Making space for reflection

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Dr Emma Kennedy on the need to make space for reflection in the academic and student timetable.

I attended a really interesting event yesterday, run by QMUL’s E-Learning Unit, looking at the future of e-assessment and e-feedback.

The event had eight tables, each of which covered an element of JISC‘s Assessment Lifecycle, pictured above.

Participants in the event, from across the university, were invited to write their thoughts about how each element could be improved by electronic tools for assessment and feedback, and any other thoughts they had regarding that element.

I was in charge of the table on “reflecting”. Reflection is an incredibly important aspect of higher education, for both staff and students. It allows us to look back on what we’ve done, think about what we are doing, and what we’ll do in the future, all the while evaluating our past and present practice and making plans for our future practice. It helps us to see how we’ve improved over time and how we can work on our practice in the future.

For students, reflection over the course of their degree can be an extremely valuable source of information. The modular nature of most degrees means that students naturally divide their study up by these modules and may not carry over information about their strengths and weaknesses from one module or another. When they receive feedback, it pertains to their performance in a specific module, and when they plan to work on their skills, they plan it with reference to the assessment for a specific module, not their overall personal development. Being able to reflect on progress over time can help students see how they have improved their skills in particular areas, and how their strengths have developed across multiple modules. This gives them a much better idea not only of what they need to work on, but also of what they’re already good at.

For staff, too, we can only develop our skills if we reflect on how we’re doing, what we need to improve and where our strengths lie.  Reflecting gives us an ongoing source of information about our progress, and helps us improve teaching over time by adjusting the design of sessions and courses in response to different cohorts’ needs. In terms of assessment and feedback, it’s important for us to reflect on the design of an assessment, how students reacted to it, and whether it’s given us and the students the information we need. That way we can make improvements and enhance strengths as necessary.

Almost everyone who came to my table strongly agreed with the points above and was committed to reflecting whenever and wherever possible. However, an issue that came up time after time was that reflection requires detachment, which in turn requires space. Overcrowded curricula and overburdened teaching staff naturally give less space to reflection than to more urgent activities such as teaching, marking, administration and their own research deadlines. Teaching on various training programmes for staff, I’ve observed that although the vast majority are enthusiastic about improving their teaching skills and becoming pedagogical innovators, many simply don’t have the time. These programmes become just another thing to get through in a world of marathon to-do lists.

Reflection, and the training programmes that encourage it, are evidently valued at an institutional level: they are often mandatory for staff as part of their probation. However, if staff aren’t given the time to complete the programmes to the best of their ability, or the mental space to reflect as much as they need to, then we have to question how much value is actually accorded to reflection. So too, as much as we’re urged to encourage students to reflect, they don’t have the space or the time to do this when rushing from module to module, each filled to the brim with exciting, but challenging, new material.

If we truly value reflection, and reflective pedagogical training, then institutions and departments need to make space for it, in curricula and in workloads. Staff and students will both benefit; seeing the benefit of reflection will encourage them to make it a habit, and seeing staff reflect will help students to develop their own practice of reflection. It can be a wrench to remove things from the curriculum, as it feels like admitting defeat, and thinning out what we offer. However, if we’re making space for something as valuable as reflection, then to my mind that’s worth a reduced workload and reduced curriculum – as it will improve the quality of both our work and our students’.