Reflection papers just don’t cut it anymore

I like assigning reflection papers as outcomes…  

they challenge students to think a little deeper on the incident after some time has passed.  I imagine them on campus, sipping a Starbucks latte, eager and ready to engage in self-reflection. Maybe they’re even thankful for the opportunity to do a little self work.  This paints a beautiful picture:  an espresso-fueled therapeutic writing session, motivated by their newfound perspective on taking accountability while thinking critically about their college student experience. From there, the reflection essay is submitted and accepted by the student conduct office.

…Or at least this is what I tell myself. In reality,  I know that it all too often looks a little more like this:

Student forgets they have a reflection paper due that night because they are far more focused on academic coursework. Or, they procrastinated since they knew they could bang out a fairly acceptable paper in 30 minutes tops. 

We’ve all seen this type of reflection essay. One that includes a recap of the incident expressing some remorse, maybe a couple notes about promises to count drinks next time, a few “I’ve-learned-a-lots” and “will-never-happen-agains.” Boom, done.

The importance of self-reflection 

Self-reflection is a crucial ingredient in the conduct process, seen as a best practice in our functional area. Just take a look at your institution’s hearing process or resolution meeting: we ask investigative questions to calibrate if a policy violation occurred, and we ask questions about impact and reflection to better understand the student’s headspace, accountability, and reasoning.  

So let’s ask ourselves, are standard reflection papers still the avenue we want to take here? The same prompts and guidelines for submission we’ve carved out in our functional area since we began? Or is there a more impactful efficient way to engage Gen Z in self-reflection?  

Gen Z

We wrote about Gen Z before, but let’s specifically focus on meeting students where they are. Reflection papers have shortcomings, we know this and we must call it out.  Students see those word and page count minimums or the Times New Roman requirement, and it’s like a  Pavlovian response, preemptively equating the exercise with an academic assignment, evoking feelings of stress or just plain boredom. 

The majority of our students will spend time recounting the incident, repeating themselves throughout the paper to meet the word count, telling us what they think we want to hear: “I plan to drink more water next time” or “I will tell my friends they can’t smoke weed in my room.”

Now, do they believe what they are writing? I guess I really don’t know.

It’s not all bad news though. I occasionally get exceptional papers (maybe from the students sipping those lattes!) and am reminded why I do this work.

Final thoughts

It’s time we begin framing sanctions as primarily developmental rather than just educational.  American schooling in K-12 conditions us to do what we must in order to make the grade.  When students see that reflection paper assignment, they approach it the way they likely approach most academic papers: check those boxes and submit. While we don’t assign grades in the conduct system (that’d be cool if we did, though), we must have established standards in place to assess student learning. That’s why we created a sanctioning program that engages and develops students, giving them that space to reflect, all while conducting assessment on the student conduct process. 

When I assign reflection papers, I oftentimes say to students, “You’ll get out of it what you put into it.”  It’s intended to be empowering, but is that enough? Sometimes I feel handcuffed because that’s all I really can say, hoping that they’ll seize the opportunity. As professionals always looking to build on best practices, we must not cling on to the one or two students who submit strong reflection papers. We need to meet Gen Z where they are. Assigning sanctions that are specific and engaging is the start. Give them the path to journey through their educational outcomes. Because if we really believe that the student conduct process is educational, we must strive to always improve the educational impact.