Supporting reflection and reflective practice in an initial teacher education programme: an exploratory study

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Published: 
2021

Source: European Journal of Teacher Education, 44:4, 502-519

(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

The exploratory study reported in this paper was carried out in Year 1 of a revised four-year Bachelor of Education (B.Ed) Programme in a large university in Dublin, Ireland.
The B.Ed programme is designed to prepare undergraduate students as primary school teachers.
A redesign of the programme, which was recently extended from a three-year programme to a four-year programme, was influenced by recent research and developments in the area of preservice teacher education, including the increasing focus on reflection and reflective practice in professional preparation.
The development of the programme involved collaboration between teaching and research staff involved in preservice and post graduate primary teacher education in the university.
In developing the four-year B.Ed programme there was a clear recognition and acknowledgement of the need to support students in becoming reflective practitioners who would be capable and willing to engage in critical reflection in the context of their work with children in classrooms.
In working towards achieving this, there was agreement on and commitment to embedding reflection in all aspects of the revised programme.
Reflection became one of the key integrated ‘pillars’ on which the programme was based.
The five pillars on which the programme was based were:
(a) Personal and professional identity;
(b) Reflection and Enquiry;
(c) Professional knowledge;
(d) Professional practice; and
(e) Integration.
Reflection and Enquiry was to become programme-wide focus as well as being related to specific programme activities.
This paper focuses on the experiences of students and tutors of the Reflection and Enquiry tutorials of one cohort of Year 1 B.Ed students.

Method
At the end of the academic year 440 B.Ed Year 1 students and their 24 tutors were asked to complete an online survey.
The students and tutors were invited by email to complete the survey, following compliance with the necessary ethical conditions of the university, including student and tutor consent being received.
The online student survey was designed to obtain information about students’ experiences as participants in the B.Ed Reflection and Enquiry tutorials across Year 1 of the B.Ed programme.
The questions in the student survey focused on students’ perceptions of:
(a) the relevance of reflection in teachers’ professional practice
(b) the importance of reflection for teachers and for their own professional development.
(c) whether reflection can be learned by teachers through awareness and practice
(d) the emphasis on and support provided for reflection in the B.Ed1 programme generally and in the Reflection and Enquiry tutorials in particular
(e) the extent to which students felt that the tutorials helped them to build their skills of reflection
(f) their experiences of the tutorials in terms of the support from and comfort with peers
(g) the importance of the Reflection and Enquiry tutorials in the B.Ed programme
(h) the purpose of the reflection e-portfolio as a support for reflection in the programme.

The tutors’ survey focused on tutors’ perceptions of:
(a) the importance of Year 1 B.Ed student being able to reflect on their ongoing coursework and development as teachers
(b) the appropriateness of introducing and promoting reflection from the start of the B.Ed Programme
(c) students’ openness to reflecting in the context of their ongoing coursework
(d) students’ understanding of the meaning of reflection in professional practice
(e) students’ ability and willingness to engage with their peers during the Reflection and Enquiry tutorials
Tutors were also asked to provide information in relation to the quality of students’ reflection e-portfolio.
They were asked to rate the students’ reflection e-portfolio work in terms of the care taken by students in selecting their reflection artefacts and the level of reflection shown in their reflective writing.
Thirty-seven percent (163) of students responded to the survey, with 8% (13) of this number responding following a reminder email.
Forty-six percent (11) the tutors responded to the tutors’ survey and data for 143(32.5%) students was provided by tutors for the reflection e-portfolio analysis.

Findings and discussion
The finding that most students indicated that they understood the importance of reflection in professional practice was an important finding, indicating that at this early stage in their development as teachers this was acknowledged.
The fact that there was less certainty about whether the skill of reflection could be learned is not surprising and, perhaps, is a good indicator that students are still in the process of developing their understanding of reflection and its place in their own development as teachers.
The findings in relation to this match quite closely the students’ perceptions of whether reflection was emphasised in B.Ed coursework suggesting that a greater emphasis on reflection might be justified in coursework across the programme.
The findings in relation to students’ perceptions of the emphasis on reflection in the Reflection and Enquiry tutorials and the extent to which the tutorials helped them to build their reflection skills were mainly positive. However, the fact that a significant number of students were either unsure or disagreed that the tutorials were helpful to them in building their reflection skills is notable.
This contrasts with the finding that a much smaller proportion of students were unsure or disagreed that reflection was emphasised in the tutorials.
This suggests that there may be a disconnect between what students are experiencing and how they perceive this to be impacting on their own experience.
This warrants further investigation.
Students worked in their Reflection and Enquiry tutorial groups across the academic year with same tutor so that a community of practice could be built up and students could feel comfortable to engage in reflective tasks with their peers.
This aim was achieved to a large degree with study findings showing that most students were comfortable with other group members and felt supported by them, although fewer students strongly agreed that this was the case than agreed.
Further investigation is indicated in the case of students who indicated that they did not feel comfortable with or supported by their peers, especially since it was the same students who responded negatively to the survey questions relating to this.
Factors such as the composition of groups and the way in which tutorials are being facilitated across the 24 groups may be a factor here.
Students in Year 1 of a professional programme may not be in the best position to judge the importance of different elements of the programme and their importance.
The finding that most students considered that the Reflection and Enquiry tutorials were an important part of the B.Ed programme, therefore, was a very positive one.
The responses of the students to the question about whether the tutorials helped them to reflect on their own development as teachers showed only a small number of students (6%) who did not think that this was the case.
This is an important finding as this is a key aim of the tutorials.
Study findings show that, whereas most students were clear about the purpose of the reflection e-portfolio, a significant number of students were uncertain (13%) or disagreed (16%).
This indicates that more work is needed in linking the reflection work in the tutorials and the overall Year 1 B.Ed programme with the portfolio work across the academic year and/or examining the role of the portfolio in the context of the reflection work.
The reflection e-portfolio work of the students was an important element of the programme in scaffolding and supporting reflection.
Tutors were generally positive about the quality of the students’ portfolio work.
Tutors rated most aspects of the students ‘work as “exemplary” or “proficient”.
The fact that most of the portfolios for which data were provided by tutors showed evidence of higher levels of reflection is a very positive one.
However, the findings indicate that more support might be provided to students in setting guidelines for the selection of artefacts, especially in the context of School Placement.
Since School Placement comes at the end of the academic year in the programme, it would be expected that the artefacts and reflections in this context would demonstrate the students’ capacity for reflection in a professional context.
This appeared to be the case for most students.
However, the first extended school experience with its specific requirements in relation to preparation and teaching may have, for some, created a disconnect between school and college that became apparent in their portfolio work.
This bridging of the gap between college work and school experience, and reflection in the context of college work and school experience, is something that needs to be addressed going forward given the important role of reflection in supporting the application of theory to practice (Sellars 2014; Lucas 1991).

References
Lucas, P. 1991. “Reflection, New Practices and the Need for Flexibility in Supervising Student Teachers.” Journal of Further and Higher Education 15 (2): 84–93.
Sellars, M. 2014. Reflective Practice for Teachers. London: Sage 

Updated: Dec. 08, 2021
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