How can we support colleagues in their reflective writing, especially when they are new to teaching? Reflection, of the type that is required by formal professional development like PgC’s and Fellowships, doesn’t always come naturally. It requires scaffolding just like other academic skills. How then can we help colleagues to productively reflect on their teaching? Teaching is used here to encompass teaching but also all practices which support learning (e.g. placement support, academic guidance). Here are a few strategies that I have used ….
Develop criteria for ‘good’ reflection
The language of reflection can be alienating especially for colleagues who have not worked in social sciences or humanities. One of the first strategies I use to help with reflection is to create a definition in words that are meaningful to the group. I simply ask new colleagues what effective reflection involves, so that we can agree this from the outset in words that belong to ‘us’. A simple brainstorm session may be enough, although this can be taken a step further so that the language of the group feeds into any assessment criteria (so any section on reflection uses the agreed terminology which is mutually understood).
Without exception the exercise has resulted in a productive discussion about the need to use literature to achieve balance, and to stop us just following instinct. Key words have included: Balance, honest, forward-looking, review, evaluative, questioning, and supported by evidence. Appreciating the role of evidence to help frame reflection is a key outcome of this session. Critically the discursive process here is at least as important as the end result.
Like so many academic practices it is hard to visualise formal ‘reflection’ until it is seen. Exposing colleagues to pieces of reflective writing can be a key part of demystifying the genre. Moreover, asking colleagues to judge the quality of exemplar reflections can encourage them to actively critique and it promotes dialogue about what reflection might involve, how it may become more productive and how it can help us to learn.
I shared exemplars of reflective writing for group discussion. We use our own criteria to assess what was done well and may have been done better. We also assess the risks of limited reflection. Typically, these discussions reinforce the need for balance in reflections, they flush our issues with writing (e.g. first person, description over analysis) and they provoke conversations about whether the author of the exemplars was being deeply reflective or working at a surface level. Here are a couple of the exemplars that I use as stimulus material in case these are useful to others (and I would be happy to receive others if anyone is happy to share):
As a part of a get started with reflection workshop, I encourage a speed-write session. This always follows the first two activities outlined here. Armed with some conception of what reflective writing is, I ask colleagues to pair up and locate a critical incident and then to spend five minutes writing a reflection without concern for prose or flow. The reflections are then reviewed (gently) in pairs in the same way that the exemplars were considered.
I try to encourage the use of mixed media to support the development of reflective skills. This can be comfortable for some and deeply cringeworthy for others. I try to encourage experimentation with video for reflection because there are always some colleagues who find it more comfortable, revealing and cathartic to talk their reflection rather than writing it. Audio or video can lubricate the reflective cogs. Media experimentation can be encouraged informally within workshops, or later through assessment, and it can be enabled by portfolio technology.
I use this in the PgC assessment that I lead, but I also include it in an undergraduate business module where students start and end the module with a video reflection. As a tutor one of the delightful things about this is to see the actual confidence transformation in how individuals undertake reflection – you can actually hear it in the flow and the way the process becomes more natural (as an aside the first reflection is not assessed but must be included as an honest and raw snapshot taken at the start of the module journey since it helps to show distance travelled in a type of ipsative self-assessment).
Templates & Models
There are of course, many models and writing frameworks for reflective writing. Despite the number of reflective models available, I am not convinced that the models available are always ideal for teaching colleagues; they weren’t specifically created for this purpose. Without getting into critiques of individual models, often steps are too broad to be helpful. Models sometimes lack reference to the need for evidence claims (e.g. I was good at …. Students enjoyed… how do we know this!). Models sometimes lack an opportunity to affirm things that are working in practice and instead infer a continued need to change. I also think there is a tendency to focus on actions and practice without an explicit treatment of values. To help remedy this I have developed some questions for colleagues to use as they reflect., This is not a cycle – it is more an ideas list of questions that could be asked on oneself.
In relation to a critical incident or issue:
- Affirmation: To what extent has my knowledge been reinforced? To what extent has my practice been reinforced as effective? Are my values and assumptions in this sense appropriate? Where is the evidence that gives me confidence in my approach? How can I share this practice that I know to be effective?
- Question: What questions have been generated? What don’t I know? Which of these should be prioritized?
- Change: What changes have I made so far? What is the impact? Who have I helped? Who has not been helped? Where is the need for further action?
- Partnership: Who have I heard? Which groups of students or colleagues did I not consider? How can I involve others in resolution or progress?
- Research: What information do I need to move forward? Why do I need this? How might I get this?
- Challenge: What limits my understanding? (e.g. access to information, experience). Which of these can I change? Which might I alert others to? Which must I accept?
- Meta-reflection: What role to colleagues play in my learning? How can I ensure that I keep learning? What learning routines should I maintain or change?
As I review this area of work it is clear that reflection needs a multipronged support approach which runs over time. While I talk of running workshops as a single event, of course this needs to be placed alongside ongoing feedback, discussion and opportunities to practise.
Please do leave a comment or drop me a Tweet if you have any further ideas or techniques for facilitating reflective practice in this context.
And thanks, as always, to Danielle Hinton for the great question that prompted this post!