Podcast with Dr. Bethanie L. Hansen, Associate Dean (Interim), School of Arts, Humanities and Education
There are many ways to help students retain information, but one of the most successful ways is through reflective practices. Learn how reflective practices can help students “think about their thinking” and include strategies like journaling, blogging, and other self-directed methods to think more deeply about what they’re learning in the online classroom.
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Dr. Bethanie Hansen: This podcast is for educators, academics and parents who know that online teaching can be challenging, but it can also be rewarding, engaging, and fun. Welcome to the Online Teaching Lounge. I’m your host, Dr. Bethanie Hansen, and I’ll be your guide for online teaching tips, topics and strategies. Walk with me into the Online Teaching Lounge.
Welcome to the Online Teaching Lounge. I’m Bethanie Hansen, your host, and I want to talk with you today about a simple tip to help your students learn more deeply. You may already be familiar with the needs of adult learners, and one of those needs is that they have some kind of ownership of their learning. They are somewhat self-directed. They also need to know what the application of their learning will be, how it’s going to connect to their career, their real life, the real world. This simple tip today is all about helping your students take charge and self-direct their learning to a greater degree.
Ways to Help Students Learn and Retain Information
When learning more deeply, there are a lot of different options available to us. One option is repetition. We can teach the same thing in a lot of different ways, and that is going to help the learner move it from short-term to long-term memory over time.
We can also do action learning, some kind of applied work outside of the online classroom. Students can get out and do something in the real world to help it stick, to be more permanent and more lasting. We can also scaffold the learning and repeat the content while we do it.
For example, in the first week of class, you might introduce a concept, come back in the second week of class, test, quiz and assess that first concept along with the week two concept and cumulatively build the information testing and assessment over the course of the class.
All of these are great options, and they might be strategies that you would like to try with your online students, and especially your adult learners, to help build some retention of the information and increase the likelihood of student success in their learning.
How Reflective Practice Helps Students Learn
But the tip I’m going to give you today is even more simple than all of those strategies, and it is the simple idea of using reflection. Reflective practice, journaling, blogging, self-assessment all of those things fall into that bucket of reflection.
There are some things students can do when they’re preparing for the assignment or the work, during the learning itself, and afterwards that will use reflection in ways to cement their learning and help them learn more deeply. This first tip that I’m sharing today about reflection is really intended to get your students to be more in charge and more autonomous about their own learning.
You don’t need as many crazy strategies or methods in your teaching, or at least not those that take so much of your time to create, if you’re using a lot more student reflection. And the reason for this is that as your students are using that reflective practice, they’re thinking about their thinking. They’re taking that step one step removed from the learning process, and they’re starting to analyze how they learned, how they incorporated the information, how they worked with it, depending on the type of reflection you’re going to use.
Encouraging Students to Journal
So, I’m going to just suggest a few different options to get your students journaling in your online course so they can learn more deeply and do this in a more simple way. Students who find a new concept to be especially difficult can benefit from a reflective practice before even starting the learning activities. There might be some questions to complete ahead of time to ask the student where they might have some connection to what they’re about to learn. You might, for example, ask what they already know about the subject matter, what they think they know, what they guess about it.
You could share a little bit of introductory material to get them curious, and also have them reflect on once they have this little bit of information what they now hope to learn about it, what they expect to know and where they might be most interested in gaining new knowledge.
Some kind of self-direction before the learning activities even begin gives your students the chance to reflect on what they’re about to do and take ownership right from the start. Now, during the learning activities, a student can have some kind of questions they’re going to reflect on, complete, write some narrative about, or even discuss with a peer partner in the discussion section of your online class.
And all of these questions along the way could be about how they’re learning, what they’re understanding, what they’re not, and any kind of reflections on the process they’re experiencing. I had some questions like this in a course I was teaching online in which I asked students about week four, maybe it was week three of an eight-week class how they were learning the content. I asked them what was going well, what they wanted to be more effective at in their learning and where they could use a little bit of support.
I was pleasantly surprised when students came back with all kinds of suggestions and ideas, and some even brought in examples from their own lives and their work to tie to the learning and asked questions to see if they were on the right track. Journaling midpoint and throughout the learning process can really bring those connections along in the process of the learning and help our students to see much more relevance, learning more deeply than they might otherwise do. And we have to admit that when our students are passive consumers just reading the content or just listening to the content or watching the content without doing any kind of activity, they’re much less likely to remember it.
It can go into short-term memory, but it takes a little bit of analysis or manipulating that information or applying it or reflecting on it, or even memorizing it if that’s necessary for it to go into long-term memory storage and later retrieval. So, a reflective practice can help with all of those things and help students take their learning into more long-term memory, where they’re more likely to remember it by the end of the class.
Journaling is a good practice you can use for reflection with students. If students have a journal and they’re writing in it each week about their learning, maybe they’re sharing what the new concepts are, what new applications they can see, what questions they have. I can recall this was used in an English class I took at the college level when I was already a teacher and I changed states for my credential to transfer over, I had to take a literature teaching course. It was basically how to teach literature in any subject area for secondary educators. And since my subject is music, I found that very interesting. We were going to talk about reading in music classes.
There was a journal attached that the professor used throughout our experience and we would write about the readings that we experienced or read in the class, questions, thoughts, applications, and then we would turn those in. At the end of each week, the instructor would give them back to us with kind of like a conversation. So, the instructor would answer questions or ask some in return, maybe write some statements to contribute to our understanding.
It was clearly very time consuming for that instructor to do, but incredibly helpful because it really gave each student the opportunity to reflect as we’re learning and even get some feedback on that reflective practice. So, there’s another thought that you could try in an online class.
Choosing a Method in the LMS
Now, no matter what learning management system you are using, online classes do all have places where you can use journaling, if you want to do it online. One method could be to set up the blog section of the online class, if that exists. I’ve also seen it done where discussion boards were created and groups were made so that each student had their own private group discussion board. That way the instructor and the student could engage back and forth and no other students could read it. So, if you’re concerned about privacy for your online students and the safety for them to really explore their thoughts, reflect on their learning and ask questions to you, that private group feature might be an excellent way to go.
One of the reasons journaling is especially good is that students can think through their opinions they might not otherwise share in a live discussion. Journaling can also help them think internally and really think about how things might unfold in their own life, and it’s not necessarily about everybody else. So, it can be very personalized and help the student also tie to some background knowledge, some things they already know, and try out new vocabulary that they aren’t yet comfortable using in the live discussion or the larger group discussion. So, this is something I’d highly encourage, to get your students to a deeper learning level, and also actually personalize the course quite a bit more.
There’s this idea that in a learning management system, you could do e-journaling. Of course, it’s a reflective practice like we’ve been talking about in this podcast so far, and it is a private entry between the student and the instructor. And it will take a little bit of careful design in your course to figure out how to create this private blog or this private discussion board. Because after all, we don’t want other students to see it, that defeats the whole purpose of a private space.
It is an asynchronous tool. So, just like the handmade or the written journal that I experienced in that college class, the private blog or private discussion board space, or whatever you choose to use for a student’s reflective practice, becomes a really great way to keep the thoughts in one space without having the whole community see it.
So, really the goal for the whole thing is that we’re just trying to give that student a space to really open up, think through their learning, reflect on their learning, make some applications and have the opportunity to connect that with the faculty member.
Adding Structure to the Reflective Practice
So, I would suggest giving some initial questions to your reflective practice for students. When you give them something to think about as they go through the work, go through the learning, or even after the learning is done and they’re doing this as an assessment, some questions can really help students get started thinking through their ideas.
One question could be what is something you’re learning that seems familiar to you, or you anticipate applying in your life or work? What is something that you noticed connects to other things you already know? What questions do you have about what you’re learning so far?
Remember that it’s meant to be reflective, so you don’t need a lot of questions here, but a few to get your students started could help them begin the practice, especially if they’re not already familiar with journaling or very comfortable with it. So, again, you can ask questions or you can have a prompt where it is sort of like a mini-assignment. The student reads the prompt where you ask them how to apply certain ideas from the lesson and they’re going to reflect on that afterwards.
You could give them a prompt asking them to review the concepts that they learned, find ways to connect the current learning to previous learning or last week’s learning, how it builds on itself. Or you could even ask students to write about how their new learning connects to the bigger theme that is being taught or learned in the course. All things that you include in a prompt or a series of questions can be personalized to the student, personalized to the course, the subject matter, or generalized, if you prefer to give students a lot of space.
Grading Considerations for Reflective Practices
Now, once you’ve given your students a good start in reflective practice before, during and after learning activities, how do you grade this? After all, students are going to do this when it’s evaluated and it’s less likely they will consistently do it if it’s not graded. So, one way you can do it is pass-fail based on their participation alone. If you choose to do that, it’s a non-threatening way to give credit and allow a lot of latitude for different types of reflection of varying lengths.
You could create a rubric for the reflective practice or journaling that might happen. And that rubric could be that it’s proficient or advanced, demonstrating solid ideas with detailed support and evidence or experiences or connections. You could have a second category that’s perhaps developing or approaching the standard. And you could have another one where this is missing completely. It’s not demonstrated at all.
And some of the things you might evaluate in student journaling would be the response connecting to the course materials, actually reflecting on learning and connecting to the learning, some coherence throughout their writing, and also application to life, work or other places.
The more you give clarity upfront, and also keep that conversation going with your students, the more they’re likely to benefit from this whole practice and know what to start with, what they’re really aiming for when they start writing. I believe in journaling. I’ve been a journal keeper my whole life and when I’ve seen this used in courses that I have taken as a student, it’s been incredibly beneficial. I notice that I’m thinking more deeply, and I’m also able to remember the experience years afterwards.
That course I mentioned earlier in this podcast was 20 years ago, for example, and I still remember a lot of those journal entries because they took some time to think about and there was a lot of conversation with the faculty member when I got that journal back. So, I want to invite you to consider how you might try reflective practice with your students, how it could naturally be weaved into the course you’re teaching and try it out, see if it works for you. And, of course, I would love to hear your feedback on what you’re trying and whether or not this is working.
Feel free to stop by my website, BethanieHansen.com. There’s a request form where you can add comments and just share your experience with reflective practice and using journaling in your online course with your students. Thanks for being a listener here at the Online Teaching Lounge. It’s great to have you with us and I really hope you’ll come back next week. We have a special guest coming up. It’s going to be a wonderful experience, so definitely check it out. I wish you all the best in your online teaching this coming week and throughout the season ahead.
This is Dr. Bethanie Hansen, your host for the Online Teaching Lounge Podcast. To share comments and requests for future episodes, please visit BethanieHansen.com/request. Best wishes this coming week in your online teaching journey.