In Pursuit of Quality Teaching and Learning

Self-Study of an Online Teaching Experience
Epistemological BeliefsCognitive PrinciplesPre-service Teacher Education
This self-study focused on the teaching and student learning within a compulsory teacher education course about connecting learning in practicum experiences with on-campus experiences. With the help of a critical friend with significant experience in teacher education, Ian aimed to explore the essential features of quality teaching and learning in a pre-service teacher education course. Guided by three of Willingham’s cognitive principles, as well as Schommer’s work on epistemological beliefs, Tom helped Ian with analyzing his experiences in planning and debriefing classes, examining students’ assignments and feedback, as well as events within each class. Themes emerged from this analysis that were focused on how the class was used and by whom, as well as the exercises of analyzing one’s own teaching practices and beliefs about teaching and learning. Changes to Ian’s teaching as a result of the self study are discussed, and focus on how time is used within teacher education classes, and how we make decisions about what topics we discuss, and how we engage in learning.


In pre-service teacher education programs, we often emphasize reflection and critical analysis, yet our manner of teaching often provides little modeling or illustration of the processes and benefits of reflection and critical analysis. As a result, it comes as no surprise that many students fail to learn to apply such analysis to their own teaching practices. Understanding their beliefs about teacher education is critical to inform how teacher educators can respond to their epistemological positions and, ultimately, provide quality teaching and learning opportunities in the teacher education classroom. This self-study with a critical friend generated significant insights that enriched both authors’ understanding of how to pursue quality teaching and learning in teacher education courses.

Context of the Study

During the 2020-2021 academic year, Ian conducted a self-study of his teaching and students’ learning in a required teacher education course focused on preparing students for and supporting their learning in their practicum placements. As the course focused on connecting learning through practicum experiences with on-campus experiences, learning evolved to resemble a homeroom class where teacher candidates could discuss their ongoing learning and thinking about anything related to teacher education.

In the first month of Ian’s appointment, at the beginning of Tom’s final year, he and Tom discovered shared interests in the complexities of teacher education, and thus began a relationship that focused on quality teaching and learning in teacher education. At the time of this self-study, Ian was in his third year of a tenure-track appointment. Tom had recently retired after 42 years as a teacher educator, with a research program focused on teacher education and self-study. We agreed that the course focused on learning in the practicum would serve as an opportunity for Ian to engage in his first self-study, with Tom serving as a critical friend. It was Ian’s first time teaching the course, which was taught online because of the pandemic.

The authors engaged in weekly dialogue to analyze Ian’s evolving understanding of how students’ beliefs can impact the value they seek in teacher education courses and how conditions for learning influenced teaching and learning, both within and surrounding the course. Prior to beginning the self-study, ethical clearance was acquired from the university’s ethics review board. At the first class, the self-study was explained to the 12 students and they were invited to be participants in Ian’s study of his teaching; all agreed to sign the consent form.


The aim of this self-study was to enable Ian to explore the question “What are the essential features of quality teaching and learning in a pre-service teacher education course?” Drawing on the experiences of both authors and on student feedback throughout the course, Ian designed lessons for the twelve 90-minute classes (spread over eight months of the 16-month program) and focused on three of Willingham’s (2009) cognitive principles:

Principle 1: People are naturally curious, but we are not naturally good thinkers; unless the cognitive conditions are right, we will avoid thinking. (p. 3)
Principle 3: Memory is the residue of thought. (p. 41)
Principle 4: We understand new things in the context of things we already know, and most of what we know is concrete. (p. 67)

Notable practices and ideas introduced early and revisited often included:

  1. Asking students to consider what they stand to learn from the content, as well as the delivery of content, within their teacher education courses; students were asked to pay attention to instructional practices modeled within their program.
  2. Encouraging students to take increasing ownership of the direction of in-class discussions.
  3. Inviting students to offer comments related to Ian’s self-study.


Guided by the self-study methods (LaBoskey, 2004), we identified patterns and themes within data sources, which included audio recordings (of classes and our discussions before and after each class), students’ anonymous comments throughout the course (from both formal efforts to collect feedback and unprompted messages), excerpts from students’ assignments (quoted anonymously with permission), and journal notes recorded throughout the course. Each data set is outlined below. The following points summarize our practices as self-study researcher and critical friend.

This self-study is informed by Schommer’s (1990) concept of an epistemological beliefs system and Willingham’s (2009) nine cognitive principles. Schommer’s (1990) concept served as an interpretive tool to analyze recorded lessons and meetings, as well as notes, feedback, and assignments. Specifically, evidence of students’ epistemological expectations for learning became evident in conversations and exchanges within and outside class. As Redish (2021) suggests, “students’ epistemological expectations can have profound effects on what they hear and how they think about what they’re learning” (p. 316). In order to identify the essential features of quality in a teacher education course, Ian, with Tom’s help, aimed to identify students’ epistemological beliefs and expectations and make connections to their perceived value of the course. His goal was to improve the quality of his teaching in order to improve the quality of his students’ learning.


Following analysis of each data set, the authors identified four broad themes necessary for quality in teacher education courses. Each theme is described and supported by data in the sections that follow. Most data entries were prompted by Tom’s questions and comments before and after each class. Unsolicited data from students appear in italics.

The Value of a Homeroom

At the outset, Ian did not introduce or even recognize that the course could or should be seen as a program homeroom where students could share and discuss ideas and issues in the program that did not seem to fit in any other courses. The value of a program homeroom became apparent as students began to open up and share in increasingly vulnerable ways and to make connections across courses to consolidate big ideas and lessons about teaching. To cultivate a safe environment for conversations, Ian learned the importance of discussing honestly and openly the challenges of teaching, including his own. The following insights were prompted by Tom’s questions in his role as critical friend:

One student offered thoughts about the value of a space where students could openly share and discuss concerns and challenges:

I was overcome with emotion in today’s class, so I want to re-express how much this class meant to me this year. I struggled to actively participate and keep my camera on this year in my other classes, and I think that’s because I didn’t feel like I made a difference in what was happening in those spaces. Our class was the contrary, and I think that’s because you . . . prioritized us through the content you provided and the choice of discussion topics, and by being very understanding and accommodating when we needed it. For the first time in the program, my experiences, worries, and struggles were validated because you normalized that our teaching journey is not (and should not be) perfect. Being online this year was difficult, but I’m grateful that there was a space where I felt connected with my peers and even made some pals. (email to Ian).

A Shift in Ownership

Students were expected to meet in their schools once per week during practicum placements to discuss pre-determined questions provided in the course syllabus. Ian began to realize that, if students were to recognize the value of a PLC, they should experience one, as questions generated by the group itself better reflect the potential of a PLC. Here quality teaching seemed to involve asking questions relevant for the group. Again, insights were inspired by Tom’s comments:

One student provided perspective on the value of discussing issues generated by the group:

I really enjoy the easy-going nature of our discussions. I found that I was more reflective during the week when given the open-ended question from [another student]. I would like to continue receiving these questions to think about throughout the week. Also, perhaps we could dedicate some time to asking Tom some questions regarding his teaching experiences. I would enjoy this. (Feedback from a student when asked about future discussion topics).

Modelling Thinking Like a Teacher

While students in teacher education can learn a great deal by observing practice (both on practicum and on campus), it is essential to learn by understanding the thinking processes that come with good teaching. He made a concerted effort throughout the course to share his own thoughts and concerns. It became clear that, if the teacher were to recommend taking calculated risks during practicum, then this should be modelled within the course. Thus Ian needed to leave his comfort zone and share his thinking. Here again, questions from Tom helped to generate insights:

Examining Beliefs and Expectations About Teaching and Learning

If students are to be asked to examine critically their beliefs and expectations about teaching, it seems reasonable that teacher educators would value this habit enough to engage in it themselves. Leading by example allows students to observe an activity that we value as a mark of quality teaching and learning and, at best, participate in the activity with the group as a means of gradual learning and habituation. These insights emerged from questions posed by Tom:

Near the midpoint of the course, students were asked to anonymously suggest topics to be addressed in the remainder of the course. One student responded at length:

I enjoy addressing topics and issues related to the teaching profession that are rarely, if ever, addressed in other classes. I enjoy that our class feels judgement-free as we try to be vulnerable talking about real experiences. I believe Ian's methods for leading the class to be very effective. Thank you for asking open questions, giving us ample time to reflect after asking questions, and empowering us by allowing our insights to drive class topics and discussion. Because you do this, I don't feel pressured to think or feel a particular way, and this allows me to be more introspective about who I am as a teacher. I think it means a lot to our class that you model all the things you are encouraging us to do, such as being honest about your own thoughts and insecurities. Also, completing the work before it is assigned to us tells us that you see the value in the work you are asking us to do—something I've never seen a teacher do in my entire schooling career. Because of the way our class is led, I feel like I am closer to figuring out my teaching philosophy, my beliefs and my general values as an educator. Thank you for a great first term!

After some discussion, Ian and Tom decided to complete the same assignments expected of students prior to the deadline that was given to students in order to share the experience and offer their thinking as a model. Ian commented:

We could include examples of what we did, and I think this ties to their feedback. I realize so many of these individual things can fit under multiple themes, but the fact that we completed assignments to demonstrate the value we saw in them, and then also talked about their value, probably encouraged students to question their epistemological beliefs and expectations concerning the value of assignments in teacher education.

How This Self-Study Will Change Ian’s Future Teaching

Research typically seeks both understanding and improvement. The presence of the same critical friend at all 12 online classes generated significant opportunities for reframing of teaching practices. This self-study inspired at least four changes to Ian’s future teaching.

Adding a New Dimension to Wait Time During Classes

Ian began the course with the perception that wait time had value when it was used after the teacher asked a question. Wait time provided all students with an opportunity to think through the question and begin to generate an answer, rather than having their thinking interrupted by a student who was quicker to generate a response. Early in the course, Tom challenged Ian to consider the value that wait time might provide when it is used after a student responds. This was an entirely new idea to Ian, and the authors discussed how this approach might encourage students to respond to each other. In line with Ian’s emerging understanding that teacher education courses can and should model what professional learning communities can accomplish for teachers, Ian began to experiment with wait time following student responses. As the course progressed, there seemed to be a shift in ownership of the class, with certain students taking the lead to ask questions and provide answers to each other—precisely how professional learning communities within teaching are intended to function. In this new school year, Ian is currently talking with students about the idea of ownership within teacher education courses and is actively using wait time following students’ responses in order to cultivate a learning environment and culture that is more student-led.

A New Use for Time Near the End of Class

Another idea encouraged by Tom involved protecting time at the conclusion of each class to explore what and how students had learned in class. This idea aligns with Ian’s epistemological belief about teacher education that students should focus not only on what they are learning from the content of their courses but also on what they are learning by paying attention to how they are being taught. This represented a risk for Ian and was initially experienced as a tense period of time with a notable absence from the students of any willingness to share ideas. Tom, through discussions with Ian surrounding each class, encouraged Ian to continue to take risks if they appeared to have value, and also to talk about these risks with the students. As the course progressed, likely due to students’ increasing comfort with each other and expectations of this conclusion to each class, the quality and quantity of what students were willing to share improved.

Negotiating the Curriculum with Students

With Tom’s encouragement, Ian began to reduce the number of activities within each lesson to focus on acknowledging the work students were completing within the course and having deeper and longer discussions about issues within each week’s topic that seemed to interest students most. Ian began to realize that curriculum must be negotiated to some degree with the students in response to their experiences and thinking. In line with Willingham’s (2009, p. 67) fourth principle (“We understand new things in the context of things we already know, and most of what we know is concrete”), valuable lessons seemed to be those that contextualized topics within familiar territory for students. Ian has since adopted the belief that students will indicate when a conversation or discussion about a topic is finished, and thus he has begun to write more flexible lesson plans that allow for negotiation and direction from students.

Negotiating Assignments With Students

In conversation with students, Ian has begun to negotiate and generate assignments, thereby recognizing the value of meaningful assignments and remembering that teacher education students take many courses, each with its own set of assignments. After seeing the challenges that some students had in viewing assignments as anything more than “boxes to check off,” Ian has begun to draft more flexible syllabi that allow for negotiation and construction with students to design the nature, specifics, and even feedback that their teacher should provide.


As critical friend (see Schuck & Russell, 2005, for discussion of this term), Tom contributed to the trustworthiness of this self-study. His continuous presence was highly productive; this extended commitment seemed a great improvement on the idea of a critical friend who attends only once. Beyond Tom’s listening to what Ian saw as interesting, discussions with Tom generated data that drove the study forward.

If our overall assessment of a study’s trustworthiness is high enough for us to act on it, we are granting the findings a sufficient degree of validity to invest our own time and energy, and to put at risk our reputations as competent investigators. (Mishler, 1990, p. 419).

Shenton (2004) argues that trustworthiness should be addressed in terms of credibility, transferability, dependability and confirmability. This self-study’s credibility has been enhanced by multiple data sources and the perspectives of the critical friend.


This self-study suggests to us that pre-service teachers are calling on teacher educators to rethink the learning environments that they design for them by developing greater alignment between the central value of critically reflective analysis and the teaching strategies we use to help them learn about quality teaching and learning in on-campus classes. Pedagogical change is not easy for us or for them, but we are preparing our students for careers, not just their first year of teaching. We must prepare future teachers for change and show them how to learn from their own teaching experiences. Encouraging pre-service teachers to view activities within class, assignments, and courses as parts of the process of learning to teach, rather than expectations for the process, may be a shift in epistemological beliefs that is essential in preparing for change. While self-study served an immediate purpose for Ian to improve the learning environment within a course, he concludes the experience with the belief that self-study should be a pedagogical tool for teaching students about quality teaching and learning. Revisiting Willingham’s (2009) three principles that helped to focus this research, sharing the self-study experience with students allowed for the exploration and encouragement of productive thinking in contexts that were familiar to them and led to real change in subsequent classroom experiences. Students’ interactions with Ian and with each other, their comments related to his self-study, and his discussions with Tom, as a critical friend, guided Ian in developing his teaching from class to class in ways that improved the quality of students’ learning and generated valuable insights for his future teaching. Both Ian and Tom gained powerful insights into the potential of critical friendship when the critical friend is actively involved in all classes.


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Mishler, E. G. (1990). Validation in inquiry-guided research: The role of exemplars in narrative studies. Harvard Educational Review, 60(4), 415-442.

Redish, E. F. (2021). Using math in physics: Overview. The Physics Teacher, 318-322.

Schommer, M. (1990). Effects of beliefs about the nature of knowledge on comprehension. Journal of Educational Psychology, 82, 498-504.

Schuck, S., & Russell, T. (2005). Self-study, critical friendship, and the complexities of teacher education. Studying Teacher Education, 1, 107-121.

Shenton, A. K. (2004). Strategies for ensuring trustworthiness in qualitative research projects. Education for Information, 22, 63-75.

Willingham, D. T. (2009). Why don’t students like school? Jossey-Bass.

Ian A. Matheson

Queen's University

Tom Russell

Queen's University

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