Finding imperfection and impact: developing self reflection in our future managers

Management education prepares students to undertake roles by exposing them to concepts, theories and models that enhance their ability to critically appraise situations while applying technical skills from finance, economics, human resource, auditing, tax, business law and so forth.  More specifically it is designed to prepare students to undertake managerial work.

Managerial work

While much is written about the nature of managerial work (Mintzberg, 1973) and courses may focus on teaching managerial skills such as planning, organising, leading and controlling (Edwards, 2018 on Fayol, 1949), the successful manager must be able to do more and be more than Fayol and Mintzberg have suggested.  A further complexity occurs for management education inasmuch as the student in the classroom may lack work experience to contextualise the often abstract concepts of management beyond the process or actions managers undertake on a daily or weekly basis. While some disciplines such as accounting assess students’ practical skills such as balance sheets, management has often relied upon report writing and presentation skills as an assessment process.

However, developing a person’s management skills to critically reflect upon their own actions to make and sustain change can be challenging. Deep, personal reflection requires conceptual skills, time, and a willingness to be vulnerable (Tanner, 2012).

Context

I teach post graduate, pre experience management students in a compulsory core introductory subject. This subject and the experience of learning are designed to be transformative. “Transformative learning is the process of effecting change in a frame of reference. Adults have acquired a coherent body of experience—associations, concepts, values, feelings, conditioned responses—frames of reference that define their life world.” (Mezirow, 1997, p5). As the course focuses on developing ethical thinking and incorporating the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SGDs) into their daily practice, measuring personal transformation over a short period or by traditional assessment items often leads to students reporting on or summarising what has occurred rather than how they have changed or the impacts they have made. 

Reflecting on learning is not new, and much of the work to support reflections is considered seminal and thus appears old by comparison to recent research. Over the past 12 or more years I have designed, read, assessed and witnessed the use of self reflection as an assessment both of, and for, learning. It is usually in some written form, as a means to encourage students to ‘verbalise’ their change or transformation while gaining insight to the work or personal change that remains to be undertaken. The content is often underpinned by the organisational behaviour concepts of self knowledge through understanding perception, behaviour, personality and efficacy (Griffin. et al., 2021), these assignments are set as they are considered authentic (Boud & Falchikov, 2006) and because reflection is seen as a valuable development tool for managers (Ronnie,2016) it becomes authentic for the students to learn this process as well.  

Reflective assignment

The personal learning reflection assignment is undertaken as a summative task and was altered during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 to be a video rather than written submission in the attempt to make it more personal, and less about the ability to express in written form, a person’s deepest thoughts. While this change had improved the quality, still some students remained in the safe zone of creating a summary of concepts over reflection of how they had personally been impacted and changed, even though our marking rubrics showed the former would not earn high marks. Despite instructions to talk about feelings, failings, learnings and change, most of the work submitted appeared to ‘skim the surface’ reporting in the least vulnerable manner, often ‘text book style’ summaries of what was learned or done and what might be different for the future. As a result of talking with my students, and our teaching tutors as well as my own observations, I suspected the problem was a result of many pressures including but not limited to, a lack of comfort to disclose, time to deeply reflect, surface level learning and competing demands of life and study.

Why reflection?

I deeply believe in the value of reflection, journaling, personal narratives, as valuable for both academics and managers in practice.  Practicing managers are asked at corporate strategy planning days to think about what worked, did not and what should happen next.  By exploring both what happened and the impact of the actions (both positive and negative), students undertake a development process that can be both evaluated and measured (Darling-Hammond, et al., 2019). My experience of writing personal narratives for professional recognition, as an innovator and as a mentor to others, lead me to consider how I could encourage, lead, and support my students to undertake this deep learning experience. Mentoring others along with my experience taught me it was not an easy task and even less so under time constraints.

To explore what happened, the impact of the actions, and support the development of learning from past mistakes and successes required scaffolding to make reflection manageable. Therefore, underpinned by the process of considering what we ask of an academic when undertaking personal narrative for recognition, I adapted this ‘bite sized’ approach to better support my students to reflect.

Models to support reflection

From my personal consulting observations and class anecdotal evidence, it appears project managers too notice that the post implementation learning reviews or evaluations are often rushed or skipped over as the next project takes priority. Hence teaching students to reflect in a scholarly manner, and measure the impact of the actions taken in relation to their practice and others they interact with is designed with the view to assist them to plan for their future actions.  This part of the process often leads to an imperative to instil change. However, to guide our students to undertake this as daily management practice is a more complex task.

In this course, I have used Gibbs (1988) model of self reflection (see diagram below) as it appears to be self explanatory and hence, I have used it for over 8 years and students follow the steps yet fail to gain depth in their written responses. Even providing explicit instructions for students to focus on the steps of evaluation, analysis, conclusion, and action plan and only provide a sentence or two on what happened (for context), the students got caught telling the ‘story’ rather than considering, with any depth, what they did and subsequently analysing it with theoretical knowledge. The aim of reflection in this assessment is to support the student to explore and understand the basis of why they did what they did, and what, in turn, it meant for them and others for and in the future.

Reflective Cycle
Gibbs (1988). Learning by Doing: A guide to teaching and learning methods in Further Education Unit. Oxford Polytechnic: Oxford.

Personal Narratives

With students often focused on an achievement mindset (Woodward, 2022), previously these self reflection assignments tended to fall into familiar territory of summarising rather than going to the depth of sense making that is required.  Journals are commonly used but these journals even with structure and prompts may not provide enough support for the students to excel in their scholarly reflections (Wallin & Adawi, 2018a, 2018b). 

I came across the scholarly approach of the personal reflective narrative as a result of undertaking professional development and considered how these narratives can inform change and invite ‘peer review’ (Ford, 2021). I decided if personal narratives can be used as a development tool for academics, the process could support manager development too. The key difference was a personal narrative asks the writer to quantify the impact. By asking for the students to discuss impact on themselves and others and potentially the future, students moved to deep personal accounts of transformation and change.

Approach

My ‘study in the wild’ (Chamberlain. et al., 2012) took a ‘carrot over stick approach’. I asked “What would support my students to reflect more deeply and do it regularly?” Previously students had completed an end of term reflection and we had encouraged them to journal each week. However, recognising the competing needs and demands and often a lack of self regulation (particularly learning online), I changed the narrative from reflection to impact.  

Rather than asking them to reflect, I structured questions that asked the student to apply the thinking of that week’s topic to a problem and in doing so consider if their answer or approach had changed as a result of the week’s information.  If they had applied any model or thinking, add a reference and do all of this in 165 words each week as a wiki. In doing this I wanted each student to talk of the impact the week’s learning had on them. What had they changed? What did it mean for them or for others? The design also focused less on academic achievement and asked the student to build on the previous week’s thoughts and impacts. Specifically, what did they do differently? It could be an action, a thought, a practice, a behaviour or even a discussion with someone.

The wiki did not have to be perfectly crafted or referenced, it only had to demonstrate informed thinking and consider actions taken.  I also ensured all students receive brief formative feedback after their first two entries (which told them we valued what they wrote, and they should also). To reflect well means you need to make time and by simply encouraging good reflective practices such as timeliness, being informed (using course concepts) and demonstrating development of thought (how was it different) the process supported students to focus on small but building impacts and it appears to spur action each week over delaying action and ‘retro fitting’ a summary to meet an assignment task.

Findings

While the wiki reflections stand alone as an assessment item, a positive yet welcome unintended consequence was the depth of change in the summative reflective task. It appears that the students, by undertaking weekly writing, have learned to scaffold their personal narrative as reflections of learning. The weekly response, focused on the impact or change made and being regularly articulated slowly allowed the student to be vulnerable in a brave and supported manner. The weekly task made the student reflect in both time bound and specific manner thus employing some of the SMART goal (Lawlor & Hornyak, 2012) process. The design inherently overlayed Gibb’s model of reflection and implored the student to move from ‘what’ to ‘why and how’ but more importantly to ‘what now’ as a result.

We had many students make comments like these:

“ Wiki is my favourite task, by doing it, I can review the course weekly, practice Harvard referencing, practice reflection skills, and practice overall writing skills”

“Weekly WIKI can help us deepen our understanding of the course, and cooperate with tut to get more benefits.”

Given the student comments, it is also clear the students have noticed how this differs from previous or other learning experiences as well. From the structure, to focus, and application, it appears students valued and learned from the process as intended. Further, this process was also designed to support those who may struggle to write long narratives, or report style work to demonstrate learning without complex language ability.

Discussion

The self-regulated learner (Zimmerman, 2002) may do well in developing personal reflection undertaken as a systematic and timely process. However, with more students seeking to balance working (often full time or more than the previously considered 20 hour load for work given to a full-time student) or other responsibilities with their studies, students appear to benefit from a more structured and monitored approach to self reflection as a development tool. Setting students up in ‘SMART goal style’ structures appear to support timely and outcome focused reflection. However, more importantly it focuses the student to the impact, because an action without impact may mean little for their development for the future. There is little point doing something that is busy work alone.

Linking the activity to an assessment item that is done both for learning and of learning, encourages students to move from a surface summary of a course to personal impact which is really the inherent goal of self-reflection. Students will always have competing demands on their time hence, doing wikis weekly for 10 weeks reminds students of the practice and its value. It may also serve as a start of a habit to support them as managers for the future. Further, for the student lacking efficacy or educational capital (after Bourdieu, 1986), short narratives with interim feedback develop the student to learn to self disclose and move to ‘meaning making’ through reporting impact over summative accounts.

Learning to reflect deeply is a critical management skill. Being able to articulate beyond what happened to make meaning and understand the impact on both self and others is a critical step in ensuring an organisation becomes a learning organisation, that a manager learns and develops from their experiences and does not repeat their mistakes of the past.

This short research paper was presented at the University of Sydney Business School Learning and Teaching Forum

Image: Colin Anderson Productions on Getty Images.

About the author

Associate Professor Lynn Gribble is an Education Focused Academic at UNSW Business School. Teaching large compulsory core courses at a Masters level, Lynn is interested in how students learn and transform in the process. When not teaching, Lynn can be found capturing the world as she sees it with her camera, playing with technology, and practicing her Chinese.

Published by Lynn Gribble

Associate Professor Lynn Gribble is an Education Focused Academic at UNSW Business School. Teaching large compulsory core courses at a Masters level, Lynn is interested in how students learn and transform in the process. When not teaching, Lynn can be found capturing the world as she sees it with her camera, playing with technology, and practicing her Chinese.

5 thoughts on “Finding imperfection and impact: developing self reflection in our future managers

  1. Ranjit Voola – I am an Associate Professor in Marketing at the University of Sydney Business School. My passion is to drive change in how businesses engage with the United Nation's Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) across teaching, research, and governance.
    Ranjit says:

    Thanks Lynn. Great insights. I look forward to applying these insights!

    1. Lynn Gribble – Associate Professor Lynn Gribble is an Education Focused Academic at UNSW Business School. Teaching large compulsory core courses at a Masters level, Lynn is interested in how students learn and transform in the process. When not teaching, Lynn can be found capturing the world as she sees it with her camera, playing with technology, and practicing her Chinese.
      Lynn Gribble says:

      @Ranjit, I look forward to hearing how you go. Lynn

  2. Tom Worthington – Canberra – An educational technology consultant, Certified Professional member of the Australian Computer Society, and part time university lecturer.
    Tom Worthington says:

    Might be useful to prepare students to undertake managerial work in the same way other professions do: in part with work experience, and then getting the students to reflect on what they learned. A sneaky way to get the to reflect is to write an application for a job: https://blog.highereducationwhisperer.com/2021/08/learning-to-reflect-module-version-50.html

  3. Lynn Gribble – Associate Professor Lynn Gribble is an Education Focused Academic at UNSW Business School. Teaching large compulsory core courses at a Masters level, Lynn is interested in how students learn and transform in the process. When not teaching, Lynn can be found capturing the world as she sees it with her camera, playing with technology, and practicing her Chinese.
    Lynn Gribble says:

    Indeed Tom, so many good ways to get our students to reflect – thanks for sharing

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