6 Nov 2018

A reflection on reflections

Submitted by Barbara Reisner, James Madison University

Great teachers emerge, they touch the lives of their students, and perhaps only through some of those students do they have any influence on the broad art of teaching. For the most part, their insights die with them, and subsequent generations must discover anew the wisdom that drove their practices. 
Ken Bain, What the Best College Teachers Do1

The fellows project has its own blog! The "Reflections" page is not just an excuse to incorporate a symmetry element into our graphics; it also serves as a place where the VIPEr Fellows will reflect on their teaching. We believe in the power of community to help us improve our teaching. Since we’re located in different parts of the country and don’t get to sit in on each others classes, we need to leverage the power of VIPEr to share.

Over the course of this project, the fellows will share their journey by reflecting on things they like (and don’t) about their teaching in posts to this part of the site. We hope they’ll also share ideas with the IONiC community at large.

I’ve decided to take this first post to reflect on something new happening in my own department and share a few ideas. This fall, we are trying an experiment: mentoring groups. You would think more meetings is a bad thing, but in this case, I’m excited take the time to talk about teaching. (Hmmm…. sounds like any IONiC meeting, social, workshop, etc!) There are so many things we’d like to talk about… discussing teaching practices, sharing ideas, exploring books that will help us improve student learning or our teaching, getting constructive feedback on our own teaching, helping students to learn how to empower themselves, improving student engagement and motivation, and the list goes on.

We are also encouraged to visit each others’ classrooms. I really enjoy visiting other people’s classrooms because I always pick up new ideas. Here are some of the things I’ve learned watching other people teach.

Candy and motion make class fun!

I have a colleague who teaches Michaelis-Menten kinetics using Jolly Ranchers. He designates some students as enzymes and sends them out of the room (reaction system). Then puts substrates (Jolly Ranchers) around his large lecture hall. He starts the reaction by inviting the enzymes to search for the substrates and has the rest of the class time how long it takes the enzymes to find and unwrap their substrates. He does this several times with varying amounts (concentration) of substrate. The students get a great Michaelis-Menten plot and get to engage with the data.

Helping students hear each other promotes conversation!

One of the challenges I find in my large lecture class is that students can’t hear each other’s questions well. Sure, I can repeat the question for everyone, but it’s nice when students can hear each other’s voices and wording. By watching a colleague, I learned that we have a throwable microphone (http://catchbox.com) to help amplify students’ questions. Throwing the mic adds an element of fun, but it also gives students more of a voice in the classroom.

Setting the tone matters!

Not everything works out all of the time, so I want to share one thing that didn’t go so well for me this semester. Every year, I teach a class for a colleague at the start of our semester. In years past, I’ve always had the students break into small groups, introduce themselves to each other, and remind them of how their success and studying can be helped by their classmates. Since it’s early in the course, I know that I need to help them develop a sense of community. In past years, I’ve had a really interactive class with lots of student participation. This year, I deleted the slide and didn’t take the time for students to introduce themselves to each other… and this year, no one would talk. It could be that it’s just a different group of students or a different room, but I wonder if it’s because I didn’t start by building community.

That class reminds me of the power of community - the excitement, learning, and ideas that come from talking and sharing. Even though we can’t visit each other’s classrooms face-to-face, I hope we can share the successes (and failures) of our own teaching through this blog, so we can all improve our practice.

When scientists make an important new discovery or experimentally prove some hypotheses, they do not, in general, keep that information to themselves... Instead they publish their results and make their data available for inspection… [This] makes it possible for other scientists to use that data to construct new hypotheses and perform new experiments.
James Surowiecki, The Wisdom of Crowds2

Now imagine of James Suroweicki’s comments on research were rewritten for teaching. Of course, that’s what IONiC is; we use the wisdom of the crowd and the power of community to improve our teaching.


1. Bain, K. What the Best College Teachers Do Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MA, 2004; p. 3.
2. Surowiecki, J. The Wisdom of Crowds : Why the Many Are Smarter Than the Few and How Collective Wisdom Shapes Business, Economies, Societies and Nations; Doubleday: New York, 2004; p. 164.



This is a great post, Barb. I'm curious about your mentoring groups. I assume they consist of 3-4 faculty? Who sets them up? Are you all in the same department? Are there specific requirements (meet x times, visit x classes)? Thanks and keep up the good work!

Joanne, the mentoring groups were conceived by my department head. Everyone is in chemistry. There are four groups in the department, each organized by one of the more junior full professors. I’m not sure how they are organized, but each one has faculty from different career stages and career paths (e.g. full, associate, assistant, lecturer). For strategic planning, the faculty who have been with department the longest form their own group. Because we’re a large department (for a PUI), the groups have 6-8 faculty members. We don’t have specific assignments of what we need to do other than visit each other’s classes. My group meets approximately monthly. At our first meeting we decided that we wanted to talk about a book on learning that was on most people’s list - Barbara Oakley’s A Mind for Numbers - as well as visit classes. My group decided that we should visit 2 classes a semester and we should try to visit everyone’s class at least once over the course of the year. At these meetings we also freeform talk about scholarly projects and what’s on our mind. (I have a tendency to bring up whatever I just heard on my favorite teaching podcast out of SUNY Oswego - Tea for Teaching - teaforteaching.com. VIPEr user Casey Raymond has been featured on 3 of these!) Another one of the groups, which consists mostly of early career tenure-track faculty has more of a scholarly projects approach. They talk about teaching, but much of their conversation focuses on applying for grants, documenting teaching and research for the tenure and promotion process, etc. Each group is different! The focus depends on the interests and needs of the group members. Eventually we are going to use these groups to work on our department strategic plan.