The reflective colleague: tips from reflective practice for returning to in-person work

Alyssa Meuwissen, PhD, and Deborah Ottman explore ways in which reflective practice can help professionals manage stress around returning to in-person work.

By Alyssa Meuwissen, PhD, research associate; and Deborah Ottman, MA, professional development coordinator

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the ways in which many of us accomplish our work have evolved. We’ve cobbled together home offices. We’ve learned to Zoom with colleagues instead of knocking on their office doors. We’ve changed our schedules to accommodate the presence of children navigating distance learning. Many people have recently returned to in-person work. Others are planning their return with one eye on the COVID-19 case count in their area. 

Like many of our colleagues in non-student-facing roles at the University of Minnesota, CEED staff are in the process of transitioning back to the office. At the same time, we’ve been hearing from friends and colleagues about their experiences with this shift. Some are excited, while others are apprehensive. Still others feel excited one minute, and apprehensive the next.

Hearing these different perspectives prompted us to think about principles of reflective practice that could be of use in this moment of transition. Reflective practice is often recommended for educators and other professionals who work with children and families. However, we’d venture that anyone who regularly interacts with other human beings could benefit from reflective techniques. 

What would it look like to be a reflective colleague in this moment? How might one put reflective principles to work in a typical office environment? As we pondered these questions together, three major themes surfaced: ambiguity, perspective-taking, and power dynamics. We’ve loosely organized our reflective tips to align with these themes. As you’ll see, they’re interrelated.

A wall mirror reflecting part of a houseplant


Do you look forward to returning to in-person work? If you’ve already done so, do you ever wish you were still working from home? The answer to questions like these may be murkier than a simple “yes” or “no.” Returning to the office is a big change if you’ve become accustomed to working remotely. For well over a year, we were discouraged from contact with people outside our household. Our mental alarm bells rang if other people came within six feet of us. 

It can be hard to shake off that conditioning. Some people may crave in-person interactions, but for others, these interactions can be anxiety-provoking or even activate our threat response. Different people will react differently, and our own attitudes may shift over time.

Reflective practice can help us by teaching us to hold the ambiguity of our response. Acknowledge that there are pluses and minuses to in-person work. Avoid assigning judgment to your emotions, whether they are positive, negative, or mixed. Feelings are not “right” or “wrong.” It is also okay if your feelings change from day to day and even hour to hour.

If you start to feel overwhelmed or reactive at the office, we suggest physically removing yourself from the room, if possible. It can be helpful to take a five-minute walk, do some deep breathing, or look out a window at something that makes you feel anchored to the wider world, like trees or the sky. 

It can also help to identify your hot buttons. Dirty dishes left in the break room sink? A loud water cooler conversation near your workspace? Try naming your feelings: “When I see a mess in the sink, I feel stressed. When coworkers don’t respect my need for quiet thinking time, I feel frustrated.”

What if you notice that a colleague seems stressed? Offer to take a break with them and leave the space if possible. If you decide to talk with them about your observations, leave room for them to respond in a way that’s comfortable for them. Avoid confrontational statements like “You look nervous,” or “You seem stressed.” Instead, try an opener like, “I wonder how you felt about that meeting.” Be open to input and curious about your colleague’s response. 

It’s important to recognize in these conversations that we won’t always like or agree with what we hear. We may feel defensive or take it personally when a colleague shares concerns—even if their concerns have nothing to do with us. This is human nature; there’s no need to blame ourselves for our reactions. At the same time, a reflective colleague works to accept others’ emotions without judgment as well. 


Our dependence on Zoom meetings during the pandemic afforded many of us glimpses of our coworkers’ home lives–of their children and pets, their coffee tables and back yards. We learned that the lives our colleagues lead outside of work are very different from our own. Each of us has different responsibilities and a different set of claims on our time and attention. We think it’s possible that this insight into the diversity of our experiences will have a positive effect on work environments. We may be less judgmental and more apt to assign best intentions to the people with whom we work.

It might seem obvious that other people’s perspectives differ from our own. However, we’re all capable of forgetting from time to time that we don’t all think alike (or work alike). The reflective approach is to notice these differences with curiosity. How might this look in practice? As an example, say you notice that a colleague frequently leaves work early. Rather than let suspicion or resentment take hold, wonder about your colleague with curiosity. Why might your colleague need to leave work early? They might be picking up a child from school or child care. Perhaps they’re going to a standing therapy appointment. Maybe they’re avoiding rush hour traffic and will put in an hour of work later at home to make up the time. You may never know the answer, but you can assign best intentions, trusting that there’s a good reason for what you’ve observed.

Human beings are uncomfortable with not knowing. We tend to fill in an incomplete picture with guesses. What’s important is to avoid the trap of thinking that your guess must be right. A phrase that resonates with us is: “The story that I’m telling myself about what I’m seeing is…” This framing reminds us that when we speculate about other people’s thoughts, feelings, and motivations, our guesses may or may not be anywhere close to true. As reflective colleagues, we can learn to sit with an incomplete picture. We can accept that we don’t know, as much as we might want to.

Power dynamics

There’s little doubt that your work experience is partly shaped by power dynamics. Workplaces often have a hierarchical structure; power is unevenly distributed across different roles and teams. Gender, race, age, socioeconomic status, experience, and other factors also influence the way in which power dynamics play out within a workplace. Where on the spectrum, from most to least powerful, are you? How do you feel about your position? And how might you best use your position to be effective in your job? 

For people on the powerful end of the spectrum, the tips we shared about ambiguity and perspective taking may be especially useful. We touched on avoiding the trap of thinking, “Because I’ve been able to make a guess, my guess must be right.” Here’s a corollary to that belief: “I must be right, and that means you are wrong.” Avoiding such pitfalls is especially important if you are in a powerful position at work, because your decisions have great weight. Approach your colleagues and employees with curiosity and empathy, recognizing that their circumstances, opinions, and emotions will differ from yours. How might you make space for the voices that might not always be heard in your workplace? 

If you are on the less-powerful end of the spectrum at work, think about aspects of your day where you do have control. Some people who worked from home over the past year gained autonomy—the power to make decisions about their day. They might have enjoyed choosing to spend their lunch hour folding laundry rather than eating in the break room, for example. Returning to the office could mean giving up some autonomy. If that’s the case for you, try to identify areas where you can be intentional. Maybe you can decorate your workspace and make it your own. Maybe you can read a book or fit in a workout over your lunch hour. If you’ve found that you do your best thinking while active, suggest to a colleague that you go for a walking meeting. Advocate for yourself, and exercise the options you have to make your job work well for you.


Not everyone is “going back” to work, of course. Many people never left; people in early childhood education, service industries, health care, and manufacturing, for example, don’t have the option to work from home. Others can’t go back; they must continue to work from home because of health conditions that make them or their family members vulnerable. 

We acknowledge that people’s experiences of this pandemic vary enormously both at home and at work, not just within the United States, but across the globe. With that being said, we believe that a reflective approach can work well in different professional environments—whether in a Zoom meeting or a conference room, in a classroom or on the shop floor.

Interested in learning more about reflective practice? Our self-study modules look at different facets of reflective practice. The module Wondering with Purpose: Reflection in Any Setting would be a great place to start. For those who already have some experience with reflective practice, we’d suggest exploring our online courses RIOS 1: Using the RIOS Framework for Reflective Supervision and RIOS 2: Advanced Reflective Supervision Using the RIOS Framework.

Designing online learning for adults: authentic assessment, authentic learning

For adults learning online the goal of assessment should be to support and extend authentic learning.

By Deborah Ottman

In previous posts on creating online learning experiences for adults, Associate Director of Professional Development Deborah Ottman emphasized the importance of keeping your particular audience in mind as you determine the goals and learning objectives of your training or course. She also talked about structuring the learning experience—what she calls “finding a flow.” In her most recent post, she discussed fostering learner engagement and a sense of community online. In this final post in the series, which is intended for subject matter experts, Deb shows how assessment can both gauge students’ learning and build on it.

For subject matter experts and students alike, assessment can seem like something of a chore. I often think this harks back to the test anxiety that many of us have felt at one time or another when faced with a final exam or a standardized test. Yet assessment is integral to learning, and I’d argue that an assessment itself presents a great opportunity for learning to take place. The goal of an assessment should be to support and extend authentic learning. This is true whether you are designing a professional development training or an online course for degree-seeking students.

There are two general categories of assessment: formative and summative. Formative assessment happens on a regular, ongoing basis. Summative assessment takes place at the close of a section of the course or at the close of the course itself. In both instances, assessment allows the instructor to evaluate, measure, and document the strides students have made, as well as to uncover where additional learning needs may be. Moreover, formative assessment yields important information that the instructor can use to adjust instruction as the course progresses. It also provides ongoing feedback to learners, be it a percentage of correct answers on a quiz, a letter grade on a paper, or a reflective written response to a discussion post.

It’s helpful to start thinking about how assessment will be accomplished while you are gathering and organizing content. To kick start that process, I’d suggest circling back to the course goal(s) and learning objectives that you formulated at the outset. One of our guiding questions was:

What do the students need to learn?

The course goal(s), along with the learning objectives connected to achieving each goal, represented your answer to this question, and your answers shaped your content selections. They can serve the same purpose here. Let’s add another guiding question that is specific to assessment:

How can learners provide evidence that they’ve achieved the goal(s) and objectives?

I’m not talking about choosing between a multiple-choice and a true-or-false quiz, or an essay question versus a discussion board prompt. Let’s think more broadly. When considering professional development, we know that adult learners need to feel new content will be useful to their work role, so assessments should reinforce the practical application of the content. Subject matter experts will want to incorporate activities that permit learners to flex their new skills and apply their new knowledge. This can happen either out in the “real world” or through relatable tasks, scenarios, or case studies that are included in the course materials. This is known as authentic assessment.

Consider this helpful definition from education consultant Grant Wiggins, author of “Healthier testing made easy: the idea of authentic assessment”:

What do I mean by “authentic assessment”? It’s simply performances and product requirements that are faithful to real-world demands, opportunities, and constraints. The students are tested on their ability to “do” the subject in context, to transfer their learning effectively.

The best assessment is thus “educative,” not onerous. The tasks educate learners about the kinds of challenges adults actually face, and the use of feedback is built into the process. In the real world, that’s how we learn and are assessed: on our ability to learn from results.

Authentic assessment boosts knowledge acquisition by asking learners to apply their new knowledge to activities that mimic professional situations and settings. Recall that this also is a factor in strengthening learner engagement; this kind of assessment is a true win-win.

As you think about the “what” and “how” of measuring students’ learning, it’s helpful to work with an instructional designer if possible to learn about the wide variety of tools and technologies that are available. Alignment comes into play once more. When evaluating an assessment tool, you’ll want to consider its validity—that is, whether it actually measures the learning it is supposed to measure. It’s worth taking time to thoughtfully pair the mode of assessment with the knowledge or skills being assessed. That way, not only can the assessment itself be called authentic, so can the learning!

Designing online learning for adults: Finding the flow

When creating online learning resources for adults here are helpful tips for subject matter experts.

By Deborah Ottman

In her last blog post on creating online learning resources for adults, Associate Director of Professional Development Deborah Ottman discussed three questions to ask before you dive into compiling the content and designing assessments: What is the goal of the course or training? Who is your audience? What do they need to learn?

This series is aimed at subject matter experts: the people who’ll be sharing their knowledge and skills to guide others’ learning. In this follow-up, we’ll explore organizing the course and materials.

Woman working on laptop and taking notes on notepad

Now that you have a well-articulated course goal, a solid idea about who your audience is, and measurable learning objectives, you can start organizing the course. I have found that creating a simple outline of the course—as you would if you were writing an essay in composition 101—is a great first step. In the outline, the broad strokes of the goal and the specifics of learning outcomes start to cohere and a logical sequence for topics may reveal itself.

In the case of a weeks-long course, the main topics can be the focus of weekly modules. A topical outline can be as simple as this:

Week 1: Main Topic 1
Subtopic 1.1
Subtopic 1.2
Subtopic 1.3

Week 2: Main Topic 2
Subtopic 2.1
Subtopic 2.2
Subtopic 2.3

Week 3: Main Topic 3
Subtopic 3.1
Subtopic 3.2
Subtopic 3.3

Keeping your audience engaged

The heart of any learning opportunity is high-quality content. This is subject matter experts’ chance to shine, whether they’re providing online instruction directly to learners or constructing a resource for learners to use independently.

Subject matter experts will probably feel right at home pulling together content. In doing so, think about your answers to the question “who is your audience?” You’ve already thought through what learners likely already know about the topic, what they’ll need to know to succeed, and the conditions under which they’ll be engaging with your course or training, from technology to time constraints. All of these aspects of the learning experience will influence the materials you choose.

Keep your goals and objectives top of mind in this process. Each content item must directly align with and support at least one learning objective. These will be your guide as you consider materials for inclusion. Remember, too, that adult learners are discriminating. If the connection to learning objectives isn’t apparent to them or the utility of the content isn’t clear, they become significantly less engaged.

I also advise subject matter experts to remember that we all learn differently. Honor all learning styles by including resources that deliver the content through a variety of modalities and technologies. Some people learn better through listening, while others prefer to take in information through reading. Kinetic learners will do best if you are able to include an at-home activity where they can use their hands or build. Addressing different learning styles will go a long way towards providing the whole-brain stimulation that makes a physical classroom such a dynamic space.

Consider these different ways of delivering content:

  • Books and articles in hard copy
  • PDFs of book chapters, scholarly articles, newspaper articles, and case studies
  • Images such as photo galleries and infographics
  • Web-based readings such as web pages and blog posts
  • Pre-recorded audio content such as podcasts and radio programs
  • Pre-recorded video content such as lectures, TED Talks, and documentaries
  • Webinars (live or recorded)
  • PowerPoint presentations with audio and/or picture in picture (live or recorded)

Adult learning theory tells us that learner engagement is maximized when we switch up activities every 20 minutes. This is key if you are considering adapting lectures and Powerpoints previously used in a face-to-face teaching environment. You can absolutely use those materials, but it’s best to break them into smaller chunks. In the case of self-study offerings, the content and assessment activities may be more effective if switched up even more frequently and broken down into even smaller units.

So, you’ve drafted an outline and pulled together a variety of materials that offer an immediate, applicable benefit to the learner. An additional consideration in any virtual learning environment is the lack of real-time, face-to-face interaction that we experience in a bricks-and-mortar classroom. Humans are social beings, and the vast majority of adult learners need a social component to stay engaged with the learning, no matter how compelling the content. You’ll want to think through a final aspect of online learning: building community. That’s what we’ll cover in the next installment in this series.

Designing online learning for adults: three questions to ask before you start

When developing a new online learning resource for adults here are key questions to ask yourself.

By Deborah Ottman

So, you’re developing a new online learning resource for adults! Maybe this is a standard part of your job, or maybe it’s a replacement for in-person options during the coronavirus outbreak. In this first in a series of blog posts, Deborah Ottman, Associate Director of Professional Development, gives an overview of what you need to know before you start writing the syllabus or recording video lectures. This guide is aimed at subject matter experts—the people who’ll be sharing their knowledge and skills through online learning resources.

Designing an online course starts with exploring three essential questions. Starting this from scratch can be a bit daunting, but don’t rush through this step. The more thoroughly you can answer these three questions, the better your product will be.

A woman works at a laptop

Question 1. What is the goal of the course?

The course goal is a general statement of what students are intended to learn. It might help to think about what prompted you to create the course in the first place. What need is it filling? For example, the goal of the course might be to teach biomedical engineers how to use a new 3D modeling software. Or the goal might be for staff at a health clinic to understand HIPAA regulations. The goal should be achievable, but not necessarily measurable. (Determining measurable outcomes comes a bit later in the design process.)

Adult learning theory tells us that students respond best to course goals that unite practical utility and personal benefits for the learner. It may help to picture a student asking the guiding question “What’s in it for me?” when crafting the course goal.

Here are a few examples of course goals:

  • Students will understand adult learning theory.
  • Students will learn the fundamentals of effective survey design
  • Students will use InDesign to create a brochure.

Question 2. Who is your audience?

Consider the level of knowledge learners will likely bring with them to the course. Then think about the knowledge they’ll need to succeed in the course. For example, is there a specialized lexicon they’ll need to be familiar with? What scaffolding might the course need to include to get learners from what they already know to where they need to be?

Also consider potential learning barriers or challenges for learners. How much time will they have to spend on your course? What is a reasonable workload? What technology will they be using, and how familiar will they be with it to start? What are their real-world application opportunities for the content going to be?

Question 3. What do the students need to learn?

This is where the rubber of online learning design really hits the road: specifying the knowledge and skills that learners need to gain from the course. We call these learning objectives. Each learning objective should focus on a specific skill or piece of knowledge. And each should clearly support the overall course goal. But unlike the course goal, which is a broader statement of purpose, the learning objectives should be measurable. Students should be able to show that they have acquired the needed skills and knowledge.

One helpful tool when sketching out learning objectives is Bloom’s Taxonomy. This framework outlines six levels of learning: Remember, Understand, Apply, Analyze, Evaluate, and Create. The first tier–Remember–reminds us that a learner needs to know certain basic facts and concepts before he or she can progress to more sophisticated skills and abilities.

Graphic illustrating Bloom's Taxonomy

As you select content for your course—videos, articles, discussion prompts—make sure that each item ties into a learning objective (or objectives). If the connection isn’t obvious, ask yourself if the content item belongs in the course.

Here are examples of learning objectives from one of CEED’s online courses, Challenging Behavior in Early Childhood: Bridging Educational and Mental Health Strategies for Child-specific Interventions.

Students will:

  • understand typical social/emotional development
  • learn fundamental terminology associated with the field
  • compare and contrast different theoretical explanations of children’s challenging behavior
  • describe the philosophies and theories associated with the BEAM module
  • explore relationships between teachers, their colleagues, and the families they work with
  • know how to use several tools to support emotional literacy
  • examine functional behavioral assessment, including processes for gathering and summarizing information

A quick Google search will likely turn up many interesting examples of course goals and objectives in your subject area for inspiration.

So, you’ve answered the three questions—What is the goal of the course? Who is your audience? What do the students need to learn?—and you’ve perfected your course objectives. The rest will practically write itself! Okay, not exactly. But stay tuned for the next post in this series. We’ll explore how the work you’ve done will provide a solid foundation for the next step: finding the flow.