Empowering Students through Guided Reflection

[Guest post by Pamela Sheff, Director, Center for Leadership Education, Johns Hopkins University]

lighthouseEach spring, I teach a course called Culture of the Engineering Profession for the Center for Leadership Education in the Whiting School. Primarily through discussions and projects, students in this class investigate what it means to be an engineer, identify contemporary issues in engineering, and consider the ethical guidelines of the engineering profession. The majority of students in the Spring 2019 class were Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering majors with a Mechanical Engineering student mixed in. This semester, I decided to experiment somewhat with guided reflection, a metacognitive practice that was new for many of these students.

One of the goals of the course is to help students strengthen their communication skills; therefore I leverage a great deal of class discussion including a requirement for students to lead a discussion at least once during the semester. Several times during the semester, I guided the students in reflecting not only on the quality of their discussions, but also on the culture of the classroom as a whole. I raised questions such as the following: What is working well? What could be changed? What values do students want in the classroom? From this reflective exercise the students generated a rubric listing characteristics including accountability, respect, and transparency. Every couple of weeks, I asked them to reflect on how they were doing as a group by reviewing the list.

After about six weeks, I noticed the group coming to consensus on what they felt was working in our classroom practice and what needed to change.  For example, one idea suggested by the group was to speak purposefully during discussions.  Students should not talk simply to be heard, but to move the discussion forward. Results included higher quality discussions and improved leadership skills.

The success of using a rubric to guide class discussions led me to continue using reflection to help students evaluate their major projects.  We talked during class about effective project criteria, for example, and what they should look for in the posters they would see at the course-wide poster fair.  The teaching assistants in the class then compiled the list of suggestions, which helped the students create strong written critiques after the fair. I talked with the class about how to assign grades to the team discussions they had been leading. Again, we worked in class to develop a list of criteria to consider and, the TAs and I developed the grading rubric. I then gave the students an opportunity to comment on the rubric before it was finalized. I also made the decision to allow students to grade their own projects according to the rubric. If I agreed with the grade they chose, the grade stood.  If not, I modified the grade. In a class of 29 students, I only had to lower two grades.  I did raise three grades, in cases where the students were unduly critical of their efforts.

The results of continuous guided reflection? The projects were the best I have ever seen in this class, and I could not have been more pleased. I attribute the high quality of work to students taking ownership of the process. It pushed them to live up to the standards they defined for themselves, and in many cases, go beyond them.  Providing space for students to reflect on what they were working towards led them to act more purposefully and, in turn, allowed me to give them agency over the classroom. I am thrilled with the way this approach worked out and am planning to use it again in future semesters.

Pamela Sheff, Associate Teaching Professor and Director
Center for Leadership Education, Johns Hopkins University

Pamela Sheff is an award-winning writer and marketing communications consultant, with a wealth of experience developing marketing, public relations and communications strategies for clients ranging from start-ups to large corporate, institutional and government organizations. Now a full-time lecturer in the Center for Leadership Education, Pam has taught business communications for private companies and directed the Writing Program at Goucher College.

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