Self-Reflection Exercises and Knowledge Surveys in Learning: A Fractal Thinker's View of the Power of the Affective Domain

By Ed Nuhfer
Director of Faculty Development, California State University at Channel Islands

See the PowerPoint presentation from the workshop, Teaching, Learning, Thinking: Educating in Fractal Patterns (PowerPoint 658kB Oct26 07)


A good part of the final thirty minutes of our workshop* will be a look at the role of the affective domain through introspection. That will require a bit of introspection ahead of time, so please download and complete the two PDF files at the end of this page prior to the workshop. The knowledge survey will take less than five minutes. The self-assessment exercise can take as long as you have to give, because it represents an ever-changing negotiation with self on professional practice. If you can give an hour to it, possibly on the flight to POD, that will be enough to get good use of the workshop time. I designed the introspection exercise to help professors do what they most want to do. In my own practice, faculty development is never about pressuring faculty about what to teach or how to teach. Instead, faculty development seems most effective when developers help professors to do what they most want to do.

Why we often do what we don't want to do

Two characteristics of the profession of college teaching operate against professors knowing what they most want to do. The first is a time shortage. When faculty are too busy, too frantic, and too exhausted to have a balanced life, the opportunity to be reflective and to have the conversation with self about what one most wants to do is rare. In fact, it is so rare that few faculty have really been able to hold this critical conversation with themselves. Although those who probably need reflective time the most are those with the least time for it-namely the new tenure track faculty-any individual who has not had the critical conversation with self about what one most wants to do is likely doing something that is counterproductive to getting the results and satisfaction one wants.

The second has been a disrespect for the affective domain in the general academy. This disrespect is not limited to the hard sciences or professional schools. The feelings and emotions associated with the affective domain are too often seen as nuisances of no consequential value. These supposedly get in the way of the "real business" of learning required to become a scholar, a lawyer, an engineer, etc. It's not surprising to discover frustration among faculty that is often misdirected toward students, colleagues and the institution. Working harder while sensing one's aspirations are not being met is a good formula for dissatisfaction.

The affective domain and the Boot Camp for Profs??? Program

The Boot Camp for Profs??? program started in 1993 as a series of workshops; the choice of workshops and their sequence became more coordinated and focused around central unifying principles. Later, success of the individual professional was redefined as the optimal success of the individual within a particular institutional context. By "context" I mean the tenor, enacted mission, and purpose of our department, college and/or institution, and our being constantly mindful of our place within it and the effects of our actions upon it. Participants begin the introspection exercise weeks before the week-long camp actually begins. This is because every choice faculty make in how they operate within context begins with an affective feeling. It is important to understand what we feel and how we came to feel that way before we can understand why we might want changes.

The affective character of fractal generators

The question of how to best serve faculty with development in context led to a unifying model for the camp model based upon fractals. Fractals were appropriate for three reasons. (1) All learning-development of expertise in anything including college teaching-establishes a unique fractal neural network in the brain of the individual. (2) Human endeavors exhibit fractal qualities, and complexities of educational philosophies and patterns of behavior within institutions can be better understood if one can see the fractal qualities involved in producing these. (3) Comprehending fractal patterns in ways that are useful in application requires us to develop the ability to think quickly across varied scales. It forces us to develop consciousness to think in scales from our efforts in an individual class to the effect of these efforts on an educational degree or even upon the total life of a student.

A basic form called a generator determines the shape and quality of any fractal form. The growth into a complex fractal form occurs through a recursive operation in which the generator is added repeatedly. We chose the "Y" shape as our model (Figure 1), because the blood vessels and neural growth of the body are complex branching forms created by replacing the two "V" branches of the upper Y with other "Y" forms. Generators are the tiny critical seeds that eventually grow into the complex brain neurology of connected neurons and synapses required for functioning as creative, master professionals. Ideally, new generators contribute only the healthy parts required for successful growth. The health of the final product has everything to do with the completeness of the beginning generator. It is here, at the start of a learning experience, that the affective domain is most important. In conscious choices at least, the affective domain almost always acts before the cognitive and the psychomotor domains.

Six major components of a fractal generator shown as a "Y" form and the construction of increasingly complex forms built from the generator.
Figure 1. The components of introspection (at the bottom) and content form the base of the "Y". The left branch consists of pedagogy and levels of thinking. The right branch consists of rubrics and student self assessment. The brain of a developed faculty member consists of awareness of all six. The products of such a brain can articulate a sophisticated teaching philosophy and enact that philosophy in the increasingly complex tasks of creating course documents, lessons, courses, curricula -all in support of education consistent with the signature qualities of the unit (department, institution) and its institutional degree.

In the brain, the initial fractal connections of neurons are likely to yield no more than a feeling. Later they may become an idea. Only further development permits us to begin to consciously speculate on and articulate the idea. Feeling and sense of an idea before we can speculate on it are largely manifestations of the affective domain. It is noteworthy that the base of our model generator rests in self-reflection, the portion of the generator that is more dominated by the affective domain than any other component.

The power of the affective domain

We "decided" to become academics might be more truthfully expressed as our "affective domains directed us...". It is amazing that the affective domain directed the whole lot of us into a profession in which the affective domain is traditionally ignored and even deprecated! A student given free choice often selects a university based upon the fact that it "feels right." They enter our class based to some extent on feelings-even if it is only feelings that they are avoiding some other class. They choose majors based upon the same. In fact, if we made a list of important education attributes: knowledge, skills, preconceptions, values, priorities, confidence, professionalism, ethics and self assessment, we could find no attribute in which the affective domain was not present. There is no cognitive knowledge within students or within us that is separate and isolated from our affective domains.

The value of self introspection

If we examine both the feelings and why and how we obtained these, we can often resolve disparity between what lead us to do what we now do rather than to do what we most want to do. In this workshop, we will use a self-reflection exercise developed over many years to assist in helping us have the critical conversation with self. Complete the exercise to the extent possible before the workshop. Open the self reflection exercise second, ONLY after you have done the knowledge survey described below. The self reflection modules are superb exercises to use with your faculty; feel free to do so. In the workshop, we will only be able to join together to see the valued insights we obtain to a few entries, but the workshop will make obvious how to use the other parts of these modules as well.

The affective domain and knowledge surveys

Knowledge surveys are very new but faculty who understand how to use them to their potential quickly find them to be an indispensable tool for both student learning and faculty development. Construction of a good knowledge survey requires both a detailed review of content and ability to think between small scales of immediate facts and skills to large scales of building conceptual understanding. This requires choices of prioritizing, organizing, limiting and disclosing, which are actions heavily influenced by the affective domain of the faculty member.

The items on a knowledge survey probe students for cognitive skills and content through a query of reflective self assessment. For example, the knowledge survey item: "I can describe the scientific method and provide an example of its application" causes reflection on specific content, which indicates a part of one's understanding about what science is and how it operates. The "I can..." is definitely a probe of the affective domain. As such, knowledge surveys provide samples of students' responding from the combined operation of cognitive and affective domains. Such information is not produced by any other tool-not by tests and graded projects, and not by student evaluations of teaching. The data yielded is very useful as an assessment of learning gains when the data is aggregated as whole class averages.

Self assessment is a learned ability and a quality of great value to those who possess it. To do it well requires the ability to consciously coordinate the affective and the cognitive domains, which places those with good self assessment skills at the highest levels of the Perry and Reflective Judgment models. In these, one makes a choice for action based on both evaluation of evidence and awareness of how one's affective domain is influencing the decision. Alverno College is known as one of the finest undergraduate colleges in the world, because its signature of quality education is moving students to the highest levels of thinking through a curriculum designed to teach self assessment.

In order to demonstrate the usefulness of knowledge surveys in reflective thinking, you will find a downloadable knowledge survey based upon the downloadable self reflection exercise. Complete the knowledge survey FIRST, before you open the self reflection exercise.


* The author is indebted for having this material hosted on this site as part of a pre-conference workshop for the 2007 POD Annual Meeting in Pittsburgh, PA. All materials presented on this page were developed independently of the sponsors of this site, and the author takes responsibility for the contents of this page.

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