Sunday, September 23, 2012

The quality of reflection in student journals

Annotation added by Tara Della Rocca

Dyment, J. E. & O'Connell, T. S. (2010). The quality of reflection in student journals: a review of limiting and enabling factors. Innovative Higher Education, 35, 233-244.

This article discusses the conflicting results found in regards to the quality of student journals in higher education. Research across disciplines in higher education identifies journal writing as beneficial toward fostering reflection about learning and therefore, reflective journals have been embraced in many courses. Unfortunately, a large number of studies reveal that many students' journals include descriptive accounts of events rather than critical reflection or higher order thinking. The authors define problems with journal writing including that students write at superficial levels or write for the teacher, students dislike writing, and writing lacks structure or purpose. 

They then identify factors that may limit or enable high quality reflection including:

  • Clarity of expectations (" is essential that students have a good understanding of the purpose or purposes for their journals" p.235)
    • purpose of journaling?
    • who will read the journal?
    • what are the assessment criteria, standards, and requirements?
  • Training - few students know intuitively how to reflect deeply and critically; reflective habits must be taught and instructors much teach students about numerous models and theories of reflection and higher order thinking; students can be given samples of writing (even the instructor's) to analyse the differing models of reflection too
  • Responses - feedback affirms the actual journal writing activity, keeps student motivated and inspired to write deeply critical journal entries, helps students identify things they have overlooked, and opens the door for a meaningful exchange of ideas between teacher and student. 
This article also mentions the value of reflection not simply after something has happened, but in anticipation of events or during them, as well.

Finally, research suggests that "practice makes perfect". Students need to develop the habit of reflecting and therefore, dedicated time for this is necessary, as well as initially providing structure (prompts or questions) as it can take up to three years for students to refine their critical reflection skills. 

Personal Thoughts
This article inspired me to ask my students (who have been using journals for reflection for a year prior to coming to my classroom), why we reflect. The answers were enlightening in that I realized the PURPOSE for doing so was clear to very few of them. Answers like, "because we have to" nearly killed me! I easily understood why the activity was seen as such a chore for them... they didn't see any useful purpose in it.

So, I've taken some of the advice in this article to heart and am endeavoring to both define the purpose of reflection for my students AND train them to do it meaningfully. As they are beginning journal writers, I am giving them prompts and using strategies suggested in this article such as peer exchange of journals and guiding students through a step-by-step process to reflect on a choice.

I was struck by the following quote in this article as it really brought home for me the fact that many students will logically reiterate their days in their journals rather than reflect critically, as we expect them to.

"Students are still largely the products of teacher-centred education systems, where the teacher is often seen as expert and students as passive recipients (e.g., Friere 1993). Given this context, it is easy to understand that students might not be familiar with this new way of thinking and writing. If they have been told to acquire and transmit facts throughout their schooling experience in tests and essays, then it makes sense that students will reproduce this way of knowing in their journals." (p.237)

As the article suggests, too often we give kids journals and just ask them to write. They need more support than this, if we are to expect deeper thinking reflected in their writing.

Although this article refers to higher education, it is easily applicable to any group of students as even young students can reflect on their actions or experiences if given the opportunity to learn how to. Although journals may frequently lack evidence of deep thinking, this does not suggest that they are useless, but rather that for them to be useful, instructors must teach students to develop the skills to reflect thoughtfully.

Noted References
Cornish, M. M. & Cantor, P. A. (2008). "Thinking about thinking: it's not just for philosophers:" using metcognitive journals to teach and learn about constructivism. Journal of Early Childhood Education, 29, 326-339.

Dewey, J. (1998). Experience and education: 60th Anniversary Edition. Indianapolis, IN: Kappa Delta Pi.

Fisher, K. (2003). Demystifying critical reflection: Defining criteria for assessment. Higher Education Research and Development, 22(3), 313-325.

Spalding, E. & Wilson, A. (2002). Demystifying reflection: A study of pedagogical strategies that encourage reflective journal writing. Teachers College Record, 104(7), 1393-1421.

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