Using Reflection to Help Students Learn

Trying to get students to reflect upon their learning isn’t nearly as difficult as it sounds. Virtually any mechanism that a teacher uses can be used for reflection as well. For example, consider a quick write activity followed by a partner share out.

At the end of any day’s lesson, pose a question to the class and ask them to answer it individually. Start off with something generic like “Explain how you felt about today’s class.” Then, have students turn to a partner and explain what they liked about it. After a minute or so, share out as a whole class about what the class liked about class that day. Then, repeat this process by asking students to write or share what they did not like about the day’s activity. Again, share out as a whole class. It’s important that the teacher not get defensive but rather validates the feelings of every student and models appropriate reflection.

After time, as a teacher you can transition from reflecting on the activities designed by the teacher to reflecting on student performance. By asking students questions such as “What parts of this unit did you struggle with? What questions did you ask in class to get help?” you can help students make connections about their own learning process. Questions such as “What activities really helped you learn this unit?” or “What assignments do you like doing?” will help teachers and students both know how to differentiate instruction in the future.

Teachers often want to take this sort of reflection down the road of “effort” which can be a slippery slope for teacher-student relationships. Yes, it can be beneficial to point out to a struggling student that his or effort may not have been the best by asking questions like “I see you struggled on your most recent test, can you tell me about the practice assignments we did for homework this week? You didn’t do it? Oh…do you think perhaps you could have done better if you’d done your homework?”

Now, remembering of course that homework is evil, obviously we want students to make these sort of “responsibility=success” connections but remember they may not be capable of that sort decision making. Furthermore, there’s the danger of turning an honest, powerful conversation into one where the student feels like he or she is being lectured for irresponsibility again. Better to help the students make the connections themselves than to connect too many dots for them. Questions like “If you got to retake this test again, what can we do to improve it next time?” are much better questions. They invoke hope by suggesting there’s an opportunity to re-do material (as there always should be) and use the word “we” making the teacher and student allies against the evil test.

Another way of using reflection with students is to compare their work with work that is proficient. Again, context is key. Screaming at a student “WHY CAN’T YOUR WORK BE MORE LIKE SUSIE’S!?” is probably an ill-fated question. However, peer-assessment of material in which students are taught to give constructive criticism in a safe and professional manner can be extremely powerful. This can be done at any grade level by simply removing the names from assignments and posting not only the best ones but some average to below-average ones as well. Ask students to compare their work to the displayed work and ask them what they notice. Then ask them “What do you think you did really well so far? What can you still improve on?” Again, it’s important to show hope for the future with regard to assignments and it’s amazing how effective this can be with any grade level or subject matter.

Content knowledge can be a powerful mechanism for reflection as well. Most obviously this is true in subjects such as Math or Social Studies where the skills and content seem to build upon one another as time goes on throughout the semester, but it can be done in any subject no matter how random the connections may be. For example, suppose you’re a Science teacher studying plate tectonics one unit and Cellular Biology the next. At the end of the unit on cells, ask students to compare cells to plate tectonics in any way they can. They’ll reflect back upon ideas like “Views on both have changed over time…” or perhaps suggest that “Both directly affect people’s lives” along with a litany of random responses. Ask students to compare how one unit was studied versus how another was studied and help them make connections between both the material and the learning process.

Ultimately, reflection for students comes down to asking questions (or better yet having them ask the questions) that make connections between events of the past and events of the future. Any of these connections are remarkably healthy for brain development and encourage the long-term learning of not only course content but the learning process as well. Questions that illicit hope are best, such as “What can I as a classroom teacher do to help you learn this material in the future?” or “What can you as a student do to improve this assignment?” are best for student reflection. In the end, simply giving student’s time to process what has happened, make connections and determine what needs to happen in the future can be a powerful tool to improve student learning. 

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