Reflection and Self-Assessment: Resisting Ritualistic Discourse

O'Neill, Peggy

Although the practice of using reflection in the teaching of writing is not necessarily new, we have only recently begun to explore the implications of it in terms of assessment. Much of the literature on reflection has been associated with the portfolio movement because reflection and self-assessment are essential components of the portfolio process. For example, Roberta Camp and Denise Levine identify reflection as critical to the success of portfolios; Kerry Weinbaum explains that the "reflective self-assessment letters [are] the most important aspect of the portfolio process" (214); and Peter Elbow notes that the meta-thinking and metadiscourse of the portfolio cover letter make it one of the most important and useful documents in the portfolio (41). However, as Glenda Conway argues, "Required reflection is ethical only if it exists as an ongoing component of a course and if the teacher of that course openly discusses his or her reactions to the reflections with students" (92). More recently, Kathleen Blake Yancey contends that by using reflection in our writing classrooms we "ask students to participate with us, not as objects of our study, but as agents of their own learning, in a process that is a product" (5).

With reflection receiving attention through large-scale and classroom-based assessments such as portfolios, classroom teachers need to explore ways to integrate reflection into writing instruction. As teachers learn about incorporating reflection into the writing process, they need to consider how the process and products of reflection position teachers and students, especially when the classroom generated texts move beyond the classroom walls for assessment. As Yancey warns, there are "possible dangers that reflection brings with it," and she summarizes some of the critiques levied at reflection: it turns students inward at the expense of the social; it awards inappropriate authority to students; and it takes time away from working on the primary texts (202-03). The challenge is fostering the potential of reflection to help students become more effective writers while avoiding the pitfalls and preventing it from becoming formulaic, ritualistic, and predictable. As Jane Bowerman Smith argues, when students produce metacognitive texts that the teacher will read, what the students write may be changed in ways that are not beneficial to the students because the teacher is reading them. For example, Smith explains some self-assessments may demonstrate the chameleon effect:

At best, the students' commentaries will reflect what has gone on in the classroom—the goals, values, instructional methods, and actual content—but also the students' desires to say what they think we want to hear. In a sense, this is the paradox of teaching: We want students to be honestly converted. We do not want them to write down our own words cynicallyand toss them back at us. (128-29)

It can be difficult, however, for a teacher or portfolio reader to determine if students are engaged in genuine reflection or not. Based on a teacher-research project examining her own reading and response to the reflective writing she assigned her students, Susan Callahan concluded: "Although I continue to value reflective writing because I think reflection is one of the most potentially useful learning strategies students can develop, I no longer assume this kind of writing is any more revealing than any of the other texts my students create" (74). In fact, Callahan's self-study lead her to be more cautious—and more thoughtful—in how she assigns, reads and responds to students' reflective writing.

Reflection or Confession?

As I have struggled with the challenges of reflection as a writing teacher, a teacher educator, a scholar, and a reader for a portfolio placement program, I have been drawn to Michel Foucault's discussion of the early Christian ritual of confession. Foucault describes confession as a ritual discourse in which the speaking subject is also the subject of the statement; it is also a ritual that unfolds within a power relationship, for one does not confess without the presence (or virtual presence) of a partner who is not simply the interlocutor but the authority who requires the confession, prescribes and appreciates it, and intervenes in order to judge, punish, forgive, console, and reconcile. (61-62). At first, when I read Foucault's description, I was immediately reminded of my own experiences as a young Catholic school girl preparing for confession. My friends and I would brainstorm sins and try them out on each other: we had to confess things, but we felt that some things were OK to confess and others weren't. In other words, we didn't want to just tell our sins, ask forgiveness, and try to learn and grow from the experience. Going to confession was required, and we knew that the priest—and the teachers who took us to the service—had power to affect our daily lives. The priest, after all, knew us, our families and our teachers. Could we really be honest about our weaknesses, our transgressions, our trespasses? The confessional was dark, private, and anonymous; the priest—God's representative—had vows to uphold; the rite would cleanse us of our sins and help us be better Christians. We had learned all of our catechism and had been certified by the Church; however, as eleven, twelve and thirteen year old girls, we worried about the risk of exposing our inner-most selves for someone else to judge, punish, console, and forgive. After reflecting on our behavior and thoughts (alone and collaboratively) we usually confessed to predictable—and we thought acceptable—transgressions: talking back to our parents, lying, fighting with siblings, etc.—while avoiding "sins" we deemed more risky—such as explorations with sex. Afterward, of course, we would compare notes: What did you say? What did the priest say? What was your penance? While we did reflect and self-assess in preparation of the ritual, the processes we used weren't exactly what the church had in mind, and the texts we produced in the confessional didn't contain all that we produced during our reflections. We went through the ritual—after all, we had to—but we subverted it.

Although the Catholic rite of penance seems far removed from the day-to-day activities of a writing classroom, Lester Faigley argues that the personal narrative and methods of judging it can function like the church's confession as it creates certain subject positions for participants (111-31). Faigley restricts his discussion to personal experience narratives, but reflective writing such as a portfolio cover letter or a writer's memo—especially those included in mandatory or high stakes assessments—can also function like the church's confession: reflective writing is often an obligatory act that demands the writer construct herself in the appropriate discourse to someone in a more powerful position. The speaker not only has to objectify herself as she becomes the subject of her own discourse, but she has to do it in a space which highlights her subordinate role, with potential consequences to her depending on what she writes. In reflective texts, as with personal narratives, students are frequently required to present a certain kind of self to an institutional representative (either the classroom teacher or the teacher as external evaluator). For example, portfolio evaluators at Miami University gave the following advice to students submitting portfolios for their advanced placement program:

Part of what we mean when we say "reflective" is that we want you to situate yourself for your readers–in terms of your "social location," or, in other words, how your race, class, and gender influence your values and opinions. [. . .] Reflect on how the pieces reveal something about you as a writer and how they are connected. [. . .] Think about what reflection involves–not just including details about who you are and how you write but also about how and why your background and environment have affected what you write. (Beck et al. 119)

Clearly, students submitting portfolios for evaluation as part of Miami's program are being judged not just on their written texts and quality of their writing but on the self they construct–and their ability to create a certain kind of textual self—in the reflective letter.[1] This aspect of Miami's portfolio is not unique although most directions are not as explicit as Miami's. University of Michigan's portfolio placement program also required a reflective essay as part of the portfolio. Besides addressing the contents of the portfolio in this essay, students were instructed to "tell [the English Composition Board] about yourself as a writer" (Willard-Traub et al. 47). Eckerd College's graduation portfolio includes a similar invitation: besides the introductory note (they call it an annotation) for the portfolio that "should call the readers' attention to what the student believes are the strengths of the portfolio," students should "feel free to reflect on yourself as a writer." Asking (or requiring) that students reflect on not only the written texts included in the portfolios but also themselves as writers, assumes that the students' selves and their behaviors as writers (or rather the textual representation of their selves and behaviors) are part of what readers in these large scale programs judge and evaluate. As in Foucault's discussion of confession, these students construct themselves to people/institutions in order to be judged.

These situations can be tricky for students. Outside the classroom, the student's only "voice" in the assessment process is usually the one she is required to construct in the texts itself; that is, her participation, her contribution, to the assessment is part of what is evaluated and judged. In fact, in portfolio assessment, the cover letter, which requires students to reflect, self-assess, and construct themselves as writers, is not only part of the assessment, but can be the most influential or important part of the portfolio, according to much of the literature. Often, the cover letter or reflective essay is the space for the student to talk about her writing and herself as a writer; but again, this is part of the evaluation. Programs that use portfolio exit exams report that outside readers do make judgments about the writers, not just the writing (Schuster; Stygall et al.). The content of the reflective writing is also restricted, and at times, can be ritualistic especially when we provide the writer with guidelines, directions, maybe even samples, so that the student constructs the appropriate kind of reflective writer. Conversely, if students do something unusual or unexpected, readers may penalize them (see Faigley's analysis of the writer who read pulp fiction). Outside readers are usually anonymous so that even if students know that teachers in the department are reading their work, they don't know which ones. (As with the priests, individual identity isn't important, the readers are representatives of the institution.) Likewise, students' identities are supposed to be concealed although they often aren't depending on the assessment context. When a student is expected to discuss their gender, class or social location (as Miami instructs them), they clearly are not remaining anonymous although their names might be withheld from the readers. Revelations students make about themselves will influence the judgments made about them and their texts, but just how these factors will influence the readers is unknown to the students, especially if they don't know much about the portfolio readers. Reflective writing done for large-scale assessments can be very different than that which is written as part of a course.

Classroom Confessions

Thinking about Foucault in conjunction with portfolios and reflection led me to my students, who were not required to line up at the confessional door but were required to create several reflective texts throughout the semester, including one in which they evaluate their writing and their performances as part of the graded portfolios. I wondered if my students were figuring out what was appropriate to include in their portfolio cover letters much as my Catholic school mates and I had done as we prepared for confession. What weaknesses should they confess to and which ones should remain unspoken? What kind of self were they trying to construct in their letters? My students were, after all, trying to make the grade and I had the power, and responsibility, to determine it. Students were all too aware that I would be reading their reflections and grading their portfolios. (I had made sure I approached the portfolio" ethically," to use Conway's word, by including it throughout the semester.) Although teachers might try to de-emphasize grades, students—who experience the real-world consequences attached to grades—are all too aware that their writing will ultimately be graded. How did my reading, responding and eventual grading influence their reflective texts?

As I looked back at samples of students' portfolio cover letters, I see some common constructions: they most often create a self that is hard working, that has been converted to process pedagogy, that now enjoys writing, and that has learned a lot. Here are some stereotypical lines in students' portfolio cover letters:

  • Before this class, I would write my papers the night before they were due. Now I know that if I get a response and revise my papers are better.
  • I never considered myself a writer before but now I do.
  • I worked harder in this class than in any other class I had. My drafts may not be perfect but they are much improved.
  • I followed your advice and my peers and now my essays are much better.

But as a classroom teacher, I have more than just the portfolio letter for judging a students' writing and writerly selves: their participation and production over the entire semester are also part of what influences my reading. I know if they participated in the activities and discussions leading up to an essay; I can look back at my records to see if they were prepared with homework and class work. I can read my comments on their earlier drafts and peruse the process work. However, their actual reflection is invisible: How do I know if what they say in the reflective text is authentic, said to please me, or fabricated because they need to fill up space? Are they using the language from the syllabus and class work because it is now part of their vocabulary for talking about writing or because they think that is what I want to hear? And do the answers to these questions even matter?

Encouraging Reflection Not Confession

I don't have the answers to these questions, but I haven't given up on reflection and self-assessment because I know that they are important components of learning (see Hilgers Hussey, and Stitt-Bergh for a review of the literature on this). In the writing classroom, reflection can also contribute to the construction of certain kinds of selves and reflective texts can be significant factors in portfolio assessment just as in large-scale assessments. The products and processes of reflection in these different contexts have the potential to become empty, formulaic rituals producing predictable texts that can function as a subtle means of controlling—and constructing to some extent—students. Capitalizing on the potential benefits attributed to reflection while minimizing possible negatives requires that writing teachers learn to see reflection within particular rhetorical contexts and to teach their students to approach it this way. Susan Latta and Janice Lauer argue that "writers cannot step outside their social, cultural and historical communities when they write" or when they are "engaged in self-assessment" (27). Finding an appropriate voice for a writer can be a difficult task, they continue, because of the competing subject positions—influenced by factors such as race, gender, religion, class, family background, etc.—a writer may occupy (28-29).

In addressing these complications, it can help to think more about what we mean by reflection. According to Yancey, there are three types of reflection: reflection-in-action, "the process of reviewing and projecting and revising" that "takes place within a composing event, and the associated texts"; constructive reflection, "the process of developing a cumulative, multi-selved, multi-voiced identity" that "takes place between and among composing events, and the associated texts"; and reflection-in-presentation, "the process of articulating the relationship between and among the multiple variable of writing and the writer in a specific context for a specific audience, and the associated texts" (14-15). For Yancey, then, reflection is always process and product. I agree with Yancey that in using reflection in the classroom, we need to consider where the writer is in the writing process and what the rhetorical context is for that reflection. Incorporating reflection ethically requires more than just adding a cover letter or a reflective essay because students need to be taught what we mean by reflection, how to generate reflective texts, and how to evaluate them as processes and products.

With these thoughts in mind, I offer some suggestions and strategies that have helped me re-situate reflection and self-assessment in my writing classroom to make it a dynamic process instead of a ritual that students perform out of fear and obligation. Although most of these have grown out of my classroom experience [2], authors such as Callahan, Yancey, and Sommers, also endorse many of these strategies.

Classroom Strategies

Examine your reasons for including reflection in the writing process. Think about why you want to include reflection and then how you can do it to accomplish these purposes. This may seem obvious, but in my experience with faculty development, some teachers have never articulated why they require—or don't require—reflective writing. For example, a teacher may want to include reflective activities such as a letter to the reader with peer response drafts to help facilitate peer response; or a teacher may have students do an informal progress report midway through a research project to get an idea of where writers need help in the process. By thinking about the purpose of the assigned reflection, the teacher can better determine the best type of text to be produced (oral or written; formal or informal; individual or collaborative) and how she will "count" it.

Distinguish between the activity of reflection and a certain genre or text. Avoid associating reflection and self-evaluation with one particular text such as a portfolio cover letter. Try to encourage the process of reflection not a particular genre so students have opportunities to write lots of different types of reflective texts—lists, formal letters, informal letters, e-mail notes, listserv postings, short paragraphs, even webs or clusters. The variety of forms and purposes can emphasize the idea that reflection is something writers do as part of the writing process providing students with lots of practice. Of course, students don't always have to produce a text to reflect. Providing students with time to think and talk about their writing can also engage students in the act of reflection.

Use reflection with a variety of different activities. Have students reflect throughout the composing process: at the end of an invention activity; before and after peer response; or between drafts. Reflection can be used to help students get an idea of what they have done and what they need to do. After a class activity or discussion it can give students the opportunity to make connections between what happened in class and their writing projects.

Allow students to keep at least some of their reflection private. Teachers need not read and respond to all of the reflective texts produced in a class. In fact, student writers should be encouraged to incorporate reflection into their process because it helps them as writers and not just because it will be checked by the teacher. Allowing time for reflection—even if some students don't take advantage of it like we think they should—can encourage students to reflect because it is part of what writers do, not just what students do to get credit or participation points.

Treat reflection and the texts associated with it—cover letters, memos, letters of introduction, or reflective essays—rhetorically and teach students how to write them. When a reflective text is part of a high stakes situation (e.g. final graded course portfolio, competency testing), approach it as a formal writing assignment. Go over audience, topic, and purpose. Discuss evidence and detail and effective types of organization. Students should write drafts and get feedback. For less formal texts such as a note to peers, the same issues apply but not to the same degree because the stakes aren't as high as with the more formal, graded situations. By explaining how the reflection fits into the process and class, teachers can help students distinguish between reflection that is done for the writer and that which is done for external readers. If students understand this, their reflection can be more productive for everyone.

Construct prompts for reflective writing carefully. This strategy loops back to the first one for a teacher can't construct an effective prompt if she doesn't know what she is trying to accomplish through the reflection. Different situations require different prompts. Sometimes an instructor may write a specific prompt because he wants to focus the students' reflection in a particular way; at other times, the teacher may provide more open ended directions so that the students direct their own reflection. For drafts, I generally provide students some guidance, some ideas, for what to consider in their reflection and self-assessment but resist providing them with a list of questions to answer or rigid rules to follow. I have found prompts that are too directive limit students and can silence the thoughts, questions, and concerns that a writer has which may not fit into the categories or questions provided. Make reflection a valuable part of their writing process, not just a list of questions to check off.

Make yourself conscious of your reading and response to students' reflective texts. Instructors need to be aware of how they are reading and responding to students' reflective texts because they could be approaching the texts in a ritual or rote way. For example, just because something sounds empty, repetitive, or stale to the instructor (who may be reading 25 to 60 texts at a time) doesn't mean that the reflection wasn't genuine or meaningful for the individual. Allowing students to express doubts or mistakes without fear of reprisal can help build the trust necessary for open communication aimed at helping the student improve as a writer. If this relationship is established early and develops over a semester, an instructor is better able to discern the results of genuine reflection from perfunctory compliance. Teachers can even engage in systematic inquiry into their reading and responses as Susan Callahan did. She found that not only did she prefer some types of reflective writing over others but also students' writing demonstrated certain preferences as well.

These strategies, of course, are not definitive. I am constantly tweaking and revising how I integrate reflection—and reflective texts—into my pedagogy. Each teacher needs to explore and experiment within their own classroom. But as Callahan suggests, providing students with lots of different activities and approaches to reflection will help them to form habit of mind. I also hope that when students need to produce a reflective text beyond my classroom, they have experience and knowledge to respond appropriately. After all, many students will need to be able to write about themselves and their work outside my course when applying for scholarships, awards, internships, graduate schools, or jobs. By providing students with varied experiences and purposes, we encourage students to incorporate reflection in its many forms into their writing process in ways which serve their purposes and meet their needs. I don't want students to think of reflection as merely a required ritual where they not only expose but construct themselves according to someone else's demands then wait for judgment. Reflection, as Latta and Lauer explain, can help students' develop a sense of agency in their writing and beyond it.


1 For a more in-depth discussion of this prompt see Ellen Schendel and Peggy O'Neill, "Exploring the Theories and Consequences of Self-Assessment through Ethical Inquiry." Assessing Writing 6 (1999): 199-227.

2 See O'Neill, Peggy for more examples and discussion of building reflection into a writing course.

Works Cited

Beck, Andrea, Jennie Dautermann, Corinne Miller, Kim Miurray, and Pegeen Reichart Powell, eds. The Best of Miami University's Portfolios 1997. Oxford, OH: Department of English, Miami University, 1997.

Black, Laurel, Donald Daiker, Jeffrey Sommers, and Gail Stygall, eds. New Directions in Portfolio Assessment: Reflective Practice, Critical Theory, and Large-Scale Scoring. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook, 1994.

Callahan, Susan. "Responding to the Invisible Student." Assessing Writing 7 (2000): 57-78.

Camp, Roberta and Denise Levine. "Background and Variations in Sixth-Through Twelfth-Grade Classrooms." Portfolios: Process and Product. Ed. Pat Belanoff and Marcia Dickson. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook, 1991. 194-205.

Conway, Glenda. "Portfolio Cover Letters, Students' Self-Presentation, and Teachers' Ethics." Black et al. 83-92.

Eckerd College. Writing Competency Portfolio. Writing Program Foundations Office.

Elbow, Peter. "Will the Virtues of Portfolios Blind us to Their Potential Dangers?" Black et al. 83-92.

Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality, Volume I: An Introduction. Trans. Robert Hurley. New York: Random House, 1980.

Hilgers, Thomas L., Edna L. Hussey, and Monica Stitt-Bergh. "The Case for Prompted Self-Assessment in the Writing Classroom." Smith and Yancey, 1-24.

Latta, Susan and Janice Lauer. "Student Self-Assessment: Some Issues and Concerns from Postmodern and Feminist Perspectives." Smith and Yancey, 25-33.

O'Neill, Peggy. "From the Responding Sequence to the Writing Process: Incorporating Self?Assessment and Reflection in the Classroom." TETYC 26.1 (1998): 61-70.

Schendel, Ellen and Peggy O'Neill. "Exploring the Theories and Consequences of Self-Assessment through Ethical Inquiry." Assessing Writing 6 (1999): 199-227.

Schuster, Charles I. "Climbing the Slippery Slope of Assessment: The Programmatic Use of Writing Portfolios." Black et al. 314-24.

Smith, Jane Bowerman and Kathleen Blake Yancey, eds. Self-Assessment and Development in Writing: A Collaborative Inquiry. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press, 2000.

Smith, Jane Bowerman. "'Know your Knowledge': Journals and Self-Assessment." Smith and Yancey, 125-38.

Stygall, Gail, Laurel Black, Donald Daiker, and Jeffrey Sommers. "Gendered Textuality: Assigning Gender to Portfolios." Black et al. 248-62.

Weinbaum, Kerry. "Portfolios as a Vehicle for Student Empowerment and Teacher Change." Portfolios: Process and Product. Ed. Pat Belanoff and Marcia Dickson. Portsmouth, NH: Boyton/Cook, 1991. 206-14.

Willard-Traub, Margaret, Emily Decker, Rebecca Reed, and Jerome Johnston. "The Development of Large-Scale Portfolio Placement Assessment at The University of Michigan: 1992-1998." Assessing Writing 6 (1999): 41-84.

Yancey, Kathleen Blake. Reflection in the Writing Classroom. Logan: Utah State UP, 1998.

This text was accepted for publication after an anonymous peer review process.
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