Thinking about critical reflection has been “front of mind” over the past few days, primarily because Natasha and I are presenting a workshop at this year’s Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education (STLHE) annual conference focused on just that. More specifically, the workshop focuses on a “disorienting dilemma” we’ve faced as course instructors for UNIV*6800, the graduate course at the University of Guelph that focuses on University Teaching.
Update (14/6/14): This post is the inspiration for the peer reviewed paper published in Collected Essays on Learning and Teaching: Teaching Critical Reflection to Graduate Students (Watson & Kenny, 2014).
Update (21/3/14): I’ve blogged on the process that resulted from this research. See how we scaffolded critical reflection.
Critical reflection, as a practice, has been recognized as a valuable tool for learning across multiple disciplines1. Natasha and I value it in our personal practice as educators and educational developers. At the same time, there is widespread confusion about just what critical reflection is. In Rogers’ 2001 concept analysis of critical reflection in higher education2, he lists confounding assumptions students might hold when we, as educators, ask for “reflection”: Is it self-reflection? Reflection? Contemplation? Introspection? Given that these meaning are often used “interchangeably” (p. 40), let me clarify that by critical reflection, I’m referring to a process where (in our case) students actively engage with a (most often first-hand and meaningful) situation with the intention to “integrate the understanding gained into [the student’s] experience in order to enable better choices or actions in the future as well to enhance [the student’s] overall effectiveness” (Rogers, 2001, p.41) as educators.
Given the components of continual improvement and future-orientation to critical reflection, we also believe that it is a useful skill to develop in graduate students interested in careers in academia. We hold this, in part due to the fact that in a twelve-week course like UNIV*6800 there is no way to get “through” sufficient material to answer every question, concern or quandary that an instructor will face throughout a career. Rather, I would argue that it is better to grow graduate student’s ability to reflect critically so that when, in the future, these individuals confront the unknown, they have a well-developed skill at the ready to examine and develop appropriate responses.
Our “disorienting dilemma”3 related to critical reflection and UNIV*6800 is that students in the course seem not to like it. We’ve come to this conclusion through student comment in class and feedback from students delivered at the end of the course. In 2011 & 2102, for example, the critical reflection assignments were rated by students as “least useful” by a wide margin.
This is not to say we’re doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results: the critical reflection assignments have changed from year to year. In the 2006 course offering, for example, students had to complete 10 reflective entries and a final reflective report on the entries. In the 2010, the number of entries had been reduced to 6 with a final reflective report. Last year (2012), students completed 3 entries. Why this particular change? We were responding to student feedback where we were told that the tempo of submission made critical reflection feel like busy work.
In assigning the work, Natasha and I also take more time to describe what critical reflection is and provide time for students to evaluate an (anonymous) student’s reflection and describe what make it critical (or not). This expansion of “setting the scene” for critical reflection was, in part, based on our observations that the first critical reflections weren’t that critical, often reading more like an essay answering the prompt than a reflective piece. By providing a model and opportunity to discuss what critical reflection is, we hoped to increase the quality of the first submissions. Some things have remained the same: We’ve always provided students prompts; and reflections have been submitted and evaluated via our learning management system.
“Teaching” critical reflection
Now, I’ve intentionally used scare quotes around teaching: a core assumption about developing the skills of critical reflection is that it is inherently a learner-centred endeavour. Accordingly, my responsibility as one of the instructors in UNIV*6800 is to help facilitate students refine their own understanding of what critical reflection is and how to “do it” by designing experiences and assignments as well as providing formative feedback rather than simply delivering information on what constitutes critical reflection.
So, in regard to the disorienting dilemma of critical reflection and UNIV*6800, the question becomes: how can we design learning experiences, assignments and provide feedback in such a way that students see more “usefulness” in their course work related to critical reflection? While in our STLHE workshop, we will provide context about our dilemma and ask the question above, it will stop short of us providing answers. We will, in fact, turn to the collective wisdom of the workshop participants to help identify what our next courses of action might be.
That isn’t to say, however, that there isn’t a body of work teaching critical reflection. In preparation for the workshop, I’ve read the relevant work and in the balance of this post, want to share the take-aways from those papers. The goal here might be to consider these findings in relation to how you teach critical reflection and see how they confirm or contradict your approaches to engaging students in the act of critical reflection.
Planning with best practices to engage students in critical reflection
Probably the most direct paper to offer pedagogical suggestions was Aronson, 2011: Twelve tips for teaching reflection at all levels of medical education4. While pitched at those educating in the health disciplines, I found the tips to be relatively trans-disciplinary. Here are Aronson’s twelve tips:
- Define reflection
- Decide on learning goals for the reflective exercise
- Choose an appropriate instructional method for the reflection
- Decide on using a structured or unstructured approach and create a prompt
- Make a plan for dealing with ethical and emotional concerns
- Create a mechanism to follow up on learners’ plans
- Create a conducive learning environment
- Teach learners about reflection before asking them to do it
- Provide feedback and follow-up
- Assess the reflection
- Make reflection part of the larger curriculum to encourage it
- Reflect on the process of teaching reflection
Synthesizing and aligning these findings into a process, let me offer the following framework:
Before the course
Before the course begins, it would be important to link the learning objectives of the critical reflection assignments to course learning objectives and activities (Tip #2). Aronson suggests that in doing so, the perceptions on the part of students that critical reflection is an “add-on” can be reduced. This isn’t entirely surprising as we know that increasing the relevance of student work also increases student engagement5. In medical education, the authenticity of learning situations are often assured (think of a clerkship and working with patients). A greater challenge exists for those linking critical reflection to authentic learning activities where the authenticity isn’t as directly linked.
In the case of a graduate course on University teaching and learning, it might be easy to encourage students to reflect-on-action6 or reflecting after a concurrent teaching experience. Not all graduate student enrolled in these courses, however, have concurrent teaching appointments, or have had the opportunity to teach in a classroom as a TAs or instructor. Since we have students with heterogeneous experiences related to teaching, it will be more of a challenge to ensure the authenticity of the reflective activity by linking to direct experience.
Designing the critical reflection assignment
Assignment design is important to consider before the start of the course. Designing what the critical reflection exercise will “look” like (Tip #3), including how you will prompt students for reflection (Tip #4) and how the reflection will be assessed (Tip #10) ought to be considered and planned.
Written reflection, in the form of journals or logs, are a well-established assignment type. Writing reflections seem to be best linked to “reflect-on-action” but clearly writing isn’t the only way to record reflections. Reflective journals, in fact, aren’t a reflective panacea7 but what is clear from the literature is that there should be some kind of thought given to the kind of reflection sought from students and aligning it to an appropriate type of submission.
One interesting possibility comes from a 2009 paper by Wald et al.8 where students submitted written reflection to two course instructors via email. Each instructors replied, in turn, to the email, with a conversation building on the original reflection, the feedback from the other instructor and even the student’s reply. The iterative, back-and-forth nature of email appears to be an important component in the design of this assignment. As the authors identify, reflection writing does not alway equal critical reflection. They advocated for their assignment design of “interactive journals (with a reader who provides guidance)—in contrast to isolated writing— … as a means of fostering a more in-depth reflective process” (p.831). Wald and colleagues, in their paper, implicitly identify the important link between the design of submissions and form of assessment to a course’s objectives of developing critical reflection in students. This iterative process also links directly with Aronson’s Tip #6 or, following up on students’ conclusions from reflections, where a student can have the opportunity to report on the results of any plans made from critical reflection that they have turned into action.
The literature identifies a temporal dimension to reflection, suggesting that reflection can occur before experience, during experience or after experience9. Interestingly, it’s my guess that emphasis is placed on “after experience” reflection when students are asked to reflect on teaching. Thinking about my own experience in a classroom, often there is an “inner monologue” that occurs in parallel to my on-going facilitation, where I’m evaluating how things are going and what, if any, changes need to be made to my plans. While I’ve been aware of it, I never considered that the inner monologue might be a kind of “reflection during experience”. If it is, it does raise the question about how you might go about designing a way to recognize, capture and communicate this kind of “in the classroom” reflection — and if we are privileging a certain “type” of reflection in the choices we make surrounding assignment design.
Offering prompts as a way to scaffold learning
Offering prompts for reflection has been identified as a way of lowering the cognitive load for students — by providing a dilemma, students can focus on the act of reflecting critically, rather than being pre-occupied with looking for their own challenge to reflect on. There could be some latitude offered to students by providing a number of prompts to choose from. This strategy also offers the benefit of (potentially) increasing the relevance of the activity by allowing them to choose the most personally engaging prompt. Prompts, as Aronson details, can also help make
explicit the components of critical reflection: discussion of processes and assumptions as well as actions and thoughts; consideration of the role of associated emotions and relevant past experiences; solicitation of feedback and review of relevant literature where appropriate; explicit notation of lessons learned; and creation of a plan to improve future behavior and outcomes. (p. 202)
In this way, prompts can help scaffold learning about critical reflection. One concern with this approach is that it more prescriptive in nature and allows less latitude for different kinds of submissions. Beyond prompts, other techniques can be used to scaffolding student learning critical reflection assignment design. Not all critical reflection, for example, needs to be long in its creation: Aronson describes how “reflection artifacts can be produced in class or as homework” (p. 201), with the artifacts produced in class (potentially) taking less time to produce.
If the critical reflection assignment has a number of submissions and in pulling the above characteristics together, a scaffolded process could begin with a provided prompt in an in-class reflection with an explicit “recipe” to follow. A “mid-way” point could be a reflective submission from a selection of prompts, completed outside of class but without a specific recipe to follow. The endpoint in the trajectory could be a reflective submission completed outside of class with students providing their own prompt and using their own format. In this regard, an associated skill that could be developed over the course of a semester is the recognition and collection of critical reflection prompts.
Linking feedback and assessment
Implicit in this scaffolded design is the importance of feedback (Tip #9) and assessment (Tip #10). I don’t believe in separating assessment and feedback; I see them as part of the same process. In my experience, on-going formative “feedforward” (versus summative feedback that evaluates a final product and emphasizes what has been done in the past) letting student know what they’re doing well and how they can improve going forward aligns itself with the process of learning how to “do” critical reflection. While formative feedback is a key component of developing a student’s ability to critically reflect, as Kember et al.10 identify, assessment is also an important consideration given that this drives, in part, student motivation and engagement in the learning activity.
I don’t think this link between assessment and motivation should be under-emphasized as it is clear from our students’ feedback that, regardless of how difficult it was to do, because they were motivated by assessment to complete the critical reflections that they learned something. One student, for example, wrote “I strongly dislike reflective journals despite recognizing their value. I learned a lot from the process so thank you for forcing them on me!” So, linking this notion of assessment back to the importance of feedback, Kember et al. (2008) do share a four category schema they developed to assess written critical reflections, which ranges from non-reflection (least sophisticated), to understanding, to reflection and finally to critical reflection (most sophisticated). A rubric could easily be developed based on this work. While others have offered six-level schemes11 for describing critical reflection, I would argue that one strength related to assessment, of Kember et al.’s framework is the simplicity of four categories.
Aligning critical reflection in the course to the larger curriculum
While this isn’t intrinsically linked to course learning objectives, and could equally occur before or after a course, talking with colleagues in your program about if and how they teach critical reflection (Tip #11). One challenge we face with UNIV*6800 is that it is a single course, not part of a larger (explicit) curriculum. This certainly means that it feels like the entire load for introducing critical reflection lies with us. UNIV*6800 as a “single course” could also be an unintentional barrier for students to “take up” critical reflection — we have received feedback from students that its not within their normal disciplinary practice to engage in critical reflection. One student, for example, wrote that “coming from a traditionally ‘hard science’ background, reflections are not something that are encouraged or spoken of.” Research on reflection with undergraduate medical students12 (students in, arguably, a scientific discipline) suggests however that “early introduction [of reflection] with repetition to such cognitive processes as practice tools increases engagement in reflection that may facilitate proficiency in mastering this competency” (Kanthan & Senger, 2011, p. 67). This might mean that practice is more important than (perceptions of) disciplinary practice. For UNIV*6800, I’m not sure if there is an apparent solution to the limitation of being separate from a larger curriculum.
During the course
Clearly defining & learning about reflection before “doing it”
With planning completed, and a course underway, attention can turn to introducing and facilitating the delivery of the curriculum surrounding critical reflection. As I initially described earlier, reflection is a term informally understood to describe a variety of processes. These multiple understandings of what reflection (and, in turn critical reflection) is likely means that there is ambiguity in a student’s mind concerning what is being asked of them. As Rogers writes (2001), when speaking about critical reflection, “further dialogue … [is] needed to simplify and clarify terminology so that faculty and students understand each other as well as possible” (p. 40). This, in turn, links to the need to define reflection (Tip #1). While I provided a definition of critical reflection above, Aronson provides another, complimentary definition: “…the process of analyzing, questioning, and reframing an experience in order to make an assessment of it for the purposes of learning (reflective learning) and/or to improve practice (reflective practice).” (pp. 200-201). Offering a definition makes the implicit explicit for the learner.
Providing definitions, however, might not be sufficient for a students to “get” the difference between their own understanding and the kind of analysis that is expected of them. Certainly, if you have developed guidelines for assessment, perhaps modelled after Kember et al. (2008), it would make sense to share them before students submit their work. Even more useful, have learners evaluate others’ reflection before asking them to do it themselves (a modified Tip #8). By providing learners with an anonymous sample student reflection and asking them to evaluate it using the assessment tool as well as identifying, for example, what were the successful components of the work, you are engaging students in a meta-cognitive practice. The theorized benefit of this activity would be that students gain a better understanding of the components that “make up” a critical reflection and, in turn, improve the quality of their own first submissions.
Establishing a positive learning environment
Aronson succinctly writes that to succeed, “reflective exercises require the establishment of positive learning climate through the use of an authentic context and creation of a safe and supportive environment for reflection” (p. 202). James Anderson, broadly writing about faculty’s role in “promoting effective alliances within the classroom”13 suggests that students bring tacitly held assumptions concerning responsibilities for learning to the classroom. Given, however, the diversity of a student body, there is likely a similar diversity of assumptions regarding these responsibilities. Taking time to explicitly discuss the characteristics that students want and need from classmates and instructors is a first step in establishing a positive learning environment. Given the often personal nature of self-disclosure with critical reflection, even if self-disclosure with peers isn’t planned as a part of the critical reflection assignment, it is likely even more important for classroom participants to establish a conducive learning environment (Tip#7) and the mechanisms to hold members accountable.
After the course
Reflecting on the process of teaching reflection
While placing reflecting on the process of teaching reflection (Tip #12) in the “after the course” category artificially limits the kind of reflection to that which occurs after-the-fact, the reality is probably closer to some combination of reflecting in the moment (as the course unfolds) and after the fact (as the course has concluded). As Aronson identifies, there is significance in the act of practicing theses skills yourself. If these reflections are on-going over the duration of the course, you could consider making available your journal to students. In this way, not only are you growing the skills of critical reflection and engaging in the praxis of critical reflection, but also modelling the way for students. Given the level of self-disclosure and associated perceptions of risk possible in making reflections available to others, you could consider following Aronson’s suggestion of following whatever structure you put in place for students, including answering the same prompts.
Throw out the prescription and iterate
Critical reflection is hard. There isn’t a singular, easy answer to help foster the growth of critical reflection in others. Taking characteristics and strategies for best practices in student learning and applying them to the challenge of “teaching” critical reflection, as I have done above, offers one approach. The framework described here involves careful planning to consider a variety of approaches and creating a plan that introduces critical reflection, builds the skill and engages students. As I suggest, however, it is only one approach.
Critical reflection is hard. And while it is clear, after reading the varied literature on introducing critical reflection into the classroom, that there are small but significant changes that can be introduces to the UNIV*6800 classroom, I have also learned not to expect everyone to enjoy the process equally — that simple enjoyment doesn’t necessarily equal learning, nor does everything come easily. There will (continue to) be struggles with students learning critical reflection. So, I began by asking how we could design a process in UNIV*6800 so that students found more utility (or usefulness) from the critical reflection assignments. I’ll certainly focus on the quality of prompts and work to build the skill of “prompt recognition” in students so that in time, the critical reflections become more authentic and personally relevant to students. I’ll also suggest that Natasha and I both provide feedback, in an iterative, conversational format, to the submissions we receive.
A closing thought comes back to the question of utility: as a measure of value, perhaps this was the wrong question to ask. We might have provided students with an insufficiently short timeline to measure the utility of the critical reflection assignments. It strikes me that the semester is an artificial boundary placed around learning from critical reflection. To truly evaluate the utility of the critical reflection assignments in UNIV*6800, we could consider speaking to past UNIV*6800 students and see, if at all, how their perceptions of critical reflection have changed.
- For example, see Smith, E. (2011). Teaching critical reflection. Teaching in Higher Education, 16(2), 211-223. doi: 10.1080/13562517.2010.515022, for a list of social and health-related disciplines where critical reflection is seen as “particularly important” (p.211) as it supports the on-going development of these practitioners and, in turn, improves the experience of patient care. [↩]
- Rogers, R. R. (2001). Reflection in higher education: A concept analysis. Innovative Higher Education, 26(1), 37-57. [↩]
- Which itself is a term taken from the literature on critical reflection, in this case Jack Mezirow’s 1995 work (p. 39-70) in the book In Defense of the Lifeworld published by SUNY Press and edited by Michael Robert Welton. Mezirow’s contention was that disorienting dilemmas are transformative and occur infrequently. Our use here is probably less significant than being initiated by a life-changing event. In any case, we’ve used it as it’s been our touchstone for critical reflection on our own practice. How meta. [↩]
- Aronson, L. (2011). Twelve tips for teaching reflection at all levels of medical education. Medical Teacher, 33(3), 200-205. doi: 10.3109/0142159X.2010.507714 [↩]
- And if you want to read more about the importance of relevance, this relevant (no pun intended) blog post serendipitously popped into my feed reader as I was writing this post [↩]
- Which is a concept from Schön’s 1983 text The reflective practitioner: How professionals think in action, published by Basic books. [↩]
- For more on the challenges associated with reflective journals, see O’Connell, T. S., & Dyment, J. E. (2011). The case of reflective journals: is the jury still out? Reflective Practice, 12(1), 47-59. doi: 10.1080/14623943.2011.541093 [↩]
- Wald, H. S., Davis, S. W., Reis, S. P., Monroe, A. D., & Borkan, J. M. (2009). Reflecting on reflections: Enhancement of medical education curriculum with structured field notes and guided feedback. Academic Medicine, 84(7), 830-837. [↩]
- See Rogers, R. R. (2001). Reflection in higher education: A concept analysis. Innovative Higher Education, 26(1), 37-57, for more on this differentiation. [↩]
- Kember, D., McKay, J., Sinclair, K., & Wong, F. K. Y. (2008). A four‐category scheme for coding and assessing the level of reflection in written work. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 33(4), 369-379. doi: 10.1080/02602930701293355 [↩]
- As provided in Wong, F. K. Y., Kember, D., Chung, L. Y. F., & CertEd, L. Y. (1995). Assessing the level of student reflection from reflective journals. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 22(1), 48-57. [↩]
- Kanthan, R., & Senger, J.-L. B. (2011). An appraisal of students’ awareness of “self-reflection” in a first-year pathology course of undergraduate medical/dental education. BMC Medical Education, 11(1), 67. doi: 10.1186/1472-6920-11-67 [↩]
- A quote from p. 70 of Anderson, J. A. (1999). Faculty Responsibility for Promoting Conflict-Free College Classrooms. [10.1002/tl.7707]. New directions for teaching and learning, 1999, 69-76. doi: 10.1002/tl.7707 [↩]