Helping students to reflect
This unit includes suggestions for helping students reflect on their group experience. It will focus on the importance of students expressing their group-based experiences in some form of learning journal or essay, to encourage the reflective process.
After groups have completed their task, they usually disband straight away. Most students still have an exam to prepare for and this will become their highest priority. Before students do disband, it is important that they take the opportunity to reflect on their group experience.
For most students, the last few weeks of group work can be difficult. There is usually a lot of work to be done and tension is high. If students disband straight after the task has been completed, many only remember the times of tension and fail to see the positives. This unfortunately creates a distorted view of their group experience and one which may influence their motivation for future group work.
By dwelling on the negatives, students also fail to see all of the positives of their group experience. For example, they do not see the skills they have learned through the group experience. More importantly, they do not see that these skills and experiences are the attributes which employers are looking for. Recruiters do not want to know if they have been in a group — that is a given. They want to know what students have learned from group work. What were their strengths? How did they deal with difficult situations?
There are a number of ways to help students reflect on their group experience. Three of the more popular methods are: 1) the reflective journal, 2) the reflective essay, and 3) the reflective exam question.
The reflective journal
Reflective journals are becoming an increasingly popular way to encourage students to reflect on their group experience. Reflective journals are a form of personal diary that students keep throughout the length of the group project and are required to make regular entries concerning their group activities. Students are usually required to make an entry into their journal after each group meeting. These entries require students to reflect on various aspects of their group. These aspects include:
- which members were present at the meeting
- what took place in the group meeting
- their observation of the groups dynamics
- their participation in the group meeting
Students often report how useful it is to keep the learning journal. This is particularly so at the end of the semester as it allows the student to look back on their growth (and the group's growth) over the semester. Lecturers are also finding the reflective journal very useful for monitoring the progress and dynamics of their groups (when periodically collected and read throughout the semester). For example, lecturers report that they are able to intervene in groups having difficulties earlier and thus avoid the escalation of conflict.
As with many learning objectives, the reflective journal works best when it is made an assessable item (most lecturers make the journal worth 10-15% of the total group mark). This encourages students to make entries in their journal and begin the reflective process. Becoming reflective is a skill which develops through practice and this skill is best facilitated by attributing some marks to the process.
The reflective essay
The reflective essay is another approach that encourages student reflection. Here, students are required to write a small essay (around 1500 words) based on their group experience. This essay usually requires students to reflect on their role in the group (eg. what they did), and the skills they have learned/improved by participating in the group activity (eg. learning how to give and receive criticism). This essay is usually submitted in the same week (or the week after) the group report or product is due. Once again, this reflective process is best encouraged by making the essay assessable.
The reflective exam question
Another way to encourage student reflection is to set an exam question which deals with their group experiences. Here, students are examined on what they have learned through their group activity. This examination is usually in a written form (it is often placed in the "optional" question section), however it can also take the form of an oral examination.
- Students often let their journal entries slip and feel the need to make them up later. It is therefore important that journals are collected during the semester (eg. every three to four weeks). This will also help you monitor your groups' progress and dynamics.
- Students are often apprehensive to discuss other group members in the fear that others may read their journal entries. It may be necessary to encourage students to use phrases such as "another member of my group…" or "one member…" in their journals.
There are many excellent references dealing with student reflection and journal writing. These include:
- Boud, D. (2001). Using journal writing to enhance reflective practice. In L. M. English., & Gillen, M. A. (Eds.). Promoting Journal Writing in Adult Education.Jossey-Bass: San Francisco: CA.
- Gordon, R., and Connor, R. (2001). Team-based learning in management education. In. D. Boud., R. Cohen., & Sampson, J. (Eds.). Peer Learning in Higher Education: Learning from & with Each Other. Kogan Page: London.
- Moon, J. (1999). Learning Journals: A Handbook for Academics, Students and Professional Development. Kogan Page: London. (UTS Call No.: City 808.066378 MOON).
- Hammond, M., & Collins, R. (1991). Self-Directed Learning: Critical Practice. Kogan Page: London. (UTS Call No.: City 374/190).