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FEATURED ARTICLE

Dispelling the Myths of Reflection

By CARRIE WILLIAMS HOWE

Carrie Williams Howe, MEd is the Interim Director of the Office of Community-University Partnerships and Service-Learning (CUPS) at the University of Vermont. She works primarily with faculty and students in academic service-learning and community-based research. A member of the National and Vermont Campus Compact Consultant Corps, Carrie also has experience leading international service-learning programs for students and teachers. 

reflectionIt has happened more times than I can count…I’m talking about the possibilities of service-learning with a faculty member; we’re discussing the value of hands-on experience, the possibilities for translating academic concepts to real-world application, the possible partners in our community and then…we come to reflection.  Body language changes; instead of leaning in eager and excited, colleagues, or students in my class, lean back and squirm. We’ve hit uncharted territory; preconceptions that surround the word “reflection” are tainting the conversation. 

Reflection activities “provide the bridge between community service activities and the educational content of a course…direct the students’ attention to new interpretations of events…and provide a means through which the community service can be studied and interpreted” (Bringle & Hatcher, 1999).  It is perhaps one of the most examined and written about aspects of service-learning pedagogy.  And yet, it is also one of the most misunderstood aspects of this learning approach.

In my work with faculty members and students over the last six years, I have noticed that the preconceptions that surround reflection cloud our discussions. Instead of waxing creatively about ways to elicit critical thinking (as I used to perhaps unfairly expect), their minds are whirling with pitfalls, assumptions, and pessimism.  Eventually, I recognized that my words were wasted if I didn’t first attempt to dispel their doubts.  So I have begun to tackle the concept of reflection by starting with the assumptions, “nipping them in the bud” before turning to the creation of activities.  As a result, I find that the conversation that follows is more freely embraced.

Over the years, I have honed in on what I call the “6 Myths of Critical Reflection in Service-Learning” – what every practitioner should know about reflection before they ever try to do it.  These assumptions (which I would argue translate into reflection in almost any context) have arisen time and time again throughout my professional experience, and I use them as the basis for conversation when engaging with students and colleagues.

  1. Reflection is a “fluff” assignment;
  2. Reflection assignments are always “open ended;”
  3. Reflection is done at the END of an experience;
  4. Reflection is always written;
  5. Reflection is an individual exercise;
  6. Reflection can not be graded.

MYTH #1: Reflection is a “fluff” assignment. 

Walk into any service-learning course and tell the students you are going to require that they reflect.  Watch them closely; try to read their minds.  I’ve done it – and I’ve asked them to share with me, honestly, what they are thinking.  A majority of the students are thinking one or more of the following:

  •  “Thank goodness we don’t have to do a REAL paper.”
  •  “Oh boy, she wants me to talk about my feelings…ugh.”
  • “Get ready to make up some bull#%$@.” (a direct quote)

At the heart of these reactions is the simple fact that reflection is often seen as less than academically rigorous.  It is seen as a “touchy, feely” exercise in which one explores his or her personal reactions, perhaps even makes up feelings about them, and rarely touches on anything that can be evaluated.  This interpretation is not limited to students – it is often the reaction of our colleagues who don’t understand reflection.  In fact, I would argue that this reaction is at the heart of the struggle to prove the academic relevance of service-learning.  Yet this interpretation could not be further from what we are truly looking for – rigor, depth, critical thinking, new interpretations, question-posing, analysis, etc. 

Since so many service-learning experiences draw on the use of journals, I often use this example to talk about this misconception.  I discuss with students and colleagues the difference between a diary (in line with what they are expecting of reflection) and a reflective journal (in line with what I am expecting).  I explore the difference in content and depth, and I explain the need for a reflective journal to be “contextualized” – to explore an experience in relation to course content and personal development. 

Diary

Reflective Journal

What Happened?

So What?

Thin

Thick

I felt…

I felt because

Surface evaluation (“great,” “interesting”)

Deep Evaluation

Accept facts “as is”

Ask Critical Questions

Abstract

Contextualized (connected to concepts)

“The end”

Now what?

Students do not always reach this level of critical analysis right away.  It takes practice, providing examples, and explaining what you are looking for at least three times in at least three different ways (to the whole class, through individual feedback, through grading).  But if we clearly communicate these expectations, students do learn that reflection is anything but “fluff” and in fact requires quite a great deal of work on their end.

MYTH #2: Reflection assignments are always “open ended”

This myth is encompassed by the approach to reflection I call “blank page” - give them a blank sheet of paper and tell them to “reflect.”  I’ve seen many faculty members take this approach by assigning an end-of-semester “reflection essay” with very little guidance.  In almost every case, they are disappointed with the results.  “They weren’t very impressive,” faculty report to me, “They didn’t make any relevant connections and didn’t dig deep at all.”  But lets be honest, how did they know they were supposed to do that? 

 

Examples of Effective Structured Reflection:

  • Instead of assigning an open-ended reflection journal, try assigning a 2-column journal format.  Describe your experience on the left, analyze that experience on the right.
  • Use Patty Clayton’s “DEAL” model to take students through a step-by-step process of connecting experience to concepts (2009). (Describe, Examine, Articulate a Learning…).

    When prompting students to discuss experience in class, foster a structured dialogue through strategic prompting questions or by beginning with a 5-minute free-write; always push for deeper thought when comments seem surface-level.

Bringle, Hatch, and Muthiah, in a 2004 study, proved that one of the most important elements to a successful reflective activity is that it be guided and structured.  We must offer students some clues about what we are expecting and how they can meet those expectations.  As Jeffrey Howard said in 1993, we must “provide supports for students to learn how to harvest community learning.”  In short, if we are looking for a high level of critical thinking, we need to give students a means by which to achieve that thinking. 

We’ve been providing structure to students in research papers and other course assignments since the beginning of time.  Yet, for some reason teachers are hesitant to structure reflection, perhaps out of fear of stifling the flow.  But structure can actually encourage more creativity by giving students tools to express learning.  Students might, at some point in their career, be ready for the open page – they’ll have had the practice that will allow that freedom to lead to high quality results, but until we reach that point, we must provide them with the scaffolding to help them learn how to be critical thinkers.


MYTH #3: Reflection is done at the END of an experience

I often meet with faculty members as they design their service-learning courses.  After we explore the project idea, I ask: “How are you going to help students to process this experience?” “Oh yes,” they respond, “I plan to add a final reflection paper at the end of the semester.” 

The experiential learning cycle (Kolb, 1984) explains a process through which learners take abstract theories, apply them in context, reflect on their experience in relation to those theories, and reapply those concepts again through practice.  It is a cycle of learning that repeats itself.  Yet many faculty members view this cycle as happening only once in a service-learning experience, hence reflection coming only at the end.  In relegating the experiential process to a one-time rotation, however, we miss out on the stage of reapplication and testing of our learning.  Implications for reflection, then, are clear (and Bringle, Hatcher, and Muthiah’s 2004 research also substantiated this fact) – quality reflection activities occur regularly.  There are many reasons for this need for regular occurrence, but I’ll point out two:

  1. If we wait until the end to process our learning, we’ve missed out on a great deal of learning that happened along the way – we are often left with vague generalizations.
  2. If we wait until the end to process our learning, we haven’t given students any practice on how to reflect and we set them up for failure.

MYTH #4: Reflection is always written

Ninety-nine percent of the faculty members who arrive at my office to ask about service-learning are envisioning either a journal or a reflective paper as their reflection assignment.  These means of reflection are important and powerful and have their earned place at the reflection table, but an over-emphasis on this mode of learning diminishes opportunities for many students who might excel in different formats.  This point is especially relevant in service-learning, in which we are asking students to demonstrate learning not just from a textbook or lectures, but from real-life experience.  It is important to empower students of all learning styles to process experiences meaningfully and effectively.  

 

Examples of Non-Written Reflection Activities

•Public Presentations (what happened and why it matters)

•Skits /Re-enactments (what happened, what worked and didn’t, how could we have done it differently?)

•Photo/Art exhibits (what meaning do I take from this?)

•Learning “Map” (what was my path to learning through this experience?)

•Web-based creative reflection (blogs, web pages, etc.)

(For more ideas, see Eyler, J. and Giles, D. (1996).  Practitioner's Guide to Reflection in Service-Learning: Student Voices and Reflections.)


MYTH #5: Reflection is an individual exercise

I once helped to teach a course to students who were involved in alternative spring break programs.  Upon return, students were asked to write reflective papers on their experience, but   there was not an occasion to share these papers formally.  I will always remember the difference between the perspectives and quality of critical thinking in two specific papers – one student took a deficit-based approach in which she focused on the value of her service to the community she visited which, in her estimation, was clearly in dire need of her help; the other took a strengths-based approach. She recognized the skills and resources of her community partners, and asked critical questions about her role in working with this community.  I will always regret that the two students did not share with each other.  I have no doubt that each would have been challenged to think more deeply about her experience – they would have learned more from each other than they could alone. 

I always encourage faculty to move beyond the individual paper to group dialogues, “pairing and sharing,” letter or paper exchanges, and group presentations.  These reflection activities challenge students to present the complexities that they see, hear the interpretations of others, and re-examine their own experiences to learn even more from them.


MYTH #6: Reflection can not be graded

Perhaps only second to myths regarding reflection’s rigor is the myth that reflection cannot be graded.  I hear it from nearly every faculty member as they struggle to understand how to evaluate student performance in service-learning.  Concerns range from “it’s too personal” to “reflection can’t be ‘wrong’” to “I want them to feel free to say what they’re thinking without judgment.” Students similarly ask me, “How can you grade my journal? It’s my personal opinion.”

The Rubric: A powerful tool for assessing reflection

Rubrics are incredibly useful tools in helping faculty members to understand how they might go about assessing reflection. A rubric can present a series of expectations (connection to academic content, evidence of critical thinking, clear explanation of experience, evidence of deep analysis, etc.) and allow the instructor to rate the extent to which students have met those expectations on a clearly defined scale (1-5, or “Not at all” to “Excellent”). When I use a rubric I actually circle the level at which I see a student performing and return the rubric to them with their assignment, thereby making my feedback clear and backed up with established criteria. 

For an example, see: Koliba, C. (2004). Assessing Reflection Assignments for Public Affairs Courses: Implications for Educating Reflective Practitioners. Journal of Public Affairs Education.

While I would not argue that all reflection should receive a letter grade, I do believe strongly that all reflection should be evaluated through meaningful feedback.  Again, I return to Bringle, Hatcher, and Muthiah’s 2004 research – quality reflection activities allow for feedback and assessment.  There is, in fact, such as thing as a sub-par reflection – and I don’t think we should be afraid to say so.  If we are truly hoping that students will reach the levels of rigor expressed in myth #1, we must ensure that we are providing them with feedback on the extent to which they are reaching our expectations.  As Ash, Clayton, and Atkinson observed (2005), the use of an integrated system that identifies learning goals and fosters meaningful assessment of reflection can help students to achieve higher levels of critical reflection.   Feedback must be intentional, regular, and constructive.  We must not only tell students where they have excelled, but how they might approach assignments in the future to achieve better results, even if that “assignment” is in the form of a class discussion.


Conclusion: 6 Truths of Critical Reflection

In closing, I turn my 6 myths into 6 truths:

  1. Reflection is a thoughtful exercise aimed at critical thinking and deep examination;
  2. Reflection exercises should be structured & supported to help students be more effective;
  3. Reflection is done THROUGHOUT an experience;
  4. Reflection can be written OR artistic, verbal, etc.;
  5. Reflection is an individual AND GROUP exercise;
  6. Reflection should be assessed using constructive feedback methods.

Shaping the conversation in this way has proven incredibly effective and meaningful in my work with faculty and students.  I challenge faculty members to keep these elements in mind as they design service-learning experiences and to explore the ways in which they might improve the academic rigor and student learning in service-learning by improving the process of reflection.  And I challenge students to get the most out of reflection for their own learning and development, reminding them that reflection is not about saying what the teacher wants to hear, but challenging yourself to find value in experience – value that you can take with you to future challenges.


References

Ash, Clayton, Atkinson (2005). Integrating Reflection and Assessment to Capture and Improve Student Learning.  Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning. v.11(2), Spring 2005, 49-60

Ash, S.L. & Clayton, P.H. (2009). Learning through Critical Reflection: A Tutorial for Service-Learning Students. Raleigh, NC (available at: www.curricularengagement.com)

Bringle, R. & Hatcher, J. (1999). Reflection in Service Learning: Making Meaning of Experience.  Educational Horizons. v.77(4), Spring 1999, 179-185. (also reprinted in Campus Compact Higher Education Service-Learning Toolkit).

Eyler, J. and Giles, D. (1996).  Practitioner's Guide to Reflection in Service-Learning: Student Voices and Reflections.  Corporation for National and Community Service Monograph.

Hatcher, J., Bringle, R., & Muthiah (2004). Designing Effective Reflection: What Matters to Service-Learning? Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning. Vol 11, number 1 p.38-46.

Howard, J. (2003). Community Service Learning in the Curriculum. As printed in Introduction to service-learning toolkit: Readings and resources for faculty. Providence, RI: National Campus Compact.

Kolb, D. (1984). Experiential learning: experience as the source of learning and development.
          



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