Reflections on reflective writing

Photo taken from ELTpics by Ian James, used under a CC BY-NC 2.0 license

Often when I’m writing a blog post I realize there’s something I could go off on a tangent about and then I vaguely decide I’ll come back to that in another post, which I don’t very often do – I guess this is due to my irregular blogging habits. This is one of those other posts: when I blogged about our introductory campus sessions earlier this semester, it occurred to me that it might be a good idea to say a few words about the learning journal component of the course, or more specifically, about reflecting on learning in an online environment and possible attendant issues.

A learning journal can be very helpful in a semester-long asynchronous course. Apart from giving students an opportunity to think through and reflect critically on the material they’ve covered, it gives the instructor an insight into how everyone is coping in a different way than student assignments do. I might find out, for instance, how students feel about the time they have available to complete tasks, what they find useful about the feedback they receive, or what they think about task types that perhaps aren’t very typical in their offline courses, such as peer review (which I wrote about in more detail in this post). If the course were held on campus, I would probably be able to find much of this out in class.

The course has included this component since I first moved it online and has undergone a couple of tweaks in the meantime. Initially, the students had complete freedom re what they chose to reflect on after each unit, in that there were only some broad suggestions on the type of information they might want to add. The problem with that, it soon transpired, was that although some students clearly did not lack inspiration, there were others who found reflecting challenging, felt they didn’t have much to say or failed to see the point of the activity. Whatever the reason, students in this category wrote exceedingly brief comments whose sole purpose, I suspect, was to tick the “post a reflection in your journal” box.

At first, I tried to address this by posting questions on these students’ entries, hoping they would respond in greater detail, which met with varying degrees of success. After a couple of semesters, I added questions that could serve as writing prompts after each unit. Looking back, I have no idea why it took me so long to do this – I guess it was probably because I thought these were questions students should actually be asking themselves and they needn’t be the same for everyone. I still think so, but learning journals aren’t common practice in the Croatian education system and given that I was aware of this from the start, I’m surprised it didn’t occur to me sooner that students might find model questions useful. The semester I introduced questions student journals became noticeably more focused overall.

Some time after this, I began covering reflective writing in the introductory face-to-face sessions as well, the idea being that this would help students see the learning journal as more than just an afterthought. I begin by explaining what this component entails and show the students a sample journal from an earlier semester, to illustrate what the final product looks like. I choose one at random, although I think I’ll have to start checking with ex-students if I have their consent, on account of GDPR. Afterwards, we take a look at one of those exceedingly brief comments from one of the early iterations of the course, discuss what seems to be lacking at first glance and how each point could be expanded on. This is followed up by a few general good practice suggestions on reflective writing.

What I try to do in the session before this one is set aside 15 minutes for students to answer 2-3 questions of the type they will be addressing in their learning journal entries. This can be at any point during the session. I simply ask them to answer the questions however they think they should best be answered in the next 10 minutes or so. At this point I don’t want students to think about reflective writing as a genre, so there is no guidance nor are there any constraints apart from the time they have available.

I collect these and in the next session, after we’ve talked about how a very general comment can be made more specific, I show them a few examples of how this has been achieved in the pieces of writing they handed in in our last session. These are anonymized but I hope people recognize what they’ve written and that it has a motivating effect. Some terms are marked in red because they are still a little vague and we discuss how these parts of the text could be rendered more specific.

This in combination with the questions to reflect on after each unit generally produces good results. There are still students each semester who struggle with what to write about but after they’ve received personalized feedback on their first reflection, suggesting how they could expand on areas that may be overly general and thus possibly not so useful, their reflections generally become more detailed and specific.

One thing I’m not as happy about is the fact that since the questions have been introduced, the majority of students rely on these and rarely choose other aspects to reflect on, even though the instructions always stress that the questions are only there to provide inspiration and don’t (all) *haveto be answered.  This tends to make the reflections a tad predictable in structure, and to an extent in content. 

Another thing I sometimes feel I could use some help with are the questions themselves. I tweak them most semesters, adding new ones and removing those which don’t seem to have been helpful or produced much engagement. If you know of any resources that provide suggestions on how to structure reflection questions or which aspects of learning to target, they would be much appreciated!

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4 thoughts on “Reflections on reflective writing

  1. Hi Vedrana,
    This is a really clear introduction to reflection. I’ve had the same problem with questions, in that people don’t tend to go beyond them. Could you add a generic question to the end of each list? Something like ‘What’s one extra thing you noticed while doing this module?’ or ‘What else do you want to tell me about?’
    And if you find a guide to how to structure reflection questions, I’d love to know about it as it would help me with ELT Playbook 🙂
    Thank you!
    Sandy

    Like

    1. Hi Sandy,

      Thanks for the comment and for sharing the post over on Facebook. 🙂 I did add a generic question to one or two units; for instance, I included something like “The most useful thing about this unit was… because…” and “A really helpful resource/tool I would recommend is…”. I got these ideas from Faculty Focus, I think. I’m not sure why I didn’t include similar questions in every unit; maybe I would’ve if there had been more engagement? For example, the question asking students to recommend something they use – outside of what was suggested on the course – didn’t seem to be very popular. I thought it was a good way of getting the students to contribute ideas on what they genuinely consider useful, but maybe they feel uncomfortable/exposed doing this.

      In any case, I’ll definitely let you know if I come across a guide!

      Like

  2. irismarx

    I really enjoyed reading this blog post, especially about your experience with adding questions to the reflective writing and having to adjust them depending on the responses. It seems that many people struggle to write without some guidelines or structure. I like Sandy’s suggestion above about adding a generic question at the end to trigger some more insightful responses. I also would be glad to hear if you have any other ideas to help stimulate the student responses in their reflective writing.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Iris,

      Thanks for reading and for your comment. Re other ideas to help stimulate student responses, another thing I ask the students to do (every other unit, so a minimum of 4 times per semester) is to read 1-2 other students’ entries and comment on them. I encourage them to try and find something specific to say and if possible to ask a question, which many of them do. Some students engage with these questions without any particular prompt from me, but if they don’t, I point out in my feedback (which is delivered privately) that it is good practice to answer if someone who commented on their entry had a specific question. This is generally effective, though there are always a few students who appear not to see the value of engaging with their readers.

      I also have assistant moderators – graduate students, usually – each semester, who help me by commenting on some of the student entries. They also often have questions and students sometimes respond to these.

      Liked by 1 person

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