Critical Reflection in 3D

For several years I’ve using Stephen Brookfield‘s “Critical Incident Questionnaire” (CIQ) in my writing classes to get a clearer perspective on what my students experience in our classroom each week and also to help all of us (my students and me) become more critically reflective, collaborative learners. I’ve been joined in this work by research partners at other institutions and by a variety of predecessors who shared our interest in making this tool work best in their own classrooms and practices. In the language of pedagogical theory, what we’re doing is good ole student-centered constructivist teaching and learning: we view knowledge as something constructed by all those participating in the experience, and the CIQs (and/or portfolios, 1-minute papers, etc.) record that collective process of meaning-making.

With so much of my scholarly and creative trajectory evolving through hands-on craft-work I find myself wondering what my constructivist pedagogy would look like if I took that term literally. What if “constructing knowledge” involved observable construction of stuff instead of (or perhaps in addition to) recording in words what we remember of what we learned. Or what would happen if reflection happened nonverbally? What if we built something to represent that week’s insight or pitfall?
When I visualize a 3D alternative to the CIQ, even if done in a rotation with the usual verbal CIQ, I worry that my students would consider the process too kindergartenish and that I’d find the experience too time-consuming, given all the word work to be done.
But then again, 3D reflection might include words . . . transverbal compositions.
Or am I just restless? Am I just bored with the CIQ and seeking a novel alternative? Yes, that too.
But I do need to change something.
What the CIQ Does Consistently Well
As a quick, weekly-ish activity, the anonymous questionnaire gives me a glimpse into my students’ perceptions of what that week’s learning was about, and how well I (and they) facilitated the learning.
As a collection of responses, the students’ carbon copies of the questionnaire give them a way to identify patterns in their own likes and dislikes, successes and pitfalls as learners. They can then use this collection as a source of data for analyzing their own learning experience at the end of the semester. By the same token, the responses give me a way to observe overall patterns useful for refining my pedagogy and curriculum over time.
What the CIQ Doesn’t Much Accomplish
The act of completing the weekly-ish questionnaires doesn’t teach students to become better reflective writers or critical thinkers. If I choose to devote additional class time to the teaching of critically reflective thinking and writing, the CIQs can be a useful artifact. But that utility greatly depends on my skill at integrating the responses into the curriculum and conversations of the course, and the students’ perception of that work as being a meaningful component of the course. And because many students pragmatically equate “meaningful” with “graded” I risk attaching some sort of grade to some sort of document that draws upon their anonymous responses. At any rate, the CIQ itself is not a means of teaching thinking or writing–at best it’s a tool for other activities that attempt to teach those things.
The CIQ responses don’t much assess whether students’ writing is improving as a result of the course experience. Nor is it assessing the students’ grasp of other course content. In conventional terms, a formative assessment instrument assesses what students are learning. Depending on the wording of the questions, the CIQ might assess the students’ perceptions of the teacher’s effectiveness, and it might somewhat assess the students’ perceptions of their own learning, but for the most part any formative assessment being done is of the teacher rather than of the learner.
In these ways the CIQ is sort of a handmaiden to teaching and learning assessment, but will always require some other instrument or activity to make use of it.
Why I’m Tempted to Experiment with a 3D Version
By 3D I mean a version that would somehow transform the CIQ from a flat questionnaire to something that challenged students to draw upon other cognitive, verbal, and visual resources to compose their impressions. What tempts me is the fact that I’m increasingly using multimodal and aesthetic pedagogies and projects in my courses and it seems fitting that my assessment methods be similarly multi-dimensional.
And yet often the simple tool is best. And CIQs are fairly simple.
Of course, complicating the tool is not the only way to bring the CIQ into another classroom dimension. A simpler solution would be to add this component: discussion. I could do a better job of reserving class time for CIQ-prompted discussions and of [co-]facilitating those discussions.
Imagine the best possible CIQ-prompted discussion: does it constitute critical reflection? does it teach critical reflection? Perhaps. Sometimes. It can fairly reliably serve as a way to teach meta-analysis. It brings us a step closer to overtly teaching critical thinking.
At her CCCC presentation last March Anne Beaufort discussed the pitfalls of prompting students to articulate their learning in “teacher talk” terms such as “reflection.” If we make it clear their task is to demonstrate they’ve learned X they’ll generate anecdotes or assertions accordingly–but doing so is less likely to be an act of “mindful thinking” or of critical reflection about the specific realities of their learning experience. Instead, it may be more of a “fill in the blank” response, no matter how earnestly expressed.

Self-reporting successes in terms of X is a time-honored method of assessment at many institutions, especially in the absence of more dependable ways of demonstrating the learning of complex content within a single semester.


So What Do I Want that’s Different?

This is really a two-fold question. What I need is an assessment method that demonstrates the extent to which my students have actually learned what I attempted to teach them. (This is Assessment 101–the thing every teacher everywhere needs.) What I additionally want is an assessment method that helps me do a better job of teaching during the semester, so I can respond to my students’ needs, interests, and inspirations. (This is what that imperfect instrument the CIQ gives me.) And beyond that I also really want some sort of assessment method that helps my students and me learn more mindfully, drill more deeply into the course content that intrigues us most, and to articulate where we are in the process of coming to know better. Furthermore, I want a way to gauge the effectiveness of my pedagogical experimentation. Finally, I want to teach my students to approach research and researched writing (in any chosen discip
line) as a critically reflective and potentially reflexive enterprise.

Is that all?
For now.

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