Implement “Biographical Disruption” as an Anchor for Critical Reflection in Online Learning

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Online discussions are a cornerstone of remote learning as they promote active participation and allow for interaction amongst students and between students and faculty (Baglione & Nastanski, 2007), therefore fostering relationship. Indeed, interaction has been highlighted as one of the key factors in determining both faculty and student satisfaction with online learning (Martín-Rodríguez et al., 2015), while “relational humanity” has been figured, particularly within the online learning environment, as “an integral part of the faculty-student relationship” (Eadens & Eadens, 2021, p. 277).

Nonetheless, a core challenge for online teaching and learning is the fashioning “of opportunities, structures and formats that increase meaningful interaction” (Joyner, 2012, p. 35) and relationship (Smoyer et al., 2020). Without intentional course design, online discussions tend to focus only on lower-level discourse (Christopher, Thomas, & Tallent-Runnels, 2004, p. 170). As such, structured anchors and frameworks for discussion and reflection must be implemented to increase levels of discourse, interaction, and relationship.

Biographical disruption is here offered as one such anchor that, by its personal nature, fosters reflection, interaction, and community. A term first coined by Bury (1982) to describe chronic illness as an embodied break with the experience of everyday life, biographical disruption considers the knowledge that underpins one’s experiences. The following strategy captures how biographical disruption may be implemented as an anchor for (shared) reflection in the online learning environment, including reflection on both content and the online learning process itself. This anchor, coupled with the DEAL framework for critical reflection (Ash & Clayton, 2009), has been utilized as part of an engaging, integral, and powerful opportunity for student discussion and reflection. Aside from implementation related to threaded discussion posts, biographical disruption may be utilized as an anchor for individual reflections shared only with select individuals (such as faculty and/or specific peers) and collected as part of a student’s individual learning portfolio.

Link to Example artifact(s)

The COVID-19 pandemic brought with it both challenges and opportunities related to educational praxis. Additionally, it acted as a fundamental rupture to assumed ways of life; this rupture, along with online learning, may be figured as kinds of biographical disruption. During the 2020-21 and 2021-2022 academic years, a first-year course at Toronto Metropolitan (formerly Ryerson) University, SSH 100: Inquiry and Problem-Solving, was offered in a special version entitled “Our Pandemic Learning.” Students in SSH 100 were positioned as partners in inquiry as we analyzed knowledge production, reflected on what could be learned through the pandemic and processes of online learning, and discovered what this analysis and reflection tells us about the knowledge underpinning our own experiences and how power operates in society. Anchored in a consideration of biographical disruption, students composed critical reflections shared as discussion posts as guided by the following:

Shared Learning Portfolio


The specific prompts given were as follows:

Prompt 1: When did you first realize that COVID-19 and the pandemic would matter in your life?

Possible questions to consider:

  • How did you come to this realization?
  • What effect has this realization had on you, both practically and emotionally?
  • For more on this topic, please review the first course podcast.

Prompt 2: How has arriving at university posed a biographical disruption in your life?

Possible questions to consider:

  • What are the rational and emotional ways in which you are processing this disruption?
  • If someone asked you why you decided to go to university, what would you say – and how does it depend on who’s asking?
  • For more on biographical disruptions, please see the appropriate section in the shared learning portfolio guidelines.

Prompt 3: What concept/discussion/idea most stood-out to you from the course’s podcast as a biographical disruption?

Possible questions to consider:

  • How and why did your identified concept/discussion/idea stand-out to you?
  • How has the identified concept/discussion/idea impacted how you evaluate risk during the COVID-19 pandemic?
  • How has the identified concept/discussion/idea impacted how you consider the COVID-19 pandemic as related to oppression, privilege, and issues of social justice?

Prompt 4: What concept/discussion/idea most stood-out to you from the course’s readings as a biographical disruption?

Possible questions to consider:

  • How and why did your identified concept/discussion/idea stand-out to you?
  • How has the identified concept/discussion/idea impacted how you understand course discussions?
  • How has the identified concept/discussion/idea impacted how you consider your own identity and social location?

Prompt 5: How might you mobilize your learning in this course to make a difference in your life and the lives of those around you?

  • Here you might consider mobilization in terms of “constructive action”: Paulo Freire was a Brazilian teacher and philosopher who was a leading advocate of critical pedagogy, which he framed as a philosophy of education and as a social movement that combines education or increased consciousness with praxis or practice. Consider how you might take what you’ve learned in this course (including your increased awareness of self and society) and put that learning to use (to create a better life for yourself and/or the community) as a biographical disruption.

These prompts should be altered according to the time, place, and disciplinary space in which they are offered.


As a result of this strategy, students were able to meet key course objectives including the development of their agency as creative, methodical, and reflective thinkers, problem-solvers, and self-directed learners. Further, it was readily apparent that the implementation of this strategy was successful given the quality of work posted/submitted, as well as student engagement and feedback. In terms of quality, the vast majority of submissions were assessed at Level 4 according to the attached assessment criteria/rubric. Students who did not meet level 4 criteria were invited to revise their critical reflections to better meet related learning objectives. Generally, students did well to describe/document and analyze/examine their experiences, but sometimes needed further prompting to articulate their learning. This struggle to articulate what has been learned, how it has been learned, why it matters, and what might be done as a consequence of such learning, points to how this aspect of the learning process is often underdeveloped within undergraduate education.

In terms of student engagement and feedback, unsolicited testimonials and course survey feedback evidenced how much students appreciated the opportunity to critically reflect, engage with their peers on meaningful and personal issues, and share their experiences and insights on their own biographical disruptions. Certainly, the overwhelming amount of appreciation expressed was unexpected. To be fully transparent, I modeled critical reflection on personal biographical disruptions by sharing my own mental health challenges living with anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder. In partnership, students reported that our creation of a repository of (critical and biographically disruptive) stories was a powerful tool for them to express themselves and create community (in the online environment), and to feel less isolated and more supported, less discouraged and more hopeful.

Although often situated in the arts, humanities, and social sciences, critical reflection can (and, likely, should) be a key component of all courses in a range of disciplines, including the “hard” sciences. Ash & Clayton (2009), acknowledge that given undergraduate researchers “may leave applied learning experiences with little capacity to turn learning into improved action. . . . Students may, in other words, miss the opportunity to learn about their own learning processes—to develop the meta-cognitive skills required for lifelong, self-directed learning that applied learning is so well suited to cultivate” (pp. 26-27). Critical reflection creates the opportunity to make meaning, learn about learning, and develop meta-cognitive skills including higher-order reasoning, the ability to entertain new possibilities, and self-directedness. The use of biographical disruption, as an anchor for such critical reflection, is particularly well-suited to a consideration of scientific research and its impacts on everyday life and society as learners may be prompted to critically reflect on scientific invention, inquiry, and intervention. This consideration – of the impacts of doing and utilizing science and the scientific process – is in the tradition of biographical disruption as a concept that first emerged as an interdisciplinary concern with both the social world and the world of medicine.

Please see “CACHIA – SSH 100 Critical Reflection Rubric” Document

Link to scholarly reference(s)

Ash, S. L., & Clayton, P. H. (2009). Generating, deepening, and documenting learning: The power of critical reflection in applied learning. Journal of Applied Learning in Higher Education, 1, 25-48.

Baglione, S. L., & Nastanski, M. (2007). The superiority of online discussion: faculty perceptions. Quarterly Review of Distance Education, (8)2, 139-150.

Bury, M. (1982). Chronic illness as biographical disruption. Sociology of Health and Illness 4(2), 167–182.

Eadens, D.M., & Eadens, D.W. (2021). Pivoting to deeper experiences in education. In Thornburg, A., Ceglie, R., & Abernathy, D. (Eds.) Handbook of research on lessons learned from transitioning to virtual classrooms during a pandemic, 277-290.

Joyner, F. (2012). Increasing student interaction and the development of critical thinking in asynchronous threaded discussions. Journal of Teaching and Learning with Technology, 1(1), 35-41.

Martín-Rodríguez, Ó.; Fernández-Molina, J. C.; Montero-Alonso, M. Á.; González-Gómez, F.  (2015). The main components of satisfaction with e-learning. Technology, Pedagogy and Education, 24(2), 267-277.

Smoyer, A. B., O’Brien, K., & Rodriguez-Keyes, E. (2020). Lessons learned from COVID-19: Being known in online social work classrooms. International Social Work, 63(5), 651- 654.


Cachia, C. (2023). Implement “Biographical Disruption” as an Anchor for Critical Reflection in Online Learning. In deNoyelles, A., Bauer, S., & Wyatt, S. (Eds.), Teaching Online Pedagogical Repository. Orlando, FL: University of Central Florida Center for Distributed Learning.