Getting Personal – grading self-reflection

“Not more reflection!”

This was a complaint I heard recently from some final year undergraduate Business & Management students, and it made me concerned. Were the students not finding value in self-reflection? Had they not seen reflection as something that was progressive, rather than just “more of the same”?

“Not more reflection!”

This phrase could equally be a lament from tutors, some of whom have not experienced self-reflection assessment within their own studies and struggle to grade it when they are presented with the challenge of marking.

I wanted to find out what was prompting this reaction, so I started to dig. The excavations revealed the use of self-reflection across a range of disciplines, within and outside of our business school. Some of the subjects, such as Nursing, Medicine and Education were quite expected, but others such as Biology, Law and Counter Terrorism, came as more of a surprise.

Further burrowing revealed some tutors’ concerns. Firstly, they were concerned about grading something so personal, and beyond that, judging, not reflection itself, but ‘writing about reflection’. There was also the thorny question of ‘level’; should there be any difference between a fresher’s reflection and the self-reflection of a master’s student?

Analysing the material presented within undergraduate and postgraduate assignments, allowed me to create a framework to help distinguish between rich self-reflection, and narrative that was not reflective at all. (This framework can be mapped visually, as you can see in the chart below.)

For example, consider this (true, but) large, non-personal statement;

“Communication is important in university, and in the work context”.

Now compare it to something much more meaningful, specific and personal on the same topic;

“I took time to communicate the task to the group. Once I had explained what needed to be done, I tested for understanding on each element of the task. Our group finished first and I think this was because they were confident in what needed to be done. This has made me see communication as something bigger than ‘delivering the message; it is important to know what has been ‘digested’.”

The Y axes can be mapped to Bloom’s Revised Taxonomy, to discern between comments that are merely remembering or demonstrating understanding of the skill, which would fall below the threshold for self-reflection.

For example, the following lacks reflection:

“The use of open questions is very important in interviewing”

In contrast there are high levels of engagement in the following narrative:

“I realised half-way through interviewing that I was more focused on my next question, than listening to the applicants’ answers. Usually I am a good listener. I have thought about what would make me better in this context and decided I need to work on being comfortable with silence; allowing me and the interviewee, time to think”.

When I started my analysis of students’ work, I thought that students’ responses would neatly fit on a diagonal line from low grades that were large, general and descriptive to specific, personal and creative statements, which would attract the highest marks. However, I found there was a twist in the tail …

What I observed was a level of sophistication in students’ self-reflection where they explore the implications of their learning, beyond a repeat of the event. These implications sometimes involved an understanding of the experience of others, and so actually shifted away from the personal dimension towards something that was more general. This can be seen, for example, in this piece of self-reflection:

“Considering myself as a natural shaper (Belbin 2013) has made me consider how I might come across to others. Might I need to spend time negotiating with ‘implementers’?”

Or the student may consider beyond the specific to look at other implications, for example:

“Noting my initial reluctance to develop rapport in the coaching context made me consider the influence of context for other skills. For example, might I be more decisive in some contexts than others?”

A group of us tried out this framework at the Chartered ABS Learning, Teaching and Student Experience (LTSE) Conference in May, and came up with a with general consensus on where to plot student’s statements. This seemed pretty impressive as the statements (just a few sentences) were isolated from discipline or context. The discussion after the exercise suggests the framework might be used to help students see deeper levels of reflection, and that it might be effective for moderation of grading within teaching teams. It was also suggested that the dimensions may also aid in giving more specific assessment criteria within assignment briefs.

I look forward to further testing and refining this framework in my future practice. I would be delighted to hear if you intend to implement this framework yourself and whether you find it helpful.

By Dawn Harrison, Learning and Teaching Lead, Lancashire School of Business and Enterprise, University of Central Lancashire.

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