The pedagogy of reflection: considering e-portfolios

September 18, 2023 Trudy Milburn

Like other instructors, I recognize the importance of having students connect concepts from class to their own lives. However, this past semester, my students felt I requested too much reflection. As I prepared the syllabus for my course in managerial communication, I imagined the students at home reflecting at least once per week following the Tuesday or Thursday class. I provided weekly prompts or questions to consider on the syllabus itself. However, much to my chagrin, this turned out to be a difficult task for many to fulfill. As I reflect on my reflection assignment, I recognize a few areas where a change could improve this part of my course.

First, the reflections were designed to be connected to class activities and discussions. Yet, what I learned was that students answered my prompts with assertions of their expertise, rather than questions of their own. I believe this was connected to the second lesson I learned: the limitations of the medium through which reflections were to be made. All reflections were public posts conducted through the discussion board within the course management system (CMS). What I found was that students posted comments about what they knew to appear thoughtful to their peers, not question their own understanding of the material in the public forum.

Now that the semester is over, as is typical of academics, I began to search the literature to learn more about the way reflection should work.

Research about the benefits of reflection for students has either focused on a particular practice, like teacher education (Griffiths, 2000), or the benefits of meta-cognition (Granville & Dison, 2005); although some have extended the concept to learning on the job for managers (Daudelin, 1986).

Akbari (2007) reminds us about two different types of reflection that Schön distinguished between: “reflection-in-action and reflection-on-action” (p. 194) where the former occurs in the present and the latter is based on a retrospection. The reflection-in-action or “stop and think” reminds me of the experience of watching reality TV whereby someone appears to be describing why they engaged in a certain action in an outtake from the action; however given that these reality programs are produced and edited, this example also illustrates the refection-on-action, whereby the reality TV participant is asked to look back on a scene and consider what s/he was thinking at a later point in time. Perhaps a better metaphor for the reflection-in-action is Instagram where a photo taken and posted in the moment. I like to consider social media metaphors because I imagine that students might relate to these comparisons more readily.

In addition to the moments in which reflection occurs, reflection itself is different from other types of assertions students are used to making in class to demonstrate their learning. A reflection illustrates one’s ability “to experience surprise, puzzlement, or confusion in a [unique or uncertain] situation” (Schön 1983 as cited by Smith 1996). By carefully attending to the situation at hand and incorporating both what one expected and how what is occurring is different, one may reach a new understanding.

In these definitions, reflection is NOT equated with thinking. Rather, reflection is the ability to put what you have attended to into words. This type of reflection illustrates students’ ability to “behave as community members” and “to tell … community-appropriate stories” (Brown & Duguid, 1991, p. 48). In order to know if one’s stories are “community-appropriate,” one must receive feedback. Therefore, one needs a forum for telling those stories and receiving that feedback.

Perhaps a better tool than the CMS would have been an e-portfolio.

I am drawn to the idea of using e-portfolios because in their definition, they include self-reflection. A portfolio has been defined as: “a purposeful collection of student work that exhibits the student’s efforts, progress and achievements in one or more areas. The collection must include student participation in selecting contents, the criteria for selection; the criteria for judging merit, and evidence of student self-reflection” (Barrett, 1999, italics added).

Of the two types, Barrett (2001) describes assessment portfolios as those that “focus on growth and development over time” based on clearly following specific steps: selection, reflection and inspection of classwork, along with goal-setting and self-evaluation (Barrett 2001, emphasis added).

Barrett’s definition includes the idea of goal-setting, which is interesting because during my search I found an article that persuasively articulated the necessary relationship between goal-setting and one’s ability to reflect on the process it takes to reach or achieve those goals (see Ridley, et al. 1992). As many instructors do, this past semester, I was the creator of the course learning outcomes. It seems I missed the crucial step whereby students articulate their own learning goals.

The fourteen weekly prompts that I created were not based on student’s goals. Furthermore, disconnected from their assignments, the threaded discussion-board reflection activity did not allow students to connect their experiences and expectations.

Based on my research, I now recognize that the process of creating or curating an e-portfolio synthesizes “evidence” (i.e. the combination of work “artifacts” plus reflections) to demonstrate to a sanctioned member of the new learning-community (i.e. their instructor) that the student can tell an appropriate story.

In fact, it seems to me that an e-portfolio provides a unique pedagogical “space” that is expressly for posing questions or demonstrating “not knowing” and for illustrating a recognition that one knows enough to realize gaps in knowledge. Both Smith (1994) and Brown and Duguid (1991) talk about the need for this type of space, “on the periphery of practice,” (p. 50).

The pedagogy of e-portfolios falls squarely in the space in between students’ public, social realm of Facebook and future professional persona on LinkedIn. Because of our increased access to digital devices and tools, students today may have practice posting, reflecting and giving thumbs up feedback within social realms. However, they do not yet have as much practice in non-public spaces to question, to admit to not-knowing, to seek guidance in telling a new story about what they have learned and about who they may want to become.

Rather than just using an e-portfolio as a digital repository, it can be a space for students to declare their goals and pose their own questions . It can be a place to reflect on how their choices impact the world and how they integrate their disparate courses and learning experiences into a coherent narrative.

One of the joys in teaching is my own learning; when I get to reflect on my choices and use that reflection to try again. Perhaps I can do that by using e-portfolios for reflection in my next class.

– Trudy Milburn translates campus-wide assessment needs into digital solutions and provides tailored demonstrations and trainings to institutions of higher education in the U.S. and abroad. She earned her Ph.D. from the University of Massachusetts and has been a tenured professor at Baruch College/CUNY and California State University Channel Islands. Her forthcoming edited book, Communicating User Experience: Applying Local Strategies Research to Digital Media Design, will be published this year by Lexington Books. You can learn more about her by viewing her e-portfolio.

Akbari, R. (June 2007). Reflections on reflection: A critical appraisal of reflective practices in L2 teacher education. System, 35 (2), 192–207.

Barrett, H. (1999, 2000). Electronic Portfolios = Multimedia Development + Portfolio Development: The Electronic Portfolio Development Process. Accessed June 1, 2015

Helen Barrett (2003). Electronic Portfolios. In A. Kovalchick & K. Dawson (Eds.) Educational Technology: An Encyclopedia Education and Technology [2 volumes]. ABC-CLIO. ISBN-10: 1576073513

Brown, J. S. & Duguid, P. (1991). Organizational Learning and Communities-of-Practice: Toward a Unified View of Working, Learning, and Innovation. Organization Science, 2 (1), Special Issue: Organizational Learning: Papers in Honor of (and by) James G. March, 40-57. Accessed May 29, 2015.

Daudelin, M. W. (Winter, 1996). Learning from experience through reflection. Organizational Dynamics, 24 (3), 36–48.

Griffiths, V. (2000). The reflective dimension in teacher education. International Journal of Educational Research, 33 (5), 539–555.

Ridley, D. S.; Schutz, P.A.; Glanz, R. S.; & Weinstein, C. E. (1992). Self-Regulated Learning: The Interactive Influence of Metacognitive Awareness and Goal-Setting. The Journal of Experimental Education, 60 (4), 293-306. DOI:10.1080/00220973.1992.9943867

Smith, M. K. (1996, 1999). Reflection, learning and education. Accessed May 29, 2015

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