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How Using Autoethnography Improved My Teaching

Updated: May 15, 2023

Indiana University, Purdue University Fort Wayne

Acknowledgements: This study was not supported by a grant.

In Institutional Review Board Protocol #1502015725, reviewers determined that the study met the criteria for exemption under 45 CFR 46.101(b)(1).

Research exploring the effectiveness of instructional strategies has increased in recent years (e.g., Steinert, et. al, 2016), but research aimed specifically at understanding factors which influence faculty adoption of innovative teaching pedagogies remain sparse (e.g., Tarlau, 2014). Furthermore, qualitative studies investigating the choice of specific instructional strategies or/and evaluating the effectiveness of how the strategy was implemented remain relatively absent. I decided to use the autoethnographic method as a means to both explore barriers faculty face when attempting to diversify teaching strategies and how these barriers may be overcome. Specifically, I wanted to know how could I implement a strategy designed to increase collaborative learning among my students and how would I need to shift my own classroom teaching style to make this approach effective.

The Approach

Autoethnography is a qualitative research method that involves reflexive self-observation. Used in the classroom context, it has the potential to facilitate faculty exploration of how one’s own position and behavior, as an academician, influences the teaching process. Autoethnographers retroactively and selectively write about past experiences as a way to self-identify the important moments that significantly impacted the trajectory of events being described. This type of analysis lends insight into how intense situations are negotiated along with lingering feelings, images, and recollections. A benefit of using the autoethnographic method is that it introduces unique ways of thinking and feeling that helps make sense of one’s self and his/her interactions with others, particularly in the presence of power relations. Autoethnography expands the lens of study to “accommodate subjectivity, emotionality, and the researcher’s influence on the research, rather than hiding from these matters or assuming they don’t exist” (Ellis, et al., 2011:13). Granger (2011) emphasizes how autoethnography allows us to give voice even to our complex silences, rather than limit interpretation to “just words,” so that discourse can explore the multilevel, many-angled relationships that are shaped by power, legitimacy, and authority, including how repression reduces wishes to silence. Miller (2005) encourages autoethnographers to question the self as singular to reveal how people are complicit in maintaining the status quo through “exclusionary conceptions of what and who are possible” and “open up potential” for new avenues of action. I began to think that an authoethnographic approach involving careful observation of a classroom experiment with a new teaching strategy would help me overcome my personal barriers that were blocking my use of high-impact educational practices.

The Research Question and Analysis

My insecurities placed me far too close to my study in that I was both part of the lives of the students and part of the ‘case” that I was investigating, until I eventually realized that this is precisely why the autoethnographic method would be both useful and appropriate. I wanted to address the following two research questions:

  • What barriers emerge when faculty attempt to diversify their pedagogy?

  • How do faculty overcome emergent barriers in order to improve their teaching?

Scientific detachment was not going to help me understand why I was not implementing the very pedagogical innovations I believed would be better suited to improving student outcomes. So, I developed a creative narrative of an experience that I lived through as a “way of knowing” that constructed reality, and ordered my thoughts and experiences to unravel the complexities surrounding my pedagogical innovation in various ways that might become meaningful to those who have lived similar experiences (Dyson, 2007). I embedded an intervention in six first-year sociology courses during the 2014-15 academic year. The intervention, called Find the Sociology, was designed to include arguing, counter-arguing, and idea evaluation. Students were divided into groups, given roles of scribe, judge, and defender, and instructed to use sociology to analyze a short video implemented in each of six introductory sociology courses across 24 class sessions. I journaled after every classroom intervention and at the end of each semester. Journal entries were 1-2 pages long. I analyzed journals, student evaluations, and peer evaluations for emergent themes to identify epiphanies, improve teaching, and to understand my resistance to changes in teaching strategies.

How My Teaching Style Shifted

The greatest personal insight from the experience was the recognition that I tend to adopt a controlling motivational style toward students in response to personal anxiety. Why do I do that? Reeve (2009) identifies several reasons teachers adopt controlling motivational styles, making the point that if control is conflated with structure, then relaxing control is thought to “open the door to permissiveness or, worse, chaos.” This ‘rang true’ to me, so I searched for research to help me better make the distinction. Rosiek (2003) suggests offering instructional supports (e.g., break concepts into discrete parts, illustrate examples, teach necessary vocabulary) when situations begin to flounder to help students bridge learning gaps. Chinn, O’Donnell & Jinks (2000) suggest offering timely, relevant and understandable explanations. Webb (2009) encourages instructors to use specific situations that arise spontaneously during group work to negotiate norms and set communication expectations (e.g., active listening, turn taking, idea evaluation, persuasive talk, benefits of providing reasons) for active student participation as a way of heading off debilitating processes such as social loafing or diffusion of responsibility.

I struggled with relaxing my control over student behavior. Competition for the teaching job itself was pressuring me to improve my pedagogical techniques, but I also feared loosening control in the classroom might result in students questioning my authority, potentially negatively impacting student evaluations of my teaching and as a result negatively impacting my reputation as a faculty member. I feared the costs associated with pedagogical experimentation might exceed the benefits.

Realizing the Impact

I was able to find a balance. As I became more mindful of the factors that pushed and pulled me toward a more controlling style, I developed personal rules. Rather than intervene with social control, I increasingly exercised self-control, took notes, and let students debate. I limited myself to probing questions and cued students to offer rationales. I later followed-up with relevant disciplinary literature to clarify any emergent instructional ambiguities. My emotional response to the experimentation was intense enough that I had to consistently remind myself that I was implementing empirically sound pedagogical practice. I observed increased student laughter as I relinquished more control. Students became competitive, outspoken and confrontational. To my surprise, students described the experience of argumentation as pleasurable:

“We always got into whatever it is that people disagreed on and at times it would get quite argumentative—which made it fun.”

When the class was over, more than 26% of hand written comments of the course evaluations identified the most memorable insights derived from the classroom innovation of argumentation. Students wrote that the activity not only helped them see how sociology related to the video, but caused them to articulate why it was related.

Although I found this experience both challenging and somewhat risky, the process positively reinforced my desire to continue to find ways to create a more collaborative learning environment in the classroom. The process of conducting an autoethnography boosted my self-confidence, influenced my motivation for continued pedagogical innovation, and reduced my scepticism around reflective practice as a ‘way of knowing.’ Had I not practiced mindfulness, I might never have noticed my own paradoxical behavior that served as an indicator that additional instructional support was needed for students.

Discussion Questions

  1. What is your belief as to why faculty frequently fear adapting new pedagogy strategies?

  2. How would you describe your perceived external barriers that make it challenging (or risky) for faculty to experiment in the area of improving student learning at your institution?

  3. Have you personally experimented with classroom teaching strategies designed to improve student learning? If so, describe one such experiment and what challenges you had to overcome. If not, what hindered your effort?


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empowering methodology for educators. Australian Journal of Teacher

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Granger, C. (2011). Silent Moments in Education. Toronto, Canada: University of

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D., Spencer, J., Tullo, E., Viggiano, T., Ward, H., Dolmans, D. (2016). A systematic

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limits of ‘framing,’ and social change. Educational Theory, 64(4):369-92.

Webb, N. (2009). The teacher’s role in promoting collaborative dialogue in the

classroom. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 79:1-28.

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