Reflection in learning design: Part of the process and potentially an outcome

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In this post, Tobias Thejll-Madsen, from the University’s Employability Consultancy and co-author of the Reflection Toolkit, proposes a place for reflection within effective course and programme design – both in the design phase and in courses themselves…

What is the best course you were ever a part of? Why was that? What was it about the teaching activities or the way the content was presented that engaged the learners? Why did this work better than alternatives?

I think most people, perhaps yourself included, have experienced a potentially exciting topic presented in a way that it almost lulled you to sleep, yet have also had a topic that you expected to find dull brought to life in a new and interesting way. The learner’s experience is influenced (not exclusively) by the teacher and the course design. This design can be informed by a range of theories, colleagues, and even past experiences.

The opening questions in this post ask you to examine your own experiences of being a learner on a course, and to consider the reasons behind your answers. This critical examination of past experiences with the intent of learning from them is a part of what is meant by reflection. Maybe, in response to these questions, you thought back to a course that asked challenging questions and encouraged learners to research and find the answers independently. Maybe there were group discussions with a chance to refine ideas with peers. Or maybe the course included reflection; critically examining the content, the learning, and how it could be applied and contextualised in real life or alternative scenarios. Your own answers might serve as inspiration for future course or programme design. In this way, reflection can give you specific and valuable takeaways.

Reflection can therefore have an important role in the process of building successful courses and programmes, and moreover, it can be a useful explicit element within the curriculum.

Reflection within the curriculum

Reflection can be effectively facilitated in most contexts and is an important skill. For example, employers want graduates who examine their practice, find strengths and weaknesses, and improve accordingly. Incorporating reflection in our curriculum can also help build students’ reflective ability; a skill they can apply to their curricular learning just now.

Reflection fits into a diverse curriculum in many ways. For instance, reflection is inherently tied to experiential learning (see Simon Beames’ excellent post on defining features of experiential education), and therefore supports making the most of placements, work experiences, outreach activity, and years abroad.

Reflection can also be adapted into other types of courses in the shape of teaching strategies or assessments, and improving as a reflector can even be a learning outcome. While there is the classic example of a reflective blog or reflective essay as an assessment, many other approaches exist.

Small, simple exercises can be introduced as teaching strategies. For instance, one might spend the last five minutes of a lecture having students identify three things from that lecture to reflect on: the idea/concept that excited them most; the most challenging concept to understand; and one question about the material or subject that they didn’t have before. The lecturer can then encourage students to use these reflections to guide their actions, e.g., study the challenging topic in depth, explore materials around the exciting idea, or find a way to answer their question.

Another easy approach is simply asking students to think about one thing they have learned and how they can use it in their lives. This forces students to contextualise their learning more broadly.

Of course, there are disciplinary differences regarding reflection, and there is no one-size-fits-all solution. I therefore encourage you to explore your own programmes and courses and see if reflection can be a helpful element.

Support available

To support reflection in the curriculum, we have created the Reflection Toolkit. It has practical advice and frameworks of reflection for reflectors, and guidance for individuals who are interested in facilitating effective reflection in others. There is support on what reflection can look like in courses, how to introduce it to students, and how and whether to assess it. Moreover, there are examples of practice from around the institution that can serve as inspiration.

Reflecting on one’s own practice

Lastly, as suggested earlier, teachers have a fundamental influence on students’ experience of a course or programme. To further expand and deepen expertise as a teacher and learning designer, one might engage with the Edinburgh Teaching Award, which relies heavily on reflection as a tool for improvement – reflection can be found many places!

Tobias Thejll-Madsen

Tobias Thejll-Madsen has been working with the University’s Employability Consultancy since graduating in the summer of 2018. Amongst other projects, he has been a part of the creation of the Reflection Toolkit to support people with their reflective practice. Whilst a student, Tobias was involved with Student-Led, Individually-Created Courses, voicing a student’s perspective.

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