Reflective Pedagogy Practice – Weekly Reflective Journal and Comments

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quote_reflection_gilliExpanding the Classroom in First-Year Seminar – Having students posting weekly reflections and reading and commenting each other’s postings built a community spirit within the class and extended the conversation beyond class time.

In a first-year seminar, students were asked to post weekly reflections on the reading and class discussions. They were then required to read and comment on at least one of their classmates’ posts each week.


Gillian Greenhill Hannum, Professor of Art History and Faculty Coordinator, First-Year Program, Manhattanville College, Purchase, NY


In my First Year Seminar, The Fine Art of Travel, students are required to keep a weekly reflective journal and to read and comment on at least one classmate’s post each week. Some weeks, I will give them a pointed prompt (example: find an image that, to you, represents the notion of the sublime; post it and explain why you selected it; view other posts and comment on their selections), other times I will let them take the lead.

Practice Step-by-Step:

Below is the assignment as presented in the course syllabus:

Weekly ePortfolio Journal
All of you will keep journals, with entries to be submitted electronically at the end of each week to your ePortfolio’s “My First Year” tab, in which you reflect upon the week’s readings and discussion as well as any projects you are doing for the class or related experiences you engage in (field trips, related material in other classes, etc.).  Create a page in your eP called “Weekly Reflections” and then make a posting for each week. Late or missing reflections will affect your grade for the class.  In addition to your own weekly reflection, you must comment on at least one other student’s posting each week using the “Comment” feature in Digication.

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To make the ePortfolio a “safe” place for first-year students, I had the class set their privacy permissions in Digication to “Private to Me,” and then to give viewing permission to me, the writing teacher who teaches the attached section of First-Year Writing, the TA (when I have one – this is an honors student doing a capstone), the Peer Mentor and all of the students in the class.  Thus, we have a “closed group.” This group forms a very effective learning community, with two linked classes and their respective instructors as well as at least one, and sometimes two, upperclassmen (Peer Mentor and TA). Later on, they can change their ePortfolio permissions to whatever they wish, but to begin with, it works well to use this set-up as it allows me to help the students think about audience, voice, and collaboration.

This practice allows students to deepen their understanding of material discussed in class (many reflections say this explicitly); it builds community within the class; it helps them connect material from the seminar and writing class; it provides a vehicle for integrating their own lived experience into the course content. Assignments build upon one another, and the weekly reflections (and peer comments) are used to develop discussion threads in the class and ideas for the student research paper, written in the Writing Seminar in the spring semester. In some cases, a weekly prompt may ask students to look for connections and common ground between readings from different authors. Another prompt asked students to find an image that, in their view, represented the concept of “the sublime,” to post that to their reflections page and discuss in what ways they felt it evoked the qualities associated with awe, terror or both. Still other times, students were asked to consider the ways in which the themes being expressed by the individual writers they had chosen to work on for their research projects related to themes we’d previously introduced in class through common readings. I have not, so far, asked for a specific word count, and I find most students are making substantive postings. The peer feedback seems a motivating factor.

This is “low stakes” writing – I do not grade it, but I try to comment each week, and I check off whether or not they do it, which counts for 10% of the final course grade over the semester. The results have gone far beyond the blog I used to employ, with students providing links to things they’ve read or seen elsewhere that they feel relate to the topic at hand. Most are visually rich, with students including images and sometimes links to videos or websites. These weekly reflections help to give shape to the larger individual and group projects throughout the year, where students need to look beyond the superficial to the specific. The practice of reflecting each week and receiving feedback on those reflections seems to be leading to deeper, more meaningful connections with the course readings and projects and also to deeper connections between the students in the class. This is leading to better results on the final Freshman Essay, a 12-page paper, completed during the spring semester, that develops a thesis drawn from the seminar material.

Role of Reflection in this Practice

The goal of this assignment is to have students think more deeply about the course content. By having to reflect and post, they are having to make selections from among the topics covered in the reading and class discussions. By commenting on classmates’ posts, students must also consider the thoughts and choices of others. The practice also allows/encourages them to link class material to their own lived experiences.

The interactive nature of this practice – posting, reading and commenting – utilizes the Dewey/Rodgers concept of reflecting in community. Students clearly think about each other as audience for these reflections. The peer feedback seems really to encourage students to extend their thinking and to deepen their reflective practice. Students use ePortfolio to share/peer review/ discuss/collaborate, connecting around course work, reflections, plans, goals, stories, etc. I particularly encourage the upperclass students in Peer Mentor or TA roles to check in and comment on the students’ postings. Particularly for Peer Mentors, who are “assigned” to a seminar group, but who generally do not attend the class on a regular basis, interaction through the ePortfolio can help them to develop relationships and build a relationship of trust with their mentees (all Peer Mentors are trained in the basics of ePortfolio practice).

This practice encourages students to integrate material from readings, class discussions, other courses and their lived experiences. The goal is for students to consider issues surrounding travel – why people travel, what characteristics make for a good traveler, what some of the ethical issues are – and to begin to develop an understanding that will allow them to integrate these ideas and apply them to their future classes and lives. One of the goals of the class is to expand students’ horizons and to develop students according to our college mission to “educate students to be ethical and socially-responsible leaders in a global community.” I hope that the skills and attitudes they are developing in my First-Year Seminar will be skills they will carry with them for life.

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The following evidence associated with this and other similar practices has been collected:
# of students
Course completion
Pass rates
Retention rates
Student engagement through surveys/interviews

Practice Identifiers

This practice is used in one section of a required First-Year Program, of which there are generally 28 – 32 sections. This is a required element in our General Education program and partially fulfills the Critical Reasoning Competency.

Practice is used in a single section of 18-22 students in a fall First-Year Seminar that is linked to a First-Year Writing Seminar.

High Impact Practice:
This practice is used in a First-Year Seminar that is part of a Learning Community. Students take a three-credit First-Year Seminar and a three-credit First-Year Writing Seminar the first semester of their freshman year; a second semester of First-Year Writing will follow with the same cohort group (for a total of 9 cr.). This weekly, iterative activity helps to develop several of the six student behaviors that result from High Impact Practices as defined by George Kuh (2008, 14 – 17). It requires students to invest time and effort on a weekly basis, not just as certain points throughout the semester; it encourages students’ interaction with faculty and peers about substantive matters; it develops their experience of diversity by having them share their thoughts and experiences with one another; it allows them to benefit from responding to more frequent feedback (something that all the literature says is essential for a smooth transition from high school to college); it teaches them right at the beginning of their college education the value of reflecting upon and integrating their learning; it provides opportunities for them to link what is being discussed in the classroom with their own real-world experiences.

Helping Students Advance their Learning

Reflection as a Form of Connection:

Because First-Year Seminar is part of a Learning Community, using ePortfolio can help to form connections between the seminar and writing instructors as both can then see the work being done by a student for the other’s class. It can also help students to form connections with one another and with the upperclass mentors and TAs with whom they work. I am also seeing that, because the course material and the open nature of the assignment allow it, students are making connections with material they are learning in other courses.

Reflection as Systematic and Disciplined:
Because students are asked to reflect each week, and to review and comment on classmates’ reflections, they develop increased skill and depth in the reflective cycle.

Reflection as Social Pedagogy:
The practice of reading and commenting on classmates’ posts has led to peer-to-peer learning. All students in the class are viewers of one another’s ePortfolios, so when students post, it is not only the teacher as audience being considered, but also classmates as audience. See Arcario, Paul, Bret Eynon and Louis Lucca, “The Power of Peers: New Ways for Students to Support Students,” in Making Teaching and Learning Matter, J. Summerfield and C.C. Smith (eds.), 2011 and Bass, Randy and Heidi Elmendorf, “Designing for Difficulty: Social Pedagogies as a Framework for Course Design in Undergraduate Education” (White Paper, Georgetown University).

Reflection as a Process of Personal Change:
This assignment, which encourages examination of attitudes, values and opinions, has, according to students, shaped (and expanded) the way they view the world. Many students have gone on to Study Abroad experiences juniors and often contact me at that time about how well prepared they felt based on our exploration of ideas, attitudes and values in FYP.

Connections to other Sections of Catalyst

Professional Development:
This practice has been shared and discussed at a number of First-Year Program meetings and workshops as one simple example of what sorts of things can be done with “low stakes” writing assignments on ePortfolio. It has also been shared at two AAEEBL conferences. We have included ePortfolio presentations and workshops at First-Year Program monthly meetings and offered a mini-grant to First-Year Program teams who were willing to commit to a year-long structured exploration of ePortfolio with implementation in the second semester.

Outcomes Assessment:
This practice is not directly assessed. The Freshman Essay, in the Spring semester, is submitted to ePortfolio and assessed for critical reasoning with a college-wide rubric. It builds upon the groundwork laid in these weekly reflections.

Working with the Associate Provost for Institutional Effectiveness and a committee with representatives of Board on Academic Standards (BOAS), Committee on the Assessment of Student Learning (CASL) and Core Curriculum Committee (CCC), the Program Coordinator and Dean for First-Year Experience launched the first program assessment of the Critical Reasoning Competency using Digication. Alison Carson of BOAS arranged for all seminar instructors to receive three freshman essays, randomly generated from their own sections, which they then scored and submitted using the rubric which had been uploaded to Digication.  Thirty-one out of 32 sections had at least some students upload essays, with more than half of the sections having a 50% participation rate or higher.  This was not bad for the first go round and is a great improvement in terms of compliance as compared to approximately 25% with the old “hard copy” collection of sample essays with assessments attached, which depended on instructors submitting their samples to the FYP Coordinator to be passed along to the CASL.

For most of the students, technology is not an issue. They are introduced to Digication at the beginning of fall semester and are told where to go for help from student eTerns, who are available to assist students having difficulty with the technology. I will generally schedule one or two sessions in the lab each semester to allow time for wider sharing of some reflections and projects.

Scaling Up:
A major thrust of our efforts to move to a broad “portfolio culture” on our campus has been to involve the First-Year Program. We have made some headway here, with approximately 50% of FYP instructors using ePortfolio in classes by the third year of implementation. The goal, of course, is 100%, however, we feel we are moving forward by positive example rather than issuing a blanket mandate. For me, the “student ownership” of ePortfolio is a plus, a point I keep trying to make with instructors who prefer to use a LMS (I actually use both, in different ways). I feel that, in the end, the “student voices” about the value of ePortfolio will be most effective in convincing resistant faculty to give it a try. We’ve also included several First-Year Seminar and Writing instructors in our “Fellows Program” at the Center for Teaching and Learning; this will allow for a wider range of voices and more examples to be shared with other program instructors.

Supporting Materials
Here are links to the syllabi for the fall and spring:



Connections to other Polished Practices
This certainly links with the Manhattanville Portfolio System’s reflective practice and also to Professor McClam’s Social Media for Social Change project in her First-Year Seminar. Many of the First-Year Instructors who are using ePortfolio in their classes have gone through one of our Faculty Development TLCs.


My main focus for this practice has been student engagement, which I hope will result in improved grades for the class, and also improved retention. We are comparing student engagement and success (grade) in eP vs. non-eP sections of First-Year Seminar. Next year, I hope to further refine the prompts and perhaps have the students use the reflective cycle more effectively by revisiting selected posts and refining them. This could provide another vehicle for peer involvement. At a couple of key points in the semester, I could ask students to identify a post on a peer’s ePortfolio journal and to ask questions that would help their classmate to further develop key points in that post. Perhaps I will use this as a prompt around mid semester and again towards the end.

I have been very pleased with the work my freshmen have done in their ePortfolios, and several of them have gone on to become eTerns or Peer Mentors.






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