Third national symposium: small group session: Assessment of reflective papers

by Paul Maharg on 12/06/2016

This session was facilitated by Jodi Balsam and Susan Brooks.  After general introduction, we then identified contexts and goals for reflection practice and assessment.  We then discussed criteria for assessing — being specific, detailed, examples, insights, implications for future action, etc.  We then discussed two pieces of reflective writing from reflective papers.  The facilitators then gave out the rubrics or assessment criteria that they use with students, and discussed them.

Interesting in parts.  But here are my misgivings, and I mentioned them in session:

  1. Is a writer good at reflection because of the reflection or because they’re a good writer.  Look at this as a first sentence to a piece of reflection: ‘I guess that the last thing I need to discuss is my supervisor’s managerial method’.  It’s a sophisticated, compelling piece of writing.  The slow, slightly distant, ruminative start, ‘I guess’, morphing into the intriguing to-fro movement of ‘the last thing I need’,  and the dramatic suspension of the object of the sentence until the very last three words.  Is this good reflection or good writing, which is a qualitatively different thing.  Does good writing contribute to good reflective writing, or can it distract from it?  Eg is Quaker or Puritan plain style in the seventeenth century descriptive of such theology, or a product of that theology, or implicative in and of both?
  2. The more you draft and redraft a piece of writing, the more you can move away from the original reflection — you begin to fictionalise the reflections, distort the original moment with overlays of memories, conjectures, post hoc justifications or explanations, etc.  The very norms of syntax distort chronology and obscure action, motivation, perception.  Narrative discourse teaches us how complex this is, how not to be naive about the motives we have when writing, and similarly teaches us to be critical about others’ apparently authentic statements.  St Augustine’s Confessions — you remember the famous scene, Book Eight, Chapter 12, Augustine weeping in the garden, hearing the child’s voice, ‘read it, pick it up’, returning to the text on the bench and so on to the transformative moment — isn’t that powerful reflective writing?  And yet, isn’t it also profoundly structured, constructed, its simplicity of narrative detail hard-won?  To put it crudely, who is Augustine writing for here, and why?
  3. Students can game the reflective writing activity very easily if they want.  OK, show us what you want in reflective writing, some of them might say — just like any other course gives us good models.  Uh-huh, so you want to see developmental understanding, OK we can do that, we can give you ‘evidence’ of that.  Whose is the truly authentic narrative of reflection?  What are our rules of evidence?
  4. We ask students to reveal themselves, we ask them to confess.  Some may not want to do that, and feel deeply uncomfortable with the idea of interior thoughts being exteriorised, and within a performance of the self that takes place within an overt power dynamic: student reveals, powerlessly, academic staff assess, powerfully.  In some cultures, indeed, it may be something of an affront to be asked to be self-revelatory, and to strangers, as well. Jen Ross points some of the key issues here, and to a creative way around this problem.  Here’s her abstract:

    Drawing on qualitative data from 31 interviews with teachers and students in higher education in the UK, this article demonstrates the extent to which students, when compelled to write reflectively for assessment purposes, perform their reflective writing for at least one of three audiences: their assessment criteria, their teachers, and a general ‘Other’. It shows that students are strategic and audience-aware in their reflective writing, whether or not teachers acknowledge audience as a legitimate concern, and argues that we need to welcome the concept of performance into reflective practices, and to allow reflection to take account of the addressivity of writing.[1]

  5. Lastly, and this seems to be an intriguing developing pattern of the symposium already, is the dominance of the rubric in discussions of assessment of experiential learning.  Rubrics are important, don’t get me wrong.  But is that it, I’m tempted to ask.  Can we not look further afield to better, more imaginative and engaging assessment practices?
  1. [1]Ross, J. (2014).  Performing the reflective self: audience awareness in high-stakes reflection.  Studies in Higher Education39, 2.

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