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Reflective Analysis: Partnering to Benefit students and the  University

A unique partnership between college programs, Steinbright Career Development Center, and the Office of the Provost has created a distinctive lens into Drexel students’ experiences via their written reflections about co-op. Drexel students learn how to create reflective analyses in the First-Year Writing program, and use this skill to reflect on their co-op experiences. While originally the co-op reflective analysis was conceived of as a means to assess student writing, these reflections are going beyond assessment. The reflections now inform students’ conversations with their co-op coordinators, provide student insights into academic programs, and reinforce the importance of the Communication Drexel Student Learning Priority (DSLP).

The mechanism behind this accomplishment is simple. Toward the end of each of their co-ops, Drexel undergraduates are required to complete a survey.  The survey gives students the opportunity to evaluate their job and what they learned there, think through their career plans, and describe their level of preparation for the job as well as their connection to Drexel while on co-op.  In the Career Planner section of the survey, students are directed to:  “Submit a 400 word reflective analysis on how one aspect of this co-op experience relates to a personal, academic, or professional goal that you are pursuing at Drexel.  Be specific about both your goal and how one aspect of the co-op relates to this goal.” 

This reflective essay is a useful starting point for conversations between students and Steinbright’s co-op coordinators.  These conversations take place during the six weeks between the end of one co-op and the beginning of students’ first round of applications for their next co-op.  The conversations have been one-on-one between coordinators and students, but recently Steinbright began moving toward guided discussions with up to eight students and their coordinator.  The guided discussions allow students to learn from and, importantly, teach each other.  When guiding the conversations, coordinators are aided by information from the students’ reflective essays.

Karen Nulton, PhD, who helped to facilitate the reflective analysis implementation, explains that the original purpose of the reflective analysis was to “encourage students to reflect on their co-op experiences and to provide a common writing experience that could be assessed to provide data about how well students are meeting Drexel’s Communication Student Learning Outcome.”  The reflective essays have been scored by trained faculty, and since rubrics from the First-Year Writing Program were cloned, certain skills can be viewed longitudinally. 

The writing assessment has already helped to shed light on an important student cohort. According to Nulton, based on data from academic years 2010-11 and 2011-12, there is no evidence that “student evidence-based analysis skills increase” from one co-op to the next, and it appears that those skills may actually decrease after the third co-op cycle.  There is also “no change in the sentence-level language skills of students over co-op cycles.”  Further analysis will address this issue more closely.

While this is important information to examine, perhaps the most immediately pressing data came when Nulton and Devon Scott—formerly of Institutional Research, Assessment, and Effectiveness—compared students who had English as the mode of instruction (EMI) prior to college with Non-EMI students.  In terms of English written communication skills, the Non-EMI students (a subset of international students) “underperform EMI students in every co-op cycle analyzed, both at the level of evidence-based argument and at the level of sentence construction.” These data suggest that a cohort of students will need support to attain the Communication DSLP at a level commensurate with that of the larger student body. 

The study of students’ communication competency using reflective analyses is ongoing.  According to Nulton, for the first time the Writing Assessment Advisory Committee (located in the Department of English and Philosophy) has samples of the same student's writing across all three co-op cycles. Dr. Nulton is partnering with campus partners to explore ways that this work might be analyzed in new ways.

While the reflective analyses have supplied useful data about students’ communication proficiency and provide a valuable starting point for conversations with co-op coordinators, Nulton explains that, “the writing samples have had unexpected further benefits; meta-analysis of the samples reveal data about the link between co-op and academics that is not gathered in any other form.”  These data about the link between co-op and academics encouraged Joseph Hawk and Stephanie Sullivan from Steinbright to partner with Donald McEachron, PhD, to pilot a more targeted reflective analysis prompt in order to elicit more focused student reflection on the intersection of co-op and academics.

The second reflective analysis prompts students: “Reflecting upon your recent cooperative education experience, how well do you think your classroom activities prepared you? Was there anything missing that you felt would have better prepared you? Do you have any suggestions on how to improve you classroom activities to prepare you for your career? Please compose a 300-400 word reflective essay addressing these issues, including specific examples whenever possible.”

This reflective essay has been piloted with the School of Biomedical Engineering, Science and Health Systems and will be added to future administrations of the co-op survey across the University. In reviewing the pilot data, even a very preliminary analysis shows how rich this source of data can be for program improvement and enhancement. No less than 145 separate, individual suggestions for program improvement were made by the students based upon their co-operative education experiences. Of these, 40% mention specific courses as either being useful or needing improvement while another 38% of student responses mention the need for more hands-on activities and practical training. Such suggestions create an evolving and adaptable link between the workplace and academic experiences, ensuring relevance of academic programs in a rapidly changing global environment.