Self-reflection guides as a strategy to support students’ development of intellectual skills

Mike Brudzinski, Miami University, Allison Jaeger, Temple University, and Michael Hubenthal, Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology

published Sep 14, 2017 4:37pm

Participation in an undergraduate research opportunity (URO) has become a common, and in some cases necessary, element in the educational and career pathways for many aspiring scientists. A number of studies have documented that students report a range of benefits after participating in a URO including a deepening of content knowledge and an understanding of how scientists think and work on real problems, growth in confidence, independence, and responsibility for their work, as well as influencing, refining, or confirming students' choice of career directions and interests in research (Bauer and Bennett, 2003; Kardash, 2000; Lopatto, 2004; Russell et al., 2007; Seymour et al., 2004).

The support and mentorship provided by faculty represents an important type of social network that can offer guidance for students when making decisions about postbaccalaureate study (Coleman, 1988, 1990) and a primary influence on students' development as disciplinary researchers (e.g., Nettles & Millett, 2006; Parry, 2007; Wisker, 2005). The value of the mentor/mentee relationship has been echoed by organizations that support research. For example, in 2009 the National Science Foundation (NSF) implemented a provision in the America COMPETES act requiring that all NSF proposals including postdoctoral scholars provide a thorough description of anticipated mentoring activities, such as career counseling, training in preparing grant proposals, publications and presentations, and guidance on how to collaborate with diverse groups of researchers (NSF, 2009). Perhaps as a result of this policy, faculty have reported an increase in NSF proposals being returned with reviews requesting more information on how students will be mentored (including those other than postdocs), how successful training of students will be determined other than by the record of publications and presentations and how they, as mentors, will improve going forward (Flaherty, 2014).

Over the past decade much work has been done to document the learning and growth that occurs through UROs. Much of this work was focused on developing means to effectively measure the Behavior, Attitude, Skills, Interest, and Knowledge (BASIK) that result from UROs. As noted above, students do show many gains from the URO experience. However, it has been suggested, after looking a number of these studies, that the skills most students in UROs develop are methodological, with little growth in the invisible intellectual proficiency vital for research (Feldman et al., 2013). Furthermore, little focus has been placed on developing practical tools and strategies to support students and mentors as they work on developing BASIK. Mentors and students need a pedagogy and curriculum, based on learning theory, educational research, and cognitive science, to help ensure the learning that occurs in UROs includes more than simply methodological skills and attitudes.

The Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology (IRIS) has provided an NSF-funded undergraduate research internship program for the last 15 years. Over the years, this program has worked to develop practical tools and instructional strategies for mentors and their interns that accounts for the learning process of students, as the mentor and student work together to achieve the desired student outcomes. A specific goal has been to develop an approach that would provide opportunities for mentors and interns to: 1) engage in cognitive apprenticeship pedagogies, 2) increase the extent to which the mentoring relationship is centered on the intern, 3) increase the extent to which the intern is satisfied with the mentoring relationship, and 4) enable mentors and interns to feel more effective in monitoring their own/intern's personal/professional growth.

A URO can be examined as a cognitive apprenticeship where learning occurs through several key methods: modeling, coaching, scaffolding, articulation, reflection, and exploration. In a study of UROs as cognitive apprenticeships, Feldman et al., (2013) found reflection to be one of the least commonly initiated methods employed by students and mentors, and concluded that professors need to be more proactive in helping their students gain intellectual proficiency. The IRIS Internship program has sought to address this gap through the development of an intern self-reflection guide and implementation plan that encourages interactions between interns and mentors (Self-Reflection Guide). Mentors are expected to administer the self-reflection guide 3 times each summer (beginning, middle and end) and use them as tools for discussing progress and growth with their interns. There has been increased adherence to the protocol with self-reflection guide usage increasing from 1.4 average uses to 2.7 uses from 2011 to 2015 as mentors and interns saw the results from previous years.

Survey data regarding the impact of the self-reflection guide was collected from 2011 to 2015, and results were presented at the 2016 American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting (Hubenthal and Brudzinski, 2016). The study followed a non-experimental design with post only measures, because there was no access to a control population. Interns (91%) and mentors (72%) both described the self-refl­ection guide as useful for illuminating areas for improvement and areas where growth had occurred, although interns generally reported the guide to be beneficial to a greater degree than did mentors. Interns (69%) and mentors (52%) generally agreed that the rubric was a useful resource for the mentoring process, with only 12% of interns and 6% of mentors disagreeing with that statement. Interns (72%) also felt that discussing the rubric with their mentor was beneficial for the mentoring process and 70% of interns rated the support provided by their mentor as Very Effective. Interns (85%) also reported that their personal development was at least as important to their mentor as producing science results. Overall, interns reported confidence in monitoring their personal/professional growth and mentors indicated confidence in their abilities to mentor interns and use tools such as the self-refl­ection guide. Thus, the self-re­flection guide appeared to be successful for achieving its goals despite both mentor and intern reticence; only 28% of interns and 29% of mentors reported looking forward to completing the rubric and discussing it.

When considering the results of the self-reflection guide in the context of the GET-Spatial Learning Network, we hypothesize that mentoring and self-reflection could be useful tools for assessing and building confidence in spatial reasoning skills. Much like UROs have been assumed to naturally result in improved BASIK skills for students, geospatial assignments are assumed to naturally result in improved spatial reasoning. Using a self-reflection guide for spatial reasoning skills in a geospatial course or curriculum could be an effective intervention for improving awareness and assessment of spatial reasoning skills, both by students and instructors.

Research has indicated that some relatively easy to administer interventions can improve spatial reasoning. For example, generating predictive sketches of cross-sections and comparing those sketches to correct cross-sections has led to significantly improved penetrative thinking (Gagnier et al., 2016). Additionally, research has shown that as expertise in the geoscience domains increases, successful problem solving may actually rely less on spatial reasoning skills and more on heuristics that have developed through expertise (Hambrick et al., 2012). More recently, some research has begun to demonstrate that spatial tasks can be solved via a variety of strategies, with some being "more spatial" than others (Boone and Hegarty, 2016). This work has shown that different problem solving strategies can successfully be taught and result in improved spatial task performance. All of this work points to several key areas that could be included in a spatial reasoning self-reflection guide. Specifically, this guide could assess the types of strategies students use when solving spatial problems. In this sense, a spatial reasoning self-reflection guide would be useful in making mentors and interns more aware of the types of strategies they use and if those strategies are working. This should help students to develop a wider array of methods for successfully solving spatial problems, and hopefully improve spatial reasoning skills overall. Additionally, the guide could indicate that an intern and mentor approach spatial problems differently, helping to make the mentor more aware that they may need to adapt their instructional style to meet the needs of their intern.

There are several reasons that the benefits of the URO self-reflection guide developed by IRIS are transferrable to a potential self-reflection guide focused on teaching spatial reasoning. First, a self-reflection guide provides both a vision (end game) and a guide (breaking down the path and forcing dialogue) for the development of the intellectual skills. Second, intellectual skills, whether for research or spatial reasoning, are normally invisible. However, the discussion of a self-reflection guide requires both the student and mentor to make their mental models of these skills explicit. Because intellectual skills are inherently complex, understanding them fully is likely to be an iterative process of explanation by the mentor, student reflection and comparison, more explanation and refinement, and so on. Third, a self-reflection guide builds up the role of the learner as an active participant in the learning process, which facilitates the iterative process mentioned above and cultivates strategies for long-term intellectual growth.

Taken together, it is important that students and mentors have methods for evaluating growth and progress in the context of intellectual skills. The self-reflection guide developed by IRIS provides a great starting place for this type of evaluation in a research context. It provides a general focus on the skills that are important in all research settings including recognizing research problems, understanding advances in one's field, analyzing and reporting results, and working collaboratively and independently. Future work should look to adapt this style of evaluation or assessment for more specifically targeting the skills needed in the geosciences. Since spatial reasoning skills have been identified as critical in the geosciences by both academics and employers (Summa et al., 2017), they represent a good target for developing self-reflection strategies to improve student and mentor awareness of skill development and the training that may still be necessary.

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