Talking Points September 2013

Gearing up again: Reflection and goal-setting

Alison: The summer is over and it’s time to get ready for the second semester. For me, this time of year is very important for reflection and goal-setting. Now is the time I like to reflect back on what happened in the previous semester: what went well, what didn’t go as well as I’d hoped, and what puzzled, frustrated, or surprised me. I prefer to do this after the summer break, when I’m refreshed and have some distance from my preoccupations and frenzied rush to finish at the end of the term. Making time in the first lessons of the new semester to share my reflections with my students, and asking them to share theirs too, provides a reality check and an opportunity for us all to understand each other a little better. It’s a good place from which to adjust existing learning goals or to set new ones. I used to think that reflection was something you do only at the end of a task or period of learning, goal-setting something you do only at the outset. But recently, I’ve come to think of this halfway point in the year as the most productive time for doing both together.

Chika, how do you usually start your second semester? How do you go about reflecting on the past and setting goals for the future in or with your classes?

Chika: Another half of the journey starts very soon. Like you, I also reflect on what we did in the first semester, but my reflection is focused mainly on what worked and what didn’t work with reference to the answers in the questionnaires distributed to the students at the end of the first semester. Even if I think one activity worked well, students do not always think it was effective or interesting. Of course, our points of view and perceptions are different, but understanding these differences and gaps is crucial to me. Thinking about how I can modify and expand activities that students engaged in during the first semester, I start to design a syllabus for the second semester. I like this moment too because, compared with the first semester, I have a much clearer understanding about each student’s personality and their learning styles. Remembering each student with the critical incidents related to them, I try to explore how materials can be adjusted to the needs and levels of students more concretely and clearly. I’ve never done “a collaborative reflection” as you did with your students, but this spontaneous reflection sounds very interesting. I’m just wondering how you would adjust the goals and set new ones. Do you negotiate with your students especially when you set new ones?

Alison: Yes, I do, although it varies from class to class how much I negotiate. For example, this semester for my second-year writing class where the syllabus is based on a recommended textbook (Writing Academic English, Oshima & Hogue), I want to reflect on last semester’s supplementary writing practice of a weekly journal in which students write summary/opinion responses to articles that they find on the Internet. Last year, in the same class the students spent the second semester writing critical research responses, which involved an additional step of writing a question about something in their reading that they could explore further and a short answer together with the source they used to answer that question. I want to know if this year’s students would like to do the same thing, or whether they would prefer to stick to what they have already been doing, or do something else instead.

With my seminar, I try to negotiate as much as possible. Since I started teaching a seminar (zemi) last year, I’ve tried to apply the principles of Exploratory Practice, and this means encouraging the students to interrogate all aspects of learning that goes on (or doesn’t when it should) in and outside the seminar. At the end of last semester we had a reflective poster session in which the students paired up to reflect on, and in some cases, conduct some mini-research into the seminar’s learning practices. The students used this session as an opportunity to talk about some dissatisfaction with the Moodle discussion forum, use of Japanese in the class, and even the fact that fourth-year students didn’t know the names of all the third-year students. When we meet again, I’ll be interested to hear what suggestions they have for addressing these issues, and also to see what difference this process of reflection and goal-setting makes to their motivation and engagement. Last year, for example, I was amazed at the difference in the second semester. I’m learning to trust the process.

Chika: Wow, I’m surprised to know that you’ve used various methods for students to reflect on their learning, such as Moodle and face-to-face. I just wonder what the advantages and disadvantages are of each mode. I guess that students are more open and express their real opinions in the Moodle discussion forum; they may even be more reflective as they have enough time to think about their learning experiences. On the other hand, a face-to-face reflection could be more interactive and spontaneous. They may realize what they have never thought about through talking with classmates and they may come up with new ideas. What excited me most was the fact that your students do a reflective poster presentation! Whatever tools you use, your practice emphasizes the problem-solution; you expect students to find problems and think about how to solve them, which is related to critical thinking. As teachers, we also need to engage in critical thinking before the new semester starts.

As for my class, one of the activities that students do every year is a rapid reading test in the first lesson of the second semester to check their current reading speed and comprehension. When they’ve finished and seen the results, I ask them to set their own goals and let them figure out how they can achieve them. Some think extensive reading might help them to read more fluently, others think they should work as hard as they can to pass vocabulary quizzes. Whatever answers they come up with, I believe that thinking about concrete ways to achieve their own goals is important. Anyone can set goals, but, in some cases, they are unrealistic in terms of one’s current levels and proficiency. I always wonder how I can help my students to be more realistic. However, if students themselves think about the process of achieving their goals, it’s likely they will naturally find the gaps between their current levels and target goals and will modify their goals accordingly.

My goodness, how time flies! I can’t believe this is our final dialogue for the Learner Development SIG homepage. We’ve been dialoguing like this now for a whole year and have discussed several issues that interest us, and that we hope have been of interest to other LD SIG members too. Through these dialogues, I’ve learned a lot and gained new perspectives, especially about learner/teacher autonomy.

Alison: Me too! I really believe that there is no better way to be a reflective practitioner than to reflect with and off a fellow teacher. I appreciate the opportunity to have done this as a regular monthly practice with you. Thank you, Chika!

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