By Stacy Palen
I love the moment when my attention turns from the current semester to the next one. I love the feeling that I’ve turned the page and that the new course will start fresh, with no mistakes in it. And I love looking back at the semester, as though it were a research project, as I ponder future work.
One of the most important practices in my teaching is to take a few minutes at the end of the semester to actually reflect and then write down what I think worked and what I think didn’t work. I compare this to what I had written down in previous semesters and see how the course has either improved or gone off the rails. Then I take a few more minutes to think about what experiment I would like to try in the next semester to improve the course in some way. And then I build that in when I plan out the next semester.
I do this before the student evaluations come in, because it’s useful for me to have my own thoughts first. It’s sort of the professor’s equivalent of “think” in “think-pair-share.” Sometimes I remember to compare my thoughts to the students’ thoughts and then write them down. More often, I just add their thoughts to my own. The students’ view tends to be very prescriptive; “more homework,” “less homework,” “make homework due on Saturday, not Friday,” or “I couldn’t ever find the Zoom link.”
My own thoughts tend more to, “This time around, they understood the expanding universe but confounded it with inflation and are still not specifically understanding that the two things have very different time scales,” or “The discussions did not accomplish what I wanted them to; next time, I need to make the grading out of more points so it can be more clear and fine-grained that I expect thoughtful responses.”
This entire exercise has a selfish purpose, as well as a selfless one; it gives me a powerful narrative for my tenure and promotion portfolios. I never had to worry if one of my experiments didn’t work out, because I always had a narrative that something wasn’t working, so I tried this experiment, and then this one, and then a third one, which was the most successful. That made me bold about trying new things.
This semester has been extraordinary, and I imagine that a lot of junior faculty, in particular, are feeling vulnerable and uncertain about how to handle their successes and failures this semester. I encourage everyone to take a few minutes to reflect on what worked and what didn’t, and on what you might try next semester to hold on to the successes and improve upon the failures. I’ll be doing it, too.