The Reflective Essay

by Ken Bain and James Lang
Note: This article originally appeared in the National Teaching and Learning Forum (NTLF), December 1997

Several months ago, we asked a history teacher at our university to give a talk on teaching to interested members of the university's faculty. This scholar and teacher has produced some very highly regarded publications in her area of specialty, and has a reputation on campus as an excellent teacher. Moreover, she holds one of our recently established endowed chairs for teaching excellence, and has received several teaching awards over the years.

We were somewhat surprised, then, at the opening section of her talk, which described her recent encounters with a small portion of the research literature on teaching and student learning in higher education. Her estimation of the value of this research literature was not high: "I found that many writings in the so called 'learning sciences,'" she explained, "turned me off: the authors sometimes seemed to purposely rely on lifeless language and contrived experiments, as though eliminating all trace of actual young people from the discussion would somehow boost the prestige of teaching." The quotation marks around 'learning sciences' are telling, and suggestive of her skepticism about the value of the research in this area.

Despite the fact that we disagree, at least to a degree, with her estimation of the value of such research, and despite the fact that she didn't make much use of that research in the talk which followed, her talk was excellent. It began by drawing upon her own experiences in the classroom, extracted several general principles about teaching towards which those experiences tended, and concluded by offering some useful insights to her fellow teachers. She did not offer recipes for good teaching, though; her comments derived more from, and were aimed at further stimulating, careful reflection about the enterprise of teaching.

Our final thoughts on her comments were that while we found them extraordinarily valuable, they did not fall easily into one of the two major categories of work on teaching and learning in higher eduaction. That large body of literature tends to divide, very roughly, into two broad categories: practical guides to teaching, or planning teaching, or evaluating teaching; and quantitative social science research on teaching and learning, produced by specialized researchers in higher education, or cognitive psychology, or developmental psychology, or some such related field. Both of these categories of material can be extremely valuable, but the most interesting thing about their separation into these two types is the disjunction which sometimes arises between them.

Books aimed at practical advice, or "teaching tips," to borrow the title phrase from one of the most well-known (and best) of this genre, may or may not draw upon the research produced by the scholars of teaching and learning theory. Likewise, the social scientific research does not always or necessarily conclude with clear conclusions one could implement in the classroom. It should go without saying that the best of the research does include some elements of both components, but much of it simply does not do so.

The potential gap between these two types of literature on teaching, we can suggest from our experiences at Northwestern's Searle Center for Teaching Excellence, is replicated more consistently amongst the readers of the teaching literature. Those who seek help for their teaching from practical, how-to guides are not spending time in the library calibrating the advice they receive with quantitative findings from the research literature. Those who do study quantitative research findings from the higher education literature tend to be--no surprise here--scholars who specialize in research on higher education.

The lack of communication between the hard research and the hands-on advice, on the part of both authors and readers, is not necessarily harmful, although seeing more consistent examples of research feeding into the how-to guides, and seeing more practical advice in the research literature would improve both. There is, however, a small but growing body of literature on teaching and learning which doesn't quite fit into either of these two categories. It would not quite be accurate to say that this work is intended to bridge the gap between the research and the practical guides, although that may be one consequences of it. This kind of work, like our history professor's teaching lecture, usually provides neither hard research nor practical, hands-on advice. The measure of its success is its ability, despite lacking these two components, to provide valuable insights and wisdom to other teachers.

The type of work we are describing here might best be described as the reflective essay on teaching. Authors of reflective teaching essays draw upon their own experiences in the classroom in order to reach some broad conclusions about the enterprises of teaching and learning. Those conclusions may take the form of practical advice, but more often than not they are phrased as very general considerations upon which other teachers might usefully reflect. Reflective essays--whether by coincidence or design, we're not sure--usually make few references to the hard research and offer little in the way of teaching tips.

What motivates such reflective essays? Any teacher who takes the time and effort to produce such a work will find it an enormously informative and valuable exercise. Many teachers have already formulated a brief version of the reflective essay in the form of a statement of teaching philosophy. The most effective statements of teaching philosophy are encapsulated examples of the reflective essay on teaching.

At its best, the statement of teaching philosophy, like the reflective essay, answers two fundamental questions about one's own teaching: What do I want my students to be able to do--intellectually, emotionally, or physically--or understand as a result of having taken my course? and how do I help and encourage them to obtain those skills or that body of knowledge? There are innumerable answers to the first question, depending upon discipline, teacher, and level of education: Do I want students who can cogently analyze and interpret classic works of literature or history? Students who can read and resist the discourses of consumer culture or political rhetoric? Students who can apply research methods or theoretical models to appropriate bodies of material? Students who can write clearly? Speak effectively in public? Construct coherent and persuasive arguments? Diagnose medical patients successfully and treat them humanely? Play a musical instrument?

What you want your students to be able to do or understand--the learning objectives you set for your students--should anchor your classroom practices. If teaching the skills of analysis and interpretation is your goal, will classroom discussions or lectures be more appropriate? Should you model these skills for them in brilliantly orchestrated classroom presentations, or allow them to experiment intellectually--and possibly fail--in the classroom? Should you assign them long, formal research papers or encourage more frequent, informal projects? Rigid classroom policies or more flexible ones? A syllabus determined far in advance of the course or one which fluctuates according to the needs and desires of the students?

None of these answers, quite obviously, is the right one for every class or every teacher. The important point here is that a course's learning objectives condition should every choice which the instructor makes during the planning, operating, and evaluation stages of a course. Writing a reflective essay on one's own teaching--whether in the form of a statement of teaching philosophy or a longer essay--helps teachers to determine the extent to which they are sufficiently coordinating their student learning objectives and their classroom practices. Explicitly spelling out your student learning objectives, moreover, can actually increase student learning in your class, because once you have articulated those learning objectives to yourself you will more effectively and more clearly articulate them to your students.

But the reflective essay should move beyond even these valuable ideas. Most fundamentally, the reflective essay should consider how a teacher assists his or her students to think like a practitioner of that particular discipline. A productive metaphor in this respect is to think of disciplines as lenses or windows upon a particular set of materials or ideas. How do you communicate to your students the value of that particular lens or window? Do you reconstruct for your students, if only on a very basic level, the initial problem, question, or situation which first motivated scholars to think like a--fill in the blank--historian, or literary critic, or psychologist, or biochemist? Do you suggest to them the questions or problems which your course will help them answer or solve? Do you help your students recognize the organic links between your disciplinary lens, your teaching and learning objectives, and the intellectual skills and habits they must obtain to meet and master those objectives?

These are the questions which render the reflective teaching essay such a fruitful and fascinating piece of scholarship, for both author and reader.

Our use of the word scholarship here is deliberate. Since the 1990 publication of Ernest Boyer's influential report, Scholarship Reconsidered, the idea of teaching as scholarship has been bandied around quite a bit. The use we have seen made of this term, in many recent articles and books which refer to it, seems to us to have fundamentally missed the point of Boyer's idea.

Some writers refer to the scholarship of teaching in a simple attempt to increase the prestige accorded to teaching in the academy. If scholarship is what really counts in the academy, then calling teaching scholarship might help make it count more meaningfully. A more recent set of writers, distressed at this casual use of the term, argue that Boyer was really suggesting that we all read more research on teaching. Such authors insist that good teaching must rest on theoretically informed practice. As should be evident here, the divide between the teachers and the researchers has been replicated, yet again, in the debate over Boyer's notion.

We would argue, against both these uses of Boyer's term, that the scholarship of teaching really refers to the kind of thoughtful, self-aware teaching which results in the reflective essay. To practice the scholarship of teaching is to think carefully about your objectives, to allow your practice to flow organically from those objectives, and to constantly rethink and revise both objectives and practices through continuous self-evaluation. It requires neither proselytizing for your teaching tips, nor slogging through endless mounds of research--though it may partake, to a degree, in each of these activities.

To cultivate a scholarly approach to teaching is to engage in the kind of careful thinking which should produce the reflective essay--and which should, in the long run, produce better teaching.