Center for the Enhancement of Learning and Teaching

The Process of Reflection

Getting Started: Methods of reflection

For both instructors and consultants, the process of reflection (both reflection-in-action and meta-reflection) can be strengthened with conscious, deliberate attention to the method of observation. Observation focuses on concrete, observable phenomena that are specific rather than general, drawing from sensory experience. Observations focus on what actions and behavior people do rather than on who they are. When written down, observations rely upon descriptive, concrete language rather than evaluative, abstract language. Ideally, observations include not only single instances of a particular action or behavior but patterns and repetitions. (For more on observation, please refer to the CELT Peer Review Handbook.)

Along with observations, another method of reflection is interpretation. Interpretation focuses on the meaning and significance of what is being observed. Thus, interpretations are grounded in observable phenomena. Reflective practice requires that instructional consultants make this connection explicit rather than implicit. For instance, instead of simply offering an interpretation of a behavior (“You were frustrated”), a reviewer would include observations of actions or behaviors that led to that interpretation (“You shook your head several times, paced back and forth, and then got very quiet when students did not stop talking.”)

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Recording Reflections: Double entry notes

One helpful way of recording reflections, especially when the instructor or the consultant is simply an observer, as opposed to a presenter, is by using double-entry notes, a form of note-taking adapted from the work of Ann E. Berthoff, a specialist in composition studies, for the purposes of instructional consulting.

  • Draw a line down the middle of a piece of paper (or if you prefer, one third of the way from one side).
  • At the top of one column, write “Observations.”
  • At the top of the other, write “Interpretations.”
  • As a participant-observer, try to separate out, in this way, what you observe from how you interpret it. Later, after the observation is over, fill in other observations and interpretations (see below, “Reflecting on Reflections").

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Reflecting on Reflections: Preparing to give feedback

One of the best forms of feedback to offer in any instructional consulting situation is simple observation. Drawing directly from double-entry notes can help consultants prepare feedback in this way. However, other kinds of experiences may benefit from other forms of feedback that require further reflection upon the notes as well as the memories of an experience. The following are several strategies, drawn from ethnographic methods of field research, for how to reflect upon initial reflections.

Framing—using one experience as a frame for bringing out new observations and interpretations in another.

Example: An instructor interprets a class’s lack of participation in class discussion as boredom or apathy with the subject matter. A consultant reframes the instructor’s interpretation by observing that students’ eyes never leave the instructor. Furthermore, the consultant observes that the instructor rarely pauses between asking questions and offering answers. By describing a different aspect of classroom experience, the consultant helps the instructor reframe her initial interpretation of student boredom (and thus locating the “problem” in the students) to one of instructor’s discussion skills (reframing the “problem” as something the instructor can address in her own behavior).

Triangulation—applying a third perspective when caught in oppositional or either/or interpretations.

Example: An instructor sees herself as having “high standards” for learning. Students, however, on their evaluations, complain that the instructor is “too hard” on grading. A third perspective may come from the course goals on the syllabus. A consultant might ask the instructor what she is doing to help students meet these goals, as well as whether or not she thinks the students are meeting them. Drawing from the perspective of goals can help break down the either/or thinking that traps instructors and students into defensive positions.

Process Narrative—telling the story of one’s learning “curve,” using a dramatic form (narrative arc) to shape the events of that story. Process narratives can be used by either instructors or consultants, depending upon the situation. A consultant can ask an instructor to reflect upon a classroom experience as a story. The consultant might offer his own story of a instructional consulting experience to the instructor.

Example: A consultant asks an instructor to tell about his experience of the class that the consultant has just observed, using the five points of a narrative arc to shape that telling:

  • Exposition: Set the scene. Who are the “characters”? What is their situation? What do they want from this experience (i.e. what are their goals)?
  • Rising Action: What problem or complications arose? What challenges came up to meeting the goals?
  • Climax: How were the challenges addressed?
  • Falling Action: What resulted from the actions of the climax?
  • Resolution: What changes or revelations came as a result of these events?

Thick description—describing a moment or scene as if everything you observe is equally important, no matter how trivial it may seem at the moment. Consultants may do this as part of an observation, or they can assist instructors in doing this for themselves.

Example: A consultant writes in her notes of a classroom observation: “The desks are arranged in a sort of semi-circle around the instructor’s desk at the head of the classroom. Several other desks remain in the middle of the circle. When the instructor enters, he pushes the desks in the middle off to the side and asks the students to bring their desks closer together. The instructor then takes a seat in the semi-circle with the students and begins the day’s lecture.”

This is an example of how “thickly” describing an experience can bring to awareness a mismatch between instructional methods. The instructor asks for desks to be arranged in a way that allows student interaction while still focusing their attention at the front of the class. Yet the instructor lectures from the same position as students, thus giving students mixed signals as to where to focus their attention.

Meta-reflection—looking back at previous observations and reflections and writing about how you wrote them, i.e. the assumptions you see now behind your perceptions that you may not have seen at the time. What shapes your thinking? What shape does your thinking take? Again, consultants may do this with regards to their own field notes or assist instructors with their own meta-reflections.

Example: A consultant reviews his double-entry notes of a classroom observation and notices how many of his observations are about how much the instructor speaks and how little the students speak. He reflects on the assumption behind his observations that students should have many opportunities to speak in class and reconsiders his assumption that the instructor is unaware of offering opportunities to speak in this large lecture hall.

Playing the believing game—adopting an attitude of belief and acceptance of what you observe, as opposed to passing judgment. “Everything is exactly as it should be” are key words that describe this attitude. Our own assumptions about how things ought to be can get in the way of us seeing how they actually are and, in turn, seeing other possible interpretations and evaluations.

Example: A consultant notes that an instructor says “You know” at least ten times in the span of a ten-minute presentation to a class. She also notes that the instructor wears jeans, leans on the edge of the desk, and uses personal examples at times to make a point. The consultant, who is vigilant about avoiding fillers such as “you know,” wears blazers and slacks or skirts, and always stands or sits upright, offers these observations to the instructor, who responds by noting that she didn’t know she said “you know” and queries the consultant as to whether or not she should try to avoid using that phrase. Instead of offering a judgment, the consultant responds with a question: “What effect do you think using that phrase has the students?” The instructor concludes that she wants to set an informal tone to put students at ease and decides to be more conscious about when and how much informal speech to use to accomplish that.

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