Structured Reflection

Making good choices requires more than just having a sense of the options available and their likely consequences. One must also have insight into one’s own preferences and abilities, in the light of which one considers various options and makes an ultimate decision. For example, in deciding what courses to do or which graduate program to apply for, one needs to know what one finds interesting, what one is likely to do well at, what learning styles suit one, and what one seeks to do with that course or graduate program in one’s later life. It is only if one has an understanding of who one is and what one seeks to achieve that one can develop agency, and take responsibility for one’s own education and life.

Developing such an understanding is not easy. It cannot be achieved through introspection alone, as one cannot know who one is just by thinking about one’s self in the abstract. Rather, one must act and experiment, and then reflect on that action and experimentation. If one wishes to know if one is a good athlete, one must attempt it, and reflect on one’s performance. If one wishes to know if one enjoys making art, one must make art, and reflect on whether one enjoyed it. Through this process of doing and reflecting, one can learn about one’s self, enriching one’s self-understanding, and thereby making it possible to make predictions about how future action and choices are likely to be experienced. For example, if one has learned, through experimentation and reflection, that one generally likes analytical thinking and is good at it, it is likely that one will also enjoy and be good at future courses that place emphasis on analytical thinking. This self-understanding can help one make good choices.

Many students find such reflection difficult, as it requires them to formulate explicitly how they have experienced their learning and personal development. These matters are usually experienced quite implicitly and are hard to verbalize. Moreover, the process of reflection can, on occasion, be quite rending. Students might realize that they are less good at some things than they thought, that they find certain disciplines or questions interesting that others in their surroundings find uninteresting, or that their once cherished self-understandings have changed. Hence the process of reflection can easily go off track, drifting into diversion, ignoring uncomfortable realizations, or not engaging with the questions that need to be answered when making certain choices. To prevent this, reflection can be structured, thereby ensuring that the process stays on track, and yields the insights required to make choices. This can be achieved by asking carefully targeted questions and following up on answers by asking for clarification and elaboration, or by providing students with information about what they have done so far, so that they can reflect on this aspect of their development.

An important part of advising is helping students develop insight into their preferences, ambitions, strengths and weaknesses and learning style through such structured reflection. Faculty advisors or peers might ask students about how they have experienced certain learning experiences or behavior, how they felt they went, and what this reveals about themselves. They can ask students follow up questions, targeting important issues, and confront students with previous choices, inquiring how these relate to the choice at hand. 

However, self-advising tools and resources can also be used to promote structured reflection on students’ preferences and abilities. Online exercises, as well as traditional class-room activities, can ask students to write about their learning and development. By asking students to respond to specific prompts and targeted questions, including follow up questions, the reflection can be structured to engage with certain aspects of their education and development, such as their learning style, preferences and ambitions. Moreover, such tools and resources can present students with relevant information about their development, which again can stimulate reflection on specific areas of their education. 

Such tools and resources have a number of advantages. In addition to the general benefits of self-advising systems, such as 24/7 accessibility and scalability, one thing to consider is that students can use them in private. This might promote more honest self-reflection, as students do not have to worry about being judged by faculty members or peers, removing issues of social desirability. It might be difficult to give an honest answer to one’s friends or teachers, especially relating to such personal matters as one’s own development, whereas one does not have to worry about this when writing for one’s self. Moreover, self-advising systems, especially digital ones, have perfect recall and can enable one to look back on one’s previous choices and reflections, further stimulating reflection. A faculty advisor will, in most cases, not have complete knowledge of a student’s previous choices and all their previous conversations to mind when discussing that student’s future. This means that opportunities for reflection might be missed.

At the same time, self-advising tools and resources also have clear limitations. Used improperly, they can be dangerous. Students might get stuck in their reflective processes, and not be able to abstract from their experiences by themselves, leading to frustration, or inaccurate self-appraisal. Having another person to discuss one’s experiences with can give an outside perspective and place them in a context that students themselves cannot. For example, an experienced faculty advisor can suggest ways of expressing thoughts that students are unfamiliar with or explain that a student’s struggles with certain questions are quite common, and need not be cause for concern. Moreover, students might express mental health issues and other worrying developments in these self-reflections that require professional attention. An in-person advisor can signal these and prompt students to seek help, but if self-advising resources are not checked, these issues can go undetected. Hence it is crucial to embed the use of self-advising resources in a larger advising program, and use them as complementary to faculty and peer advising. However, in that context, they can provide insights that can provide input for further discussion and stimulate the kind of reflection that is essential to make good choices.

Two examples of self-advising tools that can be used to stimulate structured reflection, both developed at Sciences Po, are discussed below. They are E-portfolios and failure CV’s. 

Example 1

Example 2

For more information about structured reflection, please see the bibliography.

Structured Reflection Bibliography