Winter Quarter 2012
This posting below, by Anne Colby, Elizabeth Beaumont, Thomas Ehrlich, and Josh Corngold, looks at how "structured reflection" can help students see alternative ways of interpreting a given educational experience.
It is from Chapter 12, Learning through Structured Reflection, in the book, Educating for Democracy: Preparing Undergraduates for Responsible Political Engagement, published by:
All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.
Learning through Structured Reflection
Reflection is widely considered to be the core of higher education, especially liberal education, which was once playfully described as teaching students to analyze Freud from a Marxian perspective and Marx from a Freudian perspective. Our central question in this chapter is how to use structured reflection to help students consider their experiences through lenses that bring the political dimensions into focus. This kind of reflection plays a pivotal role in helping them understand and navigate the real world of political possibility, conflict, and uncertainty.
Structured reflection requires students to step back from their immediate experience to make sense of it in new ways. The object of their reflection could be a newspaper story or scholarly article, their observations while working in a government office or private nonprofit, some kind of political action, or some combination of these and other experiences. Making experiences into objects of reflection means simultaneously heightening their impact while attempting to understand them in connection with any number of other thing: concepts, issues, or experiences arising from other course components; one's past academic learning or personal history, one's values, assumptions, and convictions; theoretical or other conceptual or analytic lenses, and the like. In the process, students observe, analyze, examine, and consider their political experiences from multiple points of view.
Of course, one can imagine an almost endless number of frames, lenses, or filters through which to reflect on a given experience, and the choice of frames helps determine the character of the meaning derived from reflection. Different aspects of the experience become salient and take shape. Considering the perceptual and cognitive power of alternative interpretive schemes underscores how important it is for faculty to help students consider their political experiences in terms that contribute to the overall purposes and goals of the course or program.
Reflection has the power to reframe experiences and events in new terms. As a result, even when some course or program experiences, such as working in a direct service environment, are not explicitly political in nature, guided reflection can help students recast them in political terms by connecting their direct service with relevant policy environments or systemic analyses of the needs the organization addresses. A Duke University student, for example, talked about how structured reflection on her internship at the refugee resettlement branch of the Catholic Charities of New Mexico led her to study immigration policy and the process of seeking refugee status.
A widespread misconception about structured reflection is that it entails simply sharing feelings or voicing opinions. Many people mistakenly see reflection as a "feel-good" experience that may be useful for building community but does not contribute to intellectual development. In fact, poor quality reflective activities do sometimes fit this description. In contrast, in well-conceived reflective activities, emotional responses and initial opinions may serve as starting points but not as ends. High-quality reflection calls for well-developed intellectual skill and perceptiveness richly grounded in knowledge and expertise. Although undergraduate students are not experts in the process of reflection any more than they are experts in the subject matter they are studying, well-conceived and well-structured assignments can help them develop greater expertise in the intellectual processes of reflection, analysis, and interpretation as they work toward greater subject matter expertise.
The importance of structured reflection is not simply an article of faith. Extensive research on community service learning shows that the quantity and quality of reflection is consistently associated with both academic and civic learning. Engaging regularly in structured reflection leads students to deeper understanding and better application of subject matter knowledge and increased knowledge of social agencies, increased complexity of problem and solution analysis, and greater use of subject matter knowledge in analyzing problems (Eyler and Giles, 1999). Reflective practices in the classroom have also been shown to help learners connect earlier experiences to new content in order to achieve better understanding of the new material (Lee and Sabatino, 1998).
Lee, D. and Sabatino, K. "Evaluating Guided Reflections: A US Case Study." International Journal of Training and Development 1998, 2(3), 162-170.
Eyleer, J. and Giles, D.E. Where's the Learning in Service-Learning? San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1999.