Is it possible to evaluate reflective writing?

I’m extending the question that I have about student blogging for assessment, to have a think about how often students are asked to write reflectively for assessment — so reflective blogging is a kind of double word score. Reflective journals and portfolios are soup du jour, but there’s often a bit less clarity on what reflection is, and what professional competencies it underpins.  I have no idea how students know what to do. I’ve even heard colleagues talk about the value of reflective writing as being a way to prevent plagiarism. This seems disrespectful, and also doesn’t do much really to address why plagiarism is such a problem in academic writing at the moment.

Painting of Narcissus

Detail from Echo & Narcissus, by John Waterhouse 1903

Here are the kinds of questions I think we should be asking ourselves when we ask people to write reflectively. Have we explained the difference between reflection, description, and introspection? Have we taken into account cultural factors that might cause some people in some contexts to view reflective practice with suspicion, as an invasive or improper demand? What’s our response to the strongly implied contradiction between reflection as a practice of personal agency, and assessment as the cornerstone of institutional standardisation?

I also don’t think it helps that reflection comes to us weighed down with assumptions about self-absorption and distractedness, leading nowhere in particular. Narcissus famously becomes stuck in his reflective pose, and turns into a type of daffodil. Can we explain clearly and usefully how this is different from the reflective practice that we’re promoting?

To me, the difference is that the reflective practices that can be explored in writing support an enhanced capacity to act with intent, including in difficult situations. Critical reflective practice has a specific additional interest in achieving change in the systems within which we’re tangled. In other words, reflective practice really does fall into the careful-what-you-wish-for category.  It takes us into the realm of Derrida’s “let us say yes to who or what turns up” — it’s unconditionally hospitable to ideas that will disrupt the kind of stasis and complacency that assessment represents.

But if you take assessment out of the mix for a moment, there are plenty of resources that explain the value of reflective practice in action. The one I keep going back to is Donald Schon’s The Reflective Professional, from 1982. I really love Schon’s curiosity about how people actually get stuff done during their day, and his sympathy with the “crisis in professional knowledge”.  His chapter on ‘Design as a Reflective Conversation with The Situation’ really fits most activities: any professional who has the skill and confidence to revise their judgements as they move through complicated situations is engaged in this kind of reflective conversation. We’re all managing complexity, all the time, and there’s almost nothing in pre-graduate training that can fully prepare people for things that will happen once their theories of management, engineering, teaching, nursing and so on run up against messy human situations and human-designed systems. To be able to rebalance your aspirations in relation to your resources gracefully while moving at speed isn’t a freakish gift or a talent: it’s a skill that’s there to be learned.

For me, the usefulness of knowing how to reflect is that it enables us to rethink what we’ve done in the past, reorganise the elements of that personal history into a kind of diagnostic narrative, and from that to design for ourselves the compass that will help with decisions we face in the present and future. To be scrupulous, even rigorous, as a reflective professional you have to develop insights into the values and practices of identity that matter to you, and into the systems in which you’re entangled. These are the insights that enable you to reflect, evaluate and then act with purpose, rather than to react impulsively, particularly in challenging situations.

Getting better at reflection-in-action, as Schon puts it, is demonstrable, but not necessarily in ways that slot nearly into a grading rubric. Here’s my thought: if you’re asking student writers to have the courage to reflect in public, then ask yourself to have the courage to open your grading rubric to their collaborative design. Create the rubric that reflects and respects the values that they bring to the practice, and see if you can work out together the measures by which in this specific situation you would judge a reflection to be sufficient, complete, or compelling. It’s not a standard — it’s a conversation with the situation that you’re in.

In the meantime, I’m curious to know if others have discovered strategies for explaining, development or assessing reflective writing.

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