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How To Apply Reflective Practice when Teaching Online

By Joan Gilbert / April 2016

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Teaching teachers how to be leaders should take a higher priority within modern education. What is needed is greater investment in making teachers better leaders, so they may inspire students to learn. With the help of reflective practice, a teacher may become a better teacher and better leader in tandem.

Reflective practice adds structure to the process of learning from experience. If people engage in some form of reflective practice, then they may learn more from their experience more than they would otherwise. For example, it is quite possible to work at the same job for 20 years yet learn very little, whereas someone more observant or conscientious may work there for six months and learn more from that experience than the 20-year veteran.

Reflective practice is a very large subject that has been covered by a number of academic scholars, but to save you from running through the books yourself here are a few simple ways to apply reflective practice in your online settings.

There are a great many other methods and techniques you can use. If you are interested in further details you should start with Elsevier's The Leadership Quarterly [1].

No. 1 Seek Feedback

Reflective practice begins with understanding what you're doing right, or wrong. There are a great many people you can receive feedback from-students, parents, even online observers. For example, in the U. K. when teachers are in training part of their coursework involves getting feedback from their professors, their students, and the teachers who they work with, as well as their fellow peers. You have to take feedback with a grain of salt, anyone can be motivated by their own priorities and bias. For example, younger students may claim they dislike a way of learning simply because it is inconvenient or difficult.

On the other hand, if you were to completely ignore feedback, then you are creating your own personal bias that will affect how well you reflect on your work. Try not to focus too much on what people say, and instead ask yourself "why" they said it. Do they have a legitimate concern, or is their opinion biased in one direction or another?

How to apply this to online teaching?

It is actually easier to gain feedback in an online environment than it is in a traditional classroom. You can take polls on how the day's lesson went. You can ask open-ended questions about how the lesson could be improved. You can have students answer multiple-choice questions after each lesson to get an indication of how much they learned, and how much they struggled.

Preparing your feedback questions before class benefits your lesson plan and how you intend to collect feedback. Dr. Caroline Brandit offers a few good ideas for trainee and starter teachers [2].

No. 2. Ask yourself what did you learn today?

At the end of each day, you need to consider what you learned. If you keep coming up empty handed, you are no different than the veteran who cannot demonstrate any learning after 20 years on the job.

Some teachers have trouble figuring out what they learned on a day-to-day basis, especially if they are teaching online where classroom issues are not often a big concern. Your best bet is to start with your mistakes and/or the things that went wrong. What did you learn in these situations? How can you improve your process, structure, or teaching to lower the chances of the same mistakes occurring again?

How to apply this to online teaching?

You can start by learning from the feedback you receive, but you should also consider the questions your students are asking you. Make sure to reflect on the times when your students were more active online and more engaged with the online lesson. In an online classroom you can have numerous students asking questions at once, which may be difficult to manage. Therefore ask yourself what you learned about response times and response quality, and how many times your students asked unsolicited questions.

If you know other online teachers, you could try the process of online journaling with your colleagues. This is a space where you can share your reflections and what you have learned with each other [3].

No. 3 Identify your strengths

Concentrating on your weaknesses is okay, but you can sometimes learn more from the things you do correctly and the things you do well. What went well and why? Were you truly responsible for your students great work, or is it just that a few of your students were slightly more diligent than what you are used to?

Remember leadership is a big part of your job. Were you the one who genuinely helped the students learn the material, or did they find a very good online resource? Was it the homework you assigned that helped, or was it your ability to explain concepts clearly? Identify what you are doing well, especially when it comes to your value as a leader. If your students do not follow you as they would a leader, then you are relying on luck and the goodwill of your students.

In Reflective Practice for Educators, Karen Osterman and Robert Kottkamp share information on how to develop a reflective perspective that may help you discover your strong points [4].

How to apply this to online teaching?

Strongly consider installing a one-way or two-way conference video system for your online lessons. It is easier to lead people if they can see you, and, better yet, you can judge your strengths on how your students react to your lessons. Remember if you are doing something well and your students are responding well online, then whatever you are doing counts as a strength.

No. 4 Objectivity is About Blaming Yourself

You have to do your best to be as objective as possible when reviewing and reflecting upon your performance and the events of the day. This is one of the few areas where business leaders differ from educators. If a leader fails, then it is his or her job to find the reason, assign blame, and have the problem fixed. If the same thing happens again, because the problem isn't fixed or was fixed incorrectly, then it is the leader's fault.

With online teaching, the only person to blame is yourself. That is what being objective means in this industry. An objective and reflective practitioner blames only himself or herself. If there is a problem, you need to consider ways to avoid it in the future by changing what you do and say, as well as how you act.

How to apply this to online teaching?

Being objective is not a matter of being online or offline. You should apply your objectivity just as much online as you would if you were teaching in a traditional classroom. However, when it comes to technical problems things are a little grey. If students are having technical problems during your lessons, ask yourself if any of their technical issues are actually your fault in an indirect way. Ask yourself if your students are simply cutting their connection half way through a boring lesson. Are they logging on but not replying because they simply wish to make it appear as if they attended the online classes?

No. 5 Empathy has to feature in your reflective practice.

If you want to become a reflective practitioner, you need a keen sense of empathy. You have to go out of your way to consider how the student feels. As an experienced teacher, you must understand this one simple rule: "Students will say they understand when they don't."

They often do it to avoid embarrassment, or because asking questions often slows down the lesson. There are also students that will ask for help, but if they still do not get it, they will claim that they do understand out of embarrassment or because they have given up trying to understand. Teachers are taught techniques such as breaking a concept into steps and seeking understanding confirmation at each step, but sometimes students just want to get through the process.

You need to realize some students may not understand what you are saying and/or what you are explaining, and having empathy will help put you in their shoes. For example, a teacher may say, "Oh, this is an easy bit" and explain a concept. In the teacher's mind, he or she has planted a seed of positivity so students feel comfortable with the subject matter. Yes the students who understood the content will feel more comfortable with the subject matter, but the students that "don't" understand will be embarrassed to ask for help because they are stuck on something that they think everybody else finds easy.

How to apply this to online teaching?

It is imperative you take this point even more seriously online than you do offline. Consider the following scenario: You are in a workshop teaching a child how to cut wood using a miter saw. He says he understands, but he cuts it incorrectly. The child lied about understanding (as many students will), however you were there to correct the child. Now consider an online lesson where the student claims to understand when he or she doesn't, how will you know? How will you check?

The ways you get around this online are similar to the ways you get around it in a traditional classroom. When you seek confirmation that the student understands each step, after receiving a positive answer ask a question on the concept before moving on to the next step. At the end of the process, when the concept has been fully explained, you may ask the students to explain it back to you (as if they were now teaching it to you) to check and confirm their understanding.

Taking it a Step Further

Most scholars who have written about reflective practice suggest you keep a journal to record your activities: what went right, what went wrong, your feelings, and your feedback. It is wise you document even the smallest details. You should also plan for the future based on what you are doing and how you intend to change. Your plan should involve the breaking and building of habits, and should include trial and error tests as you figure out what works and what doesn't.

Consider using the Gibbs reflective cycle, where you write about what happened and work your way around to an action plan, which you then try before starting the whole process over again [5]. Here is how it goes:

  • Description. Take an event and describe it. You may go into great detail and include instigating issues, conditions, and blow-by-blow accounts, or you may give a short summary of the event.
  • Feelings. How did your emotions play a part in the proceedings, and how did you affect the situation? If you cannot remember, then reflect upon your actions and words alone.
  • Evaluation. Consider if this was a good or bad experience, if you made progress, and if you made a mistake. Think about what you may have learned from this situation.
  • Description. What went right and what went wrong? When did you go wrong and when did you get it right? Was the situation out of your control and when did you regain control?
  • Conclusion. This is the should-a, would-a, could-a part of the cycle. You describe what you could have done differently and what you would/should do again if the situation arises.
  • Action Plan. You know what you should have done, what you did right, and what you did wrong. This is the plan you make for when the situation arises again, including the things you will do and in what order.
  • Description.The process starts again the next time the situation arises. Go through the Gibbs reflective cycle to see if your action plan worked as well as you would have hoped.

Here is an example of how it may work with an online scenario:

  • Description. One student kept on using foul language during a conference text chat. He kept doing it despite my repeated mentions that it is not appropriate and that it is offending the other students.
  • Feelings. I do not feel it was an accident as he said it was, especially since typing such things are often difficult to do by accident with the exception of typos. I think he was showing off to the other students and it makes me feel frustrated.
  • Evaluation. It was a bad experience and it undermined my authority as a teacher. It also showed I couldn't handle a single student.
  • Description. The fact I said the student was offending the other students seemed to have no effect and didn't help me exert my authority. I also think I should have been stricter and more abrupt the first time he swore.
  • Conclusion. I should have told him it was unacceptable right away and made it clear I wouldn't accept it. I shouldn't have used my other students as a reason why he should stop swearing.
  • Action Plan. I will type out a set of rules for my online classes where text-chat is used. I will create a template for a foul language warning that I will copy and paste onto the screen whenever foul language is used. I will issue only two warnings before kicking the student out of the online session.
  • Description. Today, a student used foul language and wouldn't stop after I pasted the warning. After the third infraction I kicked his account off of the text chat and continued the lesson with the remaining students.

One thing to note, the Gibbs model does have its detractors. It is criticized for its emphasis on feelings, and some say it makes people prone to paralysis by analysis. Another preferred method is a three-step process such as Terry Borton's 1970 reflective model [6].

Putting it All Together

Reflective practice will help you become a better teacher and a better leader. It will help you better capitalize on your experience to ensure you do not end up a 20-year veteran with many years under your belt, but lacking in usable knowledge.

There are a great many methods and techniques for reflective practice, and there are many variations. A big part of the process is the elimination of your personal biases and maintain a level of objectivity. However, your main priority should be to learn from your experiences. The only way a person can get reflective practice wrong is to learn nothing at all. You are getting it wrong if you start and end the process without learning anything, without growing, and without improving. If your reflective practice model helps you learn, change, and/or evolve as a leader and a teacher, then you are doing it right.

If you want a quick crash course in reflective practice, Learning Journals: A Handbook for Reflective Practice and Professional Development (2006) provides a thorough overview [7].


[1] Avolio, B. J., Avey, J. B., and Quisenberry. D. Estimating return on leadership development investment. The Leadership Quarterly 21, 4 (2010), 633-644.

[2] Brandt, C. Integrating feedback and reflection in teacher preparation. ELT Journal 62, 1 (2008), 37-46.

[3] York-Barr, J. et al. Reflective Practice to Improve Schools: An action guide for educators. Corwin Press, Thousand Oaks, CA, 2005, 135.

[4] Osterman, K. F., and Kottkamp, R. B. Reflective Practice for Educators. Corwin Press, Thousand Oaks, CA, 1993.

[5] Gibbs, G. Learning by doing: a guide to teaching and learning methods. Further Education Unit, London, 1988. ISBN 1853380717.

[6] Borton, T. Reach, Touch, and Teach: Student concerns and process education. McGraw-Hill, New York, 1970.

[7] Moon, J. A. Learning Journals: A Handbook for Reflective Practice and Professional Development. Routledge, New York, 2006.

About the Author

Joan Gilbert is a creative writer and content creator. She is working as a freelancer for math homework help MyMathDone. Her sphere of interests is learning, education, creative writing and self-development. She plans to launch a blog dedicated to online technologies.

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