For many years, post-secondary educators have been encouraged to move outside the classroom and create transformative learning experiences for university students. Field courses, service learning, and cooperative education are all examples of the kinds of programming that have become increasingly common and popular amongst undergraduates looking to incorporate some unique and useful experiences in their university careers.
Despite the popularity and growth of transformational learning, questions persist about the most effective ways of assessing student learning that results from these experiences. Experiential learning is hard-to-measure so traditional assessment measures often fall short of the mark. Reflective writing is often at the heart of assessment measures employed to qualitatively measure transformative learning, with self-evaluation, and journaling common assignment formats. There are significant challenges with using reflection to assess students, related to the highly personal nature of the transformations being recorded. Pagano and Roselle (2009) find that there is usually little clarity or systematization involved in using reflective practice. What is involved can vary substantially between courses or instructors. Also, reflection tends to rely on students’ own accounts of events and responses and as such it is very hard to discern if learning has indeed taken place. Woolf (2008) also identifies concerns with the confessional ‘dear diary’ approach to reflective writing, as he aligns this with highly personal change or transformation. Given that much of the possible value in transformative learning comes from the opportunity to ‘see beyond the self,’ the question becomes how to design assignments and assessments that will help students develop this awareness and critical reflexivity.
Sometimes it helps to divide the task into two parts, one which focuses on personal development and the other that relates to key academic objectives or themes. Peterson (2008) profiles a service-learning course assessment that combined personal narrative with more academic analysis. Students were asked to prepare two journals with these respective foci, rather than being asked to write whatever came to mind. Doubling the student (and instructor) workload may not be the ideal solution, but fortunately there are models for designing reflective writing that can assess several components in the same assignment.
One is the DEAL model developed by Patti Clayton, which involves students Describing their experience, Examining the experience in light of specific learning objectives, and Articulating their Learning. The assignment is guided by specific prompting questions that encourage students to complete these various tasks in their reflective writing, from the who, what when and where of an experience (describing learning) to more detailed prompts about what was learned and how (examining and articulating learning).
Another, perhaps less well-known, approach is the ‘refraction model’ proposed by Pagano and Roselle (2009). Refraction tries to incorporate critical thinking into the process of reflection to encourage students to move beyond their own perceptions and consider how to address problems or scenarios they may have experienced in their course. This process begins with reflection and activities that are common to the assessment of transformational learning outcomes. From here, however, the authors propose using critical analytic and thinking skills to refract this knowledge and generate learning outcomes. The first stage – reflection – involves asking students to log events and journal reactions. The critical thinking phase asks students specific questions about these experiences, and the refraction stage invites them to suggest solutions and interact with others and their ideas about the same events or issues.
Whether or not the DEAL approach or refraction model are applied, it is useful to remember what Nancy Johnston from Simon Fraser University says about reflection as a means of assessment. “We are looking for evidence of reflection, which means that students are challenging their assumptions, appreciating different points of view, acknowledging the role of power and discourse, the limitations of their conclusions and in short moving from black and white understandings towards recognizing varied shades of gray.”
(image credit: Paul Worthington)