Mitigating the drawbacks of study programs’ modularization by student reflection: Letter to the future self
Along with undeniable advantages, modularized study programs have drawbacks: they make individual educational pathways less predictable and coherent, and compartmentalize learning within the unit of a single course or module. Selecting courses and their order by themselves and being assessed within each course based on course-specific learning goals and standards, students can find it hard to situate each course within the wider context of their studies, to transfer knowledge and skills across courses and modules, and to perceive progress in studies. Overcoming the drawbacks of modularization on the individual level requires autonomous reflection by students.
This paper suggests a way to cope with these challenges of modularization by creating opportunities for student reflection, unrestrained by the learning goals set up by the instructor. At the end of a course students are given time to formulate personal take-away messages as a letter to their future self. Not limited in the type of message, they are just as likely to put emphasis on skills, techniques, impressions, study and professional applications of knowledge as on the content of the course (definitions, authors, typologies, etc.). The orientation at the future discourages students from depicting the course or module as a self-contained unit of learning. The orientation at oneself rather than the instructor or the institution (as it is with assessment and course evaluations) stresses students’ autonomy in the definition of learning goals (What did I want from the course?) and outcomes (What did I get from the course?). The framing of the exercise highlights the agency of the student (“Hi, Future Me! […] I want you to remember some important things and ideas from the “NNN” course”). The follow-up meeting six to twelve months later supports this agency: the student enters in dialogue with the past self by writing a message on what she did remember from the course, before receiving the original message back.
In 2012-2016, hundreds of messages have been collected from students in the author’s and author’s colleagues’ courses, follow-up meetings have been conducted, and an evaluation of the method (using a questionnaire and free-form feedback) has been carried out. Though the response rate to voluntary follow-up meetings could be higher (it ranges from 10 to 30%), students find the exercise academically useful and emotionally gratifying. In follow-up messages, they make connections between the material of the course and other courses and socio-political developments, recollect skills-oriented advice they had given themselves, and often reproduce the content they had marked as worth remembering with astonishing precision, although they are clearly not asked to reproduce their first message. This last finding hints at the usefulness of the exercise even for those students who do not come to follow-up meetings, - as a reflection and selection opportunity and a memorization technique.
If this organizationally simple exercise is integrated in several courses, it has the potential to partly overcome the self-enclosed nature of courses in modularized study programs.