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Exploring the Student Experience in a Social Justice Classroom

Bestler: Capstone Final [PDF]

Bestler: Capstone Final [MSWORD]

A capstone report submitted to the graduate faculty in partial fulfillment of the requirements for
the degree of Doctor of Philosophy

Major: Educational Leadership
Program of Study Committee:
Nancy J. Evans (Major Professor)
Pete Englin
Ryan Evely Gildersleeve
Patricia Leigh
Scott C. McLeod

Iowa State University
Laura Bestler
November 29, 2010


During Fall semester, 2009, Dr. Nancy Evans and I discussed potential opportunities for a capstone project within the Educational Leadership and Policy Studies department. We decided that it would be helpful to her and to the program if I explored graduate students’ anxiety before taking HgEd 676 Student Development Theory II and designed an intervention to address it, with Dr. Evans serving as my client. The ultimate goal of the project would be to create a socially just classroom environment.

As such, I explored the graduate student experience before and during HgEd 676 Student Development Theory II.  To carry out this project, I was responsible for researching evaluation tools, organizing and managing the WebCT learning tools, developing and facilitating three in-class discussions, and collecting and analyzing data from the study.  I was involved with the project during the Spring 2010 semester.


A major goal of Iowa State University’s Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies is to enhance graduate students’ engagement in coursework and research.  The department strives to provide the best student affairs preparation program in the United States (ELPS Self-Study Steering Committee, 2009).  Approximately 25-30 graduate students are enrolled in each of the Student Affairs master’s program cohorts, with 50-60 graduate students enrolled within the program at a time.  All full-time higher education-student affairs master’s students are required to enroll in HgEd 576, Student Development in Higher Education during their first fall semester and in HgEd 676, Student Development Theory II, during their first spring semester.  In addition, all students enrolled in the master’s program in Learning and Leadership enroll in these two courses during either their first or second year in the program. Two professors teach two separate sections of each course during the semesters in which they are offered.  A foundational aspect of HgEd 676 Student Development Theory II is social justice and its relationship to social identity development.  The Iowa State University Catalog (2009) described the course as including “life span approaches to student development, social identity development, and spiritual development with emphasis on application of these theories in student affairs practice.”


In recent years, Dr. Nancy Evans has observed a great deal of anxiety from graduate students about taking HgEd 676 Student Development Theory II. This apprehension has stemmed from discussions with students who had taken the course previously and shared instances of overemotional students, intolerant arguments, and unproductive class interactions.  As a professor with over 30 years in the field, Dr. Evans was determined to investigate why the students were uneasy about this course, to explore the validity of students’ concerns, and to develop strategies for addressing these concerns in the course. For my capstone project, Dr. Evans asked me to use my expertise in social justice to explore and enhance the students’ experience in HgEd 676.


While the plan of action was mine, I consulted with Dr. Evans to help me identify and formulate ways to evaluate students’ pre-course anxiety and in-class experience and to develop strategies to enhance their learning experiences within a safe and collaborative social justice learning environment. Since critical reflection has been demonstrated to be conducive to creating an effective social justice class environment (Goodman, 2001), it played a large role in the evaluation and implementation of new learning strategies. As part of this capstone project, I implemented and facilitated the following activities:

  • An evaluation of pre-course anxiety by collecting responses from incoming students’ self-reflection (Appendix D) before taking HgEd 676 Student Development Theory II.
  • Presentation of a visual representation of students’ responses to the pre-course self-reflection during an in-class visit.
  • The development of group guidelines (Appendix G) to nurture a safe and collaborative learning environment.
  • Utilization and evaluation of Brookfield’s (1995) Critical Incident Questionnaire (CIQ) as a critical reflection tool for students.
  • Production of weekly audio podcasts from CIQ response summaries (Appendix E) for instructors and students to discuss in class.
  • Introduction of the idea of emotional triggers to actively acknowledge and reduce students’ concerns and prejudices.  Emotional triggers predispose a person to an intentional or unintentional response through anxiety-filled symptoms or other associated emotions surrounding a discussion or incident (Obear, 2007).
  • Comparison of the visualized data by using Wordle from the pre-course self-reflection and semester CIQ responses for an in-class presentation.
  • Evaluation of the effectiveness of Brookfield’s (1995) CIQ through an in-class activity.

Research Questions

The purpose of this study was to explore both the graduate students’ anxiety before taking HgEd 676 Student Development Theory II and their in-class experiences, using critical reflection as a way to enhance learning. The following research questions guided the study:

  • To what extent do students express anxiety before taking HgEd 676, Student Development Theory II?  How do they describe their experiences?
  • To what extent is the Critical Incident Questionnaire (CIQ) helpful in providing students and faculty with an understanding of the dynamics that occur within a classroom in which social justice principles are introduced and used in the design and implementation of the course?
  • To what extent is the CIQ helpful in evaluating the extent to which a socially just classroom is created in HgEd 676?
  • Considering their CIQ responses, what experiences do students have in a classroom in which social justice principles are introduced and used in the implementation of the course?

Definition of Terms

Critical reflection.  Critical reflection integrates theoretical and practical learning to expand knowledge, behaviors, or insights (Cranton, 2000).  According to Mezirow (1990), critical reflection refers to “challenging the validity of presuppositions in prior learning” and “challenging the established definition of a problem being addressed” (p. 12).

Social identity.  Social identity refers to how we, as a society, make sense of each other.  Within the context of HgEd 676, Student Development Theory II, students study the following “social identities: racial; ethnic; sexual orientation; gender; class; spiritual; and ability.” Students also explore how social identities “are influenced by the dynamics of power and oppression in education and society” (Evans & Ranero, 2010, p. 1).

Social justice. Social justice addresses the challenges surrounding power relations, equity, and systemic or institutionalized oppression (Goodman, 2001) as well as accepting cultural differences. Social justice advocates strive to achieve a safe society where resources are equitably distributed and each person is socially responsible (Bell, 1997).

WebCT. A virtual learning environment with discussion boards, podcasts, resources, chat, and mail systems.

Wordle. An online tool ( that creates a visual representation of most recurring words in a written document, assessment, or blog.

Literature Review

This project explores the graduate student experience in a social justice course environment.  I accomplished this exploration by identifying graduate students’ pre-course anxiety, promoting critical reflection about social identity development, facilitating interactive activities, recording graduate students’ course experiences with the Critical Incident Questionnaire (Brookfield, 1995), and evaluating the use of the CIQ as a critical reflection tool.  Areas of the literature informing this project included: the power of pedagogy, critical reflection, and the CIQ.

Power in Pedagogy

The exploration of students’ learning experiences is complex due to the existing power dynamic in the classroom between student and professor (Hurtado, Milem, Clayton-Pederson, & Allen, 1999).  Power is not necessarily located within a person; rather, it is the location where action and reaction happens through the production of knowledge (Hayward, 1998).  Power in pedagogy exists in the classroom because the instructor’s primary role is to encourage students to investigate and explore new knowledge, as well as their relationship with the world (Giroux, 2004; Hayward, 1998, 2000).  In a power hierarchy, what is the knowledge instructors are teaching to students?  Official knowledge, as dictated by the status quo, is the information shared in textbooks and taught in classrooms (Apple, 2007).

Foucault (1982) illuminated the relationship between power and knowledge, as it is unavoidable in the realm of education. Foucault (1980) stated, “The exercise of power perpetually creates knowledge and conversely knowledge constantly induces effects of power … it is not possible for power to be exercised without knowledge, it is impossible for knowledge not to engender power” (p. 52).  Considering this statement, one may conclude that because faculty are in a position of power; they hold the knowledge, therefore supporting the power relationship. Although students may choose to accept the knowledge or truth, the action itself will inevitably end up reinforcing the power of some and restricting the power of others (Foucault, 1982).

Educational institutions reproduce this official knowledge (Apple, 2007) in society.  Therefore, local governments (academic departments, regents, boards), and faculty hold the power to determine what knowledge is shared through an institution’s teachings.  Faculty, as knowledge reproducers (Apple, 2007), have the power and opportunity to involve students with problem-posing (Freire, 1970) and meaning-making experiences.  However, faculty, in their privileged positions, may use transformative learning and critical reflection to encourage students to emancipate themselves from official knowledge (Apple, 2007) and encourage their own self-expression (Hayward, 2000).  A social justice-based course, like HgEd 676, Student Development Theory II, is one way to deter power and teach students about the challenges surrounding official knowledge and how it affects “power relations, equity, and systemic or institutionalized oppression” (Goodman, 2001, p. 5).

To teach social justice, the reproduction of oppression must be avoided by both instructors and students to provide an open and safe classroom (Applebaum, 2009).  Considering that social justice and its relationship to social identity development is core to HgEd 676, Student Development Theory II, it is important to promote a safe learning environment.  The creation of a safe environment within a classroom enables students to explore their role within society regarding power and privilege (Ayers, 1998).  According to Freire (1970), in a safe environment, students “come to see the world not as a static reality, but as a reality in process, in transformation” (p. 83).  One way to capture this transformation is through critical reflection.

Critical Reflection

Critical reflection promotes the development of meaning perspectives towards accepting or denying new ideas, diverse cultures, and understanding of social justice (Mezirow, 2000).   Critical self-reflection could arguably be said to be based on “knowing the inside of people’s minds” (Foucault, 1982, p. 214) since its explicit intent is to externalize people’s innermost reflections.  Critical reflection enhances students’ ability to use their own knowledge to interpret what they are learning (Mezirow, 1991).  As students develop their critical reflection skills they are encouraged to become “autonomous thinkers” (Mezirow, 1997, p. 5) able to negotiate the various elements of their higher education.

In this capstone project, critical self-reflection focused on students finding their voices (McGregor, 2008; Mezirow, 2000). The students self-reported their learning through the critical reflection tool, the Critical Incident Questionnaire.  This tool records the evidence of how students make sense of knowledge-gathering by creating “meaning perspectives” (Mezirow, 2000, p. 293).  The meaning perspective is the lens  through which students view their world (Cranton, 1994).  Students come to expect certain outcomes throughout their lived experiences based upon these meaning perspectives.  These perspectives are the direct result of the way they grew up, the culture in which they lived, and what they previously learned (Mezirow, 1991).  When a student is confronted with an experience that cannot be reconciled into his or her meaning perspective, the experience must be rejected or the individual’s perspective must change to accommodate the new experience (Taylor, 1994).  When a student critically reflects upon new knowledge, he or she may reconstruct it and respond in a different way (Taylor, 1998). Adaptations in these meaning schemes are essential when students are presented with circumstances where their past does not correlate with their new knowledge. This disconnect incites individuals to adapt or revise their meaning perspectives to make sense of their world.

While students are at the center of their learning experience, instructors facilitate an authentic and comprehensive discourse that occurs both in and out of the learning environment (Chang, 2002; McGregor, 2008).  In classes, large and small group dialogues emphasize the importance of students sharing perspectives gained from critical self-reflection to help find their voice.  Out of class, instructors support exploration and reexamination of personal knowledge through critical self-reflection (Cranton, 1994).

In HgEd 676, critical reflection provided a structured space for students to reflect upon their knowledge by purposefully questioning their beliefs in order to grow personally and professionally (Herod, 2003).  Mezirow (1995) argued that the opportunity for students to critically reflect upon their knowledge encourages them to intentionally interact with the ever-changing world.

Critical Incident Questionnaire (CIQ)

While developing this capstone project, I discovered the Critical Incident Questionnaire (Brookfield, 1995), a tool that encourages students to critically reflect upon their learning.  I introduced the CIQ to Dr. Evans because one of the capstone project’s objectives was to provide ways to enhance learning in HgEd 676, Student Development Theory II. We decided that it could be used to gauge graduate students’ learning in Evans’s classroom, and might lessen graduate students’ anxiety about this course.  The CIQ would serve as an artifact to document the content learning and reactions to teaching occurring for each student (Brookfield, 1996).

Brookfield (1995) developed the CIQ to guide faculty members’ discovery of student’s emotional highs and lows of learning, and provide a running commentary on the emotional tenor of the weekly classroom experience.  Critical incidents are considered vivid happenings from the student’s point of view (Tripp, 1993; Woods, 1993).  These incidents are moments where students may reflect, and perhaps act upon what they are experiencing through their learning.  For a student, every class contains such moments, and professors, willing to learn from these incidents, will promote the student voice regarding their instructional methods (Brookfield, 1995).

Currently, there is little research focusing on the use of the CIQ in the classroom (Keefer, 2009).  What is known is that it promotes the development of critical reflection techniques, and the exploration of emotional responses to different situations (Brookfield, 1995, 1996).  While writing their critical reflections, students are constructing their knowledge, and making meaning of their thoughts.   The CIQ provides a structure for students to share their unfiltered experiences, in a somewhat anonymous fashion, without fearing repercussion (Brookfield, 1996).

Project Summary

The three-pronged approach to this capstone project was designed to explore the students’ pre-course anxiety, design presentations to address it, and promote critical reflection. Before the course began in January 2010 students were given the opportunity to reflect on their thoughts and concerns about the course through a pre-course self-reflection.  Considering the initial concerns three presentations were developed to help students with following: develop group guidelines, present the Critical Information Questionnaire, introduce emotional triggers and learning edges, and evaluate the CIQ along with a closing activity.  During the course, students used the CIQ to provide weekly critical reflection about their in-class experiences.  Finally, the closing activity was designed to demonstrate the learning that took place throughout the semester.  By facilitating in-class sessions, introducing the use of the Critical Incident Questionnaire, and providing weekly audio CIQ response summaries, I introduced tools for students to enhance their learning through critical reflection.

Developing the Intervention

I met with Dr. Evans and discussed the first-year graduate students’ perceptions about HgEd 676, Student Development Theory II.  Evans had spoken with students about their hesitations and shared how the second-year graduate students deemed the course to be an excessively emotional experience.  Each student worried, to different degrees, about what the class experience would be, based solely on second year graduate students’ course anecdotes.  Dr. Evans explained that there was an added layer of tension because the majority of students in her course section were White, with one Latino student; whereas, the majority of Dr. Patton’s section would be students of color.  Whether this dynamic would affect achievement of overall objectives of the course was unknown. Dr. Evans and I did experience some concern that the class segregation might interfere with the successful meeting of learning objectives of the course.

After our discussion, we decided to use Iowa State University’s online course system, WebCT, for the course. I helped Dr. Evans and Jessica Ranero, the Teaching Assistant (TA), with the development of online course components.  This would be Dr. Evans’s first time using WebCT tools to enhance the course for discussions, information sharing, and resources.

I introduced Dr. Evans to the use of the Critical Incident Questionnaire (Brookfield, 1995) to help minimize the barriers between faculty and students in HgEd 676, Student Development Theory II.  I based my decision to use this tool on Gilstrap and Dupree’s (2008) research recognizing the CIQ as a successful critical reflection tool to create a dialogue between faculty and students about learning.  We decided the CIQ would be housed on WebCT for students to access and use for critical reflection following each class.

While the CIQ was designed to be a catalyst, ultimately the instructors, Nancy Evans and Jessica Ranero, would need to bridge the communication barriers between faculty and students.  Their willingness to learn from students’ responses would build an honest learning community in and out of the classroom (Brookfield, 1995, 1996). They would minimize academia’s hierarchal barriers if they were willing to listen and learn from the students’ meaning-making experience.

The CIQ for this capstone project was intended to be a mechanism for Evans and Ranero’s students to examine themselves through critical reflection.  Students benefit from critical self-reflection through understanding their own identities, roles in oppression, and societal benefits of diversity (Reason, Broido, Davis, & Evans, 2005).  While the course syllabus was complex, involving examination of multiple social identities and “the dynamics of power and oppression in education and society” (Evans & Ranero, 2010), one way for students to make meaning for and about themselves was through critical reflection.  As students explored themselves, disrupting the hegemonic assumptions in higher education, they might challenge their ways of thinking, and begin to unearth new perspectives (Reason & Davis, 2005).  Each new idea is considered from multiple vantage points through critical reflection and discussion with peers and instructors, while building confidence to experience new philosophies, or ideologies (King, 2005).  Previous researchers have found that students strengthen their confidence and self-worth when they take time each week to reflect upon what engaged, distanced, affirmed, puzzled, and surprised them during their learning experiences (Broido & Reason, 2005).

In addition, the three presentations I would facilitate throughout the semester were designed to encourage ways to reflect upon the classroom experience.  The first session provided a means for the students to develop group guidelines they could adhere to throughout the semester; as well as an introduction to the CIQ as a critical reflection tool.  The second in-class presentation centered on making students aware of emotional triggers and learning edges in and out of the classroom.  The final session was a closing activity linking the pre-course self-evaluation to the class experience, and a guided interactive evaluation of the CIQ.

Implementing the Intervention

After meeting with Dr. Evans to discuss development of the intervention, I began the implementation phase, putting into action mechanisms to cultivate critical reflection for the graduate students.  The following sections discuss these mechanisms, including assessing pre-course anxiety, in-class discussion introducing the CIQ, developing group guidelines, CIQ responses reported through written summaries and audio podcasts, facilitating an emotional trigger and learning edge activity, and creating closure with a letter activity and interactive CIQ evaluation.

Assessing pre-course anxiety. The first step of my capstone project was to develop an evaluation of pre-course anxiety assessment on WebCT.  I created a Pre-Course Self-Reflection (Appendix D) for incoming students to share their thoughts before taking HgEd 676, Student Development Theory II.  The following questions were included in the Pre-Course Self-Reflection:

    • What have you heard about HGED 676, Student Development II?
    • What do you imagine HGED 676, Student Development II will be like for you?
    • What do you look forward to in HGED 676, Student Development II?
    • What do you fear about HGED 676, Student Development II?

First in-class discussion: Pre-course reflections and the Critical Incident Questionnaire. On Monday, January 11, 2010, I joined the instructors for the first day of class.  The instructors began the class with brief introductions, and a go-round for students to introduce themselves.  Because my role was merely to facilitate the capstone project as an enhancement of the students’ overall course experience, Dr. Evans and Ms. Ranero left the classroom for me to introduce my capstone project.  This intentional act delineated my status as a project facilitator, and not as an instructor.

To introduce the discussion, I presented the students’ pre-course self-reflection responses as a visual artifact (Figure 1).  As I presented each slide, I would pause, and ask questions of the students.  I asked, “Did you notice anything interesting in the slide?” and “Is there something you would want to add?”  Students voiced how it was good to see how their perceptions were similar to others in the classroom.  I believe this discussion helped to ease the tension, as they learned that they are not alone with their fears and excitement over the course.

The next step was for the students to develop group guidelines (Appendix G) to nurture a safe and collaborative learning environment.  Notecards with one alphabet letter on one side and blank on the other were handed out to each student.  The students were asked to develop a group guideline starting with the letter represented on their card.  Once the students determined their guideline, it was shared with the group.  The group discussed it, and decided whether it should be included in the guidelines.  If additional information was necessary for the guideline, students could modify it.  These guidelines were developed by the students for the students to learn from each other and support one another throughout the course.  This exercise was done deliberately in hopes that the students would refer to the guidelines during points in the semester.

Finally, I presented Brookfield’s (1995) Critical Incident Questionnaire as a critical reflection tool for the students.  The CIQ asked:

  • At what moment in class this week did you feel most engaged with what was happening?
  • At what moment in the class this week did you feel most distanced from what was happening?
  • What action that anyone (instructor or student) took in class this week did you find most affirming and helpful?
  • What action that anyone (instructor or student) took in class this week did you find most puzzling or confusing?
  • What about the class this week surprised you the most?  (This could be something about your own reactions to what went on, or something that someone did, or anything else that concerns you.) (Brookfield, 1995, p. 115)

To keep responses anonymous, students received a random indicator with numbers and letters.  These indicators were only known by the student, as I would use the indicator to compare weekly responses.  Students were given 40 hours to reflect, as CIQ responses were due before 9:00 a.m. on Wednesdays. I explained that the next steps for my capstone project were to summarize CIQ responses weekly for the instructors and record an audio podcast available for listening by students and instructors on WebCT.  I informed students that to facilitate discussions and evaluate the CIQ as a reflection tool, I would return mid-semester and at the end of the semester.

Developing the CIQ response summary. As students completed the CIQ, I received an automated WebCT email.  These student responses should be classified as self-reported learning.  I read each individual CIQ response as a separate anecdote.  To develop the weekly summaries, I reread the individual responses and the CIQ responses as a whole.  I shared key points with the instructors: engaged, distanced, affirming and helpful, puzzling and confusing; as well as specific quotes from the students as an analysis of the students’ learning.  I sent my analysis, plus the accumulated CIQ responses, with highlighted passages to Dr. Evans and Ms. Ranero as evidence of the learning taking place in their classroom. Evans and Ranero discussed the CIQ responses during their weekly class preparation meeting.

Gaining knowledge about the students’ experiences through their anonymous critical reflections provided students with a feeling of safety to express ideas (Applebaum, 2009).  At the beginning of each class, Evans and Ranero would dialogue with the students about the themes in the CIQ response summaries (Appendix E).  These dialogues strengthened the learning experience and contributed to the development of a safe learning environment.  In addition, a weekly audio podcast provided another medium to ensure that students knew that the instructors and their peers had heard the concerns, challenges, and celebrations from the previous week.  I knew the students were listening to the podcasts as I received emails from students if I was tardy at posting them.  Students could learn from weekly response summaries that they were not alone with their thoughts and ideas. As students gain awareness of power, privilege, and critical incidents they may begin to question how official knowledge is conjured, developed, and disseminated in the world (Apple, 2007). As part of the process, they may disengage from their preconceived course anxiety, creating a collaborative learning environment shared between instructors and students, while promoting the students’ voice in the classroom (Brookfield, 2005, 2006; Freire, 1970, 1998).

In-class discussion: Learning edges and emotional triggers. During the pre-course self-reflection, a prominent concern was the emotional tenor of the class and fear of saying something inappropriate in the group discussion setting. For instance, Dr. Evans and I talked about one student’s reflection,

My fear about the class is that I may say a comment that offends someone unintentionally.  I have heard that Theory 2 tends to spark intense discussions and i (sic) am afraid that someone will take my contribution to the discussion personally and verbally attack me.  I don’t want to offend my classmates.  (Question 2, Response 14, January 11, 2010)

Dr. Evans and I decided that I should facilitate a discussion about emotional triggers at the mid-semester in-class discussion.  Emotional triggers predispose a person to an intentional or unintentional response through anxiety-filled symptoms or other associated emotions surrounding a discussion or incident (Obear, 2007).  This presentation was designed to introduce emotional triggers and ways to actively acknowledge them.

I presented the “learning edge” (Hardiman, Jackson, & Griffin, 1997, p. 55) as a person’s comfort zone being challenged while learning new information and gaining different perspectives (Hardiman, et al., 1997).  People may refrain from learning any additional information if pulled too far out of their comfort zone (Hardiman, et al., 1997).  I explained this idea as a challenge that students might be experiencing in class, as reflected in their CIQ responses.

Along with the learning edge, people may experience an emotional trigger fueled by current issues and dynamics, traumas, fear and anxiety, or prejudices regarding the status quo (Hardiman, et al., 1997).  To provide an example of emotional triggers, I gave students index cards with words and phrases that Obear (2007) had experienced while facilitating social justice workshops; some of the phrases were:

  • “What do you (sic) people want anyway?”
  • “I think men are just biologically more adapted to leadership roles than women.”
  • “I feel sorry for people with disabilities.  It’s such a tragedy.”
  • “I think people of color are blowing things way out of proportion.”
  • “If women wear tight clothes, they are asking for it.”

Each student read a card phrase out loud to the group.  I paid careful attention to the students’ body language and responded appropriately to each comment.  When a student shared a phrase, the group’s cadence transformed from relaxed to tense about the subject.  Students reflected upon what they heard, and how it made them think or feel about the words being used during the exercise.  I connected the activity to how students may internalize or share various emotions during in-class discussions.  I explained the importance of listening to each other, and reflecting upon what they heard rather than getting defensive about the statement.  I connected this exercise to their preconceived notions about the class, and how what they may have heard was triggering their emotions.

In-class discussion: Closure and evaluation. For the final session, I presented a comparison of the visualized data from the pre-course self-reflection and semester CIQ responses. This visual demonstration provided a foundation for constructive discourse about students’ class experience, discussions, and critical reflection as an internal processing and learning tool. I demonstrated students’ learning by comparing their presuppositions about the class to their actual experience referenced in their CIQ responses.   For instance, I shared (Figure 2) a visual representation of how the group and instructors were critical to helping and affirming the students’ learning experience throughout the semester.  As a group, students discussed what they saw when viewing the visual representations (Figures 2 & 3).  They noticed how many of their preexisting concerns about the course had changed over time.

Next, to provide closure for the semester, I introduced a letter activity.  Students were given an Iowa State University notecard and envelope and asked to write a letter to themselves.  The letters were sealed, and given to Dr. Evans to hand to them during their last few weeks as graduate students in 2011.  They were asked to answer these two questions:

  • What about this course do you want your future self to remember?
  • What advice would you give to your future self?

This activity gave students a perspective on what they had learned, and where they may be in the future.  As Taylor (2001) explained, “Those moving toward a dialogical relationship to oneself [sic] are starting to see themselves not only though the lenses of their prior experiences but through reflection on those experiences” (pp. 160-161).

CIQ Evaluation. Dr. Evans and I decided to have the students evaluate the CIQ as an interactive activity during the final in-class discussion.  Post-its were handed out to the students to respond to the following questions:

  • What one thing did you appreciate about the CIQ?
  • What one thing would you change about the CIQ?
  • What one question do you wish the CIQ would have asked?
  • What three words would you use to best describe your experience in this course?

Once the students wrote their responses, they posted them up on classroom chalkboards.  As a class, we engaged in a discussion about their experience with the CIQ as a tool in the social justice classroom.  Following class, I wrote up the responses, and shared them with the instructors and students on WebCT.

The Evaluation

The basic essentials of the research process are commonly defined as epistemology, theoretical perspective, methodology, and methods (Crotty, 2005).  Each of these components will be discussed within the evaluation portion of this capstone project.


For my epistemology I used a constructionist perspective (Crotty, 2005) to make meaning of the graduate students’ experience in HgEd 676 Student Development Theory II.  Epistemology is defined as the relationship connecting the knower and what is known (Crotty, 2005).   Constructionism (Crotty, 2005) is based upon the social interaction between people and their environments.  The constructionism perspective encompasses a whole scheme of meaningful reality, which is constructed by a person or group to form meaning (Crotty, 2005).

To use the constructionist perspective I engaged myself in the graduate students’ experience in the classroom by making meaning of their CIQ responses.  I examined the responses and actively constructed meaning from their experiences in the classroom using the students’ CIQ responses, informal class discussions, and the students’ interactive CIQ evaluation.  I gained an understanding of those experiences by interpreting the students’ reflections in context to what they were learning in the classroom in HgEd 676, Student Development Theory II.


The ultimate goal of the project was to create a socially just classroom environment in which students felt safe while learning about social justice and social identity development. To determine if this goal was met I analyzed the Critical Incident Questionnaire responses students completed as part of Dr. Nancy Evans’s and Ms. Jessica Ranero’s HgEd 676, Student Development Theory II course.


Data sources and methods. Qualitative data collection methods were used to gain multiple perspectives from the students regarding their experience in Dr. Evans’s HgEd 676, Student Development Theory II classroom during the 2010 spring semester.  The data that were analyzed included students’ responses to the pre-course self-reflection, Critical Incident Questionnaire, and CIQ evaluative discussion.

The sample was limited to the 20 graduate students enrolled in this class.  The participants included 1 Latino student and 19 White students; gender presentation included 8 men and 12 women. Participants were fully informed about all aspects of the project, and signed an Informed Consent document to authorize the use of their shared stories (Appendix A).  If students agreed to participate, their completed pre-course self-reflection and weekly Critical Incident Questionnaires submitted by way of WebCT online assessment tools served as data for my capstone evaluation.  All of the students agreed to participate in the project, and their involvement lasted for the duration of the 2010 spring semester.

Data analysis.  In this study, written artifacts were gathered from the students’ CIQ responses on WebCT.  Through data analysis, I explored the students’ experience by deconstructing their texts and constructing a summary to capture their responses (Mautner, 2008).  Pattern coding and conceptually ordered displays (Miles & Huberman, 1994) were particularly helpful in identifying important themes.  Patterns and themes were then examined to identify similarities.

To establish the validity and trustworthiness of the analysis process, I discussed with Dr. Evans the possible codes and themes and appreciated her viewpoint on the emerging findings. During the first meeting with the students I informally invited them to email me if they had questions or concerns about my coding, interpretations, and conclusions through CIQ response summarization audio podcasts.  Therefore, the member checking was completed indirectly through two different avenues.  One way students could member check was through the CIQ response summarization audio podcasts posted on WebCT for students each Wednesday.  The other way was when the instructors facilitated a discussion about the previously collected CIQ responses and audio podcast at the beginning of each class.  The instructors encouraged students to talk about the summaries and hypotheses about any revealing themes from the weekly audio podcasts.

To develop a sense of the data, I read the responses as submitted on WebCT, and again read them as a collection.  Analysis of the data began with traditional qualitative methods that employed an inductive and iterative approach (Lichtman, 2006, p. 161).  The coding process used was open coding.  I looked through the data without any preconceived notions. I would notice themes, collect these themes, think about these themes, notice new themes, collect new ideas, think about the new themes, and continue this process until no new themes could be identified in the data.  I summarized the key themes found based on the meanings I extracted from the students’ responses.  These methods were used for the pre-course self-evaluation responses, CIQ responses, and CIQ evaluation.


The purpose of this capstone project was to explore the student experience in a socially just classroom environment.  The following findings focus on the students’ preconceptions of HgEd 676, Student Development Theory II, their experiences during the course itself, based on CIQ data, and the evaluation of the CIQ completed by students at the end of the course.

Pre-course Self-reflection

The primary assumption the instructors held prior to the pre-course self-reflection was that the incoming students had heard negative comments about the course. They had heard that the second-year graduate students had shared their experiences, and that these stories sparked ideas about how the course would be for the first-year graduate students.  This assumption was validated by the data from the pre-course self-reflection.  A first-year student reported,

I have heard that this Theory 2 is a very challenging class that deals with sensitive issues for many of the students who attend the class. Students who have taken the class have told me that at times, other students will become angered with what other students say. Also, the topics discussed may trigger events that cause students to become sad and even cry because the topics are so intense. (Question 1, Response 14, January, 11, 2010)

Another student upon reflecting on what the class might be like stated,

I think it will be very interesting, but I am a little hesitant that my views or opinions will not be welcomed in class if they are not ‘all inclusive’ or seem anything less than completely open minded to all issues related to social justice. (Question 2, Response 10, January, 11, 2010)

A third student reflected,

“I fear that if you do not have the same beliefs as Nancy then your ideas and comments will be dismissed” (Question 3, Response 13, January, 11, 2010).

Although students did have some anxiety, they shared excitement about learning in the course:

“I am very excited about learning more about who I am and how I developed as a student so I can take that understanding and apply it to the students I will be interacting with in the future” (Question 2, Response 5, January, 11, 2010).

Exploring CIQ Responses

Because students and instructors are “active constructors of knowledge” (Belenky & Stanton, 2000, p. 72), it is imperative to understand the course context and how it affects students’ learning.  The CIQ, as a critical reflection tool, provided a unique opportunity to document evidence of learning happening as a result of activities associated with this course.

As stated earlier, the themes that became apparent from the CIQ response data analysis were incidents of power dynamics in the classroom, concerns about professionalism, identifying emotional triggers, making meaning of new perspectives, and students’ finding their voice. In the following sections, I describe all of these themes and highlight a few student CIQ responses.

Incidents of power dynamics. The graduate students provided evidence of the classroom power dynamics in their CIQ responses.  While Evans shared stories in class, the students were aware of her role as professor,

“I really appreciated hearing Jessica and her thoughts more in this class period.  Not that I don’t appreciate Nancy’s voice, but I feel like by virtue of her position she isn’t able to engage fully with us” (02-08-10).

When instructors shared personal stories about social justice challenges, the students showed appreciation and understanding.  It was enlightening for students to learn about their instructors’ lives, including the less than perfect decisions each instructor may have made during her professional career.  One student reflected,

“It helped lessen the power dynamic to know that even Nancy and Jessica aren’t perfect and need time to reflect and question ideas” (02-15-10).

Another student expressed,

I think Nancy’s personal insight to her own experience with social justice was the most surprising to me. I have always pictured Nancy to be this ‘all-knowing’ (sic) social justice advocate, but hearing her talk about her initial discomfort with social justice topics, and feeling like an illegitimate advocate because of her White (sic), was very surprising to me.  It made me realize that studying social justice might be difficult, but that it is completely normal for me to have some hesitations if Nancy has had them, too!

The above CIQ responses provided a measure of the emotional tenor of the power dynamics in the social justice classroom environment. This evidence built trust between student and instructor because of its honest approach to understanding knowledge and experience between teacher and students.

Concerns about professionalism. The first few weeks of responses included students complaining, pointing out inconsistencies, or just being upset about one thing or another.  After taking time to reflect upon the students’ responses I began to realize that the students’ reactions to classroom behavior could be attributed to their own academic habits and professionalism.  Students did not recognize how their concerns about peer actions were connected to their own embedded personal beliefs and values and how they wished others would act as they did (Brookfield, 1987).  When students hold themselves to high standards, they may experience disappointment or criticism when peers are not demonstrating the same sense of professionalism (Brookfield, 1987).  The following statements demonstrate how peer classroom behavior may disrupt learning due to a lack of professionalism.  One student reflected,

There are two people in the class that I feel add their ‘opinion’ in class.  I do not think they do this on purpose, but I feel like it is taking [a]way from other individuals sharing, including mine.  Also, I was distracted by the one person in our class that has their (sic) computer open, when clearly she isn’t suppose (sic) to.  I would like to have an explaination (sic) as to why she can, but no one else can.  (01-25-10)

When students attended class “ill-prepared” to participate, one student mentioned,

I found it puzzling that certain students come to class ill prepared, then do not fully participate.  I know this was brought up in our CIQ Summary last week, but it has been very concerning when my learning is affected by others such actions. (02-15-10)

The CIQ is a way for the instructors to gauge students’ classroom experiences with their peers.  During the semester, the instructors used these responses to dialogue about expectations and class preparation.  As the semester progressed, the level of student concern about their peers’ behavior decreased to a minimum.

Exploring evidence of critical reflection. Many of the students who take HgEd 676, Student Development Theory II have previous knowledge of social identities and “how they are influenced by the dynamics of power and oppression in education and society” (Evans & Ranero, 2010).  The course readings, activities, and discussions may challenge or enhance perspectives for the students, thereby transforming their previous knowledge. The core of learning occurs when students’ perspectives are liberated from previous knowledge while being receptive to new knowledge (McGregor, 2008).

The CIQ, as a tool, provided a unique opportunity to document critical reflection from this course.  The following sections consider the various themes: identifying emotional triggers, making meaning of new perspectives, and finding voice.

Identifying emotional triggers. Because social justice is a complex issue, it may place students in situations where they are judging themselves critically within their frames of reference (Bride, 2008).  These reflections could be both enlightening and difficult to manage for the students.  The CIQ responses gave me access to what students were experiencing in the classroom.  Students who engage in critical reflection sometimes experience feelings of guilt or shame.  Prior to my presentation on February 22, 2010 a student shared,

I really appreciated debriefing the class later with another student.  It didn’t happen in class but I think that that was especially affirming.   I really appreciated that when I had a strong trigger to a statement in my small group and said “I had a strong reaction to that” people didn’t shut down, I didn’t shut down, and we were all able to have a better conversation-where I feel like we all actually heard each other. (01-25-10)

Knowing how students were becoming aware of their learning edges I could cater my presentation to their needs.  I presented information on connecting their new experiences in class to learning edges and emotional triggers.  Following my second in-class presentation a student reflected on emotional triggers,

I was most engaged when we were discussing the certain things that trigger us and how we handle those triggers because I felt that it really helped to identify some of my own triggers because they often come up with some of the new material that is being covered in this class and I feel that by being more aware of them when they happen will allow me to figure out where to go from there. (02-22-10)

In this passage the student critically reflected on how gaining new knowledge about emotional triggers presented a new way of knowing about his or her own challenges.  A student shared how knowing about emotional triggers made him or her more aware of others in the classroom,

“i [sic] found the activity of discussing the triggers very helpful.  That helped me reflect how I react and I noticed how others react too!” (02-22-10).  For example, learning about emotional triggers was a catalyst for one student’s increased self-awareness: “I am always surprised by my triggers and am working on not letting them completely remove me from the conversation” (03-01-10).

Without using the CIQ, we would not have been aware that this student’s perspectives and abilities were being altered during the emotional trigger exercise.

Further in the semester one student shared how she or he experienced emotional triggers when others were not being sensitive.  She or he related a very personal anecdote about how a word was triggering emotion,

I felt really distanced and triggered throughout a lot of the conversation today.  I really struggled with people’s continued use of homosexual…I don’t know why but this word really bothers me and has often been used as a highly derogatory word in my life and that of many of my friends.  I could tell people were uncomfortable and didn’t know what words to use but that discomfort made me uncomfortable.  I think a big part of it is that I am in the process of really exploring my own sexual orientation and defining it for myself and have recently begun the process of talking with my family, friends, and current partner about my interest in more than just the opposite gender.  It has been a struggle for me because I have identified as straight for so long (including in this class) and so I think that I was processing a lot of that during class. I am also processing through some of the guilt (which is stupid) that I feel over identifying as straight for so long when I have internally identified or known that I am attracted to men and women for a long time. (04-05-10)

The CIQ response documentation provided an opportunity to see within a student’s critical reflection.  It recorded how words and stories have an impact on personal learning, and provided a pulse on the emotional tenor of the learning environment.

Making meaning of new perspectives. Students who gain additional knowledge by exploring roles and relationships begin to develop new perspectives.  Students are faced with assessing their assumptions while gaining new knowledge and becoming critically aware of their new perspectives in the world.  Individuals make meaning with new-found awareness and clearly understand their experience when they know under what conditions an expressed idea is true or justified.

The CIQ provided students with an outlet to reflect upon their previous knowledge with a new point of view.  Beginning to change previous attitudes about race and ethnicity, one student reflected,

Jessica helped me understand that some people do not always need a student organized group to help with addressing their social identity, but rather their [sic] are other avenues that also help.  She also made me realize that some people just want to feel heard or ‘understood,’ so maybe being more empathetic.  (03-08-10)

This is a good example of how a student recognized old perspectives and was receptive to new knowledge about race and ethnicity.  The act of critical reflection is a process in which we “are not attending to the grounds or justification for our beliefs but are simply using our beliefs to make an interpretation” (Mezirow, 1991, p. 107).  The responses below demonstrate how powerful critical reflection may be when students use it.  One student shared his or her concern about his or her meaning perspectives not being aligned with the rest of the class,

While I am understanding and learning about social justice, I don’t consider myself a super-liberal person in my beliefs or opinions about a variety of topics. I feel slightly uncomfortable mentioning that, because I’m afraid it will come off as though I am ignorant or racist or something, but hearing her comment made me confused. I don’t want to be assumed to be in agreement with everyone in class just because we’re all studying social justice. If I have an opinion that isn’t the ‘norm’ (sic) for a student affairs/social justice student, I want to be okay with expressing it. Anyway, that comment just had me a little puzzled and made me think more about how other dialogues might play out later in the semester. (01-25-10)

This CIQ response confirmed some of the anxiety previously shared in the pre-course self-reflection.  It also provides the instructors with knowledge about a student having differing views from those shared during the in-class discussions.  After reading the articles and participating in activities and class discussions, the CIQ provided students with a way to critically reflect upon previous knowledge by challenging new learning perspectives.

Similarly, another student’s CIQ response reflected a concern with feeling directly implicated in the oppression of underrepresented peoples,

In class I noticed that when [another student] was speaking about his oppressison (sic) I was getting physicaly (sic) upset. I had this warm sick feeling in my gut. I am confused as to why I reacted this way. I believe initally (sic) I was mad because it seems like he only focuses on the way he is oppressed through his race, and never looks at how he is privalged (sic) like being a grad student. I feel and the readings refected (sic) this, that we are all privalged (sic) and oppressed, just in differnt (sic) ways. I found my reaction most confusing, and I dont (sic) know if there is somthing (sic) I should do or can do about it, also I am not quite sure how I feel about how I responded. (01-25-10)

Ultimately, the student expressed feelings of guilt upon hearing another student’s story.  The student grappled with how he or she was reacting and how another person was challenging his or her meaning perspectives.  As an instructor, having an awareness of students’ concerns provides a unique learning opportunity.  Awareness of concerns may lead the instructor to lead the class in a discussion about how to work within an environment of differing opinions, and other elements of social justice.  Without the CIQ, these stories would go unwritten; thus, the instructor could be unaware of how the course content and activities nurtured critical reflection.

Another student shared that new understanding prompted him/her to do things differently,

I guess I didn’t connect a lot with some of the gender roles, for both men and women, that were being set forth. I understand that some of these exist (wearing makeup, cooking, staying home), but I have not been taught to exist within these, even though my mom was at home when I was young.  I felt lucky that this was true for me, and realized how much work I have to do in order to teach my own children eventually to accept everyone, and to not be taught gender roles by other kids, teachers, or the media. (04-12-10)

This student’s CIQ response is a critical reflection example of how he or she struggled to make meaning upon learning about gender identity.  Marsick (1990) described learning as “reflection on experience, the linkage between personal meaning and the socially created consensual meanings embodied in the organization’s culture, and the transformation of personal frames of reference” (p. 24).  The CIQ responses above provided evidence demonstrating how students learned from new perspectives, connecting personally with them, and critically reflecting upon how they will use them in the future.

Finding voice. In this capstone project, critical reflection also focuses on students finding their voice (McGregor, 2008; Mezirow, 2000).  Students who find their voice begin to recognize themselves not only from their previous knowledge but from critically reflecting on previous experiences. Therefore, they begin to understand why they are who they are and imagine how, if they choose, they can be some other way (Taylor, 2000).  The challenge for many of the students throughout the course was finding their voice to speak up. Enabling students to find their voice was fulfilled by establishing a safe environment for students and instructors to share their stories with one another.

Two students shared detailed stories in their reflections about when they found their voice during the disabilities course topic.  One student remarked,

“I would say that I felt the most engaged during small group exercises.  I have a learning disability and I found it easier to talk about the content during the small group as opposed to the large group” (03-29-10).

Another student began to let peers know about his/her personal story and reaffirmed his/her effort to learn more about his/her identity,

I was surprised in my small group how everyone has had some experience with someone with a disability.  I was also surprised in myself that I was able to talk about my learning disability.  It is probably the first time I have openly talked about it to people who are not my close friends or family.  Also recently I have been trying to learn more about my learning disability.  Today’s discussions reaffirmed my efforts. (03-29-10)

This safe classroom environment provided a place for students to discuss difficult subjects:

I think the most surprising situation this week was everyone’s openness to sharing as well as people talking about their experiences.  I think that this was the first week that I felt like it [w]as a safe space to share” (03-01-10). Another student felt similarly, “I think [it] was the approach that the majority of the class took to the course work this week.  I personally felt more welcomed, especially in sharing my thoughts and experiences” (03-01-10).

When the class discussion involved race one student reflected,

I was suprised (sic) at the ease with which I discussed race in a large-group setting. I usually shy away from these converstations (sic) because I am afraid I could offend someone.  However, once I actually started to [talk] about it, it was not something I dreaded.  In fact, I found it enjoyable to talk about these issues. (02-15-10)

The CIQ responses above demonstrate how the social justice classroom environment and critical reflection built up students’ self-confidence; ultimately giving students a platform to find their voice.

Evaluating the CIQ

During my last in-class discussion with the students I used two methods to evaluate the CIQ as a helpful tool for their learning.  In the first phase, I presented an image of the data to the students.  The second was an interactive evaluation activity for the students to share their thoughts about what they saw in the presentation, and to solicit their feedback.  Both were important to the final phase of the capstone project.

Processing with the students. I felt it was important to share the data from the findings with the students.  To demonstrate the findings from CIQ responses throughout the semester, I used a visual representation created on  All the responses are inserted into the online web software.  Each word mentioned multiple times increases the size of the word in the visual representation.  Ultimately, these visual representations serve as another data source for my capstone project.

The initial slide visually showed how the students responded to the pre-course self-reflection question asking: What have you heard about HGED 676 Student Development II? (see Figure 1). Many of the words indicated emotional responses to this question.  It does not show how the instructor or peers help nurture the new perspectives for the students.  Instead, it represents a difficult and controversial course experience for the students.

Figure 1. What students heard prior to the course.

Whereas, the CIQ responses to the question, “What action that anyone (instructor or student) took in class this week did you find most affirming and helpful?” demonstrated how the group, reflection, and the instructors were key to helping and affirming the students’ learning experience throughout the semester (see Figure 2).

Figure 2.  Helpful or affirming.






The accumulation of students’ CIQ responses to the question, “What action that anyone (instructor or student) took in class this week did you find most puzzling or confusing?” was most often “nothing,” followed by “people.” (see Figure 3).

Figure 3.  Puzzled or confused.

As a group, students discussed what they saw when viewing the visual representations (Figures 1, 2, and 3).  They noticed how many of their preexisting concerns about the course had changed over time.  When they compared the three figures, the students recognized how perceptions of the course were modified based on their personal experience in the class. Student in-class informal verbal reactions suggested that the critical reflections enhanced the overall learning experience.

Interactive evaluation activity. During the interactive evaluation the students’ responses to questions about the CIQ written on post-its suggested that students appreciated the inclusion of the CIQ as part of the class.  As one student explained, “It gave me a safe place to voice additional thoughts/concerns.” Another student noted that it provided “the opportunity to share/reflect on things I would have forgotten or went unsaid if not given the chance to through the CIQs.” One student wrote, “I liked having a chance to speak,” and a student posted that the CIQ provided an “ability to be honest.”  A few of the students recognized that periodically revisiting the group guidelines developed during the first class would have been helpful to shape an even safer environment.

When it came to what the students would change about the CIQ there were many posts about the CIQ’s repetitive nature, including: “Make questions specific to the topic each week,” “Variety of questions,” and “Changing the questions each week.”  Timing was an issue for some students: “Have them up longer to respond,” and “Deadline of CIQ.”

Following the last class I entered each of the three words students used to describe the course (Appendix J) into Wordle ( to display their answers (see Figure 4).  This visual representation was the final data source for the capstone project.  When I compared this visual representation to the Wordle visual representation from the pre-course self-reflections, the students reflected different emotions than fear, anxiety, and emotional that they used in the pre-course reflection.  Instead, their words reflected growth, change, challenging, eye-opening, reflective, and thought-provoking.  Perhaps when this course begins in spring 2011 the incoming graduate students will have these words as their expectations of the course, and they will contribute to what the students will experience.

Figure 4. Descriptive words at the end of the semester.


The findings of this capstone project supported the approach we took to explore the student experience in a social justice classroom. Important aspects of the findings worthy of further discussion include addressing pre-course anxiety, critical reflection, power dynamics, and engaging students’ evaluation in the social justice classroom.

Addressing Pre-course Anxiety

One goal of this capstone project was to explore the students’ pre-course anxiety towards taking HgEd 676 Student Development Theory II.  The pre-course self-reflection suggested that the instructors’ assumption that there was anxiety was correct.  With this finding in mind, it was important to recognize a key challenge of this course would be students being afraid of what they did not yet know.  Many of the students had not had opportunities to openly discuss social identities.  Therefore, finding a common ground to learn, listen, teach, and communicate would be important to the students, based upon their pre-course self-reflection.

The pre-course self-reflection was one way for the students to know that the instructors would be aware of their anxieties about the course in an anonymous fashion.  It was interesting to learn about students’ preconceived notions of how the class would transpire and what they perceived they would take away from it.  The findings solidified the need for implementation of group guidelines and introduction of the concept of emotional triggers to the students.

Group guidelines. To ease student anxiety I facilitated an activity for the students to develop group guidelines during the first day of class.  These guidelines were later posted on WebCT for the students.  During the CIQ evaluation, a few of the students mentioned that it would have been helpful to talk about the group guidelines throughout the semester.  The intention was to have students consistently use these guidelines; however, it did not occur because we did not have a mechanism in place to do so.  The guidelines would be a valuable tool for students to refer to on a weekly basis because they reinstate what the group as a whole felt was important at the beginning of the course.

Identifying emotional triggers and learning edges. We introduced the idea of emotional triggers and learning edges during my second discussion with the class.  This idea provided the students with insight into their own behaviors when experiencing new knowledge that was upsetting.  This element was important to introduce to the students based on the pre-course self-reflection responses identifying their fear of emotionally intense discussions.

There is evidence in the CIQ responses of a few students reflecting about their learning edges and emotional triggers.  In retrospect, this activity should be facilitated at the beginning of the semester with a follow-up mid-semester.  It would be helpful for the students to learn about emotional triggers and how to handle difficult situations earlier in their graduate coursework.

Critical Reflection

I encouraged critical reflection by using the Critical Incident Questionnaire as a tool to record the students’ experiences in the classroom.  It is not possible to force someone to critically reflect in order to enhance their learning.  However, educators can provide the tools to determine if learning is taking place.  In this study, the CIQ proved to be an effective tool for this purpose.

What we learned from using the CIQ was that it promoted the development of critical reflection techniques through the exploration of emotional responses to different situations (Brookfield, 1995, 1996). Its guided questions encouraged students to critically reflect upon their learning.  Many of the students’ CIQ responses indicated incidents of learning from course readings, activities, and group discussions.  New knowledge about a social identity made an impact on the students’ learning.  The student shared their feelings about the course and the pedagogical techniques used in the course through their responses to the CIQ.

Overall, the addition of required critical reflection to the course provided a constructive way to obtain course feedback as well as a way to acknowledge new perspectives students were experiencing from the course.  Students were asked to respond to at least eight CIQs throughout the semester.  Although a majority of students did choose to critically reflect, during the second half of the semester fewer students completed CIQs after they had completed the required number.  In retrospect, finding a way to encourage critical reflection for the entire semester would provide more information, as well as a thorough course evaluation.

Power Dynamics

Each week I summarized the CIQ responses for the instructors and recorded an audio podcast for the students.  I shared the CIQ responses directly with the instructors, who in turn dialogued with the students throughout the semester about these findings.  Because the dialogues encouraged collaboration between learner and teachers, they contributed to the safe environment of the social justice classroom.  The findings in the CIQ responses and CIQ evaluation indicate the importance of the relationships with the instructors.

The findings indicated that because the instructors were willing to share their personal stories and challenges, the power relationship evolved into one that was more collaborative, rather than authoritative.  While the teacher-student power dynamic can never be completely eliminated, the students did not complain about it in their CIQ responses or CIQ evaluation.  Furthermore, the findings supported Gilstrap and Dupree’s (2008) research recognizing the CIQ as a successful critical reflection tool to create a dialogue between faculty and students.

Engaging Students in Evaluation

One way of promoting learning is by providing a safe space for students to find their voice (McGregor, 2008; Mezirow, 2000).  To enhance the collaborative learning in the social justice classroom I used my experience as a facilitator and involved the students with the overall CIQ evaluation during our last in-class discussion. The students were able to see how the majority of their initial concerns dissipated throughout the semester. The class discussion and CIQ evaluation findings enabled students to compare their pre-course self-reflection with their semester responses. In a constructive interactive evaluation they provided ideas for strengthening the CIQ and improving overall course logistics. This activity helped answer my final research question to determine if the CIQ was helpful in evaluating the student experience in a social justice classroom.

Recommendations and Conclusion

This capstone experience included a variety of programmatic tasks involving reports, evaluation development, WebCT, and discussion facilitation.  Most importantly it was an opportunity to demonstrate the importance of critical reflection in the social justice classroom, specifically HgEd 676 Student Development Theory II.  This being said, I would recommend the following: (a) establishing a safe learning environment, (b) implementing the use of an intentional critical reflection tool, and (c) future evaluations of the Critical Incident Questionnaire.

A Safe Learning Environment

In the pre-course self-reflection, data indicated that the students were concerned about what their experiences would be like in HgEd 676, Student Development Theory.  We identified key challenges and developed introductory activities to ease their fears.  During my first in-class discussion, I led students though an activity to develop group guidelines.  The initial activity was informative for the students; however, they did not revisit the guidelines during the rest of the semester.  The intent of the guidelines was to help the students when they felt anxiety about a topic or the way in which another student was behaving in class.  Therefore, I would encourage the students to develop group guidelines along with an implementation plan for revisiting the guidelines throughout the semester.

Intentional Critical Reflection

Student engagement in shared critical reflection is an important way to enhance the student learning experience.  It may provide new ways for instructors to learn from students and for the students to learn from their instructors in a collaborative and safe social justice learning environment.  The sharing of weekly CIQ reports and audio podcasts was an informative way to understand the students’ critical reflection process (Brookfield, 1987).  In addition, it enhanced the student and instructor relationship by shaping the classroom environment as an equitable and safe environment (Bell, 1997).  This transparent process encouraged students to find their voice in a safe learning environment.

Enhancing student learning. The findings of this project indicate that the CIQ, with minor adjustments, could be a tool to enhance student learning.  The CIQ responses provided clear examples of students gaining new perspectives and knowledge. They also provided continuous feedback on how the course content was affecting student learning.  During the CIQ evaluation, students suggested these new questions for the CIQ:

  • What is one thing you would have done differently during class?
  • What was absent from today’s discussion?
  • What ‘learning outcome’ did you ‘meet’ this week?
  • What did you disagree with that you read or discussed this week?
  • How did you feel at the beginning and end of class?
  • What will you do with what you’ve learned?

Along with these suggestions, the timing and length of the critical reflection would also need to be adjusted for each course.

Enhancing future seminars. During my last in-class discussion, one student shared with the group, “Why don’t we do critical reflection in all of our graduate courses?” This comment heightened the importance of the Educational Leadership and Policy Studies department being intentional about creating a critical reflection tool for graduate students. I would recommend the department consider implementing the CIQ or similar intentional reflection tools for students to critically reflect upon their learning.  Such a tool would not only enhance student learning, it would also provide weekly constructive feedback for instructors about course activities and readings.  In addition, the themes found within the CIQ responses may provide insight concerning future programs or course evaluations.  For example, if students critically reflect concerns about their knowledge related to a particular social identity, a seminar might be developed to help address the need for additional knowledge in that area.

Social justice ally development.  An additional benefit of critical reflection may be social justice ally development, as well as pre-professional preparation for the graduate students.  By gaining knowledge about oneself and society through critical reflection, students may begin to comprehend the needs of diverse undergraduate student populations and begin working to become social justice allies to assist diverse students in addressing issues of injustice and inequity (Reason et al., 2005). As students learn how to critically reflect upon their previous perspectives and new knowledge they may begin to change their perspectives about social identities and social justice, thereby gaining a new perspective on how they are connected to individuals from other backgrounds.  The end result may be recognition of how their actions contribute to oppression and/or support social justice.

Future Research

For my project I chose to explore the social justice classroom. The intervention methods and evaluation tools used were designed to gather a breadth of knowledge within my capstone project framework. While the findings of this project are hopeful, additional research is needed to verify my findings. In this section I suggest several additional areas of research that would expand the literature and knowledge related to higher education professional preparation coursework, social justice classrooms, and learning. Questions this study elicits include:

  • How do students continue to use critical reflection following the course?  How does critical reflection help or hinder their professional lives?  When evaluating the CIQ it was difficult to measure if students’ new found perspectives would remain after the course’s end.  In retrospect, evaluation of the value of the CIQ or another critical reflection tool could be completed one semester following the course to determine whether taking the time to critically reflect in class ultimately enhanced the learning experience and future professional development for each student.
  • How do professors view the Critical Incident Questionnaire (CIQ) as a critical reflection tool as well as a way to nurture a safe learning environment?  One aspect missing in this capstone project was the voice of the instructors.  Therefore, evaluating the instructor’s experience with the CIQ would be another research project.  Finding out how each week’s CIQ responses assisted or obstructed the instructor’s overarching course objectives would be instructive. It would also be useful to determine whether the instructor changed his or her teaching style to satisfy the students and whether these new methods were successful.
  • Are there other strategies for students to learn as they manage the stressors associated with learning about social identity development, privilege, and oppression in a social justice classroom and professionally?  I believe facilitating the emotional trigger and learning edges presentation was the opening to help teach students about managing their emotional health.  Finding out how other higher education preparatory programs teach their graduate students about balancing challenges would be a viable project.


Overall, this capstone project explored the social justice classroom environment.  The students’ pre-course self-reflection showed hesitation, distress, and emotional intensity about taking HgEd676, Student Development Theory II.  However, the course activities and group discussions promoted the development of a safe collaborative social justice learning environment.  The instructors’ willingness to share their personal stories, along with encouraging students to do the same, helped to establish a common ground for being receptive to new perspectives and knowledge.  The CIQ responses provided evidence that the course curriculum and intentional critical reflection cultivated learning experiences for many of the students.

I hope the students in 2010 spring semester HgEd 676 Student Development Theory II share with their peers how this course nurtured their learning in a safe social justice classroom environment.  If this outcome occurs, I can imagine that if we conducted the pre-course self-reflection with the 2011 HgEd 676, Student Development Theory II students, words would be generally positive, and students would be less hesitant to take the course.





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