Extending Wednesdays

The Role of Reflection in the Extended Essay

Our first Extending Wednesday guest post is by Alethea Bleyberg. Alethea is an IB educator and examiner based in Hong Kong and is a member of the Extended Essay curriculum review team.

As a member of the curriculum review team for the Extended Essay, I was recently asked to feed back to the team leader my thoughts on the role of reflection in the EE process. Reflection received a new and substantial emphasis in the current EE guide (first assessment 2018) with the introduction of the Researcher’s Reflection Space (RSS), formal reflection sessions and the Reflections on planning and progress form, more commonly known as the RPPF. What follows here are my own thoughts on the role of the reflection in the EE process, in light of the input of the many thoughtful contributions from my fellow team members.

The EE guide, understandably, makes a number of assumptions about the importance of reflection in the Extended Essay process. Reflection, after all, is embedded in the philosophy of all IB programmes. It is one of the ten learner profile attributes. As a metacognitive skill, reflection is a complex process requiring a focus on multiple types of strategies, including cognitive, metacognitive and affective/motivation strategies. Moreover, it is assumed that reflective thinking strategies generally result in increased academic achievement. As a result, reflection is an integral component of virtually all IBDP courses whether it be the process portfolio in Visual Arts, the learner portfolio in Literature: A or the TOK journal in TOK. It was, therefore, no surprise that the last curriculum review resulted in reflection being added as an assessed component in the Extended Essay process. The EE guide sums up its assumptions around the importance of reflection succinctly as follows: 

“As a part of the extended essay, students will be expected to show evidence of intellectual growth, critical and personal development, intellectual initiative and creativity. The depth of reflection will demonstrate that the student has constructively engaged with the learning process. Such engagement provides evidence that the student has grown as a learner as a result of his or her experience. More importantly, it demonstrates skills [such as critical thinking, decision-making, research, planning, time management, citing and referencing] have been learned.” (EE guide p.41)

It seems to me, therefore, that placing emphasis on reflection, especially in a process as complex as the Extended Essay, can only be a good thing. But this by no means answers the following questions around how reflection should be structured, guided, evaluated and assessed in the EE:

I. Structure

  • How do students respond to formal reflection? Do they complete the RPPF reflections as intended? 
  • What is the relationship between the quality of the essay and the quality of the RPPF entries? 
  • Is the structure of the RPPF the best way to collect reflections?
  • Is the 500-word limit a useful tool to ensure concision or limiting to student’s ability to reflect deeply?
  • Are students really keeping a RSS? How are they being rewarded for doing so?

II. Guidance

  • To what extent should students be guided in how to write formal reflections?
  • How well do the materials in the TSM (Teacher Support Materials) reflect how the RPPF is assessed and guide teachers in supporting students?
  • Are some students being over-supported by their supervisor or coordinator in writing the reflections?
  • Should students be allowed to edit their reflections?

III. Evaluation of effectiveness as a teaching tool

  • Is mandatory reflection an authentic task? 
  • How do we know that students have developed key skills in time-management, organization, research, academic writing and academic honesty through the quality of their written reflections? Does the RPPF evaluate students’ ability to write well more than it does their ability to reflect well?
  • Are students that don’t encounter obstacles in the process due to good planning disadvantaged?
  • Is formal reflection effective in ensuring academic integrity?
  • How do we ensure that students avoid purely descriptive reflections but rather demonstrate higher order thinking skills?

IV. Assessment

  • Should reflection be assessed?
  • If so, is 18% (6/34) of the EE mark an appropriate weighting? 
  • If not, how should students be penalized for not providing reflections?
  • Are the current descriptors in Criterion E fit for purpose in evaluating the quality of student reflection?
  • Are examiners evaluating RPPFs on their own merit or in relation to the quality of the essay (as many EE coordinators report)? If the latter, is that appropriate?

I will try to summarise my thoughts on each of the categories above as best as I can:

I. Structure

In my own experience with students, the quality of the reflections often fails to live up to the quality of the EE. Occasionally this is because students don’t actually complete the reflections when they should in the process, but even when they do, I have found even some of my brightest students’ reflections rather superficial and focused on the less interesting parts of their project. The feedback I have received from my students is that they see reflection as an afterthought to an already daunting process, and something of an IB box-ticking exercise rather than a process designed to support their success. Certainly, it would be possible to integrate reflection within the structure of the EE, but the danger of this is that it could interrupt the writer’s flow and sound inauthentic. 

My own feeling is that the RPPF is largely fit for purpose, but that the 500-word limit discourages students from more meaningful, in-depth reflection. I would like to see the RSS and RPPF merged in some way so that reflection becomes an integral part of the EE process for students, although I acknowledge that student’s natural inclination is to do the bare minimum. Still, I feel that if students could choose three of a wider range of more detailed (hence longer) reflections, they would be more likely to choose reflections that better articulate the parts of the process that were most significant for them.

II. Guidance

I am a strong believer in scaffolding students’ learning experiences and providing explicit guidance on how to write strong reflections along with exemplars is the best way to raise expectations around written reflections. The poor quality of reflections seen by many EE coordinators and examiners suggests there is still a way to go to ensuring most IB Diploma students are confident and articulate reflective thinkers. To that end, the materials in the TSM could be improved to support EE supervisors and coordinators in clarifying expectations and standards to students, and supporting students in improving the quality of their own reflections.

III. Evaluation of effectiveness as a teaching tool

Most would agree that mandatory reflection is an authentic task as it is required not only in school settings, but increasingly by universities and in workplaces (think goal-setting, performance management, professional coaching, editing written work, the design thinking process etc.). 

The extent to which written reflections actually demonstrate mastery of key skills is more contested. Surely the quality of the essay itself is more important in assessing the extent to which self-management, research, communication and thinking skills have been shown in the process. The experience of many EE coordinators is that the marks awarded in Criteria A-D closely match those awarded for Criterion E, regardless of the quality of the reflections. It would be interesting to see a statistical analysis of the correlation between marks for Criteria A-D compared to Criterion E to see how closely aligned the marking of EEs and RPPFs is. If the correlation is strong, perhaps further investigation is needed into why this is the case. It would perhaps also be useful for the IB to make available some examples of EEs whose RPPF was much stronger than the essay itself, especially where the RPPF was the element that pushed the EE over a grade boundary, to highlight the importance of reflection in the EE process.

IV. Assessment

The current weighting, at nearly 20%, seems to place too heavy an emphasis on the RPPF compared to the rigours of the essay itself. The RPPF seems to disproportionately reward reflection over other skills fundamental in a successful EE process. 

Some students, seeing that in Criterion E it is suggested that students address how they overcame challenges, seem to exaggerate or make up problems they encountered. Alternatively, students who planned their process well sometimes feel disadvantaged in not having a dramatic obstacle to reflect on. Perhaps this could be clarified in the next guide so that students are reassured they don’t have to have overcome a major hurdle to be rewarded in Criterion E.

As a former IB Diploma graduate, IB Diploma and EE Coordinator, imagining the future of the Extended Essay and contributing to improvements to the process for students is a joy and a privilege.

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