If you’re looking for ways to improve your teaching this year, I’d like to suggest a digital strategy that is both incredibly awkward and incredibly productive: record yourself teaching in the classroom.
There are a lot of reasons why this form of self-observation works. As uncomfortable as it can be to see yourself on screen, recording yourself is also a powerful tool for reflection. It is relatively easy, low-risk, and most importantly, totally customizable. You are the one who decides which areas of your teaching to focus on and plan the recording and reflection accordingly to provide the most feedback on those issues.
Some elements of teaching that you can evaluate with a recorded session include: your basic presentation skills, student participation (i.e. who volunteers/gets called on most frequently, who dominates discussion, how well you moderate conflict between students), classroom management and organization, and small group dynamics.
If you’re interested in recording your classroom, make these logistical considerations first:
Match your recording session to the right lesson plan. Establish what it is you want to target in your self-observation. For example, if you’re interested in evaluating the group dynamic between your students, make sure to shoot on a day that includes plenty of classroom discussion. If, on the other hand, you’re looking to improve on your own presentation skills, ensure that you capture a reasonable chunk of lecture time. You can also consider whether or not you need to see more than one section of the classes you teach. Since class dynamics can vary from group to group, it might be helpful to have two or more points of comparison.
Gather the right equipment. For some classrooms, an iPhone on a tripod (or carefully poised on a stack of books) will be sufficient. For others, you may require more serious videography tools. If you have a Center for Teaching and Learning on campus, check in with them to see if they have video cameras available for teachers wanting to record themselves—they just might be able to loan you one. If not, your university’s IT department, library, or media lab may have the equipment you need.
Get the appropriate permissions. The instructional technology folks at your institution will likely know the details regarding what kind of permissions you need to film students in the classroom. They can provide you with sample release forms, or any other documentation that you need to record your classroom. If they don’t handle this, they should be able to direct you to the people on campus who do.
Testing, testing…1,2,3. Arrive at least 15 minutes early to your classroom to set up your camera and any other equipment (i.e. microphones) you may be using. Take five to 10 minutes to “block” your lesson plan—walk through it quickly with the camera on, making sure to deliver at least some of the content verbally. Then play back the short video you’ve recorded. This will allow you to ensure that your camera has good sound capture and that it’s at the right angle to get the information you want (i.e. student reactions, your own body language, etc.). True story: I once videotaped an entire class of mine only to discover later that the camera never actually captured my face—it was forty-five minutes of my stomach walking back and forth. Don’t make yourself live that disconcerting experience; nobody wants to get that intimate with their own torso, trust me.
Help students be comfortable with the experience. When your students arrive to class, explain to them why you have the camera and how you hope that the experience of watching your teaching will help to improve your pedagogy. Ask them to behave as normally as possible, even though that’s difficult when being recorded. Make sure to follow up after you’ve completed your reflection and share with your students what you’ve learned—they’ll appreciate hearing the ways in which you are trying to improve their educational experience.
Once you’ve captured your class(es) digitally, complete the reflection process thoughtfully.
Match reflection questions to the most pertinent issue(s). Before you even watch the video, remind yourself of why you chose to record this particular lesson and what you’re hoping to learn from your self-observation. Create a list of 5-7 meaningful questions that you hope to answer. For example, for a teacher observing his/her own presentation skills, some useful questions might be:
What emotions do my body language and tone of voice convey? Is this what I want them to convey?
How is the speed of my presentation—does it seem as if students are tracking along, or are they clearly disengaged?
What is my physical presence—am I physically moving through the classroom or am I stationary? How is that choice affecting student engagement?
How does my body language and tone vary with the activities we do? Does it project the right attitude in each situation?
Take notes on the video, and don’t be afraid to pause or re-watch. With your reflection questions in mind, note what has gone well and what moments indicate a need for change. Try not to focus too much on individual moments—for example, if you stumbled over one explanation—but more on patterns of behavior.
Transform your notes into an action plan. Don’t walk away from this experience without concrete ideas for how you can improve your teaching. These can be big goals, such as joining a public speaking organization to get more presentation experience, or smaller ones like, “I will stop playing with my pen while speaking.” It’s usually a good idea to have a combination of big and small objectives, and to draw out a timeline for how you will measure your progress on each (may I suggest more recording down the line?).
If you’ve used self-observation techniques in your classroom, what did you gain from the experience?
[Image by Flickr user Roland Tanglao and used under Creative Commons license]
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