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Nipping Mindless Student Reflection and Feedback in the Bud

“From this activity I learned that I should listen to my patients.”

“I realized that I have to study English more and more.”

“I came to know the importance of cooperation with others.”

“I was surprised to see cultural differences.”


“…if taken at face value, they are all pretty much lies.”


At some point in your teaching career you have probably asked students to reflect upon a lesson or activity, asking them to give a little feedback about what they learned, how their language skills developed, what noble advances their portfolio project has contributed to the furthering of human civilization. Student reflection in the form of feedback commentary can be a very valuable exercise, allowing students to consolidate what they have learned — indeed, reflection often allows us to more deeply internalize new learnings.


Such commentary can also be helpful for teachers. Are the students learning something new, are they gaining insights? If so, what? Or have they veered off course, done something unexpected, or simply gone through the motions? Can I, as a teacher, alter my focus or management for next year’s lessons based upon what my students are telling me? These should all be central questions for instructors.


But, at many points in your teaching career, I’m willing to bet that you got responses like the ones quoted at the top. Stock phrases, platitudes, speech mantras disguised (or passed off) as ‘reflection.’


In fact, if taken at face value, they are all pretty much lies. No, you didn’t really ‘learn’ those things in my class. No, these aren’t new insights that you suddenly gleaned from that simple English classroom project or activity.


“…if they didn’t already know that, something is terribly wrong.”


The first example above was the standard response given by a group of my upperclassmen medical students who were suddenly asked to express (in English) what they learned from a practical, hands-on clinical encounter. It may sound ‘nice’ and ‘humanistic’ that they learned to listen to their patients but the fact is, if they didn’t already know that listening to the patient is important before now (5th year of med school), something is terribly wrong. I mean, doesn’t every post-pubescent soul on the planet know this? 


The reality is that they were giving the ‘expected’ reply — one staged largely to appease the questioner (in this case someone from the medical humanities), to provide the answer that he or she likely hopes to hear. This is what happens when you suddenly ask people to reflect deeply in a foreign language, on the spot, in real-time, in a classroom, in front of others. It’s what happens when we know what the questioner hopes or wants to hear. Really, should we expect any more?


The other responses above are equally set phrases, the classroom version of Joyfull’s ‘higawari’ lunch sets, trotted out simply to fill in the discourse blank. They are either insubstantial (of course you have to study English more and more) or overly profound, and thus insincere (come on now, you are a 20 year old Japanese citizen and you only just learned the ‘importance of cooperation’ in my team poster-making activity??? And you were actually surprised that people you stayed with in Malaysia don’t do things like they do in Japan? This from a student who comes from the country that likely tops the entire world in terms of ‘cultural difference’  hypersensitivity?) 


Making the reflection/feedback activity more substantial


So, what can we do to gain more substance from student reflection and feedback? After all, allowing students to politely fob off this very valid inquiry with hackneyed cut n’ paste commentary renders the whole activity meaningless. It becomes mindless busy work, benefiting no one.


Standardized administrative evaluations are often of little value in generating meaningful student feedback or reflection — they exist mainly to fulfill the ‘we value our students opinions’ obligation by using a set form of 5-scale Lichert items that are circled in a severely limited time frame, which almost all students routinely answer with 4’s or 5’s (unless you really make a hash of your class as a teacher). These are far from sufficient indicators.


I employ 4 rules or practices that help to maximize and make the reflection/feedback activity substantial. Three are positive, one is negative:


  1. The reflection exercise becomes a part of the project or activity grade. In other words, the quality of the response affects their grade. This ensures that sufficient attention is paid to substance.
  2. Specificity in the reflection task is key. Not merely, ‘Tell me what you thought about or learned from the project/activity‘ but, ‘Tell me three specific, new language points you learned or used when doing this project and give me an example of its usage‘ and/or ‘Give me two clear examples of new content you learned from doing this project and explain how or why they are significant for you.’
  3. If you want student reflections to be substantial, comment on the comments! This shows that a) you have actually read and considered them, and b) you can request expansion or clarification, not only to help the students more clearly identify their own significant items, but also so that it might have a more meaningful impact upon how you manage, teach, or present the activity in the future.
  4. I simply do not allow students to limit their observations and reflections to stock phrases. I go through this rule in advance, letting them know that if I sense they are responding lazily by pasting popular soundbites, I will challenge them on it.


I also often finish the semester by having students complete a ‘My Top Ten!‘ handout, which asks them to list 10 new or interesting language points they either learned or became increasingly conscious of during their lessons with me, completed as homework to allow time for reflection. The criteria include the following:


  1. The items cannot just be stand alone vocabulary items (particularly lists of specialist terminology)
  2. The items should include grammar, style, social and strategic points, and skills that have arisen or developed in my course (examples are given), as well as vocabulary
  3. Vocabulary can/should include phrases, discourse markers, and patterns of text
  4. The 10 items should come from at least 5 different lessons (this prevents students from simply regurgitating one particular handout or section)
  5. They must tell me both why they chose the particular item and give me an illustrative example of its usage (or otherwise show me that they truly understand it)


This semester-ending activity is also shared among/between students as a discussion, gets an item-by-item commentary from myself after submission, and is included in their final grade. Most of all, it provides me with arrows and indicators — what exactly are the students learning in my class? Are they grasping what I would like them to? Is it apparent that something I’ve taught has not been taught (or learned) very well? 


Much more so than the platitudes that can litter so many typical student self-reflection exercises, these considerations have allowed me to benefit greatly from hearing the students’ voices. And, frankly speaking, when the commentary is specific and thoughtful, the students themselves benefit too.

Mike Guest

Mike Guest

Michael (Mike) Guest is Associate Professor of English in the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Miyazaki (Japan). A veteran of 25 years in Japan, he has published over 50 academic papers, 5 books (including two in Japanese), has been a regular columnist in the Japan News/Yomiuri newspaper for 13 years, and has performed presentations and led workshops and seminars in over 20 countries. Besides ranting and raving, his academic interests include medical English, discourse analysis, assessment, teacher training, and presentation skills.
Mike Guest

2 Responses to Nipping Mindless Student Reflection and Feedback in the Bud

  1. Simon Goddard Weedon

    Cheers Mike!
    Really good points and made in your own robust inimitable style! Will be stealing a few of yr ideas 🙂

    • Thanks Simon. Good to see you are still in the game.

      I often wince at the stock feedback I get from students, which many teachers might allow to pass as substantial commentary. However, I must admit that I sometimes wonder whether my ‘inimitable style’ is a little too caustic.
      Then again, making the title, ‘Reducing unproductive student reflection…’ would sound far too ‘detached professional’ and research paper-y.


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