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The Fabric of Reflection
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Much published work on transfer tells us that students must practice reflection to develop metacognitive awareness and encourage application of knowledge and concepts from one context to another (see Writing Across Contexts: Transfer, Composition, and Sites of Writing, by Yancey, Robertson, and Taczak for an overview). To emphasize reflection in my courses, I’ve usually focused on assignments with a reflection component—journals, process narratives, or discussion board posts. But I was challenged this week to consider weaving reflective practice throughout writing (and also integrated reading and writing, or IRW) courses—using conversations, feedback, classroom tools. I suspect, in fact, that this weaving process establishes reflection as a part of the fabric of the course itself, not just a decorative embellishment.
For example, I use Google Docs for drafting work in my courses; I invite students to respond to my comments, to draft their own comments and tag me in them for additional feedback. We also use the platform for peer-based discussion and collaborative writing. But does this particular writing tool promote reflection? I am not sure I have exploited the possibilities very well. I have had students use the record of comments for a reflective assignment, but I am wondering how I might build an on-going reflective process with Google Docs – not just an after-the-fact review. For example, questions such as the following might encourage reflective practice—and transfer—during drafting and revision:
- Why did you make this statement here? Were you applying something you learned in a previous writing course? What makes this context a little different?
- How does this observation from your classmate support or complicate what you’ve learned about __________?
- Look back at the comments from the last paper. Is there something there that might help you solve this writing problem?
- You’ve tagged me in three questions related to ______________. Why do you think _______________ is a challenge for you in this paper? How does the context of this assignment differ from the last one, in which __________ didn’t seem to be an issue for you?
- You have said here that this section “doesn’t feel right.” What have you done in the past when you’ve had that sensation?
- You’ve pointed out a problem with this sentence. Can you describe that problem in general terms? Have you seen it before in your paper?
In a sense, these comments turn the drafting process into an exercise in critical reading. When I assign readings, I ask students to make connections between texts and other texts or between texts and their prior experiences. Similarly, these questions invite students to zoom in to focus on particulars of their developing text and also to zoom out to see their work as it connects to a broader picture.
The advantages of Google Docs for file sharing, keeping a record of comments, and working collaboratively are many. But like all technologies that involve targeted feedback—whether online or on paper—students risk seeing problems and solutions only in terms of the specific context. If they do generalize, they may assert “rules” that cannot and should not be applied broadly (as indicated in some of the Bad Ideas About Writing | Open Access Textbooks | WVU Libraries). Reflective connections during all phases of the writing process might help students avoid the perils of two pervasive writing myths: assignments within and across courses are unrelated, and there is a single form of writing appropriate to all academic writing contexts.
I’ve also been exploring one other means for weaving reflection into my classes. After we have completed a significant writing project, I’ve asked students to complete an anonymous survey, usually using an online tool such as Google Forms. I craft just one or two questions, such as these:
- Did your experience writing this paper confirm, contradict, expand, complicate, or confuse what you’ve learned in previous writing experiences? (Check all that apply). Can you give me one example that illustrates your answer?
- What is the biggest writing problem you encountered in this project? Had you ever encountered it before? What made it different this time?
- What is one thing you wish you had known before tackling this project?
- What is one question you wish you had asked before starting this project?
- Did you have an “aha” moment in this project? What led to it?
- Did you get the feedback you needed to complete the project successfully? If not, why not?
I don’t ask all the questions each time, and in an IRW course, I can adapt them to address the reading process as well as writing. These anonymous questions allow students to vent frustrations, especially in a course that often asks them to approach writing with different strategies than those used in high school. But the questions may also promote reflection: students consider projects in context and in the arc of their overall writing experience. But perhaps more importantly, their responses become a source for my own reflection about teaching: how did this class respond differently than previous classes? What did I do that helped or hindered their learning? How can I change that?
Finally, I am learning to share some of my reflective process with them: if I make changes or reconsider my language use based on their collective comments, I tell them about such changes. I want to model reflection as well as provide ample opportunities for practice.
How are you building reflection into your FYC, basic writing, and IRW classrooms?
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