If you're going to learn properly you have to go beyond what the module teaches you. You have to do stuff beyond the letter of the learning outcomes. Reflective work is an area where this is very often the case. To learn properly, you need to go back over what you have learned. You need to give it time to germinate. You need to sketch in mentally where connections are beginning to occur. Many modules do not build this in specifically, but you need to make it part of your habits of learning.
Time is always a problem. No sooner have you finished this chapter than the module calendar is beckoning you to the next. You can still build in some time for reflection, and it will repay you many times over. Often when you start out doing things like this, you wonder where the time is going to come from. When you have made it a habit, you wonder how you ever did without it.
Reflection may be just a fancy word for what you do already. You may sit and work over notes you have made. You might move bits of paper around on a table. You might be staring out of a train window pondering the connection between Plato and the Dalai Lama. A study session might turn into a prolonged pause as you consider how the subject matter is changing the way you think. Allowing those moments is important. It is also important to structure some time in so that turning over and piecing together what you have done becomes habitual.
You can structure your reflection according to the study material. Most of our modules deliver their content in books, and books have chapters. Different modules organise their material differently, so you can take a cue from what the module does.
For instance, on AA100 there are four books each with a number of chapters. Each chapter has aims at the beginning. I advise my students to spend some time with the aims before embarking on reading the chapter. Then, when they have finished reading, I advise going back to the aims and spending half an hour working on whether and how far the aims have been fulfilled. I advise keeping a journal and making some notes in the journal at the end of each chapter.
On DD102 the chapters do not have aims, and the introductions are not very useful for the purpose of planning the reading. But the chapters are divided into sections and each section has an excellent summary at the end. So I advise my students to read the book backwards – to start by reading the summary at the end of each section, and then read the section. When they get to the summary again, I advise a pause for thought as to whether the section does what the summary says, and again make some journal notes. Whichever module you are on, look at the structure of the books and figure out the best way to read them intelligently, and where the natural pauses for reflection are.
The journal is important as a way of collecting and structuring your thinking. There is endless advice as to how to structure the journal itself. I do mine in a web page that I keep on my computer. That does not require any great technical skill – in fact, you'd be surprised how simple it is. It has the virtue of being able to use links to connect pieces of the journal, and also of being infinitely expandable, so I can go back and make more notes on any particular topic. If you prefer hand writing, then I suggest a loose leaf folder, and write your journal on one side only of the paper. You can then use the other side for jottings, tags, connections that you make later, additions, doodles and so on.
And on occasion you can take a spare hour or half hour and look back over your reflections, and be amazed at how far you have come. You will also see pieces of the jigsaw beginning to relate to each other, and you will see insights that have been on the edge of your vision come into focus.
Occasionally we actually teach reflection. On AA100, for instance, we have two assignments which could be called reflective. But students often just treat them as hoops to jump through. That's fair enough, because, to be honest, we present them as hoops to jump through. I have taught quite a few modules for the OU now, and only one has systematically got students to do reflective work. But if you only do what the modules tell you, you are selling yourself short. The essence of being a student is that you decide what you are learning and how. And in particular we revisit things:
"As a single footstep will not make a path on the earth, so a single thought will not make a pathway in the mind. To make a deep physical path, we walk again and again. To make a deep mental path, we must think over and over the kind of thoughts we wish to dominate our lives." (Henry David Thoreau, in Walking .)
G K Chesterton wrote a rhyme:
Before the Roman came to Rye or out to Severn strode,
The rolling English drunkard made the rolling English road.
The Roman road is the module materials. They take you straight as an arrow towards the goal of fulfilling all the learning outcomes, boxes neatly ticked, goals achieved. The English road is the one the student takes. It gets pulled back to the Roman road sometimes, usually by assignments, but in between times the module unleashes the student to do what they will with the material on offer.
This is not only OK, it is actually the way things should happen. Teaching should never corrall you onto a straight and narrow path: that way you never get to see the lush vegetation on either side. Reflection is one of the ways in which you see all that is going on around, and you begin to transcend the learning outcomes. You take direction from the module materials, but you should never be limited by it. At some point you *must* leave the module material behind if the learning is to be your own. It is not the OU's knowledge and ideas you want in your head, it is your own. Reflection is the key that turns knowledge acquisition into deep learning when you understand differently and make new realities with your new knowledge. Dewey says, “We state emphatically that, upon its intellectual side education consist in the formation of wide-awake, careful, thorough habits of thinking. Of course intellectual learning includes the amassing and retention of information. But information is an undigested burden unless it is understood. It is knowledge only as its material is comprehended. And understanding, comprehension, means that the various parts of the information acquired are grasped in their relations to one another – a result that is attained only when acquisition is accompanied by constant reflection upon the meaning of what is studied.” (Dewey, J. (1933) How We Think Boston MA: Houghton Mifflin Company, pp78-9)
Nietzsche puts it more poetically. “No one can build you the bridge on which you, and only you, must cross the river of life. There may be countless trails and bridges and demigods who would gladly carry you across; but only at the price of pawning and forgoing yourself. There is one path in the world that none can walk but you. Where does it lead? Don’t ask, walk!” (See “Nietzsche on How to Find Yourselfand the True Value of Education”.) He is referring to life in general, but it describes perfectly the act of learning – it is your road, yours alone, and the act of reflection helps you to find it.
You should take the initiative, and build reflective time habitually into your study routine.
Students often take word counts far too seriously, and at the same time not seriously enough. The instant you see the phrase "word count" in the assignment book you start to worry about entirely the wrong things. You focus on the minutiae - does the title count, do the section headings count, does the bibliography count, the references in the text, are you sure?? are dates one word or three, what about hyphenated words, do footnotes count, do quotes count, if you put somebody's initials in do they count, what about appendices, how much can you go over without being penalised, how much can you go under without being penalised, what about words in diagrams, what about words in tables, and so on and on and on and on and on.
Instead of writing the assignment, you're worrying about the word count all the way through. I can tell this because often the first question that is asked is "How far can we go over without being penalised?" The answer is usually 10%. Then you set out to write to the word count + 10%, which is entirely the wrong way to do things. If I give you a 1000 word essay to write, I'm interested in you writing 1000 words, not 1100. The extra 100 is for you to stop dinning in my ear about diagrams, references, dates and hyphenations, because you have a whole hundred word buffer to deal with that stuff.
Assignments are exercises in conciseness. That's what we aim to teach all the time. The reason why is that conciseness aids learning. If you can explain something concisely, that means you've learned it well, and you can explain it well. If you can't explain something concisely, that means, nearly always, that you haven't yet learned it well enough, so you need to revisit it - or you need to revisit the way you've explained it.
So when you've written your 1000 word assignment, and it comes to 1105 words, you look at what you've written. And the question in your mind should not be "Is that part of the word count?", it should be "Which bits can I write more concisely?"
However, boundaries do need to be reasonably clear, so here is a handy and short three part guide to what to look for and what to do. I should note, by the way, that my students will get more detailed guidance than this before their first assignment.
1) Check up on, be familiar with, any guidance given for this course and this assignment in the course companion and the assignment book. Make sure that you're aware of them.
2) After that, when it comes to small things - the dates, the section headings, initials and so on - aim at the word count, and let the buffer (10% or whatever is stipulated) take care of the rest.
3) For the big things - quotes, tables, footnotes, diagrams - go on the following principle. What you've written is either there to gain you marks, or it isn't. If it's there to gain marks, then you should regard it as part of the word count. If, as some students have tried to argue from time to time, it's not, then what the heck is it doing there?????
Follow those basic principles and you won't need to worry about word count any more, so you can concentrate on writing the best assignment you can.