In Praise of the Reflective Essay: The Mushy and the Meta

by Paul Gatz

The reflective essay is well named. In the best of circumstances, it holds up a mirror to the student-writer’s own learning and thinking processes and, for the teacher-reader, can present an image of the entire semester from the perspective of the learner. Of course, the reflective essay offers these benefits only when the writer or reader truly takes advantage of the essay as a site for reflection – a place in which to examine one’s self and one’s work, to think carefully and critically, and to open oneself to learn and change.

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Don’t reflect too much on this photo.

I did not have the full range of these benefits in mind, however, when, during the initial stages of the course design process, I included a reflective essay as part of the final project for my Advanced Legal Research course. Rather, I was primarily concerned with using the essay to assess two aspects of my students’ legal research skills: the metacognitive and the affective.

Metacognition is a term used by education psychologists to refer to “the knowledge of and monitoring of cognitive processes” (this definition comes from the Encyclopedia of Educational Psychology). Another popular way to characterize it is as “thinking about one’s thinking.” It is a skill that enables a student to recognize when and how they learn and to transfer that knowledge to novel learning situations. Metacognitive skills are essential for a master legal researcher.

The affective domain of Bloom’s taxonomy involves the student’s attitude toward the material being learned, their motivation to learn it, and their internalization of the values of the underlying discipline. This is the part of the learning process that ties the knowledge and skills covered in class to the inner, emotional life of the student. I am unaware of a full taxonomy of the values and attitudes necessary for legal research competency, but, at the very least, they should include the persistence, patience, and level-headedness needed to handle the inherent uncertainty of the information-seeking process.

In this past semester’s ALR course, the reflective essay was just a portion of a larger final project built around a single research problem. The other parts included a research journal requiring students to track their research process and a research memo requiring them to communicate the results of their research. The reflective essay asked them to describe their experience researching this problem. I provided them with a rubric that indicated that I expected them to identify and discuss particular challenges or choices and how they overcame those challenges or decided among those choices. The rubric also directed them to explore the thought processes and attitudes that informed their problem-solving or decision-making.

The research journal itself serves as an effective metacognitive exercise, as it requires students to monitor their own research process. This encourages a greater awareness of the process itself, leading students to be more intentional in their research and more knowledgeable of which sources and strategies work best for them. The reflective essay then requires them to explicitly confront this metacognitive level of the research process (making it sort of a meta-metacognitive exercise); this record of their thinking about their thinking enables the instructor to assess those metacognitive skills.

The reflective essay also provides students with the opportunity to discuss how their attitudes, motivations, and values affected the research process, but the end result is nearly impossible to adequately assess. It is not enough for the student to simply declare he or she possesses a certain affective state. Likewise, the instructor cannot with any precision or accuracy make judgments about another’s internal state based on the other’s narration or account of the research process. But, one hopes, through reflecting on their own inner states, students can develop a greater understanding of how their research is affected by their feelings and emotions.

I ended my semester by grading the reflective essays. My students all turned in excellent work, exhibiting careful self-examination and giving illuminating accounts of their research processes. Any assessment tool will provide the instructor with some sort of feedback on what the instructor has done well or done poorly. But maybe no other tool can display this sort of feedback as explicitly or as deeply as the reflective essay.

Some students used the reflective essay to point out parts of the assignment which were especially difficult or confusing. In some cases, this caused me to return to other portions of the student’s final project to re-evaluate their work in a new light. In one case, a student actually alerted me to wording in the assignment prompt that was particularly opaque. I now know to reword that portion of the assignment for next year’s class.

More importantly, these reflective essays showed me what my students were taking away from this class – fostering within me pride and a certain sense of accomplishment when they mentioned intermediation or explained the importance of secondary sources. Of course, some topics or themes from the course were conspicuous in their absence – I will need to find different ways to better incorporate them into future classes.

It feels clichéd to comment on how much one can learn from teaching. But reading these essays has allowed me to gain such a rich and varied range of perspectives on my course and my subject matter, deepening my knowledge of both and leading me to re-examine my own thoughts and attitudes.

All that remains now is to brace myself for the course evaluations.

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About Paul Gatz

Paul Gatz is a reference librarian and adjunct professor at The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law.
This entry was posted in Legal Research Instruction, Teaching (general) and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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