Reflective Essays for Liberal Arts Courses

SynthesisReflection1The Importance of the Personal in Synthesis and Reflection – and a few Strategies

A reflective essay in which students synthesize what they have learned, is required by many instructors in undergraduate liberal arts classes. It’s a necessary component of any music course that I teach. But do reflective essays, in which many students merely regurgitate textbook information, really improve student learning outcomes? How can we best develop reflective essay assignments to deepen student learning and development? In the following blog post (two parts), I examine some key theories on knowledge acquisition, and consider how these ideas apply to developing reflective assignments that enable students of music to have a real understanding and appreciation of the ideas we teach.

Deeper Learning

In his article, “Improving Classroom Performances by Challenging Student Misconceptions About Learning” (2010), Stephen Chew argues that knowledge and understanding is contingent upon what a student thinks about while in the process of learning.  This, as opposed to memorization, is what helps the brain with deep processing.

According to Chew, a good reflective assignment asks students to sum up what they have learned by discussing how various concepts are related.  A better reflective assignment, however, asks the student to relate a concept to their own personal experience, or to share personal examples that illustrate what they have learned.  This means professors need to “get personal” in thinking of reflective essay topics. A personal connection to the material is what links the concepts the students are learning to their memory, and thus helps cement their learning.

Emotional Intelligence

Emotional intelligence is the ability to recognize one’s own emotions, as well as those of others’, as well as the ability to use emotional information to guide thinking and behavior.  All people have varying degrees of emotional intelligence, and it can be sharpened through practice.

Many researchers of emotional intelligence have reported that people with higher emotional intelligence have better mental health, job performance, and leadership skills.  As educators, these are all desirable qualities that we should foster in students.  Asking students to share how they feel about what they have learned can improve emotional intelligence.  Some professors believe that learning is more objective than subjective, in that the student studies the concept from a distance, but avoids any aesthetic or personal judgement of that concept.  I would argue, however, that allow a student to form an opinion about a concept fosters deeper learning and helps students see interdisciplinary connections between concepts being taught in  your class, as perhaps also with concepts they are learning in other subject areas.

Ideologies and Values

By simply “reporting” what they have learned, students rarely become aware of their own ideologies and values.  In the book, Reflecting on Practice: Student Teachers’ Perspectives (Post Pressed, 2002), authors John Bain, Roy Ballantyne, Colleen Mills, and Nita Lester deeper learning occurs when a student’s personal response to an issue results in better awareness by the student of their own learning process.  The shallowest level students demonstrate is “reporting.”  Here, a student will define a concept, repeat a concept, identify it, list, or match it.  The reporting level should not be misunderstood as unimportant; rather, it is a building block for other important levels of deep learning. As the student uses their own personal responses to course material, however, their metacognition of a subject grows from “responding,” to “reasoning,” and then finally to “reconstructing.”  “Responding” is a level where a student not only identify a concept, but use it to solve a problem, infer new questions about it, or distinguish it from other concepts.  “Reconstructing” is the level where a student uses the concept in their own conclusions to their hypothesis, synthesizes new concepts that grow from the original concept, and uses imagination to create new concepts in relation to it.   It is at these last two levels that professors should want to see students perform. It is here that they become aware of their own ideologies and values in relation to the reflective question being asked because they start to recognize their own voice, and thus, their own ideas, as they write their reflection.

Creating reflective essay assignments

In my music classes, I like to create reflective assignments with personal revelations because they facilitate deeper metacognitive learning, encourage emotional intelligence, and help students distinguish their own ideologies and values from those of someone else. But it is also important that they substantiate their experiences with reference to the elements of music that they have learned in my class.

How can we guide student to use personal opinions and phenomenological experiences about music to reflect on its more concrete elements?

The items below are suggested reflective assignments in a popular music course:

1. Using Your “Favorite Recent Song” as a Microcosm

Students always ask me what I am listening to, or if I like a certain artist or song.  At the end of the semester, I like to turn the question back to them.  I ask about their favorite songs, and request that they use the skills they have learned in class to discuss which historical styles may have influenced that song.  I have found that in their reflective essays, more than 90% of them successfully answer the essay prompt by describing the musical features as well as including well-constructed subjective ideas with supporting evidence for those opinions.  Even the best students find writing essays about music daunting, but writing an essay about something they love seems to make them go the extra mile

2. “I love it vs. It’s weird – the Radiohead Dilemma”

Some professors are wary of asking students if they “like” a particular song. They’re often concerned that this question might prompt discussions around personal opinions, more than objective analysis of musical features, stylistic markers, or lyric content.  But for a reflective essay, I would argue that these kinds of discussions can still be very useful.  Not all students have the same musical taste. Asking students if they “like” a piece can create an opportunity for impassioned, argumentative writing, or an intellectual debate in the classroom.

My exercise, “The Radiohead Dilemma,” is inspired from these discussions.  In my class, I prefer to play “Paranoid Android,” the classic Radiohead song from OK Computer (1997) which has been discussed in some popular music textbooks, including Connect For Education’s OnAmerican Popular Music and Michael Campbell’s Popular Music in America: The Beat Goes On (Cengage Learning).   After playing the song in its entirety, I then ask my students: “What did you think?”

The reactions I get range, from “I love it,” to, “It’s weird”.  For the professor, this is a great place to begin a discussion.  Turn the question back on the class by asking “Which musical features did you like?”  or “Which musical features sounded strange to you?” or “Did you find the music of the song to be in conflict with its lyrics?”  You can move on from these questions to ideas that are more closely linked with class materials. Whether students liked the song or not, you can ask them “Where did Radiohead get this stuff from?  Which styles that we’ve discussed this semester do you think they were listening to or were influenced by?”  Even the lesser-engaged  classes I have taught are usually either exhilarated by the chance to rave about the merits of this song, or riled by their annoyance created by Radiohead.

If you don’t like Radiohead, there are many other bands that fit the assignment. Even a class for non-musicians will be able to discuss any number of styles, including Latin music, Punk Rock, Electronica, Heavy Metal, Grunge Rock, and others.  I would even urge professors to start with the questions before playing the song.  Don’t be afraid to ask open-ended questions that lean on the students’ opinions.

A fundamental part of our students’ futures lies in our hands.  To quote another Radiohead song, students shouldn’t “take a quiet life” with “no surprises, please.”  It is the unexpected, authentic, and imaginative answers that force our students to question, synthesize, and above all, learn.

3. Make the World a Better Place

With this option, students discuss what they have learned throughout this course, but frame it in a way that describes how understanding the history of popular music might make the world a better place.  This is a “foundational principle” at my university that is taught to students starting with Freshman Orientation.  Students are not just encouraged to get a degree and perhaps find themselves successful in their jobs after college, but rather, to use what they learn to help others who are less fortunate, oppressed, who suffer, or help the planet and its creatures we all share.

This choice has been very popular amongst my students. However, I’ve also faced criticism from colleagues, who’ve mentioned their concern that this essay choice smacks of “forced idealism” and that the students would make up shallow responses of “beautiful bull” just to earn an easy grade.

However, in the five years that I have been offering this choice, I have seen essays with such personal, heartfelt, and specific examples.  One young woman described her anxiety and depression she faced when she felt pressured by her parents to become a doctor and gain entrance into one of the most competitive medical schools in the country after graduation.  She gave many examples of how the styles of music she had learned in the class, including blues, 1980’s dance pop, and even Hip Hop had given her insight as to how a song can “heal” much like medicine.  She changed her major to music therapy and said she no longer feels the crushing anxiety she once felt.  Another young man in my class had founded his own 1930’s-style big band the semester before this class.  As you can imagine, he was very excited when we covered this style of music in class.  I anticipated an essay from him describing simply that he enjoys that style of music and enjoys playing it.  What I saw in his reflective essay surprised me.  He barely mentioned his band or personal interest in the music, but rather focused on how this music was so important to lift the spirits of people in America and Europe during World War II.  He talked about a cousin coming home from his second deployment in Afghanistan who was now diagnosed with PTSD, a very serious psychological condition.  He asked in his essay if a style of music could lift the spirits of men and women in World War II, why couldn’t it be used now as well, old-fashioned as it is, to play overseas for our servicemen and women just as it had decades before.  He believed the message and spirit of this music was universal, and its power could transcend time.


Reflective essays help students remember musical concepts and theories, because they allow students to use personal insight to understand course materials. Students tell me they enjoy writing these essays, and have listed them as one of the more helpful course assignments on the end of term evaluations.  They also tell me that essays like this help them recognize their own voice in writing just as they would recognize it in speaking. An essay like this does raise the question of “what is the point of education?”  But, for those of you who read my blog, you will know how much I believe in vocation over career.  I give this essay choice to my students because it challenges them to think about what they have learned and how their skills will serve not only them, but the people they will meet for the rest of their lives – lives I strive to teach them to live with kindness and integrity.

Virginia Lamothe
This post is by Virginia Christy Lamothe, a musicologist and Lecturer at Belmont University in Nashville, TN. She teaches courses in the history of classical and popular music. Her research focuses include teaching practices of higher education, music of the seventeenth century, and Tin Pan Alley and theater at the turn of the twentieth century.

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