In my last post, I looked at how intended learning outcomes (ILOs) can help focus your work and improve your productivity. Specifically, we saw how ILOs can be written to mesh with longer term goals, clarifying your immediate priorities and guiding interim assessments. This post will consider the last point: how ILOs can contribute to evaluations of your productivity.
The first tip is a pretty basic one. If you have a regularly scheduled performance evaluation, write ILOs that coincide with this time frame. The advantage of this is that you can clearly demonstrate your progress to your supervisor and together you can agree a specific workplan for the coming year. However before meeting with your line manager, you will need to do some serious preparation and this is where a technique called reflective learning can come in handy.
In the context of an academic environment, reflective learning is used largely as an informal assessment technique. Some of the feedback we receive can be formal: peer-review comments on our papers, feedback forms from our students, or performance reviews with our supervisors. But since academic research is such a self-directed activity, it is important that we use feedback from whatever sources we can find. Reflective learning is ideally suited to this type of self-evaluation.
The concepts of the reflective learning come from the Kolb cycle of experiential learning (see below). It basically says that we can learn from our past experiences, provided that we think carefully about the experience and apply these lessons to new situations. Therefore by reflective learning, I mean the process of actively reviewing your experiences and thinking about how you can improve things next time.
Reflective learning assessments are most effective when done by sitting down with a paper and pen and carefully breaking the learning experience down into its constituent parts. Although there’s no fixed way of doing it, I find the following headings useful:
- Describe the learning situation. Start by giving as much relevant detail as you can about the learning situation (e.g. who/what/when/where/why). So if the assessment is to cover the last year’s progress, you might wish to highlight the main projects you’ve worked on, who you have worked with, the actual work environment (see these notes on the importance of situated learning) and so on. Try to be descriptive and avoid making any judgements at this stage about the influence of each factor. It’s a good idea to do this as a free-writing exercise, i.e. with no editing, as even little details can prove important later on.
- The outcome of the learning. Having described what you did, now describe what actually happened. This is where you will want to make explicit comparisons with your original ILOs. If you believe there were mitigating circumstances for not achieving a goal, make note of this but again, we’re interested primarily in description, not judgement, so stick to the facts.
- What worked well and what didn’t. Now that you’ve described what you set out to do and its outcome, use your critical judgement to assess what worked well and what didn’t. This stage, like the others here, can be done as a bulleted list if convenient.
- What will you do differently next time. The Kolb cycle demonstrates how the product of our reflections must be fed back into practice if it’s to be useful. Write down those specific changes in practice that will help you work more effectively. These items can then be worked into your ILOs for the coming year.
I mentioned earlier that you might like to use reflective learning in the context of preparing for an annual assessment. But as you’ve probably guessed, doing an assessment for a whole year’s work can be quite cumbersome. How do you identify the contributions of a single bad day to a whole year’s work? Therefore my final tip is to reflect often. Perfect opportunities for this are:
- After submitting a paper. How did the research and writing processes go? What would you change next time?
- After giving a presentation/lecture. Did the talk go well? Were there too many slides? Could you do more to stimulate interest in the audience?
- After an annual assessment. How did your preparations go well? Did you find that using ILOs helped track your progress? How might the meeting’s outcome change your ILOs for next year?
These shorter assessments are much easier as they don’t take long to do and consequently, they can easily become habitual. Keep the notes (e.g. in a research journal) and by the end of the year you’ll have a whole series of reflections and hopefully, demonstrated improvements. You can then use these to assess your own progress against your ILO goals, to demonstrate this progress to others, and to plan your future productivity goals.