Guest post: Student and teacher reflection journals

It’s been a while since a guest post on ELT Planning. Michael Walker is a PGCEi-qualified teacher who has spent a while teaching EAP at a university in the Republic of Korea. In this cool post, Michael describes the impact of using reflection journals on his practice and on student learning.

I may be a bit of an anomaly in the EAL field, truth be told, teaching English doesn’t excite me, never has. What does get me up in the morning and into the classroom is developing a student’s interest in learning.

Like many EAL teachers, I fell into language teaching. Spending a year in a foreign clime teaching well-behaved children was and probably still is a cushy option for a recent graduate. However, my interest in learning never left me. In fact, after several years teaching elementary students I found myself voluntarily searching for pedagogical literature, having discussions with other staff members on how to excite and inspire students, and spending hours developing materials that will appeal to a diverse bunch of learners. Not because I was overly passionate about instilling an understanding of comparative adjectives into my students, but just because I wanted the students to develop a love of learning.

 Life can only be understood backwards, …

And the students wanted to learn, just like we all do, just like I do. I started to look into how I could learn and improve my teaching practice, the best way to do that was to reflect on my performance in the classroom. I got the crazy idea into my head that teaching can be broken down into three parts:

  1. Pre-teaching – lesson planning
  2. Teaching – erm … teaching
  3. Post-teaching – lesson reflection.

Then another weird thought popped into my head, what would happen if I spent the same amount of time post-teaching as I did pre-teaching. That’s right, if a lesson took one hour to plan, then I should spend one hour reflecting on the lesson and my performance. I grabbed a reflection journal, several coffees and started reflecting. It worked. I started to get a better understanding of what works in different classes, I had a better grasp of what I had taught, a better grasp of individual students’ needs and a detailed record of where I had been and how I had improved (something which is vital for all learners).

… but it must be lived forwards.

Those several cups of coffee got me thinking if my performance was improving as a teacher, what would happen if I introduced self-reflection to my students? Would it make them more interested in their learning? Would it give them more autonomy over their learning? I also thought if self-reflection had worked so well for me, how much would I benefit from peer reflection, the peers, in this case, being my students.

I set about creating a system where students could reflect on their performance and the performance of the teacher. In Korean universities, students have one opportunity to give feedback to their professors; this comes at the end of the semester when they fill in an online questionnaire to access their grades. I felt this was inadequate. Imagine giving your students feedback ONLY at the end of the semester, how would they ever improve? Just like my students, I want to improve, I also need prompt and regular feedback, not only at the end of the semester, but throughout the semester.

The issue of feedback and reflection came together in the online reflection journals. I created a shared Google Drive folder for the students. Each week students would complete their journals. Students would reflect on their performance, then reflect on the teacher’s performance and finally make suggestions for improvements. This simple task transformed the class in many ways. Here are some of the benefits:

  • Students became more interested and enthusiastic as the suggestions they made were implemented.
  • Students reflected on their learning. This honesty allowed students to think about their learning. They began to see that they are in charge of their learning.
  • Students take a more active part in their education.
  • Teacher receives prompt feedback from his students.
  • Students receive prompt feedback from their teacher.
  • Teacher can comment on students’ work via Google Docs. This led to increased student/faculty contact, which in turn produced a democratic teaching environment.
  • Another avenue of communication was opened up. Students who would not usually wait behind after class or come to my office had another way to contact me.
  • Students can voice their weaknesses in a safe environment. The teacher can then supply additional guidance to the student, this starts us down a personalised learning path.
  • Oh … and the students get more writing practice.

When I broached the subject of a student reflection journal, there were obvious groans from the students. They did not understand how it would help them. That is why as educators it is important to pull back the curtain and introduce students to teaching approaches, explain to them why these approaches are effective, and always give them the opportunity to withdraw from the activity.

The reflection journal was used with a group of undergraduate students with an IELTS score of 5.5 or above. The activity would be difficult to perform with beginner learners, but I would like to hear comments from teachers who have implemented student reflection in their classes, whether with beginner, intermediate, or advanced learners.

Photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash

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