By Alan Steele, Associate Professor, Department of Electronics

Is reflection relevant to STEM? This was a question raised to me not too long ago and I was surprised to hear it. As an engineer in both industry and academia I’ve reflected on my work, sometimes during a challenging part of a project or perhaps at the end. Reflections provide valuable insights into our own learning and approaches to problem solving. Why then would we not want to encourage the use of reflection by our students of any discipline at the right points in our programs?

If you read about reflection and education it should not take you long to come across Schön and his book The Reflective Practitioner1. First published in the early 80s, he argues the need to move beyond just using “technical rationality” and adopt more reflective practice. By technical rationality in education, he means that if you know all the relevant details of a subject or topic, then you can solve problems in that area. However, he argues there is much to learn from a skilled practitioner who might not be easily able to articulate the many elements of their experience as to why they approach the problem in the way they do. An example could be someone who is technically proficient at playing the piano. Does that mean they can become a masterful jazz pianist? If no, what then do they need to learn and how? The benefit in an education setting is that if a practitioner or student can explain what they are doing, then they and others could learn from the reflection. There is enough in the book and subsequent literature to support that reflection might have effective use in education, including technical areas.

About seven years ago, I was developing a third-year project course in the Department of Electronics. This was to be a one-term group project to design and build an electronic device of their own choosing. It would involve group work, scheduling, design, construction and communication. I knew this would be a very rich learning experience for the students. Each student would have their own challenges, mistakes and successes. It was these experiences I wanted them to recognize and learn from, so I decided to include an element of reflection in their assessment. The aim was to encourage them to think more about how they were currently approaching different aspects of the course and changes they might make in the future. For example, if some software needed debugging, how does one go about it? The result of the coding bug is perhaps clear, but the cause could be quite hidden and different individuals might approach finding and solving the problem in different ways. This reflection on the approach, successful or otherwise, could be very valuable to the student attempting to solve the problem.

What I found quickly from the class’s reflections was two things: the ability to reflect varied across the class, and I gained a deeper insight as to what was going on during the projects, regarding problems, successes and group dynamics. The reflection depth was not equal across all students, but this is not surprising as many will have not been required to reflect in their education. I could see some students enjoyed this less formal and personal way of writing. Most improved their own reflecting ability over time, however I often would find a few students who would repeatedly just describe what they had done since the last reflection. They did not go into a deeper examination of what they learned from doing the activity, what they would change in the future or their evaluation of a specific topic. This could be due to being more familiar with straight reporting on details and facts, and less on considering and evaluating their personal learning from an exercise. Alternatively, it could be a reticence to reveal their own weaknesses and failures.

Having used reflections in an engineering course for a few years now, here are a few thoughts and tips:

  • Consider providing optional topic ideas to help kickstart a student’s reflection. Here are a few of mine, which I pose as questions at timed points in the term:
    • What did you learn about starting a group project and what would you change if you had to start your project again?
    • How have you approached the technical challenges in your project so far?
  • cuPortfolio is a useful platform for reflections. When moving from paper-based reflections to cuLearn, I noticed I was seeing fewer diagrams and circuit drawings. Moving from cuLearn to cuPortfolio, I noticed more photographs of equipment and notebooks, plus videos.
  • Sometimes you will read about “aha” moments and after some learning has struck deep with a student. Then you will see a deeper and longer reflection than you may have seen from the individual before. You might also need to allow multiple reflections to catch this learning, or time a single reflection carefully.
  • Some students do not take easily to reflecting. You might need to provide guidance and explain the benefit to those that do not. This is also where multiple reflections help.
  • With multiple reflections, I noticed improvements in writing skills.
  • State clearly who will see the reflection. Students might be more open if they know it is just you and perhaps a single TA who will read them. I also put in a statement that if there is indication of possible harm to oneself or others I will notify others appropriately, although so far I have never had to take such steps.

Reflections can help students become aware of what they are learning and can be a valuable way of leading students towards a better understanding of their own strengths and areas for development. It fits in well within experiential learning and can be part of their learning cycle as described by Kolb2. Certainly it is a method of learning to consider using within a course, including those in STEM.