I recently attended a presentation hosted by the Department of Student Life Studies. This department provides assessment services and training to the Division of Student Affairs at Texas A&M University. The presentation was on an assessment they had done during the 2014-2015 academic year entitled Aggies Commit: Reflections of Student Leaders. The assessment consisted of a collection of qualitative data from student leaders in organizations at Texas A&M University. The final report was presented, and if you are interested, you can read more at http://sllo.tamu.edu/Reflection.
So why do I bring this up? I do because afterwards I was able to have some good conversations with other student organization advisors about what reflection looks like for us and our students. There is a growing amount of literature in academic journals as well as blog posts about the benefits of reflection. We are regularly reminded of the need to pause our lives, but so many of us do not. In talking with colleagues about this topic, one of the greatest challenges is time. For many, advising a student organization is something done on top of an already full work load. Identifying practices and then implementing those with students can seem overwhelming. In talking with fellow organization advisors, I have put together a list of ways that we each might better improve how to use reflection to allow our students to make meaning of their experiences.
- Keep it Simple. Advisors shared how it feels overwhelming to know how to start using reflection in their advising. There are a number of methods out there, just do an internet search for reflection methods! With so many options, it can be daunting to know where to begin. The student organization I advise is very high functioning, but even with them, we keep reflection to a couple minutes at a staff meeting. Usually it includes a single question that they respond to on a piece of paper, a notecard, or on their electronic device. After 2-3 minutes of writing, they are encouraged to pair up and share with a fellow member of staff. I have found that reflection is valuable for students, but it is more meaningful when they share those reflections with their peers.
- Make it a Habit. Many advisors shared that they do reflection activities one or two times at the beginning of the semester. After that, their students lose interest or it begins to be left off of the agenda. This goes back to keeping it simple. Reflection does not need to be extravagant, and does not need a great amount of time to be effective. It does however need to be something that is done consistently. Some advisors shared that they let their students know if they will be doing reflection prior to a meeting so they can starting thinking about the prompt before arriving. I think some of the best examples I have observed are ones where the students have taken ownership of the activity, leading the reflection themselves with their peers. Reflection can occur at meetings, it could occur directly after a program, or during a 1 on 1 visit with the advisor. Whatever method you choose to reflect with your students, the key is to keep reflecting with them.
- Mix it Up. Sometimes we find forms of reflection that really work well with our students. Then after a month, we have overused that method and it has lost its value. In talking with peers, I was made aware of the importance of using different methods of reflection. Other advisors encourage students to draw, find images using their smartphones to capture their thoughts, or other forms of expression. I recall the first time I asked students to draw, I feared getting backlash due to its simplicity and childishness. I was surprised when my students became excited at the opportunity to use crayons and images to express themselves. There are a number of innovative ways to reflect. Keep trying out different ones until you find some that work with your students. Then you can rotate through those. It is important to remember, as I have learned between years, that what works well for one group of students does not always work well for future groups.
- Eliminate Distractions. Last, one of the greatest challenges to reflection is distractions. I think this is why many of us do not reflect in our everyday lives. It is hard to find time, but much of that challenge is it is hard to find time where we can turn things off around us. In speaking with other advisors, some shared that they require students to put phones, tablets, and laptops away during an activity. Others have shared that they ask students to be silent and they will play music during the activity. In my own experience, I have found that different activities, require a different level of eliminating distractions. A large part of this comes from what you as an advisor are comfortable asking of your students. In the end, you want to find what is realistic for your group of students, and what will allow for an effective reflection activity.
Reflection in theory seems that it should be easy, yet it seems so elusive to master. I have attended a number of workshops that encourage reflection. I leave with a desire to be better, but after a few weeks I struggle to find the time or more accurately dedicate the time to it. I do know that as we work to encourage this behavior with our students it will allow them to make meaning of their experiences. I have seen over recent years how my students are able to explore the roles they fill, and this allows them to more effectively communicate that in a job or graduate school interview. Our students are having amazing experiences on our campus. As advisors, we can play an active role in helping them to make meaning of those experiences!
There are many great resources out there, so I would encourage you to explore, talk to peers, and find what is best for you and your students. A great resource, developed by the Texas A&M Center for Teaching Excellence, can be found at https://sites.google.com/site/ctereflectionhip/home.
Andrew Carruth ’04