Thursday, September 5, 2013

Steering a student toward better reflections

We're in the third week of the semester already, and I have been happy with the changes I made over the Summer. I get the sense that my students like the achievement-oriented grading so far, or at least, they have not staged a rebellion. Many of the students found it difficult to understand the relationship between achievements and reflections. A few students didn't understand this two-step process at all—that you do an achievement first, then write a reflection. However, most of the problems came from difficulty understanding my reflection requirements, as stated in the course description:
A good reflection should address the following:
  • Describe how your artifact and experience characterize one or more of the essential questions of the course.
  • Describe the implications of this characterization on your own personal practice or, when relevant, your team's collective practice.
  • Identify and address potential criticisms of this characterization.
When I talk about these requirements informally, I describe them as: characterize an EQ; implications to practice; and critique your characterization. I did not give the students an example to start the semester since past experience shows that, given an example, all solutions will look like that example. However, looking back on it, I think a simple example would have helped them to see that the reflection is not just the achievement restated, but a shift in focus and discourse.

To this end, I share the following story about a student who came to office hours for help with his achievements. I have the student's permission to share this story, though we'll keep him nameless. He was frustrated that he had not received any points for his reflections, and looking over his submissions, he had simply submitted his achievement artifacts again in the reflections slot on Blackboard. We started by looking at the first achievement he had earned—Studious—which requires reading Bill Rapaport's "How to Study" Guide and then creating a study plan.

First, I pointed out that the reflection has to happen after earning the achievement, and that the first step was to describe how earning the achievement helped him to characterize one of our essential questions of the course. I asked the student to talk through his experience of earning the achievement. He told me that he had been assigned to read Rapaport's guide last year: his instructor had worked with me before and enjoyed Rapaport's guide so much, that he assigned it in a prerequisite class to my class! The student took an informal posture and tone, and told me that since he read it before, he didn't expect to get anything new out of it, but since it was required, he re-read it anyway. As he thought, he didn't learn anything new. At this point, he corrected his posture and his voice turned "cold academic" as he started in with, "Well, according to the author, time management is an important skill for students, and being a student is like being a professional, and so he would say that we should be practicing time management too..."

I cut him off and pointed out how he was telling me how Rapaport might characterize an essential question, not how he would. I encouraged him to take a big step back and think—that is, reflect—on what he had extemporaneously told me about doing the reading even though he had done it a few months before, how he entered it with some negative expectations, and how these expectations were met. So, I asked, how does that experience help you characterize an essential question?

He paused and thought, looking over the list of essential questions. "Well," he tentatively offered, "I guess it means that a professional will sometimes try things he thinks will help, but they won't."

"Yes," I encouraged him. "So, what does that mean for you? That is, what are the implications to practice."

He quickly returned, "If I'm trying something and it doesn't work, I shouldn't get frustrated."

Aha! I congratulated him on the clear articulation of a discovered truth, grounded in his experience with the achievement. We reviewed what we had so far, and I pointed out that he could express it in two to four concise sentences; these reflections were not to be judged on length but on clarity of insight. We moved to the third step, which I have seen to be the most difficult for the students. How might an intelligent layperson critique your characterization? In this case, how might someone argue against this characterization—that sometimes professionals do what they think is best, and it doesn't help—and how would you address such criticism?

This was harder for him to address than the last point. He suggested that, since he's not a professional, he could be wrong. I pointed out that this was not a very interesting observation, and he could use that as a criticism any time he was addressing the essential question of professionalism. He seemed to have trouble pulling something together, so I improvised. One might say that the professional does learn something from this experience: he learns from the failure and tries something new. And if that's the best criticism we have—that what looks like failure is in fact progress—then we are happy to accept it and move on.

The student thought about that, then he asked, "But couldn't we use that as a criticism every time, too?" I laughed and told him that I would probably notice if he did, but he should feel free to use it for the first one anyway.

This was a positive meeting all around. It was good for me to sit one-on-one with a student who simply didn't understand my instructions: talking with a student about his struggles with metacognition grants more perspective than typing responses mechanically into Blackboard. He clearly benefited in the short term because he built a mental framework for approaching reflections, and I hope that the benefits extend beyond the course: the whole point of these reflective activities is to help students become better learners.