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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A class in the computer room

It’s as if it was yesterday that I arrived in the classroom with a toilet roll in my bag (amongst other things, happily) meant for a GTKY activity with a new group of students.* In reality, it was last year. Yet another academic year has rolled around and, to be honest, for a long time I wasn’t sure if I was going to carry on with my online writing skills course because my non-teaching job seems to have turned into a slightly less temporary arrangement. Eventually, I decided I would, for a couple of reasons, an important one being that I would otherwise probably not be teaching at all.

We spent the first two weeks having classroom sessions on campus (for those who weren’t readers of this blog four years ago, I wrote about these sessions here) and have just moved online. I wanted to write about the session we had in the computer room last week.

Photo taken from ELTpics by Kip Boahn, used under a CC BY-NC 2.0 license.

We can by no means count on securing the computer room (I don’t like the word lab; it sounds a bit pretentious for what are essentially four rows of desks with desktop computers). It’s been two years since I was able to book it at a time my class was scheduled, so I was a bit taken aback at this good fortune.

Practically all the students who had signed up for the course turned up. I felt reasonably confident because this is my sixth year teaching the course online and the computer room session is meant to walk the students through the basics. Prior to the session I’d checked everything I could think of: I’d opened a new course in Moodle and copied the content from last year, hidden everything the students shouldn’t be able to see straight away, checked the links and deleted some outdated resources. The system’s been upgraded again, as it is every September, and while this is exciting because everything looks somehow fresh and updated, it’s also annoying because you end up looking for things you know you used to be able to find far longer than you should. It’s like when they rearrange the shelves at the supermarket. In the e-portfolio system (we use Mahara) I created a new group and checked if creating a page still involved the same steps it did last year (not exactly, because of the upgrade, but close enough).

Unless you’re comfortable troubleshooting common (and less common) hardware and software issues, I would definitely recommend booking the computer room when the university’s IT person is in attendance. Our session took place when this person had already left for the day. Some of the exchange students couldn’t use a computer at all because they couldn’t log on. The login details they’d been given didn’t seem to work. I consoled myself thinking it didn’t matter as much because they could sit next to a Croatian student and there are always more Croatian students. Then one entire row of desks taken up by Croatian students reported their login details didn’t work either. My troubleshooting repertoire extends to “Have you tried a different browser?”, which obviously is slightly inadequate if you haven’t yet gotten as far as a browser. Luckily, a student suggested they use their mobile phones.

After this less-than-ideal start, the students found the right address, the majority logged into the system and I added them to the course manually. There are never more than 20 per group, so it doesn’t take long. We then went over what the course home page looks like and what resources are available. Most (Croatian) students are already familiar with Moodle because it’s used in many courses now, if only as a content repository – a stark contrast to just five years ago when most of the students wouldn’t have used a learning management system in their first year (or probably any other year for that matter, at least not at my institution).

We then moved on to Mahara. The idea there was to add the students to the group I’d created for the course and have them set up a page which they’ll be sharing with the group. The page will primarily be used to display their learning journals. This is apparently the trickiest part of the whole process and every semester, digital natives notwithstanding, there are a couple of students who I end up having to ask to go to the Moodle admin for assistance. This I usually do in desperation, halfway through the semester, when everything else has failed and my hair has begun thinning. This actually says as much about Mahara and its lack of intuitiveness as it does about supposed digital natives. Things proceeded relatively smoothly – I created a new page for myself as I do each semester, on the spot so the students could follow – until we got to the sharing step. I couldn’t find where the sharing settings were. They’d been moved since the upgrade. I’d been able to locate them the evening before, but that had probably been sheer luck. Another student came to the rescue after a suitable chunk of time had elapsed and I’d run out of options to click on (with all the attendant feelings of discomfort and embarrassment).

By this time we were into our last half hour, so I showed the students a page from a couple of years ago, to give them an idea of approximately what their page would look like by the end of the semester – I imagine they’ll find it useful to know roughly how much writing they will need to do.

We rounded the class off with – and this didn’t require everyone working on their own computer – an introduction on how to reflect on learning. I’ve actually found this to be quite useful not just for reflective writing. It seems to be difficult for students, at least when writing in English, to move beyond generalizing, so we did a brief awareness-raising activity to highlight the importance of being specific and providing examples for the reader. I might go into a bit more detail on this activity in another post, as this one is turning out to be rather longer than I planned.

Anyway, now that I read through what I’ve written I see that we managed to cover most of what I’d planned. This is not a feeling I had when I was leaving the campus that evening; possibly because of the initial trouble with the login details. I guess the reason I wanted to write about it was to share what can happen when you use tech in the classroom, even when you’ve been teaching online for a while and are supposedly prepared to deal with tech issues. Whether the students will think you’re entirely competent to be teaching online is another matter. 😛

Do you (have to) use the computer room/lab with students from time to time? What do you use it for and how do you deal with any problems that come up?

*For ideas of what else teachers carry in their bags please see this post by Zhenya Polosatova (and in the comment section there is a brief account of how the toilet roll activity worked in my class).

Some observations on blended learning

Some of you may have seen on Twitter that I am back to classroom teaching this semester. I have two other courses that are entirely classroom-based, but as I liked teaching my writing skills course online for the past four years, and thought this mode of delivery was useful for the students, I was reluctant to let it go completely. So I decided I’d teach it as a blended course this semester. Maybe this sounds like I’d planned it all out before the course even started, but I actually wasn’t sure if it was going to be online, offline or blended until a couple of weeks into the course.

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Photo taken from http://flickr.com/eltpics by Linda Pospisilova, used under a CC Attribution Non-Commercial license, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/

One of the course components while it was online was the portfolio, or to be more specific, a learning journal in which the students reflected on various aspects of the course and commented on each other’s entries. An important purpose of the journal was to encourage interaction between students in a relatively informal setting. Students could – and did – write things like, “I thought this unit was pretty cool / useless because …” (Okay, maybe no one actually said ‘useless’.) In the early stages I read and commented on all the entries (yes, that was insane kind of time-consuming), then I had the students start commenting on one another’s entries, and finally I introduced assistant moderators (click through to read an earlier post on that).

Because we meet on campus at least once a week, there is no longer a need for regular learning journal entries, or at least no more so than in any other course. Besides, insisting that the students reflect on each unit in addition to both classroom sessions and online assignments would probably take their workload beyond the requirements for 4 ECTS (although, to be honest, I haven’t checked). However, I thought it would be interesting to ask them to reflect on their learning halfway through the course – this shouldn’t be overly taxing.

As the students are doing this, I figured I could do something similar and describe what differences I’ve noticed between the course when it was run online and in its current, blended format. Here we go, in no particular order.

  1. I have the impression that we are covering vocabulary more thoroughly. Although the course focuses on writing skills, it’s also ESP in that we’re supposed to cover a certain amount of vocabulary targeted at communication science students. This is why the units on various aspects of writing are interspersed with those on vocabulary for journalists. There are a couple of ways the online course requires students to practice this key vocab, but these mostly rely on the students making an effort and going a little further than the minimum required to get a check mark next to the activity. Which, of course, many students don’t do, at least not until the night before the final exam. Whenever I thought about this – while teaching online – I was torn between the little devil saying, “But they’re university students; it’s up to them if they revise regularly or not,” and the little angel piping up, “Oh no, but it’s up to you to create opportunities for them to study; you’ve just got to work a little hard to make it interesting and they will!” As we now meet on campus, I simply incorporate a bit of vocab revision into each session and feel that they are more comfortable with the new vocab as a result. The doubt as to whether this is primarily my responsibility or theirs (at university level) remains.
  2. Speaking of vocabulary, it also feels like we get to have more in-depth discussions of some topics because this happens both in the classroom and online. The online course has opportunities for discussion in almost every unit, but there are three, sort of meatier discussions during the semester, all linked to the vocabulary units. These are discussions all the students are expected to contribute to and they have instructions on how to interact rather than simply respond to the opening post (which tends to happen unless you specify a different set of expectations). This semester we’ve continued the online discussions in the classroom, and I felt that went quite well. I guess that makes sense as they’d already thought about the topic while contributing online.
  3. In the classroom I can introduce extra practice to target specific language areas because I can respond more quickly. Sure, you can do this online. The problem is, it’s often harder to spot specific problems because you don’t see the students’ immediate reactions, and you rely on the students being adult enough to say, “Look, I’m not really sure about this – can you explain?” I get it, I do. It’s hard to admit you don’t know something – maybe you missed the part when someone was explaining? Maybe they’ll think you’re stupid? Maybe everyone knows the answer but you? – and then you have to post your question online for the whole class to see. In the classroom, when you see that something seems to require extra explaining or practice, you can either address it immediately or in the following session. Online you can point the student who asked the question to a specific resource, but you have no idea if the student has followed up on this. Or if anyone else has. Or if you should maybe tweak/redesign that part of the course in case everyone is having the same problem … and if you do, that will be in effect as of next semester, and that group of students may not have that same problem.
  4. I feel comfortable walking the students through some sections. And we’re back to what I said before – I feel their learner autonomy should be more in evidence and it sometimes annoys me that it isn’t, but if I go with them through some of the stuff they can mostly cover on their own I won’t feel guilty for leaving them to their own devices. A good example here is the unit on punctuation, which involves a bit of background reading, some practice and checking their answers, and asking questions if something isn’t clear. In an ideal world.
  5. At first, I thought that I wouldn’t even make all the online materials available this semester, so as not to confuse the students. I’d only let them access those that we didn’t cover in class. However, that turned out not to be such a great idea, because a substantial amount of the content would have to be rewritten. If I hide one chapter, then the next one inevitably starts with, “As you have seen in the last chapter… ”. This is because the chapters are written in unit guide format. Ideally, I’d have to have two separate courses: one for the fully online version and one for the blended version. Then it occurred to me that I was probably overestimating the potential for confusion and it might be useful to have all the materials available online anyway. Some students will have missed some of the classroom sessions, and will probably want to go through the material in their own time, but even those who didn’t may want to revise. In an ideal world.
  6. Some practical things which are more skills than language-related are more easily demonstrated in class. Here I mean, for instance, showing the students how to work with proofreading/tracking tools in Word. I don’t know if all the students feel comfortable using these. If in more than half of their submissions the language hasn’t been set to English to pick up on spelling errors, I’m going to assume a quick demonstration might be helpful. Again, this is something you can do online, of course; there are plenty of videos you can just pop into the course as an additional resource or you can do your own screencast if those are too general or otherwise unsuited to your purposes. But you can’t be sure everyone’s going to watch the video, or if they watch it and something isn’t clear, that they’re going to ask for clarification. You could set up activity completion so that they have to click through to the video in order to get the check mark, but you still don’t know if they’ve seen it and there is a point at which you risk coming across as dictatorial and a tad obsessed.

Reading back over these points, I think I may have a problem reconciling the belief that autonomy should be encouraged and probably should already have fully developed by the point students get to tertiary education, with the suspicion that this is unlikely, and that it is up to the instructor to make sure the work gets done. What do you think? Is this (at least partly) determined by my teaching context (Croatia, undergrads)? At which point are the learners at risk of getting spoon-fed?