Analysis, Not Emotion: Reflections on Reflection

by Matt Forsythe

“But I don’t care how my students feel about an assignment.” 

Last year, when our signature working group presented on the topic of reflection at an rFLA meeting, we heard this objection from several colleagues in breakout groups.  They wanted students to analyze the topic under consideration, whether it be a political theory, a scientific experiment, or a classic novel.

Fortunately, as we explained, those objectives are no different than our goals when prompting students to reflect on an assignment or course.  We are asking them to describe what they did, to explain the decisions they made and the reasons behind them, and to analyze the strengths and shortcomings of their approach.  We want them to articulate the lessons they’ve learned and to envision how they might use them on future assignments, in other courses, and within their professional careers.  In the process, they reinforce the value of the skills they’ve developed and increase the likelihood that they’ll return to them in the future, improving that oft-discussed and ever-elusive question of “transfer.”

Of course, we don’t cover all of those goals in a single reflection assignment.  Instead, we focus on a specific question or series of questions.

“What Have I Done? . . . and Why?”

In writing courses, when students submit an essay or story, I often ask them to provide a brief note after the Honor Code that explains the primary focus of the submission.  The exercise is simple but has practical applications, building skills that can be applied in scenarios as varied as cocktail hours, scientific abstracts, and job interviews.  It can also lead to productive conversations about emphasis and structure, especially if there’s a disconnect between their stated purpose and the draft’s actual focus.  It’s an effective strategy during peer reviews and conferences, because this short explanation sometimes has a stronger claim than their current thesis.

Asking students to move beyond “What” and into “Why” takes this post-assignment reflection into more sophisticated territory.  For example, Victoria Brown has writers submit a “justification” essay along with their revisions in fiction and creative nonfiction workshops, explaining the rationale for changes they made and offering their insights about the piece.  Such a project can also take the form of annotations within the document or an assignment wrapper, similar to the projects that many rFLA instructors have students include with their assessment artifacts.

In my “Writing Books for (& with) Children” course, I push this “Why” essay even further, requiring students to identify specific lessons from the course within their analysis of the book they created with their partner at the Child Development Center.  On one level, their reflective essay is an account of their work with a younger partner, including challenges they faced and how they overcame them—practicing the type of narrative that will serve them well in job applications and self-evaluations, such as the statements we write during the P&T process.  However, it also prompts them to explain how their story illustrates the principles of writing picture books from our course texts and to compare their creation to books that we’ve read.  Thus the reflection is both an account of the process and a demonstration of the knowledge they’ve gained in the course as a whole—what they’ve learned and how they’ve applied it.  Requiring them to articulate the skills they’ve practiced makes the learning explicit.

“How Did I Do It? . . . How Can I Do It Again?”

Another form of productive reflection asks the students to focus on their process, rather than the product.  The goal of this approach is helping students analyze how they produced an essay, drawing their attention to strategies and techniques they can utilize on future projects.

For example, Lucy Littler has an excellent exercise that her English 140 students complete on the day they submit their first essay.  As she notes, it prompts them to surface, critique, and transfer a range of concepts, including how they learned—or didn’t learn—content, how they applied content and methods to solve a problem, and how they completed a task.

* Most of this section is taken directly from Lucy Littler’s presentation slides about this exercise for our group’s presentation to the rFLA Program, and she should be considered its co-author.

What does Lucy hope that her students learn as they complete their first essay?

  • Writing is a process.
  • Writing about something helps you think/learn about it.
  • Writers can make choices.
  • What we’re doing in this class can be applied in other classes.

As the session begins, the entire class reflects on these ideas, writing and talking collaboratively about their experiences with Paper #1.  They then complete the following prompts.  Note their connections to each of the learning goals that Lucy has identified.

Paper 1 Writing Reflection Prompts

1. In Writing with Power, Peter Elbow argues that engaging in the iterative practice of writing/revision helps an idea “grow.” When you think about where you started (pre-draft brainstorming and draft 1) and where you ended up (final draft), how did your ideas grow? How did engaging in the act of writing enable this growth?

Learning Goals: Writing about something helps you think/learn about it, Writing is a process.

2. Learning to write well means developing a writing process you can count on to help you produce your best work. When you look back over your experiences writing paper 1, what elements/steps in your process were most helpful and why? What will you definitely do again? What’s one thing you did that you would NOT do again?

Learning Goals: Writing is a process, Writers can make choices, What we’re doing in this class can be applied in others.

3. Learning to write well means understanding that different situations require different kinds of writing. For example, you will need to produce different kinds of writing in your biology class than in your creative writing class. What’s one lesson you’ve learned about writing and/or rhetorical analysis that you plan to use in another course you’re currently taking?

Learning Goals: What we’re doing in this class can be applied in others, Writers can make choices.

Lucy emphasizes that teachers who include a reflection assignment should be transparent about their goals and provide a clear structure.  First, the instructor should have a conversation about why they’re asking students to reflect.  Then, they should provide a prompt that connects the students’ reflections to the learning goals, scaffolding the assignment with brainstorming and discussion before moving to a written—possibly graded—reflection.

“What Have I Learned? . . . How Can I Apply This?”

One of my favorite reflection assignments is in “Editing Essentials,” a course that teaches principles of grammar and style to our English majors and Writing minors.  The project requires them to identify specific ways that they’ve applied the lessons from our course to their writing assignments in other classes throughout the semester.  It emphasizes the immediate application of the course material.  Although they won’t submit it until the end of the term, I begin discussing this project on the first day of class.  That allows them to begin thinking about the assignment in advance, but it has several additional benefits: it encourages students to approach each new topic as something that can be applied to other classes; it prompts them to make these connections throughout the semester, rather than at the conclusion of the term; and it frames the entire semester through a practical lens.

A variation on this assignment focuses on a specific application.  For example, another project in the course asks students to find an essay they submitted in a previous semester, annotating the changes that they would have made, had they possessed the knowledge they’ve now obtained in Editing Essentials.  Anne Zimmermann also assigns a reflection on a specific assignment, prompting students to discuss the lessons about memoir that they’ve learned from an essay about music, as well as the manner in which it fosters their understanding of generational identity.

For students who are suspicious about the application of a course such as English 140, Lucy has recruited an army of witnesses: testimonies from colleagues across the disciplines, discussing the role that writing plays in their field, and testimonies from friends in the workforce, who explain the many ways that they write analytically on a daily basis.  Such evidence provides a backdrop for reflective writing in which students envision the ways that they’ll apply the course in the future.  This exercise not only reinforces the practical application of first-year composition, but it primes the students to anticipate the skills transfer to future courses.

I provide a similar, implicit emphasis in English 140 when I describe my visits to Biology 440 courses to teach students in the Senior Seminar about strategies for approaching their research thesis project, a 22-25 page essay that incorporates 50+ academic sources.  On one hand, this provides a wake-up call to my first-year students who are exploring majors in the sciences, especially when I inform them that this Biology paper is longer than any of the essays that our English majors complete in their advanced courses.  But it also builds my ethos as a teacher, emphasizing that the skills in our course are valued in other disciplines as well.  A similar process happens when I use essays by their other professors as examples of academic research, demonstrating the range of writing that occurs at Rollins in every field.  Meanwhile, the opposite approach works with my creative writing students, who occasionally resist the analytical writing I assign; they are chagrined to learn that the daily life of a professor contains far more technical writing than imaginative work, whether I’m answering emails, writing assessment reports, or completing a blog post about a signature working group.

A final, practical way that you can prompt students to reflect on their learning is also one of the most simple: ask them to articulate the most important lessons from the semester.  For example, my English 140 students complete this exercise as a list of five short paragraphs, each identifying a concept that we’ve discussed and why they see it as important.  On one hand, this assignment gives me a fascinating glimpse of the class from my students’ perspective.  It also leaves them with concrete evidence of their takeaways from the semester: rather than simply feeling that they learned something, the reflection prompts them to analyze and articulate what they’ve actually learned.

And here’s a tip, if you’re thinking about incorporating this assignment: I conduct a discussion of this prompt and even some in-class brainstorming about it in sessions immediately prior to the week that CIEs open.  We all know a potential shortcoming of the course evaluation instrument: it sometimes captures how a student feels about a course, rather than the actual learning that occurred.  By asking my students to reflect on the lessons from our semester, I increase the odds that they’ll mention them when they’re completing their CIEs. 

I haven’t collected any empirical data about the effect.  However, I can still remember a blistering comment from early in my teaching career—“I don’t feel like I’ve learned anything from what was taught in this course”—an anomaly within that section, but the type of critical outlier that sticks in our minds, long after we’ve forgotten the many positive reviews.  At the time, I knew that couldn’t possibly be the case.  These days, when I’ve asked students to reflect on the lessons from our semester together, I’m confident that it’s not.

This Signature Working Group through the Endeavor Center consisted of Victoria Brown, Jim Driggers, Matthew Forsythe, Lucy Littler, and Anne Zimmermann.

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