Meta-Reflection as a Teaching Tool

This semester I taught a new course called “Wicked Science,” which examines the challenges posed by wicked problems — those problems that defy solution because of fundamental disagreement about their nature and cause as well as uncertainty about how to best confront them. (Systemic racism, climate change, and socio-economic inequality are all common examples of these conflictive, complex problems.) Since the Wicked Science course was composed of graduate and undergraduate students from diverse disciplinary backgrounds, I wanted to ensure ongoing dialogue about what students grasped from the course materials and discussions as well as what left them with questions and uncertainties. For that reason, at the end of most weeks, students submitted brief written compositions (between 400 and 500 words) in which they reflected on what they learned that week from course readings, assignments, and/or class discussions. As stated in the assignment description: “The goal of these weekly reflections is for you to develop your own understanding of wicked problems and how they articulate with your intellectual interests and life experiences. These reflections can include questions that have arisen for you, new insights you have developed, or connections between course materials and other domains of your life and/or scholarly interests.” But what made these particularly valuable, in my mind at least, was how we wove these back into our class discussions, in what became known as “meta-reflections.” In essence, these were the sourdough starter that animated the beginning of each class period.

The meta-reflections started in an improvised manner, when I began informally sharing observations from students’ weekly reflections in our discussions. I saw this as a way to both create continuity and connection between class sessions, but also draw attention to valuable student insights, points of agreement or disagreement, and questions that had been raised outside the classroom. These became more formalized when I began selecting two to four excerpts (of a few sentences in length) from weekly reflections and then used these to open class sessions. To be clear, I always shared these excerpts without using identifiers so that students wouldn’t necessarily have to explain their comments or take ownership of them, unless they wanted to do so. I also aimed to excerpt reflections from all students in the class so that over the course of 3 or 4 weeks everyone’s voice would be inserted into these discussions at least once. Interestingly enough, some of the students’ weekly reflections began to comment on what they saw as the benefits of the meta-reflections, which I brought into our class discussions as “meta-meta-reflections”!

Using meta-reflections as a teaching tool taught me several things. First, short written assignments that serve as opportunities for reflection are great for individual learning, but they have an untapped potential for collective reflection and discussion too. When the instructor is the only reader of a reflection assignment, it significantly narrows possibilities for engagement and misses opportunities for peer-to-peer learning. Second, unlike online discussion board posts–where there’s a lot of commentary but not always a great deal of substance or deep engagement–meta-reflections allow the instructor to identify a select number of key observations and questions generated by students that can drive discussion in a more intentional and thoughtful way. Of course, ensuring that everyone’s voice is heard over the semester is important too, as it demonstrates that everyone can make vital contributions to collective conversations. Third, several students commented that hearing others’ lingering questions or uncertainties helped them feel less alone as they worked through difficult conceptual material. The chance to share what we don’t understand is just as important as expressing what we do. In this way, meta-reflections can help us feel a little less alone. Finally, they give us new jumping-off-points for ongoing class discussions and help to carry those conversations just a little bit further.

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