If this is reflective learning then we should throw away the mirror

reflective learnersI’ve just picked up a post on LinkedIn (here) that labelled the the above sheet as “Developing reflective learners”. Really???

To save your eyesight, here are the two student comments from the bottom of the sheet:

I think that I did well on talking about the formation of ox-bow lakes and identifying river processes. However, I didn’t do well on the formation of waterfalls and advantages and disadvantages of channel straightening.


I need to use PDL structures when I am answering the questions and highlight words from the questions to get a better understanding.

Now I don’t know about you, but to me these scream “comment bank”. Perhaps not a formal bank, but the student clearly has a formula in her head for what will keep the teacher happy. It has everything to do with mollification and nothing to do with grasp of, or passion for, the subject. These comments are utterly inauthentic and will not produce real learning above the level of rôte.

One should not criticise without offering a constructive alternative. Here is mine. To get authentic writing, provide an authentic frame. I asked students write feedback to short-text answers written by their peers, but anonymised. Here is an example:

Well this is obviously the incorrect answer, because if this was the correct answer we would all be dying or dead by now because radiation can kill ! So to help you with this maybe you should think about this a bit more and maybe look for things that happen and where about it occurs, such as in the air, under water etc., then compare them.

Not formulaic, I think you would agree.

Then I went one step further. I asked students to vote on the most useful feedback they had received, and then explain to the feedback writer why it was useful.

This answer is better because it is more detailed and a lot easier to follow, also it actually tells the person why he is wrong but the person doesn’t tell him what the answer is. Also the explanation is supportive and easy to follow so the person trying to follow this explanation so then they can work out what the answer could actually be.

This exercise became the basis of our Peer Feedback feature (logged here if you are a Yacapaca member) and is also used in our CPD modules.

Perhaps ‘reflection’ is an apt metaphor for that assessment feedback sheet. Contrast a mirror that reflects your image unmodified with an artist who must interpret and understand what he sees before he can draw it. The mirror may reflect accurately, but it does not learn.

If you want your feedback exercise to result in worthwhile learning, you must engage your students’ minds. One great way to gain evidence that they are engaged is to ask yourself if their writing is authentic. If you see your own stock phrases being repeated back to you, then sorry, but you have failed.

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