Higher education, which has always been influenced by the reflective tradition [1
], now lays increasing stress on the development of reflective skills—“twenty–first century skills” [2
] for students’ acquisition of professional skills [3
]. The social and symbolic context of contemporary societies [8
] situates the meaning of information at the core of educational quality when transforming it into knowledge. This requires a type of learning which is necessarily reflective, based on a holistic, comprehensive and functional interpretation of the competencies [11
] and closely linked to the concept of practical knowledge [14
], if students are to be equipped to understand and intervene in personal, social and professional life.
Reflection requires training, effective habits, appropriate learning spaces [15
], learning environments [16
] and even a culture of thinking in the classroom [18
]. Aimed at addressing this concern, the present article is the result of a research project in university teaching (REDICE16–1660) which centred on studying the value of activities based on the narrative approach [19
] for fostering reflective thinking around what was learnt, students’ own learning processes and their development of competencies and professional skills [21
In order to assess these learning contexts, a questionnaire was designed and tested, grounded in: (a) definitions of reflective thinking as a key general competency; (b) different models with stages and hierarchical levels of reflection [22
]; and (c) conditions for planning learning and teaching activities [1
] favourable to the construction of contexts and spaces for reflection in university education. This article presents the process and results of the validation of this instrument, which measures students’ opinions on the value of narrative methods and the learning contexts designed to develop reflective thinking.
1.1. Reflective Thinking in the Learning Process
John Dewey [29
] defined reflective thinking as the in-depth examination of our beliefs in the light of what underlies them and their products. This is a cognitive activity through which a careful examination of the principles underlying reflective practice is made [30
]. Reflective thinking is seen as a key general competency for university students’ overall development [31
]. Comparing the various theoretical definitions of teaching in this context [22
] thinking reflectively allows us to become aware of our ‘style of thinking’ and of our ‘in-progress and completed learning,’ its interpretation and assessment. All of these are key factors in the exercise of sustainable thinking, in the same way as competency-based learning [28
In this process different stages of reflective thinking have been identified [22
]. Scholars concur that raising awareness is the essential basis of transformational reflective thinking [36
], and that the end result is the (re)incorporation of new qualities into the knowledge and skills of those exercising it [37
]. Analysts such as Ryan [25
] have outlined four hierarchical levels of reflective thinking:
Reporting/Responding. As the most basic level of reflection, students are taught to narrate, to become aware and to discuss aspects of practice. It stresses the identification of the focus of reflection, identifying “what is important to you.” Knowing how to identify a theoretical or practical situation on which to focus one’s reflection is an essential factor in developing the reflective process.
Relating. This involves connecting with prior skills and/or knowledge (of a related problem or in a similar environment), along with values and priorities, and with how these are related to the values and priorities of others.
Reasoning. Here students take the step from evidence to reasoning and thus can make more rigorous reflections: arguing a case in detail, consulting theory and literature to support an argument and considering different perspectives. Explanation and justification appear as the different possibilities are examined and at times even the ethical implications are taken into consideration.
Reconstructing. On this final level, the reflective process reaches its highest expression. Students should demonstrate new ideas and ways of thinking about a problem, and these should be transferable to their future practice.
In the theoretical model underpinning this study, the development of thinking is seen to require appropriate learning spaces [15
] which bring reflection into play and influence students’ own self-regulation of this process [38
]. These are spaces of comparison, interaction and reflection “enabling us to carry out premeditated thought acts, such as taking decisions, arguing a case and other analytical, creative or critical actions” [39
] (p.15) and which awaken students’ curiosity and stimulate autonomy in their own learning process [40
1.2. University Learning Contexts as Spaces for Reflection
Situated social–constructivist theory ascribes a social origin to the development of reflective thinking [41
]. Teaching and learning activities are conceived as social and emotional experiences through which students can become aware of what they say and do. The task of teaching requires teachers to create the right conditions: contexts which bring reflection into play and influence the student’s own self-regulation of learning [42
]. In accordance with González–Moreno [22
], in this project learning environments were structured as spaces for reflection with the following characteristics: permanent feedback in a social climate of trust (the emotional dimension); the leading role of the students in their own learning process, boosting self–regulation and autonomy; provision of clear instructions on the task to be carried out, the reason behind it and the conditions required; and the provision of various types of support depending on the requirements of learning (in the areas of introspection, group reflection and persistence).
It is interesting to consider the idea of a culture of thinking which has been consolidated in recent years, understood as an atmosphere in the classroom in which various forces (language, values, expectations and habits) work together to express and strengthen good thinking [18
In our project we decided to structure learning environments on the basis of narrative-based methods [19
] in order to promote reflective thinking about what was learned and about students’ own learning processes. Stories and writing about experience through narrative strategies, in addition to the responsibility and independence required by approaches centred on student autonomy [44
], are potentially rich sources for producing a type of knowledge which can re-evoke experiences and transform them into the contents of what is to come. Also, such narratives have been shown to be enormously useful in developing reflective learning among students [22
] and fostering professional and skills development in university education [20
Writing and narration help to construct thought [46
], forging relationships between it and action, experience and affective and motivational factors (self–efficacy, goal–setting, interest in tasks). In this project, narrative and (auto) biographical methods were understood as resonant personal, experiential stories which had created relationships between the academic curriculum and the construction not only of identity but also of meaning, practical knowledge, time and the key aspects of daily life. In this way, the construction of embodied knowledge was made possible by creating a space for intimate reflection by means of stories. This experience [47
] showed that promoting a narrative in the learning process has a three–fold value. On the level of both the individual and the group, it (a) offers students an opportunity to open up their thinking, linking back to what has happened, but going beyond it in order to learn, (re)interpreting and (re)signifying knowledge through writing and rewriting. Also, it (b) creates social learning situations, favouring teacher-student and student-student relationships in order to understand themselves based on what they know and what they have. All this endows the learning process with an emotional and contextual dimension which strongly influences the development of reflective thinking. Lastly, it (c) shapes the teacher’s role as ‘guide and facilitator’ who supports and nourishes students on the path of listening, thinking and reflecting. Both steering the learning process using the rubric as a self–evaluation tool and giving feedback and feed-forward in order to widen, reflect on and develop learning have been confirmed as highly valuable strategies for improving the self–regulation of learning [48
1.3. Instruments for Measuring Reflective Thinking
A general literature review yielded five questionnaires linked to the assessment of reflective thinking [35
] that present limitations involving the factors of validity (cultural and linguistic) and central tendency. Further, the difficulty of measuring a complex construct such as reflective practice limits the possibilities of these instruments, which should be combined with others in order to triangulate relevant information on how students reflect on their own personal and professional development in relation to the teaching activities in their universities. This results in a serious difficulty in establishing sequential levels of reflectivity, since the processes of reflection, awareness-raising and action are more complex and interwoven than described in the theory. Issues with reliability can be found, in the sense that teaching apparatuses designed and applied with students, and which involve quantitative output on them, have not always spurred the development of reflective thinking.
In addition to this, we observed that studies on reflective thinking in higher education have paid plentiful attention to identifying the sequential levels of reflection [23
] and, to a lesser extent, to how students reflect on their own personal and professional development in relation to the educational activities in their universities [27
]. However, an important theme is overlooked: identifying the key factors of the most suitable learning environments for the development of this overall competency in university education. For this reason, the instrument presented here takes a wide range of dimensions to be measured into consideration.
2. Materials and Methods
The overall objective of this study was to design and verify an instrument for measuring students’ opinions on the value of narrative approaches and the learning contexts created for developing reflective thinking in higher education. A survey was carried out in the form of a self-administered questionnaire on the value of narrative approaches and the contexts created for promoting reflective thinking in higher education based on the conceptualisation of the levels of reflective thinking (see annex I
). The questionnaire investigates students’ perceptions through a total of 65 items grouped into 8 scales coming from the extensive literature review on learning contexts as spaces for reflection: students’ feelings when doing the tasks set them (7 items); the reflective skills developed (7 items); their levels of reflective thinking (16 items); their awareness of the process of learning (autonomy and reflective self-knowledge) (7 items); their awareness of learning (8 items); the teacher’s role (6 items); the potential of reflective thinking in the learning process (6 items); and their assessment of narrative approaches in fostering reflection in their process of learning and skills development (3 items). Lickert–type scales with numerical values from 1 to 5 were used, with 1 representing the lowest value (never) and 5 the highest (always).
The total sample invited to participate comprised 520 students from 5 Spanish universities, with a final participation of 372. All the students invited were part of courses and degrees where narrative apparatuses were devised to trace the impact of narrative methodologies in reflective thinking for learning process, and personal and professional development. The details of each course as well as the strategies carried out to promote reflective thinking are described in [32
], as part of a research and innovation project in university teaching (REDICE16-1650). In all of these courses, the reflection of students was increased through strategies such as thinking aloud when solving a problem, the analysis and exchange of materials of personal elaboration and the formulation of questions about the process and mechanisms that they used before, during and after the tasks were performed. The reflection was not only about the accomplishment of their tasks, but of the whole process carried out for each activity. Among the principles that guided the inclusion of courses and degrees where the questionnaire was applied, the following were crucial since they placed the academic curriculum in relation to the construction of students’ identity, meanings, and practical knowledge: (a) The theoretical introduction of what an autobiographical perspective implies and advances in class; (b) the design and implementation of activities demanding that students put themselves in a new situation where they need to think and face what they have experienced, as well as give meaning to what happened; (c) the provision of significant learning environments (mainly in group) to encourage the thinking, thus to “exchange”, to “think with” and “in presence of”.
Cases in which students did not respond to at least 70% of the questions were eliminated, since the information provided was insufficient. Also, outliers were excluded through a Mahalanobis distance test. The mean age was 20.76 (SD = 2.88), with an age range from 18 to 41. A total of 80.9% were women and 18.55 were men. The universities represented from highest to lowest participation were: the University of Burgos (UBU) with 29.6%, the University of Valencia (UVEG) with 22.8%, the Autonomous University of Barcelona (UAB) with 22.5%, the University of Barcelona (UB) with 17.2% and the University of Castilla la Mancha (UCLM) with 7.9%. A total of 33.3% of the sample were studying degrees in Primary Education, 29.3% were studying Infants Education, 23.1% were studying Pedagogy and 14.2% were studying Social Education. Of these, 62.4% stated that they had some previous experience in the educational field. Also, 49.3% did not combine their studies with working; of the rest, 22.5% worked between 10 and 20 hours a week, 20.1% worked less than 10 hours and 8.1% worked more than 20 hours. The sample mainly comprised students who had gained access to their degree courses through the university access test, PAAU (62.4%), or through a higher-level vocational course (28.8%). The rest had gained access via other routes, such as the access test for adults over 40.
The design and validation procedure adopted the method of expert judgement and pilot application to a wide sample, in line with the recommendations in the literature [54
]. It comprised 2 phases with 4 actions in each:
2.3. Data Analysis
The data analysis was performed using SPSS 23.0 y AMOS 22.0 with licences form the University of Barcelona. Univariate (means, deviations, asymmetry, kurtosis, etc.), bivariate (Pearson correlations) and multivariate (exploratory factor analysis and confirmatory factor analysis) analyses were performed. A reliability analysis was also carried out for the internal consistency of the scales using Chronbach’s alpha. The discriminatory power of the items was estimated prior to the exploratory factor analysis with the aim of identifying the latent variables enabling the organization of the items making up the scale, and a confirmatory factor analysis to reduce the number of items while conserving maximum variance. Finally, the consistency of the instrument subscales thus identified was tested with an analysis of their internal consistency.
After determining the psychometric properties of the instrument, the construct validity was analysed through an exploration of the factor structure of the total set of items, with the objective of identifying the underlying variables. The method of principal component extraction with varimax rotation was adopted. The instrument’s dimensionality was tested by calculating the Kaiser–Meyer–Olkin (KMO) measure of sample adequacy and carrying out a Bartlett sphericity test in order to determine the adequacy of the exploratory factor analysis (EFA) previously undertaken. Once the factors had been established, a confirmatory factor analysis (CFA) was performed. To ascertain the goodness of fit of the CFA models, the comparative fit index (CFI) and the Tucker–Lewis index (TLI) were used. Also, the Root Mean Square Residual (RMR) and the Root Mean Square Error of Approximation (RMSEA) were estimated. Lastly, for the RMSEA, we took values of less than 0.05 as indicating a good fit and for the RMR values close to 0 and less than 0.08 suggested a good fit. For the fit of the models we took TLI and CFI higher than 0.9 as acceptable values. Also, with the objective of comparing the relative fit of the resulting models, the Akaike information criterion (AIC) was used.
Promoting in-depth and higher-order thinking skills (reflective thinking, critical thinking) in university education contributes to the development of professional competences associated with good thinkers [36
]. This premise is essential in implementing constructive and self-regulating experiences of in–depth learning and, therefore, in the achievement of successful learning through innovative and relevant teaching practices which can shape students’ subsequent teaching practice [59
]. Thus, there is a need to determine which elements help to establish best practices for reflective teaching and learning; and students’ perceptions are key in obtaining information on this issue [27
]. Using instruments such this one enables us to measure the effects of higher education learning contexts on the development of reflective thinking.
The results obtained by exploring the factor structure of the final model present appropriate goodness of fit and parsimony [60
], thus verifying the suitability of the indicators chosen for measuring the questionnaire’s constructs of interest. Therefore, the instrument may be applied for gathering data from students’ points of view in university contexts in which strategies and methods to aid learning how to think critically are designed and implemented.
The most outstanding contribution of this questionnaire has to do with its dimensions of analysis. Consistently with the theoretical model, its construct validity and underlying relational structure confirmed 10 scales. This enables us to corroborate the key elements influencing the development of reflective thinking in the university environment through methods and learning contexts designed as spaces for reflection; a desirable triad of guidance, autonomy in a climate of trust and reflection [47
]. While the design of the instrument started by dividing it into 8 dimensions, the results yielded 10 factors which clearly corresponded with the theoretical approaches incorporated into the initial instrument. The two large–scale changes which altered the instrument’s factor structure had to do with, firstly, the emotional dimension, and secondly, the levels of reflective thinking defined by Kember et al. [35
Regarding the emotions, our findings evidenced a difference between what we have termed ‘emotions of unease’ and ‘emotions of activation.’ This may be explained since the root of reflective practice [30
] certain emotions (i.e., unsureness, anxiety, confusion, doubt) are seen to be necessary, as they drive the activities of seeking, researching, problem-solving and decision-making [61
], consistently with the instrumental nature of reflective thought. Similarly, reflective practice also has to do with the creation of spaces enabling us to address interesting issues, involving surprise, enthusiasm and curiosity, which we see as emotions of activation. Another important aspect is motivation and the climate offered in the classroom for carrying out activities. In the innovations implemented here, the tasks set were conceived as ways of communicative exchange, of cooperative relationships between students and teachers, intended to induce experiences (feelings, estimations, judgements about oneself and the learning tasks) which would enable the expression of a way of being and feeling propitious to learning.
The teacher role as guide and facilitator of the learning process is also key, since the path of listening, thinking and reflecting cannot be undertaken individually. It is not possible to deliberate, make judgements, take decisions or progress in the cognitive self-regulation of learning activities without creating developmentally appropriate learning environments [62
]. Both dimensions, the emotional and the contextual, represent influential factors in the self-regulation of learning [38
], favouring enhanced awareness of one’s own learning, from the standpoint of reflective self-knowledge (knowing what to improve/develop in the professional and/or academic areas and in one’s own learning process) and the exercise of greater autonomy in this process.
As for the factors corresponding to the levels of reflective thinking in the initial scale from Kember et al. [35
], the indicators these analysts attributed to the ‘reflection’ factor disappeared in the outcomes of our analysis. Kember et al. defined this factor as “the process of internally examining and exploring an issue of concern, triggered by an experience, which creates and clarifies meaning in terms of self, and which results in a changed conceptual perspective”, following [63
] (p.100). This may well be explained by the fact that our prototype questionnaire included two scales on awareness of learning, which also enquired into reflective self-awareness and autonomy. As we noted above, awareness-raising represents the fundamental dimension for transformative reflective action [36
], and in this case the final instrument widens the dimensions of one of the most widely known models of reflective thinking [35
The development of narrative approaches in the classroom involves a shift in orientation towards new spaces, where support and feedback integrated into educational assessment are key to the optimization of the aimed-for skills and professional development. We hope that university teachers are aware that the higher-order thinking skills should form part of university instruction, because they shape the structuring of activities and techniques which cultivate and nourish reflective and critical thought. There is a pressing need for educational systems and instructors to equip learners with the regulatory skills and abilities required for the demands of lifelong learning [65
]. Also, thanks to the verification of the instrument presented here, we now have a valid means of establishing measures for assessing reflective thinking widely and holistically when it is fostered with narrative approaches.
Overall, this instrument might help teachers to face the challenge of creating spaces for reflection with a culture of thought [18
] in higher education, where group thinking–both individual and collective–is valued, made visible and actively promoted as part of everyday experience of all members. On this basis, it might be useful to evaluate reflective learning environments [1
], considering the experiential and emotional dimensions (experiences, intuition, feelings, values, creativity and uniqueness of each person) that promote deep learning, the quality of which requires of specific strategies and contexts. The instrument itself allows to gather data about the following three dimensions of these reflective learning situations [32
the existing opportunities for learning from deep and effective thinking in classrooms [66
]. This questionnaire is useful to obtain evidence of how students learn, from the personal awareness of their previous experience, thinking of themselves and connecting with their social context of reference.
the value of self-regulation and the role of students in the learning process, herein based on the use of narrative methodologies. This questionnaire highlights the value of the teaching role as a guide and facilitator to sustain students on the path of listening, thinking and reflecting.
the creation of a social climate of trust in the classroom. This instrument helps to evaluate the teaching environment needed for the development of thinking activities. The emotional and contextual dimensions are key in the self-regulation of learning [68
] and have also been shown to be favourable for the development of reflective thinking in previous works [32
Regarding the limitations of this study, this is a transversal study, which does not allow us to draw conclusions on the evolution of the dimensions analysed. We should take into account the effects of the social desirability intrinsic to self-responding instruments and the need to constantly test and verify the degree of fit and the metric behaviour of the questionnaire in subsequent studies, as is habitual in validation studies. Turning to future lines of research, the relationships between narrative approaches and improvements in students’ learning, and their effects in developing teaching should be analysed. Also, it is also important to examine what influence the promotion of reflective learning has on the degree to which students are capable of thinking more widely and more effectively. Finally, future research should focus on both assignments and in-class practices that challenge students to engage in higher-order thinking [69
] using multi-institutional samples, as in the present case.