Over the years one of the things that has struck me about the nature of teaching and learning in higher education is the emphasis given to ‘teaching’ as opposed to ‘learning’. Most of us now routinely include learning outcomes in our course and module information, which places the emphasis on what students will ‘know’ or be ‘able to do’ upon completion of said course or modules. In many cases, learning outcomes will have been ‘mapped’ against modules and assessments at course level, often as part of the course validation or approval process. I wonder how many of us, however, then routinely and repeatedly revisit learning outcomes with students and encourage them to reflect on whether they are able to demonstrate them? I wonder too, how often we discuss with our students the success of our courses or modules in helping them to achieve the ‘Graduate Attributes’ which most universities now publish on their websites? Indeed, I wonder how often students are encouraged to reflect at all on their learning and on their progress towards achieving these ‘attributes’? Is reflection, and the development of reflection as an intellectual capacity, actually at the heart of our approach to assessment, for example, or at the heart of the module student evaluation processes we put in place? Put simply, is ‘critical self-reflection’ an embedded aspect of the learning culture?
Reflection is, of course, at the heart of the learning process, and is a central element of theoretical models like Gibbs’ six-stage ‘Reflective Cycle’ (Gibbs; 1988), which builds on similar reflective models developed by researchers like Lewin and Kolb. Most universities provide guidance to students on such models and how to ‘do’ reflective writing – examples include Bradford, Oxford Brookes, and Nottingham. But experience suggests that the principles enshrined in models like those developed by Gibbs do not always influence the way that assessment and feedback processes are designed in universities.
So why is critical reflection so important? Firstly, as I have emphasised in the preceding paragraph, it is crucial to the learning process. Secondly, it is crucial to being an effective lifelong learner, and to being an effective professional. One of the qualities or attributes that employers look for in embryonic graduate ‘professionals’ is the capacity for critical reflection. All professionals are expected to learn partly by reflecting on their own practice – by being able to understand why they did things in a particular way, what the process was like, what the consequences were, what lessons can be learned, how can these be applied (i.e. how might they do things differently in the future), what actions might be required, and with what likely result? The reflective cycle then starts all over again. So being a professional involves, essentially, a constant process of critical reflection which drives professional development and results (one hopes) in a ceaseless, ongoing process of enhancement – enhancement which might encompass improvements in processes, policies, practices or services to clients or customers. Developing reflective capacity in your students is therefore one of the most important things you can do to prepare your students for progression into graduate employment, and into what we hope is a successful professional career.
Given the central role that critical reflection plays in the development of we might term ‘professional capacities’, one might reasonably expect that reflection features prominently in all degree courses, irrespective of subject or discipline. But, again, my own experiences suggest that this may not be the case. In certain disciplines – health-related ones in particular – reflection is normally addressed explicitly and repeatedly because of its importance in meeting the ‘standards’ set down by various professional bodies. Students encounter the theory underpinning it, the tools they need to utilise, and the strategies required to write reflectively, both at the outset of their course, and then again in later stages of study, often at a more advanced level of complexity. But in other disciplines reflection is less evident as a key aspect of the curriculum, the pedagogy and/or the assessment regime. Sometimes it is considered in passing, or as a minor element of a particular module or a particular assignment.
This reflects, of course, historical differences in the way that particular disciplines have evolved within the sector, and the extent to which they are vocationally focused, or not. One can understand, of course, how such differences have come into being, but I would argue that we need to consider across the Academy how critical reflection can be embedded and addressed more consistently and successfully. I suspect the sector’s success in doing so will, however, be partly dependent on its ability to shift from what we might call a ‘teaching paradigm’ to a ‘learning paradigm’, in which (in the latter) the emphasis is squarely placed on the capacities that students will need to be effective lifelong learners and effective professionals. Making this transition will require, in some cases, some radical re-engineering of our pedagogical approach and our use of assessment. For example, if what is REALLY important, is what students have learned by engaging in an assessment (whether it be formative or summative), why don’t all assessments in higher education have a compulsory ‘critical reflection’ component, in which students articulate in their own words the learning they have gained from it – i.e. the ‘value-added’ or the ‘learning gain’ as they see it. Building-in a reflective component into each assignment – including things like projects and dissertations – would help students (and us) to understand and gain insights into their learning journey, and to appreciate the value that they have gained from their studies. Given the recent (and rather worrying) decline in students’ perceptions of the ‘value for money’ of their degrees, and the arrival of the Teaching Excellence Framework, developing approaches that help students to see this ‘value’ are arguably more important than ever.
I am acutely aware, of course, that many of my colleagues in the sector may read this and say, “But we do this already, and really well”. That is fine. I have seen plenty of examples of courses where critical reflection is being addressed brilliantly – with innovative pedagogies, technologies and assessments brought into play. My argument is that critical reflection needs to be given greater emphasis across the sector, it needs to inform teaching approaches and assessment such that it becomes part of the DNA of both, and that the ‘brilliant’ examples that do already exist need to be disseminated more effectively. My own experiences suggest that some students will find engaging with critical reflection a real challenge, and some may even question its relevance. Equally some colleagues may find it a tricky topic to teach. But its central role in ensuring that our students emerge from higher education with the skillset and knowledge they need to change the world for the better is surely beyond question.
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Dr Adam Longcroft spent more than 20 years teaching undergraduate and post-graduate students at the University of East Anglia in the fields of landscape archaeology, history, education and professional studies before joining Anglia Ruskin University as the new Deputy Head of Anglia Learning & Teaching in August this year. He served as UEA’s Academic Director for Taught Programmes for 5 years – a role in which he had a major influence over the University’s approach to teaching and learning and enhancing the student experience. In his new role Adam is focused on enhancing the provision of continuing professional development for academic colleagues at ARU. Adam won an individual award for teaching excellence in history from the HEA in 2005, and is both a National Teaching Fellow (2007) and a Principal Fellow of the Higher Education Academy (2015).
We invite you to join the discussion using the comment box below in response to Adam’s questions.
- Is the development of critical reflection embedded in your own courses and modules?
- How is it embedded – is it developed via particular modules, on particular assessments, or across an entire programme/course?
- What do you do to support your students to develop and apply their capacity for critical reflection – e.g. what kinds of learning activities/assessments are utilised?
- Do your students find it easy? Or difficult?
- How do you support those who find it really difficult?