Reflective Writing: Engaging Students in a Contemplative Practice

Dr. Cheryl Hoy, Director and Lecturer
General Studies Writing Program
Bowling Green State University

Writing reflectively as a contemplative practice in courses across all disciplines offers faculty and students a powerful and insightful look into learning processes and cognitive development. Reflective writing can be narrative, descriptive, analytical, evaluative, or critical; it can be dynamic or discordant; it can be ambiguous or discerning. Regardless of what it can be, it is a tool that assists students in thinking critically about course content and in connecting course material with practical experiences. Student written reflections allow faculty to see misunderstandings and misapplications of course content that illuminate gaps in knowledge acquisition. In their book, Contemplative Practices in Higher Education, Barbezat and Bush (2014) describe contemplative writing “as a practice that emphasizes process rather than outcome” (p.124). They delve into journal writing, freewriting, writing about reading, mindful writing, and storytelling. But, to dispel possible misconceptions about contemplative writing practices, Barbezat and Bush (2014) assert that “Sometimes students need direct instruction to pay attention to their own process; sometimes they need guidance to be able to discern their own development” (p. 129). While all of these writing practices mentioned by Barbezat and Bush have their important uses in higher education, I have focused on the contemplative practices I have used in teaching undergraduate students in first-year composition courses and graduate students in workshops. In the following paragraphs I include reflective writing practices I have considered that move beyond content-based reflections to metacognitive reflections and to critical (or transformative) reflections, as examined by Grossman (2009) in “Structures for Facilitating Student Reflection.”

The Argumentative Essay

For an argumentative essay, students are asked to acknowledge opposing viewpoints, which requires them to think about their own stance on an issue, to reflect on what others may think about the issue, to consider the perspectives and arguments of those against their stance, to acknowledge and respond to those opposing views, and to answer “so what does this all mean” for society or for some segment of society. For example, students in an environmental science course could write an argumentative essay on the impact of going green on the atmosphere. Students in a sociology course could write an argumentative piece on the long term effects of social media on the family. Students in a business entrepreneurship course could write an argumentative essay on the sustainability of small businesses in a global economy. In all of these examples, an argumentative essay requires an examination of evidence, a consideration of multiple viewpoints from various stakeholders, and a negotiation of the stakeholders’ and the student’s assumptions, beliefs, and values, and an assertion of the significance of the issue.

The argumentative essay assignment provides a constructive means for a reflective writing practice. Prior to writing, students must reflect on the issues surrounding the topics presented in the course content. Thus, content-based reflective writing will aid students in finding suitable issues for assignments, and it will assist students in exploring what they already know and what the course material reveals about the issue. A sequence of metacognitive reflective writing prompts will guide students through the process of uncovering multiple perspectives on the issue as well as through the process of mediation among those perspectives and the students’ own beliefs, values, and assumptions. Critical reflective writing prompts will provide students a space in which to discover insights as they reconsider their initial understanding of the issue and its implications for stakeholders. Accordingly, courses that include reflective writing as part of argumentative essay assignments prepare students for a deeper learning experience.

In courses without an argumentative essay component, reflective writing practices will facilitate a deeper learning experience for students when those practices are linked to course learning outcomes. In my consideration of the use of reflective writing in undergraduate composition courses, I sought to motivate students to think more critically about their writing process and their progress in achieving the course learning outcomes throughout the semester. I created a series of reflective writing assignments, as adapted from Bart’s (2011) four steps for critical reflection, for which students wrote reflective responses to prompts at different stages of their writing process and for different assignments. The writing prompts, each focusing on one or two aspects of a particular learning outcome, moved students from content-based reflections through metacognitive reflections. At the end of the semester, students reviewed all of their reflective writing pieces (a total of eight to ten), noting thought patterns and evidence of their progress in the course. After their review, students wrote critical self-reflective narratives based on new insights gained through their analyses and considerations of their previous written reflections. Integrating reflective writing prompts shaped by learning outcomes into this course enabled students to see connections among the course expectations and their course work.

The Application to Courses Across Disciplines

Whether through argumentative essay assignments or through a contemplation of learning outcomes, reflective writing can enhance the quality of the student learning experience in courses across all disciplines. Regularly assigning written reflections in any course provides opportunities for students to progressively delve deeper into course content and to contemplate ideologies, theories, and precepts central to the discipline. Transformative learning is achieved when students comprehend and alter their own assumptions, beliefs, and values in relation to disciplinary traditions, expectations, and standards resulting in the cultivation of new knowledge.

Reflective writing is a valuable practice that enriches course material in all disciplines. In science courses, students can write content-based reflections on scientific principles, methodologies, and hypotheses and move through metacognitive reflections that prompt them to analyze and contemplate the interrelationships among these approaches and their own observations and experiences. Assigning written reflections about content in business courses allows students to grasp core concepts, techniques, and strategies. Encouraging metacognitive reflections provides opportunities for students to make connections among various business practices used in diverse organizational and occupational settings and to develop an understanding of business philosophies. Students in interdisciplinary courses can write content-based reflections on their understanding of and experiences with pertinent topics and issues, and they can write metacognitive reflections on the complications of negotiating congruent and competing sets of beliefs, values, and assumptions within and across disciplines and among groups, societies, and cultures. Regardless of the discipline, course content provides an effective starting point for reflective writing practices that lead to deeper, more intense metacognitive and critical reflections.

Integrating a contemplative, reflective writing practice into my first-year composition instructor-training workshop for new graduate teaching instructors facilitated the application of theoretical concepts to teaching practices. Along with content-based discussion prompts, I integrated prompts that touched upon several types of reflections. For weekly content-based reflections, students read texts about writing and teaching, reflected on the points made in the texts, shared their thoughts, insights, and experiences in relation to the points made in the texts, and discussed how they might apply what they have learned to the classroom. For metacognitive reflections, students wrote about their writing, teaching, and learning practices, processes, and behaviors, about how these have developed over the years, and about how these have been reinforced, altered, or completely changed by their experiences. At the end of the semester, the students wrote critical reflections based on a contemplation of the beliefs, values, and assumptions underlying their thoughts as evident in their reflective writing throughout the semester. Students also considered the implications of what they learned as evident in their metacognitive reflections to their teaching persona and practice. The sequencing of these reflections fostered better discussions, deeper reflections, and better informed practices among the graduate teaching instructors.

Making Reflective Writing Work

education, technology and internet concept - smiling teenager usThe key to making reflective writing assignments a transformative experience for the undergraduate and graduate students is to provide time and space for students to devote the energy and effort to ponder, question, and reconsider their beliefs and assumptions. Based on my, and my students’ experiences, I have noted some key considerations when assigning written reflections:

Reflective writing works best when it is an ongoing practice. Faculty must strategically develop a series of activities that foster reflective writing throughout the semester. Similarly, students must continue to complete the reflective writing tasks throughout the semester. Missing more than one or two content-based or metacognitive reflections could hinder progress toward a transformative reflection.

Superficial reflection takes all involved in this process nowhere. Faculty must strategically develop a series of activities that progressively foster deeper, more thoughtful, critical reflection. Similarly, students must be motivated to move away from surface-level responses and to engage in deeper reflective thought.

Reflective writing could leave unanswered questions or end without closure. Faculty and students should approach reflective writing without an expectation of obtaining answers or closure. Often the unanswered questions, lack of closure, or gaps at the end of the process allow for an even deeper critical and transformative reflection.

It is an investment of time. Faculty must devote time to developing writing activities that stimulate reflective thinking. Similarly, students need to devote time to think about the prompts and then to write a reflection.

Helpful Guidelines

I recommend following these practical suggestions before integrating a contemplative writing practice into any college course.

Provide a framework or structure for the written reflection. While there are many benefits in freewriting and journaling, in an effort to move students into transformative learning, creating a series of reflective activities that progressively move the student into deeper reflection requires planning.

Guide the students through the process. Sometimes students will want to know what is expected from the activity or want to know that they are completing the task “correctly” especially if it something new to them, so modeling the first activity will prove useful.

Provide many opportunities for students to “practice” reflective thinking and writing. Planning a variety of reflective activities that continue throughout the semester will help to foster a reflective practice that students can transfer to other courses. 

Periodically, or more often if time permits, provide feedback. Responding to students, individually, will guide them into deeper reflections.

By integrating reflective writing into courses, students have an opportunity to develop a contemplative practice that leads to a more meaningful engagement with course content and beyond. As Zajonic (2013) asserts, “We can see how contemplative pedagogy deepens experience through repeated engagement and so leads students to gradually foster those capacities for insight that will aid them in the true understanding of the content of their studies and perhaps even assist in the precious moment of discovery” (p. 89).

References

Barbezat, D., & Bush, M., (2014). Contemplative practices in higher education: Powerful methods to transform teaching and learning. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Bart, M. (2011, May). Critical Reflection Adds Depth and Breadth to Student Learning. Faculty Focus. http://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/instructional-design/critical-reflection-adds-depth-and-breadth-to-student-learning/

Grossman, R. (2009) Structures for Facilitating Student Reflection. College Teaching, 57 (1), 15-22.

Zajonic, A. (2013, Summer). Contemplative pedagogy: A quiet revolution in higher education. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, 134, 83-94.

This blog is based in part on a presentation made at the 2015 Lilly Conference in Traverse City, MI.

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