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Reflective Learning Through Practice-Based Assignments

Dave Evans
University College Suffolk

Paper presented at the British Educational Research Association Annual Conference
(September 11-14 1997: University of York)


I am very pleased to be able to contribute to this Symposium, particularly by focussing on some of the implications of reflective practice for assessment systems. In this brief paper I shall attempt to do 4 things:-

Reflective practice

It seems to me that the notion of "reflective practice" offers a highly challenging paradigm of learning. Central to the learning process is a specific practice event, experienced uniquely and differentially by a small number of people, from which a number of more abstract generalisations will hopefully be derived. It is essentially inductive learning. In Deductive learning, on the other hand, initially abstract generalisations, often available to many people through the printed word, are understood and then possibly, but only possibly, applied to specific concrete situations. This is the dominant paradigm of learning, particularly in formal learning contexts such as Higher Education Institutions(HEIs). This dominance rests, I believe, in the emphasis within Western culture for the last two and a half thousand years on abstraction and theory in learning and knowledge.

There is, however, considerable evidence from learning style research(Kolb,1984), from consumer research into the education for such caring professions as social work(Davies, 1984, Coulshed,1986, Walker et al.,1995), nursing(Davies et al 1996, Clark et al,1996) and teaching (Back and Booth,1992) and from adult learning theory which suggests that a large proportion of the students of the caring professions prefer to learn inductively. The challenge ,therefore , is how to develop inductive learning strategies throughout education for the professions, particularly in HEIs, and also how to assess whether that learning is taking place.

"Reflective practice" has many meanings - certainly as many as the number of contributors to this symposium! So I think it would be useful if I outline what I mean by it, before proceeding any further. Firstly, there are the two interrelated components, practice and reflection, which are clearly not just as simple as "doing" and "thinking" during or about that "doing".

Practice, to me, is an event which is usually, but not always, observable; what I believe Michael Eraut(1994) calls "practice performance". It includes cognitive and affective aspects as well as the behavioural.

Reflection, on the other hand, implies a number of processes which are largely meta to

the practice event. They can include all three aspects:-cognitive, affective and behavioural (ie.speech). These aspects are often different in reflection, however, in that they are extrinsic rather than intrinsic to the practice. However, the two components are clearly not discrete since good practice will, for example, consist of the practitioner eliciting the client's or service user's reflections on the practice.

Secondly, the various processes of reflection as outlined particularly by Schon (1987), Boud et al (1985), Mezirow(1981) and Kolb(1984) can be summarised as :- analysis, synthesis, evaluation and feeling. I include under "synthesis" such processes as "transfer of learning" and "relating theory and practice" and under "evaluation" the critical evaluation of practice contexts( Brookfield,1987) as well as of practice processes and outcomes(Evans,1991)

A third crucial facet of reflective practice is its participants. Some, for example Kolb(1984), seem to concentrate on the practitioner as the principal if not sole participant in the reflective process. Others such as Schon(1987) include a second key contributor: the coach, mentor, supervisor, consultant, practice teacher…Less seems to be made of the potential contribution of the client to reflection. In some circumstances, including this symposium, quite large numbers can become involved in the reflective process, when organisation becomes a key issue.

The fourth and final facet , I think, is time. Schon(1987), as I am sure you are aware, emphasises "reflection-in-action" and "reflection-on-action": reflection during present and on past practice. However, I am convinced that the 2 key times are past and future. Most good practice derives from thinking before the practice event. Schon's "reflection-in action" exposes, in my view, the crucial issue of how practitioners manipulate the gap between one specific practice interaction and the next in order to give themselves enough time for appropriate reflection.

Practice-based assignments

Practice-based assignments are described in the literature(Doel and Shardlow,1989, and Evans,1991) as assessment methods which seek to elicit evidence of both the practice performance and also of the reflection on that performance. They also make that evidence available throughout the assessment system- to more than one internal assessor, to external assessors and to the assessment board. In so doing such methods build on the strengths of the very different assessment traditions of the practice and the academic settings. Practice settings typically emphasise the details of practice performance, while academic settings seek to ensure reliability in assessment judgements and the accessibility and appropriate selection of evidence.

The practice performance is most likely to be recorded on tape, either audio or video, although some aspects of practice such as internal thoughts and feelings require other methods , for example process recording( Butler and Elliott, 1985) and client feedback mechanisms(Evans,1991,Swift,1997). The student's reflection can either be recorded on tape or in writing or can take place in dialogue with the assessor(s)(Phillips et al,1994). The traditional method in initial teacher training of separating out the student's reflections before and after a lesson could usefully, I believe, be explored in the education of other professions.

To date, I have conceived of two main types of practice-based assignments:- specific interaction and whole setting. Specific interaction assignments, as the term suggests, focus on a specific interaction between the student and one or more others, not necessarily clients. Whole setting assignments seek to elicit evidence of another key aspect of practice, namely understanding the nature of the organisation within which the student is practising: its structures, policies, resources, procedures and ethos.

Evaluative study of two specific interaction assignments.

This small scale study was conducted by Jackie Langley and myself in the Autumn term 1995. Both of us were, at that time, leaders of diploma in social work courses( Jackie of East Sussex and I of Suffolk/Essex) and I had just stopped being one of the external assessors to Jackie's programme. Both of our programmes had been experimenting with a number of non-traditional assessment methods, including practice-based assignments. Our aim in the study was to discover to what extent and in what ways students learned from these assignments, with a view to developing the assessment systems on both our programmes.

The two programmes had interestingly developed both specific interaction and whole setting assignments. The main specific interaction assignments differed in a number of respects. The Suffolk/Essex assignment, called the "taped assignment" comprised 4 distinct phases:- one specific interaction with a client or a colleague on placement which is taped (audio or video); the student's written or spoken reflections about the interaction recorded afterwards; a discussion between the student and two internal assessors(their personal tutor and their practice teacher) about both the interaction and the student's reflections; evaluative feedback from the internal assessors, both oral and written.

The East Sussex assignment, entitled the "practice record", covered two interactions, one at the start of a placement and the other half way through. At least one had to be with a client, although the other could be with a colleague. The assignment included:-an extract from a process recording for both interactions; a tape (audio or video) for one; the student's written reflections on both. Although the two stages of the assignment are commented on separately, they are assessed as one assignment by the student's own practice teacher.

Jackie and I decided to send an anonymous questionnaire to all the students and internal assessors of both programmes who had recently completed practice-based assignments. After some consideration we did not approach external assessors, largely because of ongoing issues between external assessors and the programmes. At that time we did not consider involving clients (service users), but now recognise that to be an omission. Due to administrative shortages the internal assessors of the Suffolk/Essex programme were not approached. Completed questionnaires were received from 30 out of 54 students on the Suffolk/Essex programme and from 11 out of 20 students and 6 out of 20 practice teachers on the East Sussex programme. 8 of the East Sussex students in one tutorial group responded on one questionnaire, probably with the assistance of their tutor.

The questionnaire comprised 5 open questions eliciting qualitative responses to the assignments. All responses were then content analysed.

There were 5 findings which we found particularly interesting:-

  1. One aspect of both assignments considered to be a strength was their potential for encouraging student reflection, as indicated by expressions such as "reflection", "evaluation", "critical evaluation", "analysis" ( Suffolk/Essex students-20out of 30, East Sussex students- all 11, East Sussex practice teachers-5/6)

  2. Another perceived strength in both assignments was the emphasis on the detail of practice(Suffolk/Essex students-19/30, East Sussex practice teachers-4/6, East Sussex students-3/11, not including the 8 in the one tutorial). Several Suffolk/Essex students(14) also indicated their awareness of detailed areas for improvement, which was not reported by any East Sussex participants.

  3. Most participants also valued the extent to which the assignments encouraged self and joint evaluation, and not simply internal assessor evaluation.

    Self both int. ass. Unclear

    Suff/Ess stud 16 10 0 4

    E/Sussex stud 11 0 0 0

    E/Sussex PTs 0 4 1 1

  4. Some impact on subsequent practice was reported:- a generalised improvement(by 7 Suffolk/Essex students, 3 East Sussex PTs and the East Sussex tutorial group of 8). However, 17/30 Suffolk/Essex students reported a specific improvement in their reflective skills in subsequent practice.

  5. .A number of difficulties were encountered in executing the 2 assignments. Two ethical difficulties reported only by the Suffolk/Essex students were:- achieving appropriate informed consent to the taping; resolving the tension between offering a service to clients and meeting the students' own assessment needs. Both Suffolk/Essex and East Sussex students reported practical difficulties inherent in taping:- availability and quality of equipment; finding an appropriate venue. Subsequent developments in Suffolk/Essex have gone some way towards resolving these difficulties.

The data also seemed to suggest that the particular strength of the Suffolk/Essex assignment lay in student learning about specific areas for development and in its impact on future practice, possibly due to the central position of the tape and the enhanced possibility of dialogue between student and assessors. The East Sussex assignment, on the other hand, seemed to offer more scope for analysis of feelings, probably through the process recordings and an evaluation of development, given its 2 stages.


It would seem that assignments such as these have some potential to develop reflective practice, not only at the time of undertaking the assignment but also in subsequent practice. Clearly other more substantial research projects could examine a range of such assignments, possibility across a number of professions and involving the views of students, internal and external assessors, and clients with the aim of determining which aspects of assignments have the greatest impact on students' reflective practice in later employment.

Studies in social work education(Hayward,1979, Evans,1991) suggest a persistent emphasis on examinations, essays and case studies as assessment methods, a picture which may well be repeated in several professions. There would seem to be a number of reasons why such practice-based assignments have not been developed as they might. Firstly, there is a degree of conservatism in curriculum design particularly over assessment methods, including a general reliance on written assessment methods, despite evidence that these possibly disadvantage some students(Evans,1991). Secondly, there still exists a lack of confidence in using tapes, from students through to external assessors. Finally, the territoriality which still divides practice teachers and settings from academic teachers and settings inhibits bringing together the details of practice and abstractions about practice in one assessment process.

The gains from such assessment methods, however, would suggest it is worth trying to overcome these obstacles. The inherent shift from reliability to validity can clearly place reflective practice at the heart of the assessment system. More politically, however, they would enable Higher Education Institutions to play a prominent part if and when work-based assessment becomes more widely required in the education of the professions.


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This document was added to the Education-line database 04 February 1998