– Melissa K. Downes
When I first started teaching, my enthusiasm, content knowledge, emphasis on discussion, and strong emphasis on reflection were my primary teaching strengths. It took me some time to realize that reflection was not something that every novice teacher did. I would define reflection as the time and practice taken to think about thinking (metacognition) and about feelings and to review what one has done (and why) and what one has learned. Such reflection reinforces both content and skills and makes students more aware of their own learning. Similar reflection on a teacher’s part helps build a stronger teacher. From my perspective, such reflection forms an essential part of good teaching in my discipline.
Many of the assignments I create (especially team assignments and presentations) have, as a final part of the assignment, a required two-to-three-page reflection. In these essays, students describe their strengths and weaknesses as tied to the assignment, what they learned, what they valued, and what they would do differently if faced with a similar challenge. Here’s an excerpt from such a reflection assignment (for a College Writing team paper studying Clarion University students):
Consider the strengths, and weaknesses of both your process and your product in terms of your team-built essay, your primary research, your scholarly research, and your group skills. Reflect on and discuss your own work and performance and reflect on the work of the group as a whole. What were the hard parts of the research? Of building the essay? Of working as a group? Did everyone share the work equally? Was there a leader in the group or did you share out leadership roles? Did the leadership work or were there difficulties? What were the strong parts of what you did? What were the valuable things about the experience? What did you learn about Clarion University students? About your chosen topic? About the skills you had to practice to be successful for this paper/project? Do you have new or different insights after the experience? If you could go back and do the paper/project again, what would you do differently? Concrete details, please.
How do students respond? Here’s a student response from one of my inquiry seminars:
I learned that inquiry is all about asking a lot of questions. Some questions may not be as solid as you hope they are, but with practice you can fine-tune your questions. I think that inquiry is about trying out your ideas in the form of a question and then re-asking that question in a different way to see if you get different answers.
I learned that research comes in many forms, some more credible than others. I now know that looking over a journal or website before using it is important to do so that you know the material is useful and proves your topic.
Sometimes they tell me what I should do differently, which itself requires reflection and some metacognition on their part and also encourages it in their teacher:
I wish I would have spent a little more time on really connecting and relating both my primary and secondary research together. I asked a lot of questions in my interviews and gathered a lot of information in my secondary research that I wish I would have had more time to elaborate on. I feel like connecting my research together is important, I think I did the best with the time that I had but I would have liked to spend more time presenting this.
I learned the importance of using primary research alongside secondary research to help prove a thesis. Analyzing and comparing results from both secondary and primary research make your point stronger.
I like helping my students think about how an assignment might apply outside of the classroom or outside college. I also believe that reflecting on feelings helps my students intellectually. I am delighted when I get responses like this:
From this project, I learned some new things about my family and friends. Based on my interview questions, I learned what makes them laugh and how laughing makes them feel. I never realized how laughter can make someone feel, or how much of an impact laughter had on people’s attitudes.
While I was finishing up my project I was thinking about how important laughter is in life, it makes you focus on the little things and to not take things so serious sometimes. I realized that I need more laughter in my life, I need that little laugh every now and then to boost my mood and make my day better.
I think that this project has helped me academically, by introducing a new way to research as [well] as personally, by showing me to enjoy life and laugh.
I also have students practice personal reflection as an early assignment in a number of my classes. For example, my Introduction to English Studies students write personal narratives/reflections on why they have chosen to be English majors and what they think that means. I want my students to think about their choice of the major and to expand their understanding of the discipline they have chosen to study. I ask them to write a focused personal essay reflecting on the issues at the heart of questions like the following: What does it mean to study English? How would you define the field? How did you come to this field? What events and experiences motivated you? What do you think being a student of English is and why do you value it? Do you? My students write an initial version of this essay early in the term, but they return to it and revise it after they have had more experience with being an English major. Thus, they get to revise the essay not only to build better sentences or a stronger thesis but also in light of what they have learned about being an English major in a semester of being an English major
While I like the more extended and insightful responses that come from a reflection essay, I have been practicing doing more with short-answer reflections turned in at various points during projects. Such short reflections prompt metacognition, but they also hold my students accountable for keeping up with their work and alert me to possible difficulties or misunderstandings.
Reflection works well in many of my courses and fits well with my discipline, but I believe it must be a valuable component in many courses and many fields. What are you already doing in your classes to promote student reflection and metacognition? What would you like to do? If you want to bounce around some ideas, I’m happy to have coffee and a conversation.
Melissa K. Downes is an associate professor of English at Clarion University. She loves teaching. She is interested in talking about how people teach and enjoys sharing how she teaches. She is an 18th century specialist, an Anglophile, a cat lover, and a poet. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org