Get Students to Show Their Learning, Not Just Tell It!

Get Students to Show Their Learning, Not Just Tell It!

Qualitative assessment often uses the same two designs: individual interviews and focus groups. Although we can spend a considerable amount of time trying to perfect the questions we ask, we spend less time thinking about the ways we can get people to share their experiences in different ways. What if we approached qualitative assessment in a different way?

Multimodality is a communication concept that focused on this idea (Partan & Marler, 1999; Bezemer, 2012). It recognizes that we communicate with each other not just verbally, but we rely on visual, spoken, written, and gestural communication. If we were to explain what we did over winter break to our coworkers, we might show them pictures of family gatherings or say “Check out these new shoes I got!” while pointing to our feet. Multimodal communication is a natural process that we engage in daily.

If multimodal communication is so common, why do we not utilize it in assessment? And what would it look like?

Two people having a conversation with each other. One of them is sing hand gestures while they verbally communicate. This is an example of multimodal communication.

What is reflexive photography?

One type of multimodal communication is reflexive photography. When we use reflexive photography, we task someone with capturing a picture that accurately represents their experience, feelings, or ideas. For example, if I was given the prompt “Capture a picture that represents a time you learned about how to best advise students,” I might choose the picture of Asheville, North Carolina below.

A picture of Asheville, North Carolina. This was the location of an alternative break trip that I advised last spring semester.

For reflexive photography to be useful, someone cannot just choose a picture, they must reflect on its meaning as well. For me, the picture above reminds me of what I learned while advising an alternative break trip to Asheville, North Carolina last spring semester. I learned more about what it means to act as an advisor, how I can let student leaders shine, and how students can rely on each others’ experiences to grow and develop.

How do we know reflexive photography is beneficial?

Reflexive photography can be a useful tool for depicting student development. Not only does reflexive photography capture interactions that students have with their environments, but it can serve as strong symbols of meaning, as well (Schulze, 2007). We naturally add meanings to symbols that we interact with in our environment and we can associate them with a range of emotions and memories. But what does that mean?

Because I consider myself a #SAGamer, one thing that comes to mind is the Gamecube console’s intro sequence and logo (picture provided below). To some, it looks just like a blocky G, but for me, it brings back memories of my childhood and my first gaming console. I remember the times that I spent playing a demo version of Legend of Zelda’s Wind Waker, spending hours on the game Pokemon Colosseum, and attempting to perfect my skills on Super Smash Bros Melee. Pictures and photography can be powerful for allowing others to talk about their experiences, the environments they interacted within, and for creating deeper meaning.

A picture of the Gamecube logo

Outside of the theoretical benefits, there may be some potential generational benefits. All traditional-aged students are now within Generation Z, and their favored communication is through picture and video (Seemiller & Grace, 2017). Major companies following communication and social media trends among Gen Z echo this sentiment. Last summer, Business Insider (Green, 2019) surveys indicated that Instagram, Youtube, and Snapchat (all picture and video based platforms) were among the highest used by Gen Z. Since this last summer, TikTok has even developed its own ground as a video-based platform and is heavily used by Gen Z (Fontein, 2019).

These differences in preferred styles of communications bring their both opportunities and challenges. Regardless of what generation you may identify with, we are all capable of using visual communication to convey meaning. However, for SA folks who aren’t Gen Z, we may have to push ourselves to consider visual communication as a powerful tool, especially since it may not come as naturally to us. Additionally, although visual communication can be a great tool for understanding the development of students, organizations or programs that serve non-traditional students may have to consider flexibility and choice in assessment efforts.

Examples of reflexive photography in action

What could reflexive photography look like in action, though?  Just as with any assessment method or procedure, using reflexive photography has as much potential as you have creativity!

  1. If you find yourself teaching a first-year foundations course to students, reflexive photography could be used as a project in the course. In this case, the prompt could be “Capture a photograph that represents a struggle you have had while transitioning to college and one that represents a success you have had.” After students capture these pictures, they could reflect on them in multiple ways. They could set a time to meet with you, they could create a video elaborating on their choices, or even write a short response about them.
  2. Reflexive photography could be used at the end of a leadership retreat. A prompt could be “Capture a picture that represents a time you engaged in learning about how your intersecting identities impact your leadership approach.” Students could discuss their pictures in small groups or within the larger group, depending on the size of the retreat.
  3. Academic advising could also utilize reflexive photography. For example, if you were to have an advising appointment with a student right before they declared their major, you could ask them the prompt “bring a picture that represents how you feel about starting classes in your major.” The given picture could represent excitement, confusion about components of their program, or even anxiety about their choice or pathway.

Wrapping things up

Reflexive photography can be a powerful tool for facilitating conversations with students about their experiences. It goes beyond just asking students the What of their development, and digs into the How and Why. Although this assessment tool has been around for a while, conversation about it has been largely absent. Although quantitative data provides necessary information about the scope of programs and services for students, qualitative data, such as that gained from reflexive photography, can provide substantial depth when understanding the student experience.

When utilizing qualitative designs, we should continue to think of tools such as reflexive photography. Although traditional methods, such as individual interviews and focus groups, are tried and true methods, we should self-reflect on the ways in which we collect information and insight.

At the end of the day, when approaching opportunities for qualitative assessment, ask yourself, “Can we do this differently? What other methods can lead us to unique information?”

Part 2 coming soon!

For myself, I’m excited to utilize reflexive photography in an upcoming assessment project in my graduate program. Over spring break, I will be utilizing this tool to assess students’ civic engagement development as a result of participating in an alternative break trip.

Look out for a Part 2 later in the semester about how reflexive photography translates into data and how it can be utilized!


Aidan Williams, Missouri State University


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