Reflecting on reflection

PBPL poster sessionBlogs, reflective journals, e-portfolios and other technologies are often claimed to enhance reflection which in turn is seen as having a positive impact on learning. Many assignment questions in subjects such as management and nursing are designed to encourage students to reflect on their learning and how it relates to their practice. But while there’s a growing body of literature around reflection and most of us recognise that it’s important, there’s a great deal of uncertainty as to exactly what reflection is, how to design reflective questions and how to assess students’ responses to them.

These were the issues in the minds of Shailey Minocha, my co-investigator, and me when we initiated a project on reflective learning in 2006, funded by the PBPL CETL. Today we presented the project’s findings at a poster session organised by the PBPL CETL. I was encouraged by the high degree of interest expressed by many of the people visiting our stall.

Our project kicked off (after a literature review) with a workshop with tutors and academics at the Open University to discover what they considered the most important attributes of reflection. Many of them had been involved in assessing reflective responses to assignment questions and had found this hard to do.

We developed a model for reflection, derived from exercises with the workshop participants and systematically enhanced by our tutor consultants. This can be used to help design reflective questions, and to mark them. Reflection can be an iterative process involving different stages which can be at a basic level or deeper. It normally starts with a basic observation of an incident, you might then notice the effects, report how that impacts on you, identify your own position and look at how you can improve.

PBPL poster session

Some questions are designed to address only one or more of these basic levels of reflection. That may be fine at earlier levels of study, and when students are not used to having to reflect. We believe though that reflection becomes more valuable when some of the deeper aspects are applied, such as contextualising, identifying causes, relating your learning to your practice, connecting it to theory and justifying changes in your behaviour or thinking as a result of the reflection.

PBPL poster session

Key findings from the project include:

1. Reflection is hard. Guidance is required in the design of reflective questions (by course teams), the writing of reflective accounts (by students) and the marking of assessments (by tutors).
2. Reflective skills need to be built up gradually. It takes time to get used to the new ways of thinking required.
3. It is necessary to situate reflection in the course and relate it to the students’ practice. Reasons for introducing reflection to students must be made clear up front.
4. How the questions are worded is very important in encouraging appropriate reflective responses.
5. Models of reflection have to be adapted according to the subject area or educational level. The model may require to be less self-centred for example if the subject is nursing – practice-based reflection may be quite different from self-reflection.
6. Tutors find it difficult to mark reflective answers fairly and students can feel it can be hit and miss.
7. The model developed is a long term project or process model; the others tend to be more incident-based – our wording is not related to incidents. However our model could be applied to incidents as well as processes.
8. Reflection is cyclical – and the aspects of reflection can be applied cyclically.

Now critically reflect on the learning you have achieved while reading the above blog entry and how it might relate to your practice (10 marks)…

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