In his 1944 book How We Think, Dewey defines education as “that reconstruction or reorganization of experience which adds to the meaning of experience, and which increases [one's] ability to direct the course of subsequent experiences.” Building on and interpreting Dewey, Carol Rodgers argues that academic reflection is fundamentally “a meaning-making process that moves a learner from one experience into the next with deeper understanding of its relationships with and connections to other experiences and ideas…the thread that makes continuity of learning possible” (Teachers College Record 104 #4, June 2002).
This understanding of reflection helps to respond to the critique that reflective assignments, including reflective writing, are merely ancillary exercises that — at best — encourage students to “emote” around the edges of substantive academic content. Instead, reflection can be seen as the process par excellence by which students integrate class content into their ongoing academic (and in some cases, personal/professional) development, helping them to form connections between new information and prior learning both within the disciplinary discourse and in dialogue with other fields and domains of experience.
There are certain key moments for reflection that can be particularly helpful for fostering students’ integrative learning:
“Pre-flection” exercises, done before new content is presented, can help students anticipate connections between the new material and existing knowledge, thereby speeding their recognition/development of those connections when the content is explored. For example, an instructor may ask students “What do you already know about [key course topic]? Why is this topic important to [course discipline]?” etc.
Ongoing reflection exercises can invite students to consider how new information relates to previously presented information, how it challenges their previous understanding of the course topic, why it is relevant in other academic or community contexts, etc. They can also invite students to monitor the progress of their own learning, and perhaps to make adjustments along the way so as to more effectively master material.
Finally, summative or synthetic reflection exercises (a.k.a. “post-flection”) invite students to evaluate the impact of new information on their understanding of the course’s discipline or practices, and may also challenge them to consider the arc of their own learning throughout the class so as to further their self-understanding as learners.
Some concrete reflective writing exercises that emerged:
One instructor invites his students to prepare a “Top 10 List” of their favorite ideas from the class. Each idea’s inclusion in the list must be justified in a 450+ word description that includes a summary of the idea itself, an explanation of why it is on their list, and an application of the idea to future professional practice. As a final exercise, the students are asked to order their items in order of importance.
Another instructor simply invites students to consider which aspects of the class’ content, including various delivery methods, were most effective or impactful for them, and which were least effective or impactful, with explanations.
Many instructors spoke of having students keep reflective journals or logs throughout a class. In most cases, they offer the students structured prompts to help direct their entries, sometimes inviting the students to explore connections with previous weeks’ content, and other times recommending they explore the implications of the week’s content on professional practice, community-based applications, etc.
In both nursing and education, instructors spoke of having students build, present, and analyze case studies out of their own practicum experiences so as to make them into more reflective practitioners. Dialogue with instructors and fellow students around the case studies surfaces suggestions for improvement, strategies for surmounting obstacles, etc.
One instructor has students blog throughout the semester, using a consistent prompt that challenges them to apply class content to community-based service experiences. Online, public commenting on and in-class discussion of student blog entries both integrates student ideas/experiences into the class conversation and also “raises the stakes” for the quality of student writing.
Finally, another instructor regularly challenges students to write reflective essays that make connections between (somewhat abstract) course content and content that they are studying in other classes, fostering integrative learning across students’ broader academic experience at Loyola.