The Student Flight Data Recorder

The sole objective of investigating a failure shall be the prevention of future failures, not to apportion blame.
See Selected Pages from the SFDR
Student reflections often show what the student believes the teacher wants to see, not what is really there.

The Self-Reflection Paradox

Many of us have been in the situation where we have observed that student learning and success has been hindered by deficiencies in their ability to plan, self-reflect, and learn from their own mistakes and failures. Students tend to focus on external standards to define success, such as grades and accolades, and how to game the system with respect to these metrics rather than on the learning process and what they can learn from both their successes and failures.

So what invariably happens when we try to address this problem by requiring students to carry out self-reflection activities? They simply reflect back an image of themselves that they believe the professor wants to see. The reasoning behind this behavior is understandable in the context of the above mentioned metrics — why would a student feel comfortable being vulnerable and showing their mistakes and failures to the professor responsible for assessing them?

In the Student Flight Data Recorder project, we attempted to circumvent this pitfall in meaningful self-reflection by transforming students into learning failure investigators. All it took was a symbol, a story, a struggle, and an intervention, in combination with the Student Flight Data Recorder study planner and reflection journal.

The Symbol

Symbols can be powerful tools. So what symbol would best embody the spirit of making students feel safe to carry out authentic and critical self-reflection without fear of being judged? The Flight Data Recorder, or "Black Box" as it is often referred to!

This device is the perfect symbol for this project as it isa device that records the actions of the flight crew in an aircraft, which canbe scrutinized and reviewed in case of an accident or incident. However, thereis a catch — data from a Flight Data Recorder can only be used to preventfuture occurrences of similar accidents or incidents, but cannot be used to apportionblame on the crew themselves. The perfect metaphor for how we want students toview their own self-reflection!

The Story

With a symbol in hand, we needed a story to pull studentsinto the process. Together with some student teaching assistants, we puttogether the following animated story to illustrate the importance of critical self-reflectionon the learning journey in a fun and thematic way. Students were introduced tothis story by student mentors, who also distributed the Student Flight DataRecorder booklets. It was a conscious decision to have student mentors introducethe incoming students to the project as we wanted to preserve the feeling thatthis was not a required or graded assignment, but something only for thestudents to use in their own learning journey.

The Struggle

With the symbol and the story established, students were left to their own devices. The Student Flight Data Recorder journal had guided self-reflection exercises, student tips, and sections for helping students plan their weekly learning activities. Student mentors were also available to talk to in relation to use of the journal, but there was no required checks or submissions of entries into the journals. The idea was to let students struggle and see how they would interact with the resource they were provided with.

Sure, we were aware that some students would likely not engage with the journal since it was not a required or graded. But we were also aware that some students would engage and get more out of the activity seeing it was for their own personal use only. And we were not dismissing those students that did not engage in the activity. We had a plan in store for them!

The Intervention

At the end of the first exam period an intervention was planned. Students were invited to a lecture entitled Engineering Success Out of Failure, where I reflected on learning from failure by describing the entire Air Safety Investigation process. The mandate of an Air Safety Investigator to investigate to prevent future failures, but not apportion blame was described. The importance of this in terms of getting cooperation from all stakeholders involved was discussed. And how the this enables things as the Flight Data Recorder to exist was reflected upon.

With this gained insight and understanding of the importanceof the Flight Data Recorder and the environment which enables its existence,students were challenged to reflect on their own academic journey thus far. Didthe perform as they hoped they would? Did they make it through the turbulenceof all their exams? If there were things that did not go so well, they wereencouraged to consult the data recorded in the Student Flight Data Recorders tohelp them investigate their own learning incidents and accidents...and if ithad no data to help in their own investigations, then their first investigationoutcome and recommendation became very clear.