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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Turtles hatching

Here’s the genesis of the blogging project in our degree, 18 months ago.

Music for Deckchairs

Amid all the excitement about whether or not Apple have revolutionized textbooks, or reformed the whole planetary education system, or are just pressuring schools and families to buy iPads,* my colleagues are planning to launch three hundred first year university students into public blogging. Might as well do this while everyone’s busy looking the other way.

It’s a complicated decision in terms of future digital waste.  And then there’s social risk. There are people who don’t want to be identified in the public domain, for reasons of their own, but assessment does require us to know who they are. Despite the impression given in university marketing, people come to university study from a wide variety of social backgrounds, including our international students, and their confidence in being able to express and think about their own values without offending others is important to us. Then there are those who will find…

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A question for student bloggers

It’s the beginning of a new semester, and I’m working in a course that requires all students to blog in public, including for assessment.  Sorting out what equivalence and quality means in this different environment has been a administrative headache, but an interesting one.

But there’s a conflict that I’m trying to figure out, as I’m reading some weary comments from students reviving their course blogs. For me, learning very cautiously to write in public in a way that isn’t tangled up with the endless quantification of academic productivity has been really liberating. It’s created a space for me to think for myself, to write directly for an audience of people whose opinion I value (no offense, academic journal readers), and it’s preserved a quiet space away from the hustle of my obligation to others.  I think I’ve become a better writer through doing it in public, without the safety net of a reviewer or editor: the stuff on the page is owned by me.

So I’m in favour of supporting students to develop this same sense of public personal confidence. The students I work with are good writers, whose writing is mostly wasted if it’s just produced for one marker, and traded for a grade. The writing itself is first the hostage, then the casualty. When it’s gone, who remembers it? who delights in it?

I believe students deserve to learn how capable they are as writers before they graduate and have to face the challenges of professional self-management.  I also know from personal experience the career benefit of being able to string a sentence together, and I know this isn’t some kind of talent: it’s the result of graft, error, and practice. So I think writing is a way of getting better at writing, whatever your starting position. And freefall writing is a solid way to learn about the risks and responsibilities of self-expression, particularly if you are identifiable in relation to your employer.

But something else happens when a practice of personal agency and creative autonomy is made compulsory. Specifically, do you still own both your voice and your relationship to your audience if you’re doing it for assessment?  What if you don’t want to write what you’re asked to write? What if you want to write something else, or nothing at all? What if doing it makes you feel resentful and disempowered?

I’m a notorious Facebook avoider.  I also avoid all sorts of other things: graduation ceremonies, weddings, The Blues BrothersGame of Thrones, team sports, planning days, and anything involving audience participation.  All of these small practices of refusal make me feel like I know who I am.  I’m worried that we’re curtailing this for students, and I’d like to think of some practical ways to address this.

UPDATE: Thanks to Gretel and Bec for permission to link to their weary comments, which got me thinking about all this in the first place.