Brookfield’s The Skillful Teacher – Reflections on Researching Student Learning

I am so glad I discovered Brookfield’s “The Skillful Teacher focuses on what students value in teachers”, thanks to the Provincial Instructor Diploma program I course I am taking, 3260 Professional Practice. I was finally got my hands on the 2015 edition. I find his stated purpose for writing the book extremely helpful:

“The essence of skillful teaching lies in the teacher constantly researching how her students are experiencing learning and then making pedagogic decisions informed by the insights she gains from students’ responses” (2015, p. ix)

I’d like to break down that quote in my own context:

Researching how students are experiencing learning

My biggest question in this regard is to what extent instructors are able to do this practically on a day to day basis. Brookfield recommends doing a weekly “Critical Incident Questionnaire” (p. 34) where he asks students to describe when they were engaged, distanced, affirmed, confused or surprised during the course of his lessons. I have not heard of that strategy being implemented before, but it could be very easily done anonymously, online, and even with mobile devices at the end of class using Google Forms.

My concern is not the practically of doing research into student learning experiences, but whether instructors have that curiosity from the get go at all. Do they really have that on their agenda at the beginning of term to monitor how students are doing with the learning? This is especially crucial for 1st year undergraduate Non-commerce students coming to, say, an introductory class on accounting, and having no background in business or accounting whatsoever. Monitoring their learning experiences early on in the term would avoid pitfalls later on when instructors start finding out the majority of students are struggling with the content.

Having in place a standard, efficient and quick means of getting a pulse on the class such as the digital or paper CIQ would be helpful to implement across the faculty, or at least make available to instructors as an option to enhance their awareness of student learning. As part of course design, I plan on raising this issue with instructors at opportune times to help them think of how to better track student learning experiences.

Making informed pedagogic decisions

The concept of making informed pedagogical decisions midway in a course based on student learning experiences happening in real time is a new one to me. I hear more often that instructors are “capitulating” to student demands and either extend a deadline, make an assignment slightly easier, or reduce the deliverables on a group project. But those decisions are often not necessarily “informed pedagogic” decisions based on taking a true snapshot of student learning experiences in the course. There are of course some that do, but part of the problem is the unwieldiness of the surveying technology we have, and the reluctance of instructors to go through the effort of collecting that data, whether in paper or digital form.

This is why data visualization and quick feedback loops tied into learning analytics is so important. If instructors were to have a digital, online, always live and real time data visualization interface to monitor student learning experiences – both of online activity and classroom experience via survey results — they would have a much better pulse on student learning without the time consuming effort to collate, analyze and interpret results of questionnaires manually. Even if the instructor spent a few seconds glancing over a very clear, concise and accurate data visualization chart of student learning (how many students found a particular topic confusing, how many requested more clarity on a certain issue for example), that in itself could foster a rich discussion or a slight but effective turn in the direction of the course that could better assist the students in their learning.


Brookfield, S. (2015). The Skillful Teacher: On Technique, Trust, and Responsiveness in the Classroom. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Critical Incident Questionnaire Resources from Stephen Brookfield’s Website: 

  1. The Classroom Critical Incident Questionnaire

  2. Understanding Classroom Dynamics: The Critical Incident Questionnaire

  3. The Critical Incident Questionnaire (CIQ): From Research to Practice and Back Again   By Jeffrey Keefer, Adult Education Research Conference Proceedings, 2009


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