Feature Article

Teaching tips, connecting subjects: Facilitating student learning and understanding through reflective papers

The author discusses assigning reflective papers as a springboard for action for students.

By Katherine Allen

An opportunity and a challenge in teaching undergraduate students in the Department of Human Development is the intricate connection between our “subject matter” and our “subjects.” We teach about, and study, individuals and families over the life course. Our topics, including family development, human sexuality, diverse families, family risks and resiliences, and human services delivery, are relevant to our students, both personally and professionally. In teaching courses that challenge students' beliefs about families, whether those beliefs are unexamined, contradictory, or firmly held, I have learned that it is much more powerful to acknowledge rather than ignore the self of the learner. Living in families; starting families; balancing work and family; surviving and thriving in the midst of the inevitable crises that constitute life in families; and finding meaning, support, and resilience in families are all issues that are very much on the minds of young adults who are forging their own family pathways.

Some of the topics that I teach and study include hidden family ties in older women's lives; LGBT family relationships; college students and sexuality; adult sibling relationships; and family crises and change. Such subject matter often prompts intense responses from students. While some students have not yet been sensitized to disadvantage in their own or others' lives, many have lived through experiences that do not reflect the so-called norm of the nuclear family, allegedly untroubled by loss, disruption, or unanticipated events. It is more likely that students have experienced many of the family permutations and challenges that we study in class and to ignore that fact would be counterintuitive and disingenuous. My goal is to present research about how families face challenges and social change while meeting their needs for health and well-being over the life course, within a context that acknowledges and honors students' lived experience. At the same time, teaching in my field requires a delicate balance of helping students to “get out of the way of their own experience” so that they can see a much bigger picture about the social, economic, and political forces impacting family life for others.

The college classroom is an ideal environment for informing students' most private and deeply held beliefs. Messages they have internalized from parents, peers, media, religious communities, and the like inevitably bump up against the research and theories that comprise the core of our knowledge base about family systems, identities, roles, and relationships. The space where students' own ideas, feelings, and behaviors collide with the material in our texts and internships in the field provides an opportunity for change. When students' core ideas are challenged and knocked off center, new knowledge can enter and help them grow, not only as scholars but also as human beings with the capacity for deeper understanding of themselves and of the clients with whom they will work in the human development profession. A powerful way to develop skills to knock down walls between “us” and “them” is through acknowledging, not denying, students' subjective responses to what they are studying.

How do we facilitate student learning and practice when we study what we often live? One strategy derived from the practice of engaged pedagogy is to assign reflective papers in which students approach the course material to “get it out of their system” about how they may have experienced the topic in their own lives. Reflective papers on the difficult and sensitive subjects we teach and study in our field provide both a touchstone for reflection and a springboard for action. Making our experience transparent through reflective papers allows us, as human service practitioners, to put ourselves in the shoes of clients, rather than taking a distanced stance. Students especially resonate with the practice of writing about and sharing their subjective experiences with the subject matter, particularly when given the opportunity to share their stories or listen to other students' stories through classroom exercises. Students learn so much from each other, and finding out about how their peers have experienced the issues we study provides an exciting opportunity for reflection and understanding. In making the reflective work a part of the class, students not only learn to connect the personal to the professional, but they learn a lesson that is essential for getting along well in contemporary work and families: collaboration with and openness to learning from one's peers.