Challenges in Assessing Student Reflection

Reflection is an increasingly common teaching and learning method. Especially in our current context of increased active learning methods and increased remote and distance learning, instructors are turning to reflection as a way to make the learning process visible and see evidence of student effort and progress.

Yet, the challenge of how to assess student learning looms large. Do we grade reflection? If so, how much and based on what standards? Do we use rubrics or simply grade for completion? If we don’t grade reflection, will the students do it? These and other questions will be explored in future blog posts. However, it will be helpful to first to tease out the issues and problems that exist, so that we can implement strategies and techniques more purposefully.

What are the main challenges of assessing reflection?

  • Reflection is a personal process with a need for vulnerability – When using reflection, we are looking for students to expose their beliefs and share aspects of themselves that may be very personal in nature. We ask students to disclose a change in their thinking or a shift of their perspective, yet are we equipped to judge when deep transformational thinking has actually occurred? There is certainly an amount of subjectivity that causes a challenge when trying to assess reflection.
  • Reflection relies on students trust in the process – When asking students to share and be vulnerable, we need to consider how much they trust the process. One one hand, we need to think about ourselves as instructors, our positionality, and how our identity connects or doesn’t connect with all of our students. Are they comfortable sharing certain things with us? Are we giving them the sense of confidentiality? Does our feedback make students feel that they are being pushed in their thinking, or that they are being judged? If reflection is tied to a grade, does that automatically reduce the trust of the process? It’s a it’s a tricky balance.
  • Reflection can mean different types of thinking with different goals – There is no one right way to reflect so there is a variety in the type of learning we are often aiming for when using reflection as a teaching method. Instructors can have different definitions and goals for reflection. Students take part in many classes where they may be asked to “reflect” in many different ways and for various purposes. If we as instructors take the approach of, “I’ll know it when I see it” that causes a challenge not only for our students but also in assessing reflection effectively.

If reflection is tied to a grade, does that automatically reduce the trust of the process?

  • Reflection can vary in structure and format – Like many instructors, I give students options in how they submit ongoing reflective assignments. Students can respond to prompts in a written format, create a short video or audio recording, or even create a drawing or other creative alternative. This variety in how students represent their thinking provides differentiation and supports inclusive practices, yet causes challenges when creating comparative standards.
  • Reflection is typically associated with formative assessment methods – Reflection is really about a process. It’s often associated with formative assessment methods in that we want students to be learning in the moment from what they are doing, or taking stock recently after a learning experience in which they are engaging. We want to focus on the process more so than the eventual product, but often feel we have to tie an accountability measure to the act of reflecting if we want students to do it.
  • Reflection is a long-term process with delayed benefits – Finally, many of the outcomes of reflection are considered to be long-term benefits. We want students to reflect so that they can shift the way they think about very deep concepts and experience transformational change. We can’t always expect that to happen in a semester, let alone a few weeks. Often we’re looking at changes they can expect throughout their college career or throughout their lives, difficult to “grade” in the moment.

These challenges do not give us the answers, but they can help us be clear about what issues we face. By first exploring the root of the issue, we can hopefully come up with more intentional methods to address them.

What challenges about assessing student reflection are missing from this list? Please reach out and share your ideas with me.

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