As a new teacher, I was instructed to reflect after each class: Write down any incidents that were confusing, difficult, or interesting. Describe the available choices and what you did. Explain. As a new teacher, I was also expected to collect reflective letters from my students. Over time I saw that, just as my reflective writing helped me notice and describe the reasoning behind the choices I made as a teacher, my students’ reflective writing revealed all sorts of ideas and decisions they had been contemplating while writing their papers – ideas and decisions I would never have known about if I was only reading the final drafts of their papers. Reflective writing intrigued me and by the end of that first semester, I found myself researching reflective practice for one of my graduate seminar papers.
Some Scholarly and Teacherly Research
That semester, I learned that research on reflective practice and reflection in the composition classroom suggests that reflective writing is valuable way for students to articulate and trace their own learning throughout the semester. In Reflection in the Writing Classroom (1998), Kathleen Blake Yancey claims that students “witness their own learning” in reflective writing and “show us [teachers] how they learn” (8). Through reflective writing, students become the authority on their own learning. They become “agents of their own learning,” participating with teachers in their learning process (5).
As I conducted my own teacher research in my classroom, my interests focused on the kinds of prompts and questions that would encourage students to get the most out of reflective writing. Open-ended questions and prompts seemed to produce the best answers: Explain your process for this project. What did you want your readers to know that they won’t get from just reading your paper? Describe the strategies you might take from this project to other kinds of writing and projects in the future.
The scholarship that informs my current thinking about reflective writing examines connections between reflection and learning transfer. In Rebecca S. Nowacek’s Agents of Integration: Understanding Transfer as a Rhetorical Act (2011), reflection is described as an important but not essential element of learning transfer. In other words, although “meta-awareness” can help students transfer knowledge, learning transfer can also occur unconsciously in some situations. Reflection is not the focus of Nowacek’s argument, but I think it’s interesting to consider her findings in the context of creating reflective writing prompts for my students. For example, she claims that students make a variety of kinds of connections when they are transferring learning to new writing situations; students re-contextualize known strategies for a new activity system while they are making connections based on their knowledge, ways of knowing, identity, and goals (23). As writing teachers, perhaps we can write prompts that help students make these kinds of connections in their reflective writing. In Writing Across Contexts by Yancey, Liane Robertson, and Kara Taczak (2014), reflective writing is a reiterative process that helps students build writing knowledge throughout a course. Because learning is not a linear process for most, the authors’ Teaching for Transfer course encourages students to reflect throughout the semester and develop their own “frameworks” as they learn (57). The course asks students to reflect in a variety of ways, but the reiterative process of reflecting on key terms ultimately helps students build writing knowledge and develop a theory writing.
These texts leave me with an impression of learning transfer as a complex rhetorical process. Although scholars agree that reflection is an important component of learning transfer, they have not yet agreed upon a single set of best practices for incorporating reflective writing into a course. As I transition to teaching a new course in a new context, I’m revising my reflective writing assignments. At the same time, I plan to continue assessing my own techniques for guiding student reflection and use my findings to revise future assignments.
Blogging in English 1020
This semester, I’m teaching English 1020 here at Wayne for the first time. I’m also teaching in a computer classroom for every class meeting for the first time. Both of these changes meant that I needed to revise my reflection writing assignments. Based on what I’ve learned from reading scholarship and from studying my own students’ reflective writing, I knew that I wanted students to reflect not just at the end of the project but also throughout the process of researching and writing about a new topic (Yancey, Robertson, Taczak). In this reflection assignment, I wanted students to witness their learning (Yancey) while also reflecting on their own knowledge, ways of knowing, goals, and identity (Nowacek). Lastly, I wanted to help my students use digital tools, like the computers we have available to us in our classroom, to trace their learning in an online environment so that it could be accessed easily in class or at home.
This reflective assignment works alongside a research paper project, though I think it could work well with any writing project that has multiple steps and requires students to incorporate new kinds of analysis and research skills into their existing repertoire of writing strategies.
Click on the image for a version of this assignment formatted for English 1020:
Nowacek, Rebecca S. Agents of Integration: Understanding Transfer as a Rhetorical Act. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 2011. Print.
Yancey, Kathleen Blake. Reflection in the Writing Classroom. Logan, UT: Utah State University Press, 1998. Print.
Yancey, Kathleen Blake, Liane Robertson, and Kara Taczak. Writing Across Contexts. Logan, UT: Utah State University Press, 2014. Print.
Sarah Primeau is a PhD student in Rhetoric & Composition at WSU. Her research interests include composition pedagogy and writing in the disciplines.