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Self-Study of Teaching with a Critical Friend as a SoTL Project

Updated: May 15, 2023

Leslie Bradbury, Appalachian State University

Tracy Smith, Appalachian State University

At the beginning of a semester, one of us (Leslie) approached the other (Tracy) with a request to invest in a serious inquiry about scholarly teaching. After discussing the goals for the project, we decided that self-study was an appropriate methodology for our work. In self-study, teachers systematically examine their practice with the specific purpose of improving their teaching (LaBoskey, 2004). A vital component of self-study is to engage a critical friend to reflect, analyze, and examine multiple perspectives. In our case, Leslie conducted the self-study, and Tracy was the critical friend. The process was iterative in that the critical friend did not merely “sign off” at the end; instead, we used critical conversations throughout data collection and analysis.

Leslie wanted to examine what she could learn about herself as a science teacher educator. Tracy brought experience in curriculum and instructional design and clinical supervision to her role as critical friend.

Each day that Leslie taught the designated course, she set aside time in the evening to record what happened during the class along with her reflection about it. The following provides the headings, purposes, and an example from each entry in our communication:

1. Plan, by Leslie: Leslie recorded her plan for the class, including announcements,

activities, and assessments. The information

was copied directly from Leslie’s daily plan for the class. Example: Review questions for Large Scale Weather Probes.

2. Self-Study Reflection, by Leslie: Leslie recalled what happened during the class relative to the item in the plan. She might discuss a particular student’s response or how class went, generally. Sometimes she wrote that there wasn’t time to get to a particular activity or that she rearranged the activities due to circumstances such as student interest in a specific topic.

Example of Reflection by Leslie: “After I noted in my last reflection that I needed to be more selective in choosing students to answer rather than accepting whole class responses, we went and did the two multiple choice questions as whole class responses again. Yikes. I was happy to see though that students were talking in their table groups about the correct answers, especially for the question that asked them to forecast the weather.”

3. Colleague response: Tracy wrote responses to Leslie’s reflections, sometimes citing relevant research, sometimes offering a resource, question, or teaching idea.

Example of Response by Tracy: “Is the small group talking “learning” or assessing learning, not that they are completely separate, but again, this keeps coming up as something that concerns you?”

4. Implications for practice: Tracy or Leslie recorded ideas for possible changes in the course. Tracy sometimes added suggestions based on her own teaching experience or ideas from literature.

Example by Tracy: “It is helpful to know that you use the announcements time as ‘morning meeting.’ I get that and clearly see how important community building is to you - and that’s supported in the literature as well. Are you familiar with CoI, the Communities of Inquiry model? I think you’d really like it.”

5. Implications for research: Tracy or Leslie recorded ideas related to their research together.

Example by Leslie: “I am wondering if flexibility is one [research theme]. I feel like I am constantly beating myself up over timing, but that maybe I don’t give myself enough credit for trying to adjust to meeting the students where they are on a given day.”

Significant Lessons about Successful Co-Investigation Trust and Safe Relationship: Leslie noted that detailing what happens in class might have left her feeling vulnerable, so it was essential to engage in this work with someone she trusted deeply. She needed to honestly represent what happened and not present her teaching or thinking in a way that made it seem better than it was. Otherwise, she felt she would lose the opportunity to grow from the process.

Commitment to Recording After Each Class

It is vitally important to record one’s thoughts the day that class occurred. With this time frame, it is much easier to recall in detail. Leslie remembered specific language she and the students had used as well as her thoughts and feelings. In one instance, Leslie indicated she waited until the next morning to complete her response, and she struggled to remember details of key events.

Commitment to Responding Regularly

Leslie eagerly anticipated reading Tracy’s feedback and comments. The tone of their writing changed over the course of the semester and became more personal. Leslie wrote her reflections with Tracy as the audience and was excited to see the ideas in Tracy’s response.

Regular Face-to-Face Meetings

Leslie found monthly meetings valuable in the reflective process. Though she wrote reflections after each class, there were issues that she wanted to discuss with Tracy in person. They needed a face-to-face exchange to explore issues in more depth than was possible in written reflections. Because they had read each other’s comments prior to each meeting, they came together with a list of topics to discuss. Meetings were focused and productive because they began from the shared experience of reading the written reflections.


Leslie learned that she is true to her core beliefs about teaching science. She indicated she is developing positive, caring relationships with students and modeling the type of instruction she wants them to use once they have their classrooms. However, Leslie did note areas for improvement. She missed opportunities to make her thinking and decision-making as a teacher explicit for the students. She noted a need to be more consistent in using student assessment data to drive instruction.

As a critical friend in this process, Tracy valued the experience of being the audience for her colleague. Tracy noted Leslie was not conducting her reflection in a vacuum; rather, Leslie wrote to Tracy. Tracy also values Leslie’s motivation to become an even more excellent teacher.

Though we have both participated and led professional development related to teaching and learning, we understand that excellent teaching is not an endpoint. In the safety of a trusting professional relationship, we found that the self-study/critical friend model was an excursion worthy of our energy and not just a destination to be achieved.

Discussion Questions:

1. How might co-investigation or self-study be a useful tool to examine or improve your teaching? Who would be your best co-investigators? Colleagues? Students?

2. If you were to use a co-investigation model, what aspects of your teaching would you most like to examine?

3. What concerns might you have in implementing a co-investigation model the way done by Tracy and Leslie?

Citations and Recommended Readings:

David Kember , Tak-Shing Ha , Bick-Har Lam , April Lee , Sandra NG , Louisa Yan & Jessie C.K. Yum (1997) The diverse role of the critical friend in supporting educational action research projects, Educational Action Research, 5(3), 463-481, DOI: 10.1080/09650799700200036

LaBoskey, V.K. (2004). The methodology of self-study and its theoretical underpinnings. In J.J. Loughran, M.L. Hamilton, V.K. LaBoskey, & T. Russell (Eds.). International handbook of self-study of teaching and teacher education practices (pp. 817-869). Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

Smith, T. W., & Bradbury, L. U. (2019). Wiser together: Sustaining teaching excellence with a self-study/critical friend. To Improve the Academy, 38(1), 18–32.

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