My earliest engagement with student reflection arose in 2005, when the Geography Department of what was then St Patrick’s College, a college of Dublin City University, first adopted the Moodle platform. From 2005, I experimented in using the Journal facility on Moodle to obtain feedback and encourage student reflection, initially with first and second year BA students undertaking practical geography modules. In this iteration of Moodle, individual students could make a private journal entry responding to a prompt, while the educator could respond with a comment or feedback which was only visible to that student. At the time, this was a revelation, offering a new form of communication between student and educator. Within the department our use of Moodle evolved over subsequent years, however, in 2013 a change in the platform removed the existing Journal facility. Significant changes to the degree programme were initiated when a two-subject BA Joint Honours degree replaced our previous BA model which had required three first year subjects. Combined with modified teaching allocations and a period of major institutional change, it was not until 2016 that student reflection using an electronic platform became a renewed focus of activity.
In 2016 the Mahara platform was introduced into the university. Initially, this seemed to provide a solution to issues arising from the changes to the Moodle platform outlined above, but it quickly became apparent that the Mahara ePortfolio was a more versatile tool, offering a more rounded and holistic approach for students as it enabled them to create, collate, curate and comment upon material related to their modules (see McManus, 2018). I initially adopted the ePortfolio approach for a second year undergraduate Population Geography optional module, where it forms a major assessment component, but subsequently incorporated an ePortfolio into two practical hands-on research methods modules in second and final year respectively. In these latter cases, the modules are flexible in content and aim to foster a creative approach to problem-solving and presentation of results. The ePortfolio requirements for the three modules differ, and all incorporate additional elements of content, but in all cases, students are required to incorporate a reflective learning journal within the ePortfolio. Thus, the reflective journal forms one component within a broader ePortfolio, but the observations within this article focus specifically upon the reflective learning journal.
These reflections are based on my on-going experience of using ePortfolio-based reflective journals with approximately 200 students over a four-year period. The journals were a graded activity to be completed on a weekly basis throughout the module for final submission at the end of the semester. While the weighting varied between the three modules, in all cases a significant proportion of overall marks (ranging from 10% to 30%) was allotted to the ePortfolios, to encourage student engagement. Students were briefed on the nature of the reflective journal component at the start of the module and given short prompt questions on a weekly basis. They were also regularly reminded of the need to maintain their reflections on an on-going basis.
Although ePortfolio practice has become almost ubiquitous across higher education, only a small body of empirical research exists in relation to the practice in Ireland (Donaldson 2018, Farrell 2018). As Chen and Black (2010) have pointed out, ePortfolio is a multifaceted concept and the ePortfolio can be used to fulfil many functions. Some limited research has demonstrated its use as a tool for reflection, including exploring broader aspects such as developing self-reflection and self-regulated learning, and exploring identity (Alexiou & Paraskeva 2010, Slepcevic-Zach & Stock 2018, Farrell & Seery, 2019).
Reflection, reflective learning and reflective journaling are terms which have become increasingly common in the academic literature, seen as offering beneficial opportunities for reinforcing student learning (e.g. Harvey, Coulson, & McMaugh, 2016). Kember et al (2008) identified four levels of reflection, ranging from the most minimal ‘habitual action’ through understanding, reflection and, the deepest level, critical reflection. This final level of reflection implies a transformation in perspective, which is a process that takes place over time and therefore should not be expected to be seen early or necessarily frequently as a student gradually develops reflective skills.
While reflective journals have become a common tool to promote reflection, the degree of structure varies. Journals may be prompted, whereby students are presented with specific themes or questions to reflect upon, but others are unprompted, with students invited to reflect on topics they consider important (Wallin & Adawi, 2018). Sultana et al (2020) recently examined the role of ePortfolios in encouraging reflective learning among undergraduate students at a Hong Kong university, drawing on Kember’s (2008) work. Their findings emphasise the role of teacher as a learning facilitator and guide, the desirability of building scaffolding toolkits to support both students and teachers, and the need to provide sustained capacity building on both reflection writing and building e-Portfolios. Some of these elements will be explored further in the discussion which follows. Within the Geography discipline, early attention was paid to the benefits of learning journals as a means of encouraging active student engagement in the learning process (Park, 2003), while more recently Hegarty (2017) has explored the use of ePortfolios as an integral part of assessment within a geography module. The specific use of reflective learning journals within an ePortfolio context is the focus of this reflection.
These observations on the reflective journaling experience over several years and with different student cohorts lead to a number of conclusions relating to both module design and student outcomes. My personal experience supports the available research into the benefits for students of incorporating a reflective journal ePortfolio element in module design, but also stresses the potential benefits for the educator in terms of feedback and their own reflective practice. However, it is also clear that such a component is not a panacea; it needs to be approached with care. Inevitably, as with all aspects of teaching, there will be students who engage in only the most limited way with the process. Careful attention at the module design stage may enhance engagement and encourage the greatest possible benefits (Moon 2004, Sultana et al 2020).
McIntosh (2010) found that attempts to include reflection in assessment tasks with limited pedagogical scaffolding was likely to result in superficial reflections with very limited impact on learning, while Ryan (2013) has identified pedagogic strategies that can be used to prompt these reflective levels in students' work. Combining this research with my own experience, the following points become clear. Reflective journals are most effective in an ePortfolio when the students receive clear briefing and are aware of the benefits of undertaking this process. Provision of marks towards the journal offers a tangible incentive for students, while the less tangible benefits of the activity may become clear over the course of the module. Therefore, the following guidelines are suggested:
• Identify clear objectives for the learning journal and convey these to the students at the outset
• Give enough marks towards the task to make it clear that this is important and worthy of attention.
• Consider incorporating a reflective journal within a broader ePortfolio context, as this may help to embed student reflective practice
• Develop a grading template to share with the students, which will further clarify expectations, while also ensuring that evaluation of the student’s work can be as impartial as possible
• Show students samples of a range of successful journals, while also reminding them of the desirability of originality, rather than following the model too closely
• Avail of opportunities in class time to remind students about their ePortfolio entries, including talking over how they might incorporate a learning experience into their journal discussion
• Offer periodic (ungraded) feedback on the ePortfolio to date – this can provide guidance and/or reassurance to students, while the educator can also gain feedback from students to aid in targeting and supporting challenging areas.
• Require a final overarching reflection to encourage students to draw together their thoughts on their experience of the module as a whole. This helps learners to evaluate how far their thinking has evolved over the course of the semester, and thereby encourages a deeper level of reflection.
• Take time, as an educator, to review and reflect on the feedback received from students through their reflective journals, and incorporate this learning into future iterations of the module.
With careful scaffolding, reflective journaling in an ePortfolio format can offer meaningful benefits to both learners and educators. Indeed, as discussed above, the increased level of student engagement with such journals at a time of crisis reveals their additional value, including their potential role as a ‘safe space’. Reflective journals within a broader ePortfolio context offer particular benefits to struggling students and can also be hugely helpful for the development of the educator. Although a degree of caution should be observed in raising expectations that one learning element can perform multiple functions, it is nevertheless worth considering the potential revealed by this experience. This simple format, when effectively introduced and scaffolded, can prove to be a powerful tool for deep engagement, reflection, and transformative learning.
'I would like to thank the guest editors for their supportive approach and the anonymous peer reviewers for their very helpful comments on a previous draft of this article'
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