Time to Reflect

As we come the end of another busy school year, educators across the country are beginning to reflect on their classroom practice. What worked well? Where do I need to improve? What activities can I tweak to make them more successful with students? How can I increase student engagement in activities? The reflective process is crucial to growth as an educator, but it can be one of the hardest to implement well. What makes it so difficult is a lack of outside opinion and constructive criticism. Most teachers are often the only adult in their classrooms for a majority of the year. Administrators may come and perform classroom observations a few times a year, but those glances in the classroom rarely provide enough substance for cultivating educator growth. When it comes to seeking feedback on classroom practice over the course of the school year, I turn to my students.

Pre-teen students in computer lab with instructor  foreground


This is one of the practices that colleges and universities get right. At the end of each course, instructors provide feedback forms to their students to record their course experiences. The information provided is used for instructor evaluations and to offer feedback for classroom practice. Similarly, in the grade school setting, students are often our best resource for gaining feedback. They have witnessed our practice for 180 days. They have seen us instruct on our good days and our bad days, when we are sick and when we are preoccupied. They often have a wealth of insight and are willing to share it. All you have to do is ask.

The approach I take is to dedicate one day during the last week of school for student reflection. I notify students of the date ahead of time so that they have time to consider what they might contribute. When I talk about the reflection day, I tell students that one of my greatest goals as an educator is to grow in my practice every year. Every year presents opportunities to learn from my successes and my mistakes and become a better teacher for the group of students I work with next year. Student feedback is a critical part of that growth process. I remind students that they know my teaching style better than anyone on campus and, therefore, they are in the best position to provide suggestions and ideas for improvement. Students are usually shocked by the approach and many have never been asked for their opinions before. I find them very willing to help. For homework, I ask them to consider three questions:

  1. What went well this year? What teaching strategies, activities, or classroom practices really helped you grow as a student this year?
  2. What needs improvement? What strategies, activities, or classroom practices were not effective as they could have been? Do you have an idea for making it more effective?
  3. Do you have any new ideas that could be implemented next year that would make class better?

On reflection day, I sit in front of the class with a note pad divided into three columns: “Things that Went Well,” “Things that Need Improvement,” and “New Ideas to Consider.” I remind my students that all comments made need to be constructive in nature. We talk about the importance of constructive criticism and note examples they have experienced personally in sports or hobbies in which they engage. I also let them know that if they are uncomfortable saying their suggestion out loud, they can always e-mail it to me or write it down and leave it on my desk. At that point, the conversation begins. I stop talking and just listen. Some years, there is an awkward silence for a few seconds. Students are not used to commenting on a teacher’s practice with him in the room. If that occurs, I ask the about things that went well or things to consider for next year, since those are easier to share. Once the discussion gets started and they gain trust in my desire to hear their opinion, I ask them about what needs improvement. Once one student speaks out, the rest follow.

At the end of reflection day, I usually have pages worth of notes to consider. Many of them have truly impacted my approach to education. Here are a few examples of what my students have pointed out over the years:

“When you teach at the board, you always stand to the right of the work, and it is hard for students on the right to see the problem sometimes.”

I never considered that before! Ever since that moment, I have been very conscious of my position while teaching and swap positions often.

“When I work on math at home, I listen to music and it really helps me focus. Could we start playing music in the background in class?”

I had several students bring this up one year. The next year, I experimented playing instrumental techno music at a low volume in the background of my classes. It filled the silence with a catchy rhythmic beat. To my surprise, students did not get distracted by it. Many of them would simply bounce a foot to the beat while engaging in discussions in small groups or while working through practice problems.

“Using Edmodo to post questions about content really helped me this year. You should keep using it next year too.”

Edmodo enables teachers to create classroom discussion boards that are very user friendly and have good privacy controls. I had experimented with the site for the first time that year in an effort to provide students with an alternate way to ask questions in class and also an avenue to ask questions real-time at home while engaging with homework assignments. Edmodo has a mobile app, which allowed students to take a picture of their work if they were stuck and offer it up for discussion. Questions go on a common wall, which allowed myself and other classmates to respond to them quickly and easily. By the end of the year, students were having meaningful math discussions about complex problems and seemed to genuinely enjoy helping out their classmates. It was comforting to hear they had a positive experience.

I can honestly say that nothing has impacted my teaching more than soliciting student feedback every year. Not every one of their comments has been helpful (“Can we install a Dr. Pepper dispenser in the back? Caffeine works wonders!”) but I always find dozens of thoughts/ideas that really make me inspect my practice and consider new approaches to education. I also receive validation for several approaches I use and have greater confidence in exercising them in the future.

What are your strategies for classroom reflection? Feel free to add them to the comments below!