Value Added: Critical Reflection and Self-Assessment
Alphabetical list of Handouts & Guides

Words of Wisdom

A great outcry has been made lately, on every side, about the inability of the students admitted to Harvard College to write English clearly and correctly. The schools are to-day paying more attention to composition than they did twenty or thirty years ago; and yet, notwithstanding this increased study and practice, the writing of schoolboys has been growing steadily worse.

— "The English Question," Atlantic Monthly, May 1893

— James Jay Greenough

It has become commonplace to ask students to write a “reflection,” but the results don’t always give us the meaningful data we seek for assessment, much less contribute to any significant learning. To get better results, I suggest you do a little reflection, too, and figure out what, exactly, you want. Then, even more important, convey that expectation to students. I find the following four questions provide a good starting point for creating a meaningful reflection assignment.

Rhetorical Purpose and Audience? I always put questions about the situation that calls for the rhetoric first. Specify who the reflection is addressing and why. Let’s say you, as instructor, are the audience. Explain your expectations. Do you want the student to reflect on (think deeply about, consider) his or her writing process? Or work in a collaborative group? Or an experience such as an internship or field trip? Perhaps you want a window into thought processes. Or maybe you want to be surprised or learn to look at something from a new perspective. Explain that you're reading to discover whether in the process of considering a topic, the student has come to some new insights.

Critical, Personal, or What? If you want a personal reflection, be prepared to define that. Does that mean you want only personal experiences included? Does that mean the student is writing for self-discovery? If you ask for self-discovery, you may be putting yourself in the uncomfortable position of judging someone else’s deepest thoughts, and since that someone may be considerably less experienced than you, you may find these thoughts immature. How personal do you want this to get?  I have no problem with some self-revelation, but that is only a means to end. My real interest is seeing that students can apply the theoretical or practical knowledge from a course to their personal experiences—application, in Bloomfield’s terms. I’m looking for a critical stance on the part of the writer. I want to see reasoning, connections between ideas, intellectual insight that may be fueled by or that affects the personal. When students understand that is what I require, they rise to the occasion, and they usually leave the informal or colloquial language out. If you want something truly personal, be ready to accept much more informal language.

First-draft or revision? Asking for critical reflection means I am taxing students’ mental abilities, and it’s unreasonable to expect great things on a first draft. Most reflections are written quickly, for low-stakes assignments, so I respond on content only. Then, to give students enough feedback and practice so they can ultimately produce a few good reflections, I assign at least one a week. Comments should engage them in conversation—ask questions and make observations that generate further development of ideas. Read a few good model reflections aloud to the class. By reading them aloud, you help students attend to the rhythm of the prose and deepen their sense of audience.

Guided or Open? An open reflection provides a general topic (or not), specifies an audience and purpose, but does not restrict content or format. A closed reflection is more like an essay test: it asks about a specific issue or presents a narrow set of short-answer questions. Which you use depends on how you use the reflection—if you have a narrow set of learning or assessment objectives, a closed format may work well, but if you are trying to teach writing skills, an open format presents a greater challenge and probably results in more learning. If your assessment is exploratory and you want to discover new angles, an open format may also be best.

Simply instructing students to reflect, without guidance, is unlikely to produce good results. If you’d like a bit more quality in the reflections you read, give these techniques a try.
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