Sunday, February 26, 2017

Reflective Practice as a High Impact Practice

The following is an excerpt from a guidebook I am co-authoring with colleagues on implementing High Impact Practices in a classroom.  I wrote this part so I think it's ok to post; our final book is going to be an open resource anyway and under Creative Commons.  This section is under the part on one of the quality matrices, "Periodic and structured opportunities to reflect and integrate learning."

 One of the examples of this essential element, provided by the AAC&U literature, is “A capstone course in which students submit a portfolio and explain the relative contributions of the artifacts contained therein that represent the knowledge and proficiencies attained at various points during their program of study.”  Although this is one way to use reflection in a significant way, there are many ways that reflection can be used.  Unfortunately, reflection is a word more talked about than understood and done, as Shakespeare would say, “a custom more honour'd in the breach than the observance.

Reflection is a buzz word today but little is said about how to facilitate reflection.  If we are to follow David Kolb’s model of learning, based on Dewey’s, there must first be something to reflect upon, specifically, an experience.  (see Image 2). Reflection does not exist for its own sake, but for future experience and use of the learning. 

Students should also be educated to use reflection that is critical, in the sense that the student should be using the reflective episode to question prior assumptions he/she held about the content of learning, about him/herself, and about the discipline and knowledge construction (learning).   Reflection is a method that can aid the student not only to assimilate the knowledge into existing frameworks of understand but also to accommodate or transform existing frameworks to the new knowledge (as per Piaget’s theory of assimilation and accommodation in learning).  Reflection can therefore aid the student in moving up the hierarchy of Bloom’s/Krathwohl’s taxonomy of learning.

The Western practice of and belief in the power of reflection is based in the Socratic advice to know oneself and that “the unexamined life is not worth living.”  It is a way of helping students find their places in and response to the world.  Reflection has a strong subjective component, and unfortunately the student often interprets the task of “reflection” as focusing mainly or totally on the subjective, personal experience and not the objective, corporate experience.  In other words, the emphasis is “I,” not “it” or “we” or “others.”  The personal is part of reflection, but not all.  Periodic, structured opportunities to reflect and integrate learning should not be interpreted as an expectation that the students should wallow in or privilege their own opinions, but that they should think deeply and critically about various facets of an experience, not just their immediate emotional, ethical, or cultural reaction.

Students, especially college students in their first two years, are usually unaware of methods for reflecting.  Sometimes their “reflections” are skeletal and superficial, although in my experiences some students who are more verbal or more introverted will produce more in-depth or at least verbose reflections. Some students mistake “giving my opinion or personal response to something” as reflection on an experience or classroom event.  It is common practice to use prefabricated prompts from a textbook or other sources to instigate the reflection.  It might be a valuable long-term project to instill in students a taxonomy of reflection, or methodology, so that when they are told to “reflect” they have the tools to do so.

Such taxonomies exist.  A good grounding in Bloom’s taxonomy and Krathwohl’s and Anderson’s revision of it is a basis. Peter Pappas takes Bloom’s as his inspiration for his taxonomy of reflection (Image 3).  Although Pappas works mostly with public secondary students and teachers, the model gives a sense of how reflection could be structured, and therefore more assessable.

The word “assessable” brings us to the real gist of the matter and the essential element.  What does the faculty member do with the reflection? How is it “graded?” It is not unusual for faculty to read reflections, make a few comments as needed, give a check mark, and move on.  There is nothing wrong with this, but it should not be the goal, especially in upper division courses.  A reflection paper of any length should be expected to follow a structure that examines various aspects and is graded with a rubric and sufficiently weighted in terms of grades, since the writing and revision task itself is iterative, reflective, and basic to critical thinking. 

And of course, not all reflective tasks are equal.  If an instructor shows a controversial video in class wherein a filmmaker or speaker makes an argument, the reflective task there might focus on rhetorical elements.  On the other hand, if in a psychology course the instructor enacts a role play of a famous experiment, that reflective task may look different.  However, in referring to Pappas and Kolb, the first step would be to get students to clearly, nonjudgmentally review what really happened and the facets of its meaning before moving on to the validity of the claims, the biases of the speaker or the audience, and the connection or application to reality.  Image 4 gives an example of a taxonomy that might be useful for a rhetorical video.

Question 1
Question 3
What is being said (and not?) (understanding)
What does it mean? (interpretation)
What can I do with this information or insight? (application)
Why is this important? (value)
Why should I accept his position? (logic of his arguments)
Why would I be biased against this position? (questioning my assumptions)
How did the speaker get to this position/idea/view? (is he/she honest about it?)
Could the speaker be leaving out something? (his/her biases)
How does the speaker support his/her ideas? (persuade us?)

Another, element of reflection is the communication mode.  Is it best for the student to do reflection in written form for only the instructor and him/herself, in written form only for self, in written form for others, in oral mode to the whole class or to just a small group, or simply internal?  This is a difficult question, related to the level of the controversy involved, perceived threat of retaliation in a grade, perception of the subjective nature of reflection, introversion-extroversion of the student, cultural experiences of the students, and diversity in processing modes or learning styles.  Being asked to reflect doesn’t mean that the student will come to fully formed conclusions in a few minutes.  It might make more sense to focus on the process of reflection than the outcomes or conclusions.

Writing or stating something publicly in our culture is seen as a commitment one is held to and judged by.  A student expected to reflect out loud or in a public way might still be processing and unready to commit to a viewpoint; it’s still tentative, nascent, and undeveloped. At the same time, we could argue that telling students to reflect without a permanent record of it is truly as waste of time. They might as well be told to plan what they are going to eat for lunch or what Netflix show they will watch that evening.  Writing, even for the self, involves the brain actively far more than just speaking or keeping one’s thoughts to oneself.  The weight of the assignment and relationship to the course’s student learning outcomes also enter into the communication mode chosen.  

Related to this question is whether the instructor himself or herself is willing to engage in the same type of reflection and honesty and to recognize his/her assumptions that might need testing.  If the instructor’s goal in reflective assignments is to get the students ultimately to agree with his/her viewpoints, then there is a problem.  Students often perceive the reflective task this way and decide that the best method is to give the instructor what is wanted for a grade rather than be honest.

In conclusion, reflection has many values and should be an integral part of whatever High Impact Practice utilized in the course; however, its use should be strategic, intentional, assessable, and facilitated with training students with ways to reflect. 

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