Good for us, good for our students: A Self-study of Self-study

Dec 16th, 2010 | Category: Research in Education
By Pamela Konkol, Isabel Nuñez, and Simeon Stumme

“If we focus on the kinds of reflection-in-action through which practitioners sometimes make new sense of uncertain, unique or conflicted situations of practice, then we will assume neither that existing professional knowledge fits every case nor that every problem has a right answer. We will see students as having to learn a kind of reflection-in-action that goes beyond statable rules–not only by devising new methods of reasoning, as above, but also by constructing and testing new categories of understanding, strategies of action, and ways of framing problems.” (Schön, 1988, p. 39)

When we joined the faculty of Concordia University Chicago, our state-required capstone process was a standardized online portfolio using a commercially available portfolio builder. Among many challenges (interruptions in service, issues of scale and personnel, software problems), students and faculty felt that it was an impersonal, sterile and cumbersome task, and regarded the enterprise as merely another “hoop to jump through” rather than a meaningful learning or developmental experience. Schön’s (1988) concept of “technical rationality” captures the positivistic undertone of what was merely a pseudo-reflective exercise.

When given the opportunity to reconceptualize the product, the process, and the pedagogy involved, we looked how the capstone could be a holistic reflection of our students’ learning experience throughout the ten-course Master’s program. Our focus was to create an inquiry-based curriculum with the goal of gaining a deeper understanding of teaching and learning by explicitly connecting theory with practice (Samaras & Freese, 2006) in each course as well as in the capstone. To do this we engaged self-study perspectives. Instead of thinking of the capstone as, at best, the end product and, at worst, another add-on, we took Gray’s (2003) advice to heart; we developed each course and capstone component as a transformative encounter, woven through the whole program rather than standing alone as a discrete project/paper to be completed at the end. At the end of each course, students wrote a reflection that captured their unique experience in the class. Important to this work is Griffiths’ (1993) notion of how one’s sense of identity and personal values impacts how one sees their role as an advocate and agent of change. Explicitly calling for the joining of “biography and history” that Bullough and Pinnegar (2001) emphasize as crucial to self-study research, students were asked to explore how “private experience can provide insight and solution for public issues and troubles and the way in which public theory can provide insight and solution for private trial” (p. 15). To this end, we asked students to engage in critical self-study throughout the program and as the primary methodology for executing their capstone deliverable. Therefore, the final capstone became a unique reflection of each student’s experience during their program as a whole as well as their cumulative endeavor. Readers of this journal are invited to see accompanying articles by Sara Kahn and Deborah Kowal and colleagues, both of which are based on their self-study research and resulting final capstone projects.

As Krol (1997) notes, there is abundant evidence that “as a conception of best practice, reflective practice is deeply embedded within state teacher licensing agencies, teaching, and teacher education programs” (p. 96). Further, the importance of reflective practice is often codified through reform efforts, teacher preparation and professional development, and standard-bearing and accreditation agencies. It has become “common sense” that teachers who are purposefully reflective in their practice are “good” teachers. Despite this lip service, however, we know from Schön’s (1988) work that, by and large, in-service programs have not conceptualized truly meaningful ways of developing reflection-in-action through clinical experiences. McLaughlin (1999) notes that while “reflective practice” is both good practice and intuitively appealing, it is important to remember that the concept is also seductive and fashionable, and often “used as a vague slogan rather than as a concept whose meaning and implications are well thought through and worked out” (p. 9). We are well aware of these dangers. For this reason, students are challenged throughout the capstone process, and particularly in the culminating seminar, to recognize the difference between authentic and superficial engagement, and push themselves to continually ask critical questions of their context, perspectives, and practice.

The Inquiry

The purpose of this inquiry is to develop a better understanding of student engagement with the reflective capstone process, as well as to better understand and evaluate the process itself. We seek to demonstrate that the capstone process is not just an effective way to illustrate teachers’ engagement in reflective practice, but that it can be an individually meaningful endeavor for our students. To that end, we engage in both critical analysis and evaluation of the process, products, and outcomes, as well as consider further possibilities as well as liabilities.

We interrogated the following questions throughout this inquiry: How do students perceive and understand the program and the process? How do students experience the capstone process, and how do those experiences translate into their final capstone product? How is this particular process valued (or not) by students? In what ways is their professional practice impacted through this experience? How do they interpret and internalize this experience, and how is that reflected in their personal and professional growth? What is this process accomplishing both for our students and our own practice? As well, we consider how to represent such a process in an NCATE-friendly manner.


This inquiry explores the capstone process as a case of reflective practice in in-service teacher education. We engage self-study methods in two ways; first, to better understand both our teaching and our students’ learning, and second, in analyzing the self-study work of our students as an object of our investigation. Both levels of self-study involve “reflection in which teachers systematically and critically examine their actions and the context of those actions as a way of developing a more consciously driven mode of professional activity” (Samaras & Freese, 2006, p. 11). We are continually studying our practice in teacher education through this study of the practices of our students.

Further, we employ critical hermeneutic and phenomenological perspectives to better understand how individuals created meaning throughout this endeavor. Through exploring their unique trajectories through the program, we are able to develop a deeper understanding of not only how their meaning making is related to practice, but also how the process impacted them in practical, philosophical and theoretical ways. The capstone experiences of individual students provided more specific, bounded cases for analysis. In the course of this inquiry we conducted interviews and observations, and collected course and program documents. We also collected data on our own experience throughout the capstone process. We kept a journal in which we reflected on our teaching, our responses to student work, and the mechanics of reading the students capstones. We also engaged in regular discussion circles that focused on how we were interpreting the work of our students. Finally, we collected e-mails that we exchanged regarding the capstones; we analyzed the ways that we discussed our students’ work and the challenges we often encountered, the administrative headaches of the capstone process, and how we sought advice from each other. All these sources of data were utilized in a purposefully engaged process of self-study.


We found that the benefits to students of a truly reflective capstone process went beyond what we had expected in two directions, inward and outward. Similarly, our own self-studies required us to examine our teaching, our scholarship and our roles as advocates for the current capstone process.

Reflective essays from early in the program show signs of struggle and resistance. For many of our students, prolonged and critical engagement with texts and ideas had never been asked of them before. Toward the end, however, they are much more adept at appropriating intellectual material—truly making it their own—and relating it to the whole of their practice and experience rather than compartmentalizing for a particular assignment or class. Such text as experience becomes a part of who the students are in a holistic way. As a result, they have a clearer vision of who they are and what they are capable of.

For many students, the end-of-course reflections become an occasion for looking back farther than the beginning of the term, and there are connections made to their life narratives, their undergraduate experience, and their stories as teachers. Here, autobiographical reflection drives reconceptualization (Grumet, 1999), and students find that they are reading their own life stories in a whole new way. For these students, the capstone process gives teachers the intellectual space for a personal practice in which their own development is critical, a space where they come first. Despite the pervasive societal and media messages that teachers should be selfless (Taubman, 1997), Diller (1999) explains that all teachers need to care for self. Unless we care for ourselves, we cannot truly care for others.

While caring more deeply for self, our students also looked more widely out to the world. Several groups participated in a research symposium which gave them the opportunity to become experts in their educational pathways before an audience of their peers. Recognizing their own intellectual work of teaching, students became a community of scholars rather than individuals pursuing a discrete task. One group of students even took their capstone projects to a national professional conference when their session proposal was accepted for presentation at the American Educational Studies Association’s annual meeting.

Our own self study of the capstone process has paralleled with the struggles and issues in many of our students’ projects. Just as teachers face increased standardization and positivistic accountability measures, so have we as our university has adopted standardized assessment rubrics in an attempt to quantify the learning experience of our graduate students. We are all imperiled by the tide of data-driven decision making. This realization has opened conversations within our classrooms about the value and goals of reflective, and often introspective, culminating activities (such as the capstone). It has also challenged us to become stronger advocates for the existing capstone process within the university, now that we know how valuable and transformative the experience is for our students.

We also seek to share with the larger educational community about what our experience has been with the capstone process. This research has been presented by the authors to the Association of Lutheran College Faculties, and has been accepted for presentation at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association. We hope that this article, and the previously mentioned articles by Kahn and Kowal and colleagues accompanying this posting will inspire other teacher educators to experiment with self-study as a means of developing truly reflective practitioners.

As professors engaged in our own self-study, we found ourselves reengaged in thinking about our practice as teachers. Studying our students’ capstone process has brought our focus to the practical and personal side of scholarship: We have become students alongside our students. An article by Collins (1970) argues, among other things, that teaching requires a commitment by teachers to relearn material, to always be a student; true teaching occurs through a shared process of learning. Our self-study has transformed our teaching by inspiring us to become learners.


Self-study for us, as professors, has allowed us to reinvest in our teaching practice. While we all have our own areas of research interest (and these are varied), exploring our own teaching become an additional area of scholarly pursuit. Teaching and research are often seen as separate, or worse, unconnected, endeavors in higher education. Through our self-study we were able were able to think of teaching as scholarly. We challenged ourselves to do what we asked our students to do: engage in critical, prolonged, and personal reflection on our practice in order to best meet the needs our students.

The Master’s program at our university uses a cohort model in which all students take a standard set of classes. The capstone process offers students the opportunity to express their own connection to the material. Here, students are able to individualize a highly standardized program.

It is important to note that ours is not a prestigious degree program; our students are regular teachers. Yet, for many, something transformative happens that provides these teachers recognition and ownership of the highly theoretical work that their teaching is. Through this process of interrogating both their prior assumptions and every new text or idea, each student takes on what Hinchey (2008) refers to as an identity as a critical educator.

Self-study for our Master’s degree candidates has proven to be an invaluable way to transition from their course of graduate study to the rest of their careers as educators. Our own self-study as a teacher education program had validated this approach to providing the culminating experience required by our state. Through this inquiry, we have attempted to ascertain the quality of an experience that we hoped would be beneficial. Dewey (1938), in the passage quoted below, sets this as a crucial task for the educator:

“Everything depends on the quality of the experience which is had…The effect of an experience is not borne on its face. It sets a problem to the educator. It is his business to arrange for the kind of experiences which, while they do not repel the student, but rather engage his activities are, nevertheless, more than immediately enjoyable since they promote having desirable future experiences.” (Dewey, 1938, p. 27)

We are heartened to have found the engagement, enjoyment and impact on the future that Dewey hoped for.


Bullough, R. V., & Pinnegar, S. (2001). Guidelines for quality in autobiographical forms of self-study research.  Educational Researcher, 30(3), 13-21.

Collins, P. (1970). Some philosophical considerations on teaching and learning.  Teachers College Record, 71(3), 413-422.

Dewey, J. (1938). Experience and education. New York, NY: Touchstone.

Diller, A. (1999). The ethical education of self-talk. In M. S. Katz, N. Noddings & K.A.

Strike (Eds.), Justice and caring: The search for common ground in education (pp. 74-92). New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Gray, A. L. (2003). Conversations with transformative encounters. In G. Gay (Ed.), Becoming multicultural educators: Personal journey toward professional agency (pp. 67-90). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Griffiths, M. (1993). Educational change and the self. British Journal of Educational Studies, 41(2), 150-163.

Grumet, M. R. (1999). Autobiography and reconceptualization.  n W. F. Pinar (Ed.), Contemporary curriculum discourses: Twenty years of JCT (pp. 24-30). New York, NY: Peter Lang.

Hinchey, P. H. (2008). Becoming a critical educator: Defining a classroom identity, designing a critical pedagogy. New York, NY: Peter Lang.

Krol, C. A. (1997). Reflective practice (Coming to terms). English Journal, (86)5, 96-97.

McLaughlin, T. H. (1999). Beyond the reflective teacher. Educational Philosophy and Theory 31(1), 9-25.

Samaras, A. P., & Freese, A. R. (2006). Self-study of teaching practices. New York, NY: Peter Lang.

Schön, D. A. (1988). Educating the reflective practitioner. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Taubman, P. (2007, April). It’s all about the kids: The lure of service and sacrifice in a Master’s level education course. Paper presented at the American Educational Research Association annual meeting, Chicago, IL.

Author Information

Pamela Konkol, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor in the Department of Foundations, Social Policy and Research, Concordia University Chicago. She can be contacted at

Isabel Nunez, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor in the Department of Foundations, Social Policy and Research, Concordia University Chicago. She can be contacted at

Simeon Stumme, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Foundations, Social Policy and Research, Concordia University Chicago. He can be contacted at