My first experience of reflective writing was in 2002 as an MA student*. I remember feeling freed from the shackles of the formulaic research essay that had been the primary mode of assessment during my undergraduate days. Exposed to new and exciting ideas in the course, I was allowed to think freely, express my thoughts on the readings and, importantly, reflect on how the seminars and readings were changing my point of view on global security as a citizen and as a scholar. I loved it and ever since I began teaching in 2007, I have used some form of reflective writing as a mode of student assessment in nearly all of my courses.
However, this year, with my biggest cohort yet, I found myself drowning in students’ reflections (both in terms of the topics covered and the admin!). Coming out of a 20+ hour marking ‘hangover’ (more on that later) I am doing some serious thinking about if and how I can hold on to this mode of assessment.
As a bit of context, at the moment, I use reflexive writing in my Intro to Comparative Politics class. Students complete between four and six reflective writing assignments over the course of the semester. These are open book and students have 20 minutes to complete each one. I run them in class to keep them ‘small stakes’. In the syllabus the assessment is described and justified to the students as follows:
A broad, general question on which to write will be given to you on the day. You will not be given the question ahead of time, but you can prepare for the task by completing the readings and paying attention in the week’s lectures. These will be open book sessions, you can use your readings and notes if you like. The purpose is for you to reflect critically on ONE issue or concept from that week. At the end of the term you will have a record of your progress and reflections.
You will receive feedback on each entry. I am not looking for any specific information or format. What I am looking for is evidence that you have completed the readings, paid attention in class and, more importantly, that you are critically reflecting on the content and not just passively absorbing it. This assignment is about me hearing your voice and analysis. Please do not just summarize the readings or lectures.
An example of the questions from our week on ‘failed states’:
- Do you think the ‘strong v weak v failing v collapsed’ discourse is a useful way of comparing states? Why or why not?
- When measuring the relative strength and weakness of states do you think all indicators are equally important or should some be weighted differently?
My primary reason for integrating reflective writing into my courses is that I personally feel that we do not give students enough time to actually pause and think about the material they are learning. I recall at a recent staff meeting, whilst looking over the timetable of a typical undergraduate student, one of my colleagues mused ‘when do they have time to, you know, sit under a tree and think?’. Whilst a gentle mocking of the sometimes romanticized view of what academia is like, it was an important point.
With the average full time student juggling anywhere from 4-6 courses per semester and each of those courses covering anywhere from 6-12 substantive topics, students’ brains are expected to soak up an awful lot of varied information. This is all done alongside essential but often high stakes assessments (usually clustered around the mid and end of term). For me, these 20 minutes of reflective writing every two weeks are moments for students to take a breath from all of this, to hit the pause button and take a moment to recognize, on a regular basis, that they have learned something meaningful, that they are progressing.
This is linked to how reflective writing is essential in developing critical thinking skills. I worry that, we aren’t giving students opportunities to ‘play’ with these ideas, experiment with concepts, formulate their own questions, make use of knowledge in a way that is meaningful to them. If higher education is about contributing to the development of empathetic and innovative leaders/entrepreneurs/citizens of tomorrow we need to create more opportunities for this.
On a more selfish note, these assignments allow me to get to know more of my students. I get insight into the opinions and academic growth of a much wider range of my students than if I just relied on getting to know my students based on who speaks up in class. I hear the thoughtful voices of all of my students on a regular basis not just at the when the ‘big’ assignments are due.
Finally, these assignments give me a sense of how I am doing as a lecturer. If students’ reflections are too simplistic, or many of them appear to have not understood the material, I know I’ve got some work to do. Perhaps I need to re-work the lecture and pedagogy to make it more engaging/relevant to young people; perhaps I need to rework a section and provide more detail on a concept they still don’t seem to be grasping. In other words, these assignments double as a reflection on my own teaching—allowing me to get feedback on student learning on specific concepts rather than the very general feedback we get in other forms.
In a word: marking. Reflective writing assignments, and providing the types of feedback that make this exercise worthwhile to students comes with a substantial time commitment. I would easily recommend this mode of assessment to anyone teaching a course of up to 40 students. After that, things get tricky. It takes me about 10 minutes to mark and provide useful individual feedback on each piece (170 students this term = ouch). These need to be ready to give back before students write their next entry (usually within a week or two). Even with my TAs, this was a huge commitment, and a huge use of my allotted TA hours. And, because it was not a mode of assessment that my TAs were used to, it took them even longer, on average, as they had to keep going back to the examples/rubrics I provided.
Related to this I am pretty sure that my use of reflective writing leads to me taking a hit on my teaching evaluations—partly because the marking was not always as timely as it could have been (my fault, not my TAs) and partly because many students did not see the value in these assignments (seeing them as a series of stressful ‘mid terms’ or not really understanding what I was after and becoming frustrated). While I’ve also received positive feedback from my students on these assignments, I know that a few of my students would happily ‘beef up’ this ‘what to hate about reflective writing’ section!
For me, even at the height of my ‘I HATE MARKING’ rants, I still would not give up on this assignment. The value in terms of developing students’ independent critical thinking skills is far too great for me to abandon ship. However, me and my TAs simply can’t have another semester of marking like we did this term, and my students need their feedback in a more timely manner. So, I’ll spend the summer experimenting with a few different models—running them past my colleagues and TAs. A few options I’m considering for the time being are listed below. If and when I find the magic formula for reflective writing in big classes, I will let you all know!
- Online submission: Have students submit journal entries through Connect/Blackboard and teaching staff provide feedback online. This would require me to abandon the ‘in class element’ that I so love so much (it keeps it low stakes for the students and prevents me from getting ‘mini essays’) but would resolve the administrative nightmare of dealing with 100+ sheets of loose-leaf, distributing these to TAs and the time-sink that is handing them back!
- Peer Review: Have some of the reflections marked by colleagues. This would again improve the critical thinking skills of the students as they assess and comment on their colleagues’ work. This would require some training of all of the students on how to provide feedback and could potentially be hated by students who don’t feel their peers are ‘worthy’ of assessing their work. Teaching staff would still have to monitor the whole process.
- Don’t provide individual feedback: Providing students with just a grade would greatly reduce marking time. General feedback for improvement could be given online (ie a chart that explains grades and gives advice to students based on the grade achieved ‘ie: if you got a 70-75% you could improve by….). Students would be encouraged to attend office hours to get individual feedback. I’m not sure how this would fly with my current students who want to know exactly what they can do to get that A+. Generalized feedback would likely lead to another massive hit on my teaching evaluations.
- Recommend them, but don’t mark them—or have them be even lower stakes by being folded into the participation grade. This would resolve all my marking woes, but I wonder if the quality would go down, with students taking them less seriously and me not having the opportunity to encourage them/show them how to improve through feedback.
* Thanks Prof Jackson!