Student Journals: How Reflective?
Student Journals: How Reflective?
Many faculty seek to encourage students to reflect—to consciously think about what they are learning and sometimes about how they are learning. Through reflective journals students often answer a set of teacher-supplied prompts. In other assignments they may be reflecting on a course activity, say their work with others in a small group, or they may be writing about what they observe, say during an internship experience. They may be reflecting on the skills observed in others or the skills they find themselves using or working to develop. But just how reflective is that journal writing?
Many faculty seek to encourage students to reflect—to consciously think about what they are learning and sometimes about how they are learning, or as John Dewey defines it in How We Think, “active, persistent, and careful consideration of any belief or supposed form of knowledge in the light of the grounds that support it and the further conclusion to which it tends.” The goal of reflection is to promote the kind of deep learning that connects students with content so that they not only understand it but also see its relevance.
In some journaling assignments, students respond to the reading, often answering a set of teacher-supplied prompts. In other assignments they may be reflecting on a course activity, say their work with others in a small group, or they may be writing about what they observe, say during an internship experience. They may be reflecting on the skills observed in others or the skills they find themselves using or working to develop.
But just how reflective is that journal writing? Are teachers providing enough structure in the assignment? When a grade is involved, are students really reflecting or describing reflections they think teachers want them to make? Those kinds of questions were what motivated two researchers to look at and try to integrate research on the quality of reflection found in student journals. They looked at articles published between 1995 and 2006 and found 11 studies that met their inclusion criteria.
The studies reviewed approach the quality questions in very diverse ways. Some researchers assessed the student journals once and others on multiple occasions with attempts to note trends over time. Different methods of analysis were used as well. In some studies multiple reviewers looked at the journals; in others they were read by one assessor. Some assessed the journals using quantitative methods; others used more qualitative approaches. The journals were approached via a diversity of theoretical models, including eight mentioned in the article. The researchers summarize, “Our review reveals little to no consistency in the research community around the mechanisms and process of assessing levels of reflection in student journals.” (p. 81) And as might be suspected given this inconsistency, the quality of reflection reported in the studies varies considerably.
Using a process described in the article, five out of the 11 studies report low levels of reflection. For example, in one study where 880 journal entries were evaluated, 74 percent of the entries were written at the lowest three levels on the Bloom taxonomy. Four of the 11 studies reported what the authors designated as moderate levels of reflection, and two of the 11 studies reported high levels of reflection, with 78 percent of preservice teachers writing at “highly reflective” levels in one of those two studies.
The authors acknowledge the potential of reflective journals. “Reflective journals require students to engage in critical reflection and higher order thinking; they force students to be more open-ended and less prescriptive; and they permit students to be creative and questioning.” (p. 92) They proceed to identify a number of important issues regarding the use of reflective journals that have not yet been studied. Does it make a difference if journals are optional or required? Does it matter how much they count in the overall grade calculation? How often should students be writing in their journals? Do reflective skills develop when they write more? Does training and support deepen the level of reflection in journals? What about the structure of the assignment and instructions that accompany it? What kind of teacher feedback promotes more and deeper reflection? Does the kind of relationships students have with teachers influence the kind and depth of reflections they share? All these questions matter when considering the details of an assignment that calls for reflective journaling.
The research examined “presents an unclear picture of the quality of reflection found in student journals.” (p. 94) That's not a particularly helpful finding, but it does make clear that assignments calling for reflective writing in journals do not automatically produce those results. It also makes clear that if faculty are using these assignments, they need to look at the writing in journals in some systematic way to ascertain the level of reflection.
Reference: Dyment, J. E. and O'Connell, T. S. (2011). Assessing the quality of reflection in student journals: A review of the research. Teaching in Higher Education, 16 (1), 81-97.