have ever conceived of going through this process on my own.
- What were some valuable or helpful takeaways for your teaching practice?
The most valuable parts of the experience were: (1) the emphasis on listening to feedback from peers and from a single “mentor” (2) the emphasis on revising and clarifying our ideas according to that feedback and (3) having the chance to be filmed teaching a class in front of a peer and my mentor. In fact the continual cycle of feedback and revision, though time-consuming, was very thought-provoking, and I very much benefitted from this combination of organizing factors.
The Reflective Teaching Seminar program is currently accepting applications for its Fall 2017 cohort. Stay tuned to our mailing list to learn about more upcoming opportunities for faculty.