As someone who’s completed the work required for several degrees, or as someone who’s created short, informal, formative writing assignments as part of a Writing Intensive Course or Writing-Enriched Curriculum, odds are you’ve encountered writing prompts with stem phrases like these:
Write a short paper in which you reflect on…
Reflect on your experience as/when/with…
Compose a reflective essay that…
Once you’ve completed your ________ [essay, performance, sculpture installation, proof], reflect on…
Your reading log is a place to reflect…
Reflect on what we did in class today, and…
As you respond to the open ended questions on the teaching evaluation, please reflect on…
When your students ask you to define reflection or to give some examples of what a reflective paper might (okay, should) look like, do you have something prepared to say? do you pause for too long? do you buy some time by saying something like, “I’ll post some information about that to Moodle tonight”?
Often the undergraduate writing students – since my Teaching Assistant days at the University of Iowa – report these characteristics in their teachers’ descriptions of reflective writing:
- Written in the first person. You get to use “I” and “me” pronouns.
- Informal citations are fine; use the author’s name and title of the work in the body of your reflection. You might choose to have no citations at all.
- Reflective writing lets you sort out ideas on paper – knowledge, feelings, ideas, awareness of how you are behaving and/or thinking/observing others do or say. This might be a strong bit of thinking along the lines of “cognitive housekeeping,” as Jenny Moon advocates for reflective writing as part of challenging – pushing and considering – your own thinking. It could also become that straightforward description of a problem-solving process or a description of how the writer came to determine something was right or wrong – an inventory of what the writing “I” once thought, then thought, then thought about and now think.
- Reflection calls on the writer to express his or her views on some sort of personal, academic, creative, public, entertainment, community experience. Contexts and situations varied.
- And the DIE framework - Describe, Interpret, Evaluate – was cited as the “go to” template.
Finding Graham Gibbs’ Work on Reflective Writing
As a teacher of undergraduates, I was wanting something different from the “mind dump” of assumptions that often resulted from using the DIE template. Sometimes this template worked well as a “how to” guide, but in stretching to consider multiple perspectives, to account for assumption, to construct accurate inferences and to ponder where a student had landed in his thinking or in devising her next action steps, the frame felt thin. Through teaching mentors, I found Graham Gibbs’ Learning By Doing work, and made my way to ideas reflected in this diagram:
Description and Evaluation are still there. And Feelings comes into the cycle, with its nod toward accounting for roles of assumptions and perhaps biases in the processes of thinking as linked to the affective – emotion and feeling – realm. Description and Evaluation engaged students in thinking about what they were Learning.
This combination worked to slow the dive into Evaluation that so many of my students wanted to make. They eased into this segment of reflection with somewhat more sturdy and studied view of events and ideas at the heart of the observation.
Bringing these three factors at the Analysis stage seemed a big move forward, especially with a brilliant next move into a Conclusion that didn’t ask for tidy wrapping up or congratulations, but for taking time to consider “what else?” – What might I have overlooked? What aspect of this thing at the center of my reflection have I not really paid attention to in thinking and writing? What are my peers noticing? And, what happens if I take divergent – maybe even dissenting – views into account? Evaluation and Analysis called on writers to make sense of what they were Unlearning – that process of looking at life and ideas in new ways, of finding ways to make sense of misinformation and dive into information gaps.
Best of all? The combination of Conclusion and Action Plan left students poised to Relearn. Where have you gotten to? What might be next to learn? How are you going to shape a plan for getting there?
Or, maybe the best of all is that in making use of this framework, my students found they had more to say and that they were more interested in writing reflection papers. They were also more interested in reading other writers’ reflections papers. And so was I. The papers conveyed nuanced learning in cogent compositions rather than uniform linear teacher paper rhetoric.
Another Approach to Dig Into: ORE
And then, it all changed. Not right away. More like 25 years later. Increasingly, I asked students to separate Observation from Description.
With a new and perhaps difficult a reading, for example, that would mean noting in one column the passages that “got you thinking for whatever reasons.” A second column alongside this would describe “connections, disconnects, difficulties, partial understandings,” while taking account of emotions – those feeing that spark learning decisions and inform reading responses: fear, anger, exhilaration, perplexity, awe, revulsion, affirmation, contentment, awareness, tingling.
In his 2010 post, “Enhance Cross-Cultural Learning – Reflective Writing for Critical Thinking,” university instructor Dan Paracka offers a three-letter acronym that helped me rethink both the DIE model and Gibbs’ reflective cycle.
ORE: Observe. Reflect. Expand.
Observe with an awareness of your role, potentially, as a participant observer when the reflective thinking and writing takes you out into public places, or to the private worlds of ideas and people and change.
Reflect with a willingness to question assumptions, an engagement that welcomes multiple interpretations and a deep willingness to “take into account issues of inequality and discrimination or preconceived notions and stereotypes that influence social behaviors.”
Expand, with its “requirement” for expansive thinking, helps writers/thinkers take account of all they’ve come to understand, to notice contexts and contraries; in short, to trace change and note new landing places.
And so, I’ve been back at the drawing board – or at least back at making my own word clouds on paper ahead of sitting down to PowerPoint for an afternoon of diagraming via SmartArt templates. This is where I have landed:
It’s not that I am after orderly writing. Rather, I am interested in attempting to make explicit the twists and turns of learners who write wisely, compellingly, clearly, regularly – and with some comfort and fluency – about complex issues; wicked problems; layered interdisciplinary learning; and novel problems.
At the moment when I’d become a 30-year teacher of writing, realized I was juggling three models of reflective writing:
- GIbbs’ Cycle
And that seemed itself a shorthand reflecting which framework I’d prefer teachers to use:
If you can pick just one approach, select the GIbbs’ cycle or watch my estimation of your teaching skills diminish and die.
Not the place I wanted to be in as a consultant, teacher of teachers, writer or human being I realized when I looked at my own reflective thinking and writing.
My own reflective writing. What had been my process? How had I heard other frequent and comfortable writers describing their composition process – a process that always included reflective writing practices and principles?
That’s when I realized a tacit set of practices that seemed to overlap in a particularly ORDERLY way:
- Your Next Steps
The first four – Observe, Reflect, Describe, Expand – are straightforward enough and nicely addressed in the resources by Gibbs, Moon and Paracka below. The final three aim to hold together some important contraries:
Reactions are our own and others – over time and in tension, in play with one another.
Landing is both an act and a place – where we have gotten to and may well head on to as thinkers, and also in what cultural and community contexts we find ourselves situated.
Your Next Steps opens to roads that can be taken – as well making room to consider roads to be built, to be rediscovered in noticing what’s beneath the scrub along pathways. These next steps may well entail noting road to not to be taken – given circumstance, contemplation, choice-making.
So, in writing up those reflection-based assignments for your students, perhaps you will join me in considering how an ORDERLY approach might help students to dig into complex thinking, which is the reason – after all – that we ask them to engage in reflective thinking, writing and action.
- Janet Elder. “Emotion and Learning: Capitalizing on Emotion, the “Elephant” in the Classroom.” http://readingprof.com/papers/Emotion%20and%20Learning/1_Emotion%20and%20Learning.pdf
- Graham Gibbs Learning by Doing: A Guide to Teaching & Learning Methods. Oxford Brookes University, 1988. Free ebook available at http://shop.brookes.ac.uk/browse/extra_info.asp?compid=1&modid=1&deptid=47&catid=227&prodid=935
- Jenny Moon. “Reflective Writing: Some Initial Guidance for Students. 2004. Document Link to Jenny Moon Reflective Writing.
- Dan Paracka. “Enhance Cross-Cultural Learning – Reflective Writing for Critical Thinking.” February 2012. http://www.facultyled.com/enhance-cross-cultural-learning-study-abroad/
- Reflective Writing, Study Series. University of Salford. Updated 2010. http://www.careers.salford.ac.uk/cms/resources/uploads/File/reflective%20writing%20-%20BINDER.pdf
- What Is Reflective Writing? St. Mary’s University of Minnesota. http://www2.smumn.edu/deptpages/tcwritingcenter/forms_of_writing/reflect_essay.php