February 21, 2012

Using Reflection to Improve Writing

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The benefits of reflecting for improving student writing have often been discussed. Reflection asks students to take a close look at their own writing process, their strengths and weaknesses as writers and their learning habits, and then they write about it, thus performing their own assessment and practicing the writing process again.

But how do we make sure that the lessons students learn from reflecting are lasting? How do we know that they will apply what they have learned about themselves as writers to future assignments?

One of the most important things when implementing a reflection component in a course is routine. A single reflection in the middle or at the end of a course is not enough. As revision is an ongoing process, so is reflection. According to Nedra Reynolds and Rich Rice, "Instituting routine or ongoing assignments that get students to practice reflective learning helps students establish a reflective-learning habit that can influence their learning for years to come" (Portfolio Teaching: A Guide for Instructors). It is the repeated practice of reflecting that helps students improve their writing. Establishing a routine for a course will be habit forming and will change the way students approach their writing now and in the future.

Another aspect is variety. Although having a routine of reflection in class is important, the content of the reflections should not be routine for students. A common reflection process is the "Assignment, Accomplishments, Challenges, Future" process. This process asks students to state what they were asked to do, what they felt they did well, what they felt they did not do as well, and what changes they will make on future assignments. This is a great place to start. It gets students to take a critical look at their writing and forces them to come up with some critiques.

However, there other types of reflection that can be just as useful to both student and instructor alike. One is a simple assignment critique. This type is similar to the above, but instead of focusing on their writing, they write about how the assignment fit into their learning and what changes could be made for the future. Another type of reflection asks students to make connections between the assignment and the course material, or between the assignment and "real life." This encourages critical thinking and shows students that assignments are not given just for the sake of giving grades. Yet another asks students to write about questions the assignment may have engendered or other related topics that they'd like to learn about.

Timing is also variable. Typically, we think of reflections as coming with the final draft of an assignment. However, this does not always have to be the case. Students can be asked to react to their writing after reading the writing of their peers. They can talk about things that others did that they didn't think of, that they find interesting, etc. They can also reflect on their writing after receiving feedback (and even a grade) from the instructor. By doing this, they are encouraged to look closely at not only their writing, but at the comments given by an instructor. They are required to read these comments and interpret them. It will help both the instructor and the student see if he/she understands the comments, and if the instructor understood what the student was trying to do. This is a good lesson on audience as well as on writing.

However reflection is used, it should be used often. Reflection helps make better thinkers, which helps them become better writers.

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