Locutorium Winner 2
Climbing the Ladder: Helping Students Reach Better Levels of Reflective Transfer
By Mari Murdock
When many students sign up for Writing 150, they approach it with preconceived notions about GE courses that often sound like “let’s just get this over with.” They see the class as an isolated experience with homework assignments that don’t necessarily apply to their majors and with lessons that they can forget when the semester ends. Very few of them understand that the true purpose of a first-year writing class (or any writing class) is for students to learn writing skills that can be transferred into other courses and potentially a career. This means that a Writing 150 instructor must make students aware of the course’s transferability. Reflection plays a huge role in transferring knowledge from Writing 150, and this connection is actually called “reflective transfer” in pedagogical theory. In successful reflective transfer, students assess their own writing abilities, achieving some form of metacognition that allows them to not only make judgments about their abilities but also transfer those abilities to other activities. Therefore, incorporating reflection into first-year writing can help students transfer their writing skills into other areas of their lives. Scholars have debated the process of achieving successful levels of metacognition through reflection, but despite differing methods, they do agree that students’ abilities to reflect vary, ranging from ineffective to successful. This gradation of ability suggests that there is some form of natural progression that students can move along. I will refer to this progression with the metaphor of a ladder, each subsequent level of reflection being the consecutive rung.
Here are two examples of reflective ladders that illustrate reflective capability. For BYU’s courses in pedagogy, Deborah Dean uses a handout that designates four levels of reflective ability as seen in students’ reflective writing (ascending order): retelling, relating, reasoning, and reconstructing. Retelling, as a basic reflective ability, means that students can only recall what happened during their writing process or merely make superficial observations. Reconstructing, as an advanced reflective ability, involves abstract thinking and theory. Another example comes from Kember et al., who analyzed numerous multi-tiered reflection schemes and came up with their own four-category scheme (ascending order): habitual action/nonreflection, understanding, reflection, and critical reflection (372). These labels and definitions are similar to Dean’s. These ranged assessments of reflective ability come from students’ personal reflections as assignments in classes, either written or oral. However, these designated tiers do not necessarily represent the actual reflective capability of the students. Rather, they merely assess students’ reflective products in response to assignments.
Some studies have shown that much of the time, students do not achieve successful metacognition, meaning they are not reflecting on their writing abilities in ways that help them heuristically. They remain on the lower ends of the spectrum, often not climbing more than a rung or two in the reflection-level ladder. There are a variety of reasons for this. Laurel L. Bower found that many students fail to achieve ideal metacognitive levels because of “varying levels of cognitive maturity, lack of reflective practice, and/or the requirements of the assignments,” which all influence students’ ability to perform in reflective activities (64). However, only the first of those reasons hinges on students’ actual ability versus their mere performance on a reflective writing assignment. Jennifer A. Moon observes that learning and practicing new skills such as reflection often hinges on meaningfulness to the learner, which means that students who do not find meaningfulness in the reflective assignments are less likely to indulge in metacognition (18). Jane Bowman Smith observes that many students are confused or suspicious of reflective activities, not understanding the purpose of them or seeing writing critique as the teacher’s responsibility (125). In another example, Kathleen Blake Yancey had a student named Gene who admitted that because he felt alienated by class topics, he “basically just went through the motions of the class,” meaning that he knowingly did not perform to the best of his ability (53). Bower further suggests that some students may reflect only to appeal to instructor’s values because they know they are being graded (62). This means that if students see reflection as a busywork exercise or a mere blip before receiving a grade, effective reflection is not happening because of the “let’s get this over with” attitude. This would suggest that reflective transfer cannot happen either, because students are not sincere in their reflective activities, seeing them merely as temporary obstacles. All of these reasons for not climbing the reflection ladder hinge on the students’ personal regard for, approach to, or personal application of reflective assignments or writing courses, not on their actual abilities to achieve metacognitive reflection. This means students must be motivated to climb the ladder or else they purposely stay at the bottom.
For real reflective transfer and metacognition to occur, instructors must get students to care about this process first and to engage to their fullest capacity. Reflective activities need to be applicable, kairotic, and meaningful, even something students are eager to do—definitely not compulsory. Moon makes an interesting observation about meaningfulness, saying that what makes a lesson or activity meaningful is not an objective judgment; if it were, all teachers would know how to do it in every instance with every student (18). Rather, categorizing an assignment or activity as meaningful “is a judgement made by the learner by relating the new material of learning to her current cognitive structure. . . . This implies that a judgement of ‘meaningfulness’ cannot technically be made in the abstract or by another person ” (17). This suggests that this “meaningfulness” judgment must come from the individual students rather than the instructor, and not in abstract theory but in real situations. This also implies that “meaningfulness” comes from internal value systems measured by established beliefs. Jeff Sommers asserts that “shifting the students’ focus . . . to an examination of their beliefs about writing and writing courses and the impact of those beliefs on a semester’s writing experiences, can . . . permit writing students at all levels to engage in meaningful reflection about themselves as writers” (102). Yancey et al. also observe this, proposing that “belief that what a student is learning in a writing context will be useful in the future thus motivates students, and the reverse is true—that if no connection can be seen, students do not value the opportunity” (27). Therefore, the first step toward motivating students toward meaningful reflection is to help students use their own beliefs about writing to establish individualized connections between current writing lessons and their writing futures.
There are many obstacles to this because students often already lack motivation and have mental barriers against writing and writing courses. You can see this in students who report that their past writing assignments or writing classes were worthless (i.e., not meaningful) or even harmful. For example, one semester, when I asked my students about their experiences with research papers, many described their past experiences as “horrible” or “traumatic”; some students even went as far as to exaggerate that they have some form of PTSD that influences all their mental associations with writing and writing-based courses. All of these negative experiences (or perceived negative experiences) coalesce to form students’ personal beliefs about writing. This even extends to the students’ identities as writers, making many of them believe that they are terrible writers, have no talent for writing, or even hate writing. If we are to use students’ beliefs about writing to motivate them—as Yancey, Moon, and Sommers advise—then we must first overcome these obstructive mental barriers.
Personal beliefs and identities hinge on what Timothy D. Wilson calls “core narratives,” which are essentially the paradigms that have shaped our perceptions about ourselves (9). These core narratives affect students drastically, causing them to believe those false obstacles that dictate to them that they can never become writers, let alone better writers. When my class discussed core narratives about writing one semester, I asked the students if any of them considered themselves poor writers, thought they hated writing, or believed they could never improve, and nearly all of them raised their hands. I then asked them, “Who wants to be a bad writer?” to which none of them raised a hand. This is most likely because they do not want their core narratives to include something that they are bad at, yet it was an interesting starting point for them to reflect on what they wished their core narratives about writing involved, tapping into their values as they compare what they believe to be true about themselves to what they actually want to be.
In the reflection activity in which I asked students to write about past research paper experiences, I also asked students to write about what they learned about research papers from my class the week before. Then I had them give their writing to a partner and recall from memory what they had written about those two experiences. For most students, the “trauma” story came easier to their minds even though the lesson from last week happened much more recently. This was because those bad memories had been adopted as part of their core narratives, almost permanently embedded in their beliefs and easily recallable. Since these were adopted into their belief systems, my students often had difficulty moving past them. Moon asserts that emotions play a key role in this kind of cognitive establishment, saying that they are actually “linked to knowledge which, as the cognitive structure, guides new learning. [They are] part of the process of learning itself; feelings emerge as a result of learning and . . . emotional states can block or facilitate learning” (53). My students were ironically using reflective transfer to apply extremely negative connotations to all research-based writing assignments, which in turn blocked their ability to learn more about it , making new lessons more difficult to remember. This means that metacognition must involve an evaluation of emotions, since they drastically affect (by blocking or facilitating) learning as well as beliefs. Therefore, helping students look at their “traumatic” experiences could help them see why they find certain learning activities meaningless or are suspicious of their purpose. Overall, in asking students to review their core narratives, whether negative or positive, and especially when connected to strong emotions, we find two elements in the formula for motivating students to adopt meaningful, powerful reflective activities: storytelling and community.
Students really enjoy telling each other stories, especially if the stories involve the students’ core narrative beliefs. Regardless of what they thought their writing abilities were, my students with negative core narratives about writing were often really animated when discussing their past experiences, even if they were “traumatic.” This kind of reflection allowed students to add personal anecdotes to the lessons, tapping into shared emotions for sympathetic and empathetic responses from their peers. This personal twist allows students to bend and adapt lessons to fit their own needs based on what they discover during reflection. For example, one of my students talked about how a very negative teacher in high school made him feel like he was too stupid to write, so he believed he would always fail every assignment. However, when connecting that story with his Writing 150 experience of exploring his own writing process, discovering new ways to actually approach writing, he felt like he could criticize the bad high school teacher rather than his own capabilities. This enthusiasm toward sharing narratives and contributing individual experience is why Yancey’s ideal classroom situation involves students creating their own writing curriculum in order to improve themselves as writers, a method she calls “constructive reflection,” because students construct (invent or re-create) their own writing identities (54–55). This is actually a reshaping of core narratives, as students revisit their writing identities and reshape them to fit their ideals. Since a core narrative is merely a story we tell ourselves (the word narrative even implies this), then storytelling (telling and retelling and rewriting) as an activity is crucial. Walter R. Fisher explores this notion when he claims that “narration is the most appropriate, useful paradigm for understanding and assessing whatever is taken as an instance of knowledge” (169). By narration, Fisher means that any kinds of discourse can be considered stories so long as “they lay claim to our reason” and are “designed to reveal the role of values in reason and action in order to restore a consciousness of whether in our conceptions of knowledge, which inevitably imply a praxis” (170, 188). In other words, stories reveal values, values which imply courses of action, and students can use reflective evaluations of these beliefs to create their own curriculum as writers. In fact, Yancey echoes this sentiment, saying, “Through reflection, we tell our stories of learning: in the writing classroom, our stories of writing and of having written and of will write tomorrow; . . . this story-making involves our taking a given story, and our lived stories, and making them anew” (53). Therefore, students can rewrite their core narratives through sharing those stories with others.
However, merely complaining about past bad experiences gets students nowhere, even if they enjoy doing it, and it doesn’t induce viable reflection, especially because it can make students feel hopeless, an emotion that could be blocking their ability to learn, as Moon would assert. Therefore, these core narrative reflection activities must be framed with specific solution-based results in mind to motivate students to find them meaningful. Since most students often do not want to consider themselves bad writers in their core narratives, this transition of focus hinges on motivations derived from their belief systems. In her reflective assignments, Vicki Tolar Collins encourages her students to talk about their past problems but also consider ways in which they overcame them, especially if they were still having similar issues. This puts the reflective focus on positive action rather than passive complaining, generating Fisher’s idea of praxis. Collins says, “Positive self-talk can be a powerful motivator. These positive affective outcomes contribute to the writer’s sense of self-efficacy, the belief that the problem can be named and solved and the writing successfully completed” (119). Positive self-talk encourages students to connect their bad experiences to viable answers to problems that still apply in their writing and can be reused in the future—reflective transfer. This fosters a sense of positivity about their writing experience, helping students change their core narratives from being centered on the negative “couldn’t/can’t dos” to the positive “did/can/will be able to dos.” This essentially gives students hope for their writing abilities—hope that they can change, that they can overcome writing obstacles, and that they can improve and become more skillful writers. Collins further acknowledges that “a student who thinks of a solution to his or her writing problem is motivated to pursue it to some extent simply by the cognitive representation of a positive outcome” (108). Thus, having these positive motivators can drive students toward more earnest, effective reflection, inspiring them to climb the ladder.
The second form of motivation comes from community. In fact, social elements are indispensable for effective reflection. Yancey points out that “reflection, like language itself, is social as well as individual,” and she implements a more social form of reflection called reflection-in-presentation, which is “explaining both of the self and about the self to an outside audience” (53, 70). This is merely social storytelling. Group work or discussion has often been considered an effective activity for many kinds of lessons, and Ennen et al. synthesized several studies to determine that collaborative work has proven to lead to “higher quality learning, . . . better retention of material, deeper understanding of course content, and higher academic performance than individualistic learning” (616). This would suggest that allowing students to collaborate in reflective activities would encourage them toward a deeper understanding of reflection and metacognition, especially if the instructor can establish a classroom culture focused on specific standards of reflection (i.e., higher levels of reflection). Establishing a standard reflection level as a shared value amongst students helps them rise above the most basic levels of reflection because they have a measure of expectation. Moon agrees with this sentiment, stating that “the practices and the tools that a learner uses . . . have usually been developed as a social process. . . . Knowledge is accumulated in ways that have been largely agreed through social means” (20). Therefore, public acknowledgment of these standards, through reflection-in-presentation, makes them more meaningful as students see themselves as members of the community that has adopted those standards.
A shared classroom standard agreed upon through social means can also urge students toward reflecting on, sharing, rethinking, adopting, and criticizing their own beliefs through the natural dialogue that accompanies a social setting, acts that are essential in reinventing core narratives. Hilgers et al. recognize that invention of goals is often difficult for students, so students need a teacher or peers to help them see their ideas in context (18). A communal context helps students measure the breadth and scope of their ideas and evaluate them in comparison with one another. Sommers suggests that a community context can actually allow students to distance themselves from their authorship, especially if reflection is done on writing that remains anonymous, propelling them toward deeper levels of metacognition (108). Anonymity in reflection in a public forum invites sincere critique and opens students up for critical analyses of their own writing, distancing students from feelings of hesitation or self-righteousness as the community attempts to understand writing in terms of their agreed-upon classroom standards. This suggests that as a classroom culture establishes dialogue about ideas, students can socially expand their understanding to widen their perspectives through each new discussion opportunity. In fact, they will often adopt stances that will not only conform to the classroom standard for reflection but contribute to expanding their minds to meet the needs of every discussion situation. Bower uses Aristotle’s rhetorical ideal of nomos to describe this process, explaining that student reflections in a public setting often rhetorically appeal to their classroom community’s set of values, so as their values expand through social dialogue, so will the reflective rhetoric (54). Therefore, students will be motivated to stretch themselves to meet those standards, appealing to the shared values of the community.
Interestingly enough, this concept of nomos (appealing to shared values) is actually the same concept that limits students’ reflection when they are attempting to conform to the teacher’s values that will determine grades in assessment of the reflection. This attempt to conform is one of those inhibiting factors that can prevent students from climbing the reflection ladder because they merely state what they believe teachers want to hear, preventing them from achieving real metacognition toward effective self-directed change. However, if the classroom values in the moment of reflection are not based on teacher assessment but in honestly revealing with the intent to rework core narratives, students can be coaxed into more sincere forms of reflection. This means that reflection activities as social discussion activities rather than grade-based performance activities can motivate students toward truthfulness in their responses. In fact, Ennen et al. explain that in an effective group setting, students “are more likely to exert higher effort and motivation . . . [and] feel as if they can discuss their ideas and opinions openly” (616). Openness and honesty are the goals of true metacognition, and these goals are achieved by generating real effort and motivation while avoiding those insincere, ineffective forms of reflection that keep students stuck at the more basic levels. Therefore, as a community of reflective writers, students’ core narratives can stretch to meet class-standard contexts, and students can be coaxed to reaching levels of sincere reflection that mere self-evaluation or teacher evaluation cannot generate.
In conclusion, opportunities for storytelling and establishing a writing community in Writing 150 can motivate and inspire students to climb the reflective ladder in their metacognitive processes. Students have the potential to harness metacognition on profound levels if they find a classroom environment that establishes a communal standard for reflection and fosters individual engagement and meaningfulness through core narrative storytelling. These elements can help students bypass the emotional or mental obstacles, whether they are personal or circumstantial, that may prevent them from climbing the reflection ladder, making writing improvement a real possibility. Since some strategies for reflection often already naturally occur to some degree or another in writing classrooms, the specific integration of storytelling and community-building activities can be easily integrated so long as teachers understand their purpose in helping students achieve more profound forms of reflection. Should instructors focus on reflection with these two motivating factors in mind, students can tap into their core narratives, make effective changes in their beliefs about writing, and work as a class toward meaningful (and transferrable) goals. Storytelling and community building can truly transform the Writing 150 experience for students, allowing them an entire semester to practice reinventing themselves into lifelong writers instead of mere homework doers.
Bower, Laurel L. “Student Reflection and Critical Thinking: A Rhetorical Analysis of 88 Portfolio Cover Letters.” Journal of Basic Writing, vol. 22, no. 2, 2003, pp. 47–66.
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Ennen, Nicole L., et al. “The Importance of Trust for Satisfaction, Motivation, and Academic Performance in Student Learning Groups.” Social Psychology of Education, vol. 18, no. 3, Sept. 2015, pp. 615–633.
Fisher, Walter. “Narration, Knowledge, and the Possibility of Wisdom.” Rethinking Knowledge: Reflections across the Disciplines. Edited by Robert F. Goodman and Walter R. Fisher, State University of New York Press, 1995, pp. 169–193.
Hilgers, Thomas L., et al. “The Case for Prompted Self-Assessment in the Writing Classroom.” Self-Assessment and Development in Writing. Edited by Jane Bowman Smith and Kathleen Blake Yancey, Hampton Press, 2000, pp. 1–24.
Kember, David, et al. “A Four-Category Scheme for Coding and Assessing the Level of Reflection in Written Work.” Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, vol. 33, no. 4, Aug. 2008, pp. 363–379.
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Smith, Jane Bowman. “‘Know Your Knowledge’: Journals and Self-Assessment.” Self-Assessment and Development in Writing: A Collaborative Inquiry. Edited by Jane Bowman Smith and Kathleen Blake Yancey, Hampton Press, 2000, pp. 139–156.
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