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Using Reflective Practices

BestPractices-Writing Instruction

Why Should I Use Reflective Practices in My Basic Writing Classroom?

Using reflection in the classroom achieves several teaching goals:

  • It helps students plan what strategies they want to use in their writing
  • It helps students understand their strengths and weaknesses so they can make their own writing goals for the class
  • It helps students learn to think critically, not only about what they are learning, but how they go about that learning, and what might help them improve upon their learning strategies
  • It helps students learn the underlying principles of writing so they are able to apply those principles in new contexts
  • It helps students gain confidence in their authority over their own writing so they are better able to look for answers about revision in their own work
  • It helps students construct identities as “writers” in a writing community
  • It helps instructors gain insight into the different needs of their students
  • It helps instructors have greater insight into the choices and motivations behind students’ writing so instructors are able to read that writing with more depth and understanding

Sharon Pianko’s 1979 article, “Reflection: A Critical Component of the Composing Process” was among the first to introduce reflection as a specific focus of composition pedagogy. Pianko observed a group of so-called “remedial” and “traditional” writers while they were composing an essay motivated by an in-class prompt. She found that the ability to reflect holistically on a piece of text and plan strategy and organization during the composing process was the “essence of the difference between able and not so able writers.” (277)

Researchers continued this focus on what Kathleen Yancey later would call “reflection-in-action”; the reflection that occurs as a writer is composing a specific text. (Yancey 1999) Elements of this process were identified by earlier researchers like Sondra Perl and Linda Flower and John Hayes, who focused more on the cognitive processes involved in composing.

Later, researchers also found that reflection was important for more than just the ability to plan strategies and organize ideas while writing a text. “Reflection is a form of metacognition - thinking about thinking.”(Swartzendruber-Putnam 88) This metacognition helps students develop the ability to think critically. It also helps them identify the underlying principles of composition. This type of reflective metacognition allows a student to think back on all the texts he has written, reflect on what has worked or not worked and why it has or has not worked, and apply that knowledge to the composition of a new text.

In most classrooms, the ultimate goal of learning is that students may take the knowledge and skills gained in one context and transfer them to other contexts. Studies on knowledge transfer have occurred in many disciplines, but one of the consistent factors that is vital to transfer is the ability of the student to comprehend the underlying principles behind whatever is taught. (e.g. Bransford and Schwartz, Myers, Perkins and Salomon, Prather, Schroth) The metacognition that develops through reflection allows students to analyze their papers and identify these principles so they can begin to think about how these principles might apply to their next writing assignment, as well as other writing they might encounter

Reflection is also important in constructing the identity of “writer” that a student must form as a member of the composition community. Lave and Wenger suggest that all types of learning must be situated within “a broader system of relations in which they have meaning….The person is defined by as well as defines these relations. Learning thus implies becoming a different person with respect to the possibilities enabled by these systems of relations.” (53) Yancey calls this creation of identity “constructive reflection”, or reflection that goes beyond “generaliz[ing] across rhetorical situations to seeing oneself so generalize, seeing oneself interpret differently from one to the next and understanding that these generalizations acquired through reflection-in-action exert their own cumulative effect.” (51) She asserts that as a student creates multiple texts, and is able to reflect on how and why she created those texts, the cumulative effect is the construction of her identity as a writer.

As a student constructs this new identity, there will inevitably be growing pains that must be acknowledged by both teacher and writer. It may be difficult for a person to reflect on the process he is going through to “join” a new community if the values of that community conflict with the values held by other communities with which he already identifies. Ogbu argues that because African American culture was formed under a great amount of oppression, it has developed in opposition to the dominant white culture. As a result, seeking success in areas dominated by white culture, like the academy, threatens the political and social identities of African American students. (Fox 62) That kind of conflict naturally results in resistance, and this resistance will inevitably affect the way a student is able to participate in reflective activities.

This kind of conflict makes students less likely to want to reflect, or to be able to reflect, in an insightful way. “I’ve learned that even the best suggestions and questions might be ignored, that people can only go as far as their own defenses will allow, and that we need to be patient enough to understand that a writer, like a patient, might not be ready to write the [reflection] that we think or hope is lurking just beneath the surface.” (Tobin 54) Not only do instructors need to help their students see that they are valid members of the academic community, and that this community can add to, rather than destroy their identity, they need to recognize that each student enters their classroom at a different level of reflective maturity.

Annotated Bibliography

Bransford, John D. and Schwartz, Daniel L. “Rethinking Transfer: A Simple Proposal with Multiple Implications” Review of Research in Education. v24. 1999. 61–100.

Bransford and Schwartz discuss transfer and how it occurs. Their main focus is on changing the way transfer is identified. They suggest that researchers should look for evidence that a person has mastered the underlying principles behind the skills or concepts taught. If she or he can use those principles in a way that shows they have the resources to effectively learn in a new setting, then transfer has occurred.

Bower, Laurel L. “Student Reflection and Critical Thinking: A Rhetorical Analysis of 88 Portfolio Cover Letters.” Journal of Basic Writing. v22 n2. 2003. 47–66.

Bower analyzes the rhetorical purposes of 88 portfolio cover letters through the theoretical lens of Aristotle, Stephen Toulmin, and Kenneth Burke. She finds that these letters largely serve the rhetorical purpose of evaluation and assessment, with little evidence to support the theory that these letters encourage true metacognitive thinking. She goes on to give recommendations for improving the rhetorical nature of these letters.

Flowers, Linda and John Hayes. “A Cognitive Process Theory of Writing” College Composition and Communication. v32. 1982. 365–387.

Using a method where their subjects compose aloud into a tape recorder, Flowers and Hayes study process through the lens of cognitive process theory. They identify three major processes: planning, translating and reviewing. Their findings contradict the previously popular linear model of the composing process, suggesting that these processes are recursive throughout the creation of a text.

Fox, Tom. “Ideologies of Access and Exclusion: Basic Writing and Cultural Conflict.” Defending Access. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook Publishers. 1999. 40–70.

Fox discusses how standards reflect the values of those that are in power, and access to education is influenced by those standards. Those not in power, if they are able to meet inevitably biased standards, enter school with an automatic conflict. Fox urges those inside the academy to veer away from “‘basic writing’ structures that delay entrance into the academy.” (70)

Lave, Jean and Wenger, Etienne. Situated learning: Legitimate peripheral participation. United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press. 1991.

Lave and Wenger suggest that any type of learning environment is situated within a social community. For a student to adequately learn any skill or knowledge, he or she must become an effective member of that community.

Myers, Carole. “Core Skills and Transfer in the Youth Training Schemes: A Field Study of Trainee Motor Mechanics.” Journal of Organizational Behavior. v13 n6. 1992. 625–632.

Myers examines the theory that teaching students 103 commonly occurring job skills will adequately prepare them for transfer of those skills across multiple contexts. She finds the core skills method does not adequately promote occupational flexibility.

Perkins, David N. and Salomon, Gavriel. “Transfer of Learning.” International Encyclopedia of Education. 2nd ed. Oxford, England: Pergamon Press, 1992. 2–13.

Perkins and Salomon define transfer and come to some conclusions about what conditions must exist for transfer to occur, including: thorough and diverse practice, explicit abstraction, active self-monitoring, arousing mindfulness, and using a metaphor or analogy.

Perl, Sondra. “Understanding Composing.” College Composition and Communication. v31 n4. 1980. 363–369.

Similar to Flower and Hayes, Perl studies the recursive nature of the composing process through observing teachers as they composed aloud. She found that not only did the teachers go back to read bits of discourse, they also paused to gain a feeling, or “felt sense”, about what they wrote, and what should come next. She demonstrates how this felt sense is a natural part of composing.

Pianko, Sharon. “Reflection: A Critical Component of the Composing Process” College Composition and Communication. v30 n3. 1979. 275–278.

This is one of the first essays within composition to focus specifically on reflection. Pianko identifies reflection within the composing process as the times students pause and rescan their work. She encourages teachers to change their focus from evaluating a student’s finished work to improving a students process for writing through reflection.

Prather, Dirk C. “Trial and Error versus Errorless Learning: Training, Transfer, and Stress.” The American Journal of Psychology. v84 n3. 1971. 377–386.

Prather studied 96 student pilots training on a range-estimation task. He studied whether trial and error, or errorless training was more conducive to transfer. Students that had a harder time mastering a task through trial and error showed a greater ability to transfer the skill to a new context because they were more likely to master the underlying principles of the task.

Schroth, Marvin L. “Effects of Frequency of Feedback on Transfer in Concept Identification.” The American Journal of Psychology. v110 n1. 1997. 71–79.

In a study done of psychology students at Santa Clara University, Schroth finds that the more difficult it is in the acquisition phase of learning for a person to gain a skill or concept, the more likely he or she will be able to transfer that skill or knowledge to a different context because he or she will be more likely to master the underlying principles of the knowledge or skill.

Swartzendruber-Putnam, Dawn. “Written Reflection: Creating Better Thinkers, Better Writers.” The English Journal. v90 n1. 2000. 88–93.

Discusses three reflective assignments: The writing log, the draft letter, and the portfolio letter. Swartzendruber-Putnam explains how she helps her students increase their ability to think critically through meaningful reflection.

Tobin, Lad. “Replacing the Carrot with the Couch: Reading Psychotherapeutically” Reading Student Writing: Confessions, Meditations and Rants. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook Publishers. 2004. 44–55.

Tobin discusses the importance of context when reading and interpreting students’ texts. He encourages teachers to try to understand students’ motivations and maturity as they go about determining how to help individual students make and reach writing goals.

Yagelski, Robert P. “The Ambivalence of Reflection: Critical Pedagogies, Identity, and the Writing Teacher.” College Composition and Communication. v51 n1. 1999. 32–50.

Yagelski looks at the reflective practices of teachers. He examines how a critical pedagogy that challenges a person’s original belief system can produce an internal conflict that affects a person’s ability and desire to reflect on his/her practices.

Yancey, Kathleen B. Reflection in the Writing Classroom. Logan, Utah: Utah State University Press, 1998.

Yancey analyzes reflection in three forms: reflection-in-action which looks at the process of reflection within the act of composing a specific text; constructive reflection which examines the effects of multiple texts on a writer’s identity; and reflection-in-presentation which is focused on a formal reflective text written to a specific audience.


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