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TRANSCRIPT: Tales of Teaching Online ep. 57 – Course-wide approach to reflective practice in engineering

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Intro: Digital, student-centred, creative, innovation, imagination, initiative, stories that matter. 

Laura Tubino: Hello everybody and welcome to Tales of Teaching Online. My name is Laura Tubino and today I’m joined by Ellen Moon from the School of Engineering, who will be sharing with us some of her work on integrating reflective practice into her units. Hello Ellen, and thank you for being here today. Let’s start with a bit of an introduction. Would you like to tell us a bit about yourself and your role at Deakin?

Ellen Moon: Thanks very much, Laura. Thank you for having me on the podcast. It’s great to be speaking to everybody. So I am a senior lecturer in environmental engineering within the School of Engineering. But my background is really earth science. And I guess through the early stages of my career I apply is that more and more through engineering practice in the mineral processing industry. Then on the flip side of that, in terms of designing remediation strategies for contaminated land. So I’m really enjoying now being able to share that knowledge with the students through the environmental engineering program here at Deakin.

Laura: That sounds great. And the reason why we are having you here today is because you are using reflective practice in your unit, specifically in your assessment. And you have been quite successful in doing so. So what made you decide to use reflective practice to integrate reflective practice in your teaching?

Ellen: Good question. I guess the most straightforward answer is that it was sort of there in terms of the assessment description anyway, as part of I think it’s GLO7 around self-management that was incorporated into a number of my assessment tasks. And the students were required to provide a progress journal on how they had been progressing through the assessment tasks. And I decided to steer this sideways a little bit into a more of an opportunity for reflective practice. After attending a workshop myself, where I was really exposed to some of the, the learnings and the principles behind reflective practice and really the power of reflective practice for everybody’s learning. This particular workshop really left such an impression on me and really got me thinking about how I could apply reflective practice to, to better my own learning and to better the way that I handle everything in life, I suppose. And I really wanted to find a way of teaching it to the students because I actually felt a little bit robbed to that I was only being taught about the power of reflective practice in my thirties when I really wish I’d known more about it when I was much younger. So that was what made me want to embed reflective practice in addition to the kind of the, the, the self-management aspects that was already written into the assessment.

Laura: It’s great that you’re thinking about that I agree that reflective practice is really important in life in general, not only in our jobs. So how exactly, can you describe a little bit what your assessments are about, how you incorporate reflective practice with them?

Ellen: Yeah. I mean, I guess the reflective practice comes in separate from the core environmental engineering aspects of the assessment tasks. So it’s applied to two particular assessments in my unit. Both of those assessments require students to design an engineering solution to a real-life environmental engineering problem. But as part of the assessment, they need to provide weekly updates or weekly reflections on either their progress through the assessment task or their reflections on the content that we’ve been covering that week through the classes, the seminars and the studios, or a really, really anything to do with their university experience at the moment. So they’re given a lot of freedom in terms of what they are able to reflect on. Um, but I do want to keep it tied to the general context of what we’re studying or what they’re experiencing through the trimester as they’re working on these assessment tasks imprint that quite powerful learning on you, that hopefully then you can think right the next time I’m in this scenario. I know that from when I did it in Ellen’s class, I actually really benefited from group discussions. So maybe I will set up a group discussion about this particular topic and that will help me to learn it better. So that was my primary goal was to really get the students to think about what helps them in their learning and what doesn’t. But a bit of a secondary benefit, I guess from doing this, is through reading their reflections. I really understood as the general student body, what they do enjoy doing and what they enjoy doing. And what they’ve found hardest about the assessment tasks and what they found easiest. And it’s enabled me over the course of the few years that I’ve been running this unit to tweak the way that I teach some of these aspects or the amount of time I might spend on a particular topic because it’s become clear you know, the majority of the students feel this way about a particular thing. So I’ve really used it to be able to shape the unit as well.

Laura: That is, in fact a great way of getting feedback and the type of feedback that you need to, to improve your teaching. Sometimes some people wonder whether students actually engage in these reflective practice where they tell the truth and tell you what they’re really thinking or they are trying to tell you what you want to hear, how, how students reacted to this approach?

Ellen: I think that’s a really interesting comment, Laura, because I can definitely tell when students are going through the motions in this process as compared to when students have really sat down and thought about the reflections that they want to make and the way that they articulate that. So there’s definitely an element of both, but I still think it’s a really valuable process because even if the students aren’t really getting as involved as I hoped they would or aren’t following through that reflective practice framework that I’ve given them to help them along with this process. They are still being forced to ultimately reflect on their progress through the assessment tasks. Are they on a really basic level? Am I on track? Am I not? Am I doing sensible activities or am I not? So even the students that perhaps make it up to some degree, have to be thinking along the lines of where might Ellen expect me to be at with my assessment task at this point in the trimester. So even if they’re going to lie about it and just write down anything. There is that little bit of a thought process that says, Oh gosh, she’s going to expect that I’ve at least done the background research and so I probably need to talk about that. Well, I haven’t done it yet, so I better get a wriggle on, hopefully. I appreciate that it is one of those activities that you get what you give, reflective practice. But even if you only give a little, you still get something valuable. I think.

Laura: Yes, that’s true. And I wonder, like that makes me think about the practicality of putting it in into the assessment. How do you embed it in the assessment? Is this a compulsory for students? Do you provide them feedback that you’re providing a grade in the way they reflect?

Ellen: Yeah. So it’s changed over the years. Actually, it’s evolved because the first time I implemented this, so I should say, this part of the assessment task has always been marked. I’ve always provided feedback, at least at the end of this submission, with the overall feedback. There’s a rubric around it. And it’s, I’ve always made it very clear that I am not marking their progress through the assessment tasks or the actions that they’re reflecting on. I am marking their ability to reflect or the reflective practice aspect of it. So I’ve tried to encourage students to not lie to me. It’s absolutely fine. If you, if you literally leave your assignment to the last week and you smash it out, and if you meet the rubric criteria, you meet the rubric criteria. But I want you to reflect on what you have been doing along the way to develop those reflective practice skills. So at the very first offering, it was essentially I encouraged them to. I provided them with a reflective framework because I think that’s quite useful when you’re new to reflective practice to really work through a particular framework to follow, it makes it easier and I give them a lot of question prompts as part of that framework. But the first offering, I just encourage them to write me a Word document, submit that into the Dropbox. And as we’ve evolved over time, I’ve been thinking about how a) I can teach it better. And so tweak the framework and tweak the question prompts so that it makes it clearer what I’m trying to get out. So that’s been quite successful. And then this last offering, I trialled PebblePad as a way of actually updating this diary, online diary regularly. And that way I can provide real-time feedback as well. So each week I would go into the student’s PebblePad diaries and give them a little bit of feedback on the way that I’ve been reflecting and where I felt students hadn’t really quite got the gist of what I was looking for in terms of that reflection, I could provide very specific question prompts to the thing that they have been trying to reflect on to really get them thinking how they can take that deeper. And it gives them the opportunity then to go back in and edit that reflection and see if they want to try to make it a bit deeper and therefore potentially win a few more marks. So that’s been really useful and I would say probably 75% of students, made use of that opportunity to submit their reflections weekly, take on board the feedback, and then go back to edit or to reflect a bit more deeply where there was that opportunity. It was also quite clear to me that the students did do that got better at their reflective practice through the course of the trimester. Whereas the students who just took the option to submit the completed diary at the end. Some of them got it. Some of them were actively very good at reflective practice, but I felt like some of them really missed that opportunity, but that feedback and that sort of learning experience, um, so if anybody is listening to this and it has the opportunity to submit these reflective practice exercises on a regular basis and get feedback. I’d really encourage you to do that because it’s not an easy skill and it’s not intuitive for everybody and so getting that feedback and getting those question prompts can really help you to refine your own skill of reflective practice.

Laura: The unit you incorporate these first-year unit.

Ellen: It’s a second-year unit where we’ve embedded this. So there’s an assessment task is first assessment task and the final assessment tasks. So that also gives students the opportunity they’re potentially learning this skill new at the beginning of trimester. We assess it in week five, and then they’ve got that opportunity to go back to it for the final assessment task, which happens at the end of trimester. It gives them that opportunity to refine and develop that skill through the trimester.

Laura: That makes me wonder because these are lifelong learning skills that you are teaching them. And so it really, I suppose students start in, be more in charge of their own learning when they develop this kind of thinking. And I’m wondering whether you have observed or heard from your colleagues or from students, your past students, how this has impacted their further studies and whether they expect that to continue, like whether they encounter other units and wonder why are we not doing this in this unit?

Ellen: Well, I know that within the civil and environmental degree, engineering degree programs, that is another unit where they do encounter this further and further along in their fourth year of studies. In fact, there are a couple of units where they encounter a reflective practice. And anecdotally, I have heard from the students that have taken my unit and then gone on to do this, that they found that a much more easy task, I suppose, than some of their colleagues who hadn’t studied in my unit previously. And that by having practiced those skills in the second year, they found it really useful whether they were assessed on it again in the fourth year. But I do like to think that it’s one of those things that once you are introduced to it and once you see the power of it, perhaps even subconsciously, you are actually applying it in other aspects of your life. And hopefully, some of those lessons around what they do well in assessment tasks, what they don’t do well, the styles of learning that really appeal to them and the styles of learning, but don’t, I’m really hoping that those are the things that do stay with them and that they do implement as they’re moving through their degree because that’s the real power and I hope they are still practicing those reflections even when they’re not directly being assessed on them. But, um, but I think as you say, it is a lifelong skill and I think the earlier that we can introduce it in these courses, particularly courses like engineering. Because one of the things that I found super interesting when I was trying to learn a bit more about reflective practice, is that it’s so well acknowledged that it’s a core part of careers like nursing or social work or those careers where people are much more, those interpersonal relationships are much more highly prioritised perhaps than they are in engineering. But that’s not to say that engineers don’t need to be good at reflective practice and that they can’t use it in so many different aspects of their careers. I would like to see it applied in the, within the Faculty of SEBE within our degrees and the same way that is given that prioritisation in some of the health and social science programs.

Laura: Yes, I agree with you 100% in that one, I think it’s an essential skill. And what I find is that it is especially in those most difficult units, the wants us to struggle the most, where it’s the most useful. Because it helps students really understand what they’re learning and how they need to address that. What are the biggest challenges that you haven’t encountered incorporating reflective practice?

Ellen: Potentially one of the one of the potential obstacles I guess, that I managed to avoid because this kind of progress journal GLO 7 was already written into my units design and the original assessment task descriptions, it gave me that license to run with this. I would say one of the potential obstacles of embedding reflective practice in assessment is just the sheer number of things that we already need to assess students on the way that units are designed and things. And in degrees that we offer here in SEBE and particularly in things like engineering where we’re held particular accreditation standards. I understand why it can be very difficult for unit chairs. They have, there are so many technical engineering aspects that they have to include in the assessment. And there are some really core professional practice aspects like, you know, like communication and teamwork that are super-critical. Engineering, that it can be very easy to overlook the importance of reflective practice, I think, or for people that perhaps aren’t as familiar with it themselves and who haven’t delved into the literature of it at all. It might be hard to see how you could embed it into into an assessment task as well. Because I do have to admit that even in my unit, it is fairly clunky in the way that it is a sort of add-on to a couple of the other assessment tasks. But I think that obstacle can perhaps be overcome by us as a teaching cohort, speaking a bit more openly about their ideas for how we can embed it. You know, working with your team, Laura as well, for real specialised advice as to the different ways that we could be bringing it into a unit and the different ways that we could be assessing it as well because it is such a powerful skill and it benefits all of those other technical and professional capabilities if we can do it right and do it well. But I would say that that’s probably one of the biggest obstacles, just the sheer number of things we’re already looking to assess and, um, I guess, um, that sort of inexperience with how to teach it and how to assess it that might be there amongst some of our staff.

Laura: Agreed. And that’s a very interesting proposition. I think you will be one of the exemplars when we start trying to incorporate this more because we are trying to incorporate reflective practice more, it’s a really essential skill. If somebody is looking into including reflections in their teaching, what will be your advice? So let’s finish with that. Well, how would you recommend that you go through with it?

Ellen: to start teaching it? Well. So when I introduce it to my students, I always introduce it along the lines of the different ways that we learn. And I think students are really familiar with some of the obvious ways that as human beings we learn. Repetition is the, one of the good old-fashioned ones. Creative discussions is another great way that we learn. Including in reflective practice, is one of those really important ways that we learn and kind of providing analogies, I guess, to other aspects of our life. I always think the really, the easy things where we really understand, this stuff and we really understand how it benefits us is there in a skill like sports or music perhaps. And so I always say to my students, I don’t know. Most people at some point taken an interest in a sport or a musical instrument and repetition, just that kind of repeating those same skills again and again until we get good at them. Those creative conversations, which in sport, I guess that analogy is more putting it into practice and playing the game or the sport. And in music it’s, it’s putting all of those skills together and seeing how they come out in a song or composition or a jam session or whatever. But without even knowing it, we are thinking reflectively about how to improve our skills. I play a lot of sports that have a lot of thinking time and it’s sometimes painful. It’s cricket is a great example. You’ll bowl a ball and you’ll think that one’s gone too far down the leg side. So what do I need to do to make sure that the next one doesn’t do that. Well, I know that in the past, if I stand up taller or a tweak my wrist position or whatever it is for you as an individual, I’m gonna get more success. So I go back to the start of my run-up and in the next ball I’m thinking right, come on, think about those things, get it right. And it’s exactly that type of thing that you need to apply to your learning. What went well for me here in this scenario? What didn’t go well for me here in this scenario, why might that be? Can I think of a time in the past where I was able to overcome a challenge like this? or What did I do to get a better outcome the last time I was in this scenario. So getting the students to see how they can translate that into their academic learning and academic focus. Because chances are it’s a skill that they already have. But they may only associate with that particular part of their life, a sport o r a musical instrument or something like that. Whereas you can apply it to learning. You can apply it to the way that you interrelate with people, you can apply it to really anything in your life and once you harness that, it’s it’s very powerful.

Laura: Yes. So it’s the not the kind of thing that we all do instinctively, but it’s making them aware of it and providing them a framework so that they can do it more efficiently. That’s exactly yeah. In fact, that it will do. I agree that that will be helpful in every aspect of their lives. That will definitely help. Ellen, thank you very much for joining us today, and thanks for sharing your experience and insights with us. It’s been really nice to hear from you. Thank you.

Ellen: Thank you for the opportunity.

23 November 2022

Last modified: 29 May 2023 at 10:14 am

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