Knowledge Surveys and Self-Reflection Exercises in Learning: A Fractal Thinker's View of the Power of the Affective Domain

By Edward Nuhfer
Director of Faculty Development, California State University at Channel Islands


Good faculty development is never about pressuring faculty about what to teach or how to teach. Instead, faculty development is most effective when developers help professors to do what they most want to do. Two characteristics of the profession of college teaching operate against professors knowing what they most want to do. The first is a time shortage. When faculty are too busy, too frantic, and too exhausted to have a balanced life, the opportunity to be reflective and to have the conversation with self about what one most wants to do is rare. In fact, it is so rare that few faculty have really been able to hold this critical conversation with themselves. The second has been a disrespect for the affective domain in the general academy. This disrespect is not limited to the hard sciences or professional schools. The feelings and emotions associated with the affective domain are too often seen as a nuisance of no consequential value. It gets in the way of the "real business" of learning required to become a scholar, a lawyer, an engineer, etc. Although those who probably need reflective time the most are those with the least time for it—namely the new tenure track faculty, any individual who has not had the critical conversation with self about what one most wants to do is likely doing something that is counterproductive to getting the results and satisfaction one wants. It's not surprising to discover frustration among faculty that is often misdirected. There's no satisfaction in working harder while sensing one's aspirations are fading farther.

The Boot Camp for Profs® program started in 1993 as a series of workshops; the choice of workshops and their sequence became more coordinated and focused around central unifying principles. Later, success of the individual professional was redefined as the optimal success of the individual within a particular institutional context. By "context" I mean the tenor, enacted mission, and purpose of our department, college and/or institution, our being constantly mindful of our place within it and the effects of our actions upon it. It forces us to develop consciousness to think in scales from our efforts in an individual class to the effect of these efforts on an educational degree or even upon the total life of a student. The question of how to best serve faculty with development in this context led to development of faculty through an operational model based upon fractals. Fractals were appropriate for three reasons. (1) All learning—development of expertise in anything including college teaching—establishes a unique fractal neural network in the brain of the individual. (2) Human endeavors exhibit fractal qualities, and complexities of educational philosophies and patterns of behavior within institutions can be better understood if one can see the fractal qualities involved in producing these. (3) Comprehending fractal patterns in ways that are useful in application requires us to develop the ability to think quickly across varied scales.

A basic form called a generator determines the shape and quality of any fractal form. The growth into a complex fractal form occurs through a recursive operation in which the generator is added repeatedly. We chose the "Y" shape as our model, because the blood vessels and neural growth of the body are complex branching forms created by replacing the two "V" branches of the upper Y with other "Y" forms. Generators are the tiny critical seeds that eventually grow into the complex brain neurology of connected neurons and synapses required for functioning as creative, master professionals. Ideally, new generators contribute only the healthy parts required for successful growth. The health of the final product has everything to do with the completeness of the beginning generator. It is here, at the start of a learning experience that the affective domain is most important. In conscious choices at least, the affective domain almost always acts before the cognitive and the psychomotor domains.

In the brain, the initial fractal connections of neurons are likely to yield no more than a feeling. Later they may become an idea. Only further development permits us to begin to consciously speculate on and articulate the idea. Feeling and sense of an idea before we can speculate on it are largely manifestations of the affective domain. A student given free choice often selects a university based upon the fact that it "feels right." They enter our class based to some extent on feelings—even if it is only feelings that they are avoiding some other class. They choose majors based upon the same. In fact, if we made a list of important education attributes: knowledge, skills, preconceptions, values, priorities, confidence, professionalism, ethics and self assessment, we could find no attribute in which the affective domain is not present. There is no cognitive knowledge within students that is separate and isolated from their affective domains.

The same is true with faculty expertise and practices, because all of these are likewise products of learning. All our actions and choices are bound up in feelings, and if we examine both the feelings and why and how we obtained these, we can often resolve disparity between what lead us to do what we now do rather than to do what we most want to do. In this workshop, we will use a self-reflection exercise developed over many years to assist in helping us have the critical conversation with self. Complete the exercise to the extent possible before the workshop. Open the self reflection exercise second, ONLY after you have done the knowledge survey described below. The self reflection modules are superb exercises to use with your faculty; feel free to do so. In the workshop, we will only be able to join together to see the valued insights we obtain to a few entries, but the workshop will make obvious how to use the other parts of these modules as well.

Knowledge surveys are very new but we are finding them to be an indispensable tool for both student learning and faculty development. The items on a knowledge survey usually probe for cognitive skills and content with a query of self assessment. For example, the knowledge survey item: "I can describe the scientific method and provide an example of its application" contains a cognitive query about whether one understands what science is and how it operates. The "I can..." is definitely a probe of the affective domain. As such, knowledge surveys provide a slice of information from both cognitive and affective domains that is not produced by any other tool—not by tests and graded projects, and not by student evaluations of teaching. In order to demonstrate its usefulness, you will find a knowledge survey based upon the self reflection exercise. Complete the knowledge survey FIRST, before you open the self reflection exercises.