Promoting the right kind of reflection

In their 1998 article, Promoting reflection in professional courses: the challenge of context, David Boud and David Walker argue that the social and cultural context in which students find themselves in has a significant impact on their reflections – and that this has implications for the types of reflective task that can be usefully incorporated, and the way in which they should be presented to students.

Boud and Walker remind us that reflection is precipitated by dissatisfactions, doubts and dilemmas – ‘situations conducive to the questioning of experience’, and that it is not simply ‘thinking’ (you might ask here what, exactly, is thinking). You won’t find a smart definition of reflection in this article though – it is full of disapproval for anyone who dares to “translate reflection and reflective practice into…simplified and technicist prescriptions”, but that’s okay, I have a healthy respect for doubt and uncertainty…

One of the key ideas I picked up from this article is that encouraging students to ‘reflect’ by following a checklist, working through a sequence of steps or responding to a series of questions is risky. It can lead to false expectations that reflection is a linear and unproblematic process that can be memorised. Boud and Walker argue that stages or elements of the reflective process should be presented as conceptual elements rather than an operational process. However, there is potential for tension here, as “without some direction, reflection can become diffuse and disparate so that conclusions or outcomes may not emerge”. I initially thought, while reading this, that is must be very difficult to assess a task that is only loosely defined. Boud & Walker highlight that the assessment of reflection is a questionable goal (citing Sumsion & Fleet 1996) although they do appear to support the use of specific criteria for the recognition of reflective writing, such as Hatton and Smith’s (1994).

I thought it was nice that Boud and Walker highlighted a common side-effect of fostering a questioning, reflective nature in students; “It is not surprising that students may not accept the boundaries of reflection within a subject which teachers take for granted. Reflective activities may lead students to focus on…the programme of study, resources provided, assessment practices and so on.” (Boud & Walker 1998, p194)

This is exactly what I have observed on the International Construction Management programme – it can be disheartening sometimes as it can seem that the students don’t like the changes we’ve made, or that we’ve made a dreadful hash of things – but if we stand back and take in everything they are saying, it’s clear that this isn’t the case – they are simply looking into everything more deeply, and communicating their thoughts to us, and each other, much more readily. It does cause a few headaches, but if you’re in the development game all this rich feedback is a fantastic thing.

Boud and Walker’s ideas on context are thought-provoking – it would be interesting to look into how our ICM students’ reflective work is affected by context – the cultural, social & political environment in which they are working and studying. To relate this to my own reflections, the context would incorporate my blog, the readers, their comments, my relationship with them, my motivation for blogging, their motivation for commenting, etc – the most significant influences – so when Boud & Walker claim that context is ‘perhaps the single most important influence on reflection and learning’, I would agree – and it makes sense for us to stop imagining that students are reflecting robotically within a socially and politically sterile environment, and do what we can to foster a local or micro-context suitable for the promotion of reflection – this will include building trust over time, allowing students to make their own meanings from their experiences, and setting clear boundaries on what outcomes of reflection are to be shared with others.

Underlying this article is the idea that there are, in fact, no reflective activites that are guaranteed to lead to learning, and no learning activities guaranteed to lead to reflection – the process of reflection is very individual, often problematic and generally unpredictable!

What degree of direction is appropriate when guiding students’ reflections?

In their 2004 paper Rethinking reflection: using online reflective learning in professional practice for indigenous health workers, which Jane Pritchard recently waved in my direction (thanks Jane), Miranda Rose and Elizabeth Devonshire describe their experience of using a four-step activity with indigenous Australian students to direct them in reflecting on their professional placements in health work. The steps of the activity were simply to identify an event or issue, describe it, explain how or why it occurred or arose, and synthesise the explanation by giving similar examples, relating it to their previous experience and the broader context of their work. The design of the activity was based on Vygotsky’s notion of ‘scaffolding’, Collins’ (1997) Cognitive Apprenticeship model and Lave and Wenger’s (1991) Situated Learning approaches. They also drew on Boud & Walker’s (1991) description of reflection – “a demanding metacognitive task that requires students to focus their attention, relate new information to what is already known, identify relationships between theory and practice, validate ideas and feelings and make this knowledge their own.” (p21).

The outcome of implementing the activity was that students’ reflections improved in quality both during the reflective process (as they were scaffolded by the four progressive tasks), and between reflecting on subsequent issues or events (having received feedback from teaching staff). However, it became apparent that students with weaker literacy skills still did not tend to move beyond descriptive writing, and it was suggested that more extensive ‘scaffolding’ would be required for these students in the explanation and interpretation stages.

Interestingly, the more experienced students tended to reverse the middle two stages of the task, explaioning the context before describing what took place, and this led to a modification of the order of the stages in the design of subsequent activities.

So – what I take from this piece of research is that directing students to provide orientation, a description and an interpretation is helpful in improving the quality of their reflective work, and if this guidance does not result in reflection of a suitable depth, it is appropriate to provide a more prescriptive task description.

Rose, M and Devonshire, E (2004) ‘Rethinking reflection: using online reflective learning in professional
practice for indigenous health workers’, Educational Media International, 41:4, 307 — 314

Boud, D and Walker, D (1991) Experience and Learning at Work: Reflection at Work, Deakin University Press,

Collins, A (1997) Cognitive apprenticeship and the changing workplace, 5th Annual International Conference on Post-compulsory Education and Training, November, Gold Coast, Queensland, Australia, pp. 26–28

Lave, J and Wenger, E (1991) Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Show me how to reflect…

What should I be doing in order to reach the deeper levels of reflection and therefore gain the most educational benefit from my blog – what kinds of questions should I be asking myself about my thoughts, feelings and ideas?

It would be nice if there was a single framework for, or model of reflection, that everyone agreed with – one set of terms, one set of indicators for each type or level of reflection…and if pigs could fly.

In September, at ALT-C 2008, I attended a presentation of a short paper by Rosanne Birney (Waterford Institute of Technology, Ireland) about a study to compare the depth of reflection in blogs with reflection in paper-based learning logs. The focus of the study was to explore the impact of the collaborative aspect of blogging on the type or level of reflection taking place. This is an extremely interesting question. However, most of the audience seemed more interested in the preliminary part of the study; a Delphi study to develop a set of indicators which would be used to assess depth of reflection. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the completed Delphi study failed to produce a consensus among the experts consulted.

This article by Hea-Jin Lee in Teaching and Teaching Education shows (in Tables 1 and 2 respectively) the vast range of different scales, frameworks and terms commonly used to describe and model the process and content of reflective thinking.

Maybe the best thing a self-directed blogger can do is to have a look around these different models of reflection and see which one has the clearest personal meaning for them? A ‘dummies’ guide’ to reflection frameworks might be in order – hmm – I smell another tangent coming on – or is it a tangent? If the question here is ‘how can I use blogging to increase the depth of my learning?’, an accessible synopsis of a selection of different frameworks for reflection would be an excellent outcome.

If I’m going to look into this further, I probably need to bear in mind what Rosanne Birney pointed out in her paper – that existing models of reflective practice, and the instruments that have been developed for the assessment of reflective text, have focused on reflection as a solitary activity rather than a collaborative one. Birney proposes that existing models of reflective practice may need to be updated in order to effectively assess the reflection taking place in interactive blogs, where the feedback received from peers, tutors or other interested parties may contribute towards an increase in the depth and quality of reflection.

The problem with trying to assess reflection

As I see blogging primarily as a tool for reflective learning, I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how a blogger might evaluate the degree of reflection that they’re engaging in as they blog. Assessment of reflection appears to be a topic that has had many researchers chasing their tails for the past 15 years or so. Many studies have concentrated on the assessment of the reflective practice of student teachers, whereas I am particularly interested in self-assessment of reflection. A 1996 article by Jennifer Sumsion and Alma Fleet demonstrated that the assessment of reflection was highly problematic and concluded that it was advisable not to assess student teachers on their ability to reflect – however, the main obstacle was shown to be the dependency of reflection coding on the personal interpretation of the assessor (resulting in low intercoder reliability) – which would not be an issue with self-assessment. Another challenge highlighted in this particular study that would not impact on self-assessment of reflection is the disadvantage to those who haven’t mastered an appropriate reflective style of writing. In self-assessment one would assume that there is no communication between the writer and the assessor.

Sumsion and Fleet make the point that the effectiveness of rating scales developed for large-scale assessment depend on ease and reliability of use – and they may therefore tend towards simplistic conceptualisations of reflection. Consequently, “they may be unable to provide many insights into the complex nature of reflection or guidance about how to more effectively promote reflection” p128.

What I am take away from this is that, when dealing with self-assessment of reflection, a different kind of reliability is needed – as we do not need to concern ourselves with intercoder reliability, this could open up new possibilities for a flexible, individual approach to assessing reflection that allows for the more complex conceptualisations to be put to use.

Sumsion, J & Fleet, A; Reflection: can we assess it? Should we assess it? Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, Volume 21, Issue 2 June 1996 , pages 121 – 130

Do computers have an effect on the quality of students’ writing?

Amie Goldberg, Michael Russell, and Abigail Cook analysed several studies from 1992-2002 on the Effect of Computers on Student Writing and asked: Do computers have a positive effect on students’ writing process and quality of writing they produce? This question links back to my previous post on how word processing affects our thought processes. One of their central conclusions was that students who write with word processors tend to produce higher quality passages than students who write with paper-and-pencil – examples of characteristics of ‘high quality’ being setting, characterisation, grammar and coherence. Their analysis of whether this is due to a greater number of revisions being made was inconclusive, but they did pick up on a number of studies that highlight the changes in social interactions that take place when students write with computers, which include:

  • more peer-editing and peer-mediate work takes place (Baker & Kinzer, 1998; Butler & Cox, 1992; Snyder, 1994)
  • student-to-student interactions increase (Snyder, 1994)
  • teacher’s role shifts from activity leader to that of facilitator and “proof-reader” (Snyder, 1994)

It was suggested (by Snyder 1994, cited in Goldberg et al) that this change was due to the students increased motivation, engagement and independence.

A study by Baker & Kinzer (1998) focused on the actual writing process itself, and found, when word processing as opposed to writing on paper, the process of critical examination and revision begins earlier in the writing process, even as new ideas are being recorded. I have definitely noticed this pattern of working in my own blogging activity.

It’s not all good news though – Shaw, Nauman, and Burson (1994) concluded in their study that writing produced on computer was “stilted” and less creative than what students produced on paper. Without knowing more about the context in which the children were working, it’s difficult to pin down an explanation for the apparent hampering of creativity observed here. However, it should be borne in mind that the students in this study were only 8 years old, so the parallels with computer-literate, self-directed adult learners/bloggers may be few.

Goldberg, A., Russell, M., & Cook, A. (2003). The effect of computers on student writing: A metaanalysis
of studies from 1992 to 2002. Journal of Technology, Learning, and Assessment, 2(1).

(Full text available from

Baker E. & Kinzer, C.K. (1998). Effects of technology on process writing: Are they
all good? National Reading Conference Yearbook, 47, 428–440.

Shaw, E.L., Nauman, A.K., & Burson, D. (1994). Comparison of spontaneous and
word processed compositions in elementary classrooms: A three-year study.
Journal of Computing in Childhood Education, 5(3), 3ı9–327.

How does word processing affect our thought processes?

Mortensen and Walker (2002) ask the question: “[does] the way we write in a blog reveal something about how we think that would not be explicit in another medium?” They conclude that “blogging certainly influences the way you think about thinking“, and that using a different blogging tool may have unexpected effects on the way a blogger expresses their thoughts. A simple factor such as the size of the writing space may affect the length of posts, and some blogging tools allow you to add a blog icon to your web browser, enabling you to fire off an immediate response to something on the web. But the isolated act of typing thoughts into a blog is simply a form of word processing. What effect, if any, does the act of word processing itself have on our thinking?

Related to the act of word processing is the effect of words themselves on thought (and vice versa) – a fascinating topic that I’d like to delve into later, starting off by drawing on the writings of Benjamin Whorf and Lev Vygotsky and moving onwards and outwards from there.

Michael Heim’s Electric Language: A Philosophical Study of Word Processing (Yale University Press, 1986) sounds like it could be interesting (note to self – try to get hold of a copy). The act of typing something into a blog that is intended for publication certainly does affect our thinking. As Toril and Mortensen (2002) point out, because it’s intended to be read by others, writing in a blog forces greater clarity in the formulation of ideas than writing private notes, and “…it is easy to neglect old notes scribbled in the margin of a book…writing in a weblog one is forced to confront one’s own writing and opinions and to see them reflected in the words of others.” (p269). Can I conclude from this that, in terms of affecting the thought processes of the author, the audience (or the potential for an audience) is more important than the medium?


“Being allowed to write spontaneously releases us of the expectation that our writing must be perfect and polished.” (Mortensen & Walker, 2002)

I think I will always have high expectations of the standard of my own writing. However, there are elements of written language that I wouldn’t use in a standard written assignment, but am comfortable using in my blog.

Adrian Miles’ blog entry about the writing process struck a chord with me as I recognised the same challenges I face writing this blog; whether to plan; having too many ideas at once and not knowing where to start; etc. So, at this point the usual challenges of writing are not being totally alleviated by the blogging process – however, I feel that it’s getting easier, and trying to be more spontaneous in my posting is helping, as it means I can publish some thoughts quickly, leave them and revisit them later on. In her blog, thinking with my fingers, Toril Mortensen writes: “I can sneak up on [a thought] at a time when my head is busy with something else, and I can surprise it in a different context.” I also find this strategy useful for clarifying and developing my ideas; the spontaneity of the original post is only the first part of the process, revisiting, revising and adding to it is the second.

Too much information?

Blogging Thoughts, by Toril Mortensen and Jill Walker (2002), was probably the first academic article to be published about blogging (well, they didn’t find any others when they were researching it, so I’ll take their word for it). Their article is based on their own experiences of blogging, and of prominent others in the blogging community such as Evan Williams, Rebecca Blood, Dave Winer, Cameron Marlow, Tom Matrullo and Biz Stone. They also draw on the writings of Pierre Bourdieu (taste and culture), Roland Barthes (ordering), Jurgen Habermas (transformation of the public sphere), Douglas Englebart (human-computer interaction) and Vannevar Bush.

See what I did there? By adding hyperlinks to various other blogs and wikipedia articles, this post becomes an entry point to an ever-expanding web of information and potential routes for further growth in a number of directions. I can come back to it at any time and use the links to find and follow an interesting path. Readers of this blog can set up an RSS feed for it or link to individual posts from their own pages. As Mortensen and Walker write: “take the links out of a weblog and you are left with a web diary, a much more introverted and private form of writing.”

Until reading Blogging Thoughts, I hadn’t heard of Vannevar Bush, who, in his 1945 essay ‘As We May Think’ conceptualised a machine, a memex, that could store all available knowledge and its associative trails. Apart from underestimating the degree to which we would one day be able to compress data, Bush was right on the money with the direction in which information technology is moving. Although, as I implied earlier, these associative trails made up of web directories and hyperlinks have huge benefits for learning, the scale of associations brings challenges. For example, even when I focus my research on one small aspect of blogging, a vast web of information and opinion seems to opens out from every page, extending to depths that I am incapable of exploring fully. Writing an assignment that draws on a bibliography of 20 peer-reviewed publications seems a piece of cake compared to using a resource base of several thousand (million?) pages, many of which require an informed judgement to be made about their validity. It’s a case of too much information, and shows up very clearly the need for new digital literacies (as proposed by Steve Wheeler at a workshop I attended last week); from finding, storing and applying information to assessing the value of information and synthesising new connections. Mortensen and Walker, who could only base their paper on their personal experience, “given the lack of previous research on weblogs, and of other researchers using blogs”, probably had an easier job.

I’m sure I’ll come back to the issue of hyperlinking very soon…

Vygotsky on blogging (almost)

Mind in Society (1978) brings together Vygotsky’s ideas and opinions on the connection between language and higher intellectual processes, and presents the notion that speech and action are part of the same psychological function. Vygotsky observed that, before children develop the ability to speak, their interaction with objects and ability to solve problems is only comparable to that of apes. However, after they develop speech capabilities they have the potential to solve more complex problems. The attempts of young children to complete practical tasks are accompanied by a stream of talking, as the child describes the problem, poses potential solutions, commentates on what they are doing and evaluates how it worked – briefly, the child uses language to organise their problem-solving. If the situation becomes more complicated, the talking becomes more persistent. Vygotsky hypothesized that this ‘egocentric’ speech observed in young children is a transitional form between external and internal speech, a contrasting view to that of Piaget, who does not attribute an important role to speech in the organisation of a child’s activities. Vygotsky presents speech as a symbolic activity; language symbolises the objects and relationships we observe and allows us to develop solutions, or new behaviours, that are independent from the structure of the concrete visual situation. It allows us to engage in preliminary acts, to use indirect methods, and to plan.

Vygotsky reminds us of the vital role that language plays in higher cognitive processes. In this blog I’m going to investigate whether articulating these cognitive processes in an overt and public manner (e.g. through a blog), can penetrate the thought process and lead to deeper learning.