Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Who needs reflection?

Reflection This term our first year PLE students are building their ePortfolios, so I can't avoid thinking about the role of reflection in this process. The line we are taking is that while collection of evidence is an important component of building an ePortfolio, we don't envisage it is very likely that they would show them to a prospective employer. Rather, it's the process of building the ePortfolio which is most important, which is how I get to be pondering on the role of reflection. And what is clear just one week into the term is that while collection of evidence is easy, reflection is hard.

Is this because we live in a culture where honesty is punished by being seen as a sign of 'weakness" rather than being rewarded? I'm still being influenced by my recent reading of Freakonomics. Another of the recurring themes from that book is that of incentive, viewed from a wide perspective and not just as a narrow economic term. The authors cite several examples to show that schemes based on positive incentives (reward) are much more successful than negative incentives (punishment).

Early on, we took the decision that we were going to assess student's ePortfolios, in spite of the potential risk of game playing - either over representing achievement or doing the minimum necessary to achieve the desired mark. I'd like to think that awarding marks is a positive incentive to engage in a reflective process, but I wonder if the students will see it that way - will they instead reward the regard the withholding of marks as a penalty, and if they do, will this affect how they engage with reflection?

While pondering this on Monday morning, I got sucked into a light-hearted Twitter exchange about reflection, as part of which I sent the tongue-in-cheek message:

OK, so it's agreed then: reflection can damage your health ;-)

In response to this, David Andrew sent me a link to a paper which questions the concept of reflection in higher education, which concludes that:

Reflection as a concept should be abandoned in management educational practice because of:
  • Lack of consistent definition
  • Lack of operational value - we can't tell students how to do it
  • Some minor, but potential dangers if we could tell students how to do it
  • Lack of necessity - we do not see how such an ill-defined concept is necessary for helping students to learn.

Heady, heretical stuff. I'm hoping that by the end of this term we'll have some more fuel to throw on this fire. Right now, the immediate problem is that unhappy students are asking us to tell them what to put in their ePortfolios. Several hundred words (with pictures) and detailed assessment criteria don't seem to be enough guidance. I'm not sure how to get around this problem. Maybe David and his colleagues were right? :-(