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Spark Reflection on Learning Outcomes by Knowing What to Ask

The study of Islam involves subject matter that can be sensitive or difficult to digest. Reflective essays reveal areas where clarity or context is needed.


Ayesha A. Irani, PhD

Assistant Professor of Asian Studies, University of Massachusetts Boston

PhD (with distinction) in South Asia Studies, MA in South Asia Studies, MSW, BA in Sanskrit

What Dr. Ayesha Irani likes best about teaching Introduction to Islam is the interesting dialog it sparks among her students. The course is typically capped at 30, with nearly half of the class being made up of Muslims.

“It’s a wonderful mix,” she says. “A lot of [them are] Muslim students who may have studied Islam in traditional “Sunday” school—many are immigrants who have gone to Koran schools in the US—and they seek to understand how Islam is treated in the West. And then there are just as many non-Muslim students who come to the class with much curiosity. And everyone learns from each other.”

Irani actively seeks to learn from her students each semester, too. “What I love most about teaching is how it drew me out of my world of research—very intensive work with a slim set of materials, highly circumscribed within a very small area of time and history,” she explains. “Academic research is so introverted. Teaching took me completely outside of myself to interact with human beings.”

So it should come as no surprise that she has chosen to weave opportunities for thoughtful and reflective dialog (written and spoken) into the very fabric of every semester.

Challenge: A need for reflection—and feedback

University students often move from one topic to another, and from one semester to the next, without taking the time to look back on their learning experiences. Irani wants to change this.

“By the end of a semester, they’ve finished their assignments and they’re ready to move on to the next set of courses,” she explains. “I want them to step back and think about what they might have gained from a course—how it has helped them shape or reshape their beliefs, and what they are taking back with them. It’s something they don’t often think about.”

Reflection is not for the student’s own benefit alone: It is a benefit to her as well.

“Universities routinely have students fill out course evaluation forms at the end of the semester, wherein students evaluate the instructor on a scale of 1 to 5 on various areas of course content and delivery,” she notes. “Rarely do students take the trouble to provide written comments [on these forms]. These course evaluations are not helpful to instructors in terms of providing feedback on how to improve courses.”

Further, says Irani, she wanted a way to encourage students to tell her how they felt about even the most sensitive topics—or, rather, especially the most sensitive topics—covered in her course.

“Some students are bold and talkative and feel like voicing their views,” she allows. “But a number of others are rather shy to express their opinions, and they’re unsure how their opinions will be received, especially around issues of religion. The material I deal with can be very sensitive.”

Irani wanted to hear directly from her students—in their own words. And she wanted to do so earlier and more often during the semester, so she could use their information to make adjustments to their class experience as needed.

Innovation: Creating dual-benefit and timely writing assignments

Irani has built a series of brief writing assignments into the course, spaced throughout the semester. These are structured to serve a twofold purpose: For the students, they require self-reflection, and for Irani, they provide valuable insights.

More specifically, these essays provide an opportunity for the students to step back from the course, to think and write about the learning challenges presented by course content, how they have overcome these or faltered, and how they have grown in knowledge and skills in the process.

“Religious issues can be areas of discomfort for students. When they write about their learning in their own private context, they are much more articulate and can express themselves with less hesitation. [And] I am able to make sure the register or tenor of materials I am presenting is acceptable.”

As in many cases of communication, the key to garnering valuable answers, she says, is to ask the right questions at the right times.


“One thing I try to make students aware of in the very first lecture is that my class is not political in nature—it is not about jihad or terrorism—even though that is associated with Islam in the press. My class is about a deep history of Islam, starting from its early beginnings, moving into the medieval period, and its development through Sufi literature and fine arts. And we look at the nexus between Islam and the sciences.”

— Ayesha A. Irani, PhD

Course: RELSTY 233L (ASIAN 233L) Introduction to Islam

Frequency: Two 75-minute class meetings per week for 14 weeks.

Class size: 30

Course description: The aim of the course is to understand the historical, doctrinal, and aesthetic development of Islam, through an examination of its key symbols, rituals, sources, and institutions. Such an analysis of Islamic religious history should enable us to appreciate the religion and its practice in its multifarious contemporary contexts. Accordingly, the course is divided into three historical modules: the early phase, the middle period, and the modern period. The first module covers the historical development of Islam as a religion out of pre-Islamic Arabia, outlining the Islamic matrix of the Prophet, the Qur’ān, Islamic ritual, and dissent. The latter refers to the early development of sectarian schisms in Islamic society that came to be enduring. The middle period covers the elaborations of Islamic law by Muslim legists; the development of Islamic mysticism (taṣawwuf); and the efflorescence of Islamic art and architecture. The third module on the modern period foregrounds issues of jihād, gender, and nationalism.

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Lesson: Reflection writings to benefit student and educator

Students begin the course by writing a short autobiographical piece on the skills, interests, and knowledge they bring to the course. This is designed to offer context for their learning, and to allow Irani an opportunity to learn more about them as individuals.

Later in the semester, Irani assigns two additional short essays—around the time of midterms and finals—asking them to reflect upon their learnings up to that point. The focus of these papers is not on course content but on process: the “how and why” of learning, rather than the “what.”

She also requires six additional online journal entries to be submitted throughout the semester, each being a minimum of 250 words in length.

It is a strategy that Irani feels works well across disciplines. “Each class is different,” she allows. “And particular issues, say for sociology, would be different from a course in the humanities, but the broad concern of reflection upon learning can be applied to any subject.”

Here are her suggestions to educators seeking to accomplish something similar:

Learn who they are—right now

At the semester start, Irani wants to know what her students hope to learn—and who they are as people. To that end, one of Irani’s first assignments is an autobiographical journal entry that students post on Blackboard.

In the initial entry, Irani wants to know a little bit about who they are and why they are taking her course, as this helps her teach it in such a way that they can achieve their goals. She also asks: “What aspects of Islam would you like to research further?” and “What resources (i.e., your inner wisdom, academic training, life experience, and skills) do you bring to the class?”

“As an instructor, I want to make sure they are getting the substance of what I am trying to teach them,” she says. “I want to make sure it is intersecting well with their knowledge base and, if they have questions, [I want them to feel they can] come back to me and ask questions so they may find their answers.”

This can be particularly challenging for practicing Muslims, she adds, because the topic is so personal to them. “How this class intersects with their knowledge base, what they have learned, and the assumptions they came in with—these [are] things [Muslim] students find hard to articulate in the classroom and don’t always [share] readily unless you push them to reflect in writing,” says Irani.

Reassess at the midpoint

Irani assigns a second essay of approximately 550 words; it is due around the middle of the term. The point of this essay is for students to reflect on their learning up to this point.

She begins by reviewing the requirements and explaining her overall expectations for their reflections. These include thinking about why they chose the course, what they have found interesting, what initial questions or assumptions they had at that time, and what new confusions or questions arose. Further, she wants to know whether the course had challenged any of these assumptions, answered any of the questions, and whether they had “lingering confusions/questions.”

Her biggest concern for this assignment is this: She wants students not to spend time on what they have learned but to write about how and why they feel the way they do.

Students are finally asked to consider how their growth fits into the big picture of their life—academically and personally.

Shift the focus off of letter grades

Irani knows that she is asking a lot of the reflective essays, and she wants students to be forthcoming. So she notes in the directions that she does not expect answers to every one of the prompts she has provided, and she explains that they are simply graded as pass/fail.

The assignment clarifies her position this way: “Treat these as pointers to the directions in which you should be thinking. However, I do expect that you give me a thoughtful, sincere, and well-rounded analysis of your learning through the course to receive a ‘pass’ mark.”

Repeat the process at the end of the semester

In the end-of-semester reflection paper, students are asked the same questions as in the midterm assignment, but they must take a longer perspective on what they have learned. Here, they may answer questions such as: What messages stood out for them over the course of the weeks? What transformed how they thought about the materials? What they have gained academically—and how does it fit in with their larger academic growth? Again, they do not need to cover everything listed to earn a passing grade.

Schedule one-on-one discussions

An added benefit of the reflection essays is the opportunity they provide Irani for initiating a private dialog with individual students—allowing them to raise issues they might avoid in the classroom.

“I teach about rather controversial issues, such as the depiction of sacred figures, like the Prophet Muhammad, in Islamic art,” she says. “This topic is highly sensitive for modern Muslims. Yet in Iran from the thirteenth century onward, there have been a large number of depictions of sacred figures in the Islamic book arts. But when my Muslim students see these images from books of Islamic art, some of them feel offended that they are shown in the classroom. They feel offended by these images of the Prophet.”

Irani appreciates how students’ feedback can actually open the door to deeper conversations. “When they have talked about this in their reflection papers, it gives me an opportunity to get back to them and to contextualize and recontextualize [the art] in its historic context,” she says. “I make sure to reiterate the historical context so they don’t see it as a random castigation of the ideals that they hold dear.”

She adds, “Because it’s a private conversation, they’re more able to express their feelings about it to me.”

Bring the ideas (anonymously) to the whole class

After addressing students’ concerns one-on-one, Irani looks for common threads within the class responses, then initiates a group discussion regarding some of the most common issues. Waiting for end-of-semester evaluations, she notes, would make this sort of last-minute clarification and discussion impossible.

Irani acknowledges that some of her goals could be accomplished by more traditional surveys, but she firmly believes that these papers allow for much deeper reflection, opening up connections between her and the students—both individually and as a class—so she can better serve everyone’s needs.

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