10 ways to encourage student reflection…

Optimal learning occurs when students are active participants in their own learning, rather than passive recipients of teacher-delivered content. For this to be effective, students really need to think about their learning. I worked with a group of teachers recently who felt their young students were not capable of writing meaningful reflections for their end of semester reports. That might be true. But only if reflection and metacognition are not integral parts of the learning in their classes.

How do we encourage students to think about their learning?

1. Focus on process, as much as on content.

Guy Claxton calls this ‘split screen teaching.’ Think about the learning process. Talk about the learning process. It’s not just about tasks and results or material to be covered.

2. Focus on learning, not on teaching.

Stop thinking about how to teach the content. Ask yourself: How best will learning take place? How can I actively involve every student? How will this help them develop as learners? Share this with the learners.

3. Always know why.

Make sure you and your students know the purpose of every task and of how it will advance the learning.

4. Invite students in.

Encourage students to plan how they will learn and to reflect on the learning process. Tell them they own their learning.

5. Allow time.

Make sure students have time to stop and think about why and how they learned, not just what. Give them five minutes at the end of a lesson to record their reflections.

6. Ask the right questions.

How might you find this out? What skills did you use? How did your group function? What worked and what didn’t? What connections did you make? How was your thinking pushed? Why did you choose the approach you did? What did you enjoy and why? How could you have done it differently?

7. Write it down.

Have students record their reflections and date them, so that you (and they) can see the process of their thinking. Use a journal, a class blog or post-it notes that can be quickly collected and pasted somewhere.

8. Use thinking routines.

Project Zero’s Visible Thinking suggests explicit thinking routines which encourage students to think about their learning. Try Connect, Extend, Challenge or 3,2,1 Bridge.

9. Make feedback meaningful.

Refer to learning attitudes and skill development, not just tasks and content. Refer to process and progress, not just product. Avoid saying ‘Well done!” Great work!’ ‘You could have put in more effort.’ ‘You completed this task successfully’ ‘Your essay is comprehensive’. This isn’t feedback about learning!

10. Model.

Talk about your own learning. Tell them what you learned and how you learned it. Talk about how your thinking has changed and how your skills have developed. Learning is ongoing…

More ’10 ways’ posts.

30 thoughts on “10 ways to encourage student reflection…

  1. #6 Ask the right questions.

    I learned this one from Marco Torres:
    What obstacle or difficulty did you face, and what did you do to overcome it?

    Great list. I plan to share this with my new teachers.


  2. This is all very good. But I’d like to push the boat out a little further. I’m concerned that there is no evaluation of those reflections, no way of disputing them. Too many times, with students and with colleagues, I’ve seen that reflection result in a reinforcement of their pre-conceptions. Have they learnt anything new or have they just twisted the new knowledge to suit themselves?

    I think all of us are familiar with Piaget’s schemas: assimilation and accommodation/ Too many are investing in assimilation and we have little idea of how they have internalised the new knowledge. A truly transformative experience occurs when you embrace the challenges and discomfort of changing your internal world (accommodation) – even at the cost of abandoning deeply-held opinions. True learning challenges and unsettles the leaner and that is something few people willingly embrace. Therefore, the risk is that reflection does not develop the learner, it just reinforces their preconceptions.

    I worked with a novice Instructional Designer, an unpleasant narcissist, just qualified with a Teacher Cert and she was contemptuous of the constructionist, learner-centred philosophy and said that she, or anyone else, had never heard such rubbish. Shortly after that, speaking to her former manager, he expressed astonishment since he had completed the same qualification and constructivism was a major part of the syllabus. So, clearly, she had paid just enough attention to get an exam grade – and then promptly dismissed it. Clearly, her reflections had not resulted in learning.


    1. Great reply! I am going to push the boat out even further. I would contend that most teachers aren’t truly familiar with Piaget’s work (which is alarming, because most education systems are based on it) and that once ensconced in a transfer-based teaching environment, beset by administrative edicts, the logic of ‘benchmarks’ and ‘progress’ takes over. You begin, as a young teacher, to make sure that as many kids as possible ‘learn’ the essential content and skills by their age-defined due-by-date. You measure this through the use of generic metrics which only really assess a child’s ability to memorise. Further, if you have only ever been a student, then a teacher, you will regard this transfer-based teaching as ‘normal’.

      The theories regarding ‘thought’ and ‘cognition’ generated by cognitive psychologists and adopted by mainstream education are just that – theories. New brain research has begun to disprove large swathes of these theories to show that each human brain is unique and is formed through a constant interaction with the world. That experience triggers or suppresses latent potential. They prove that the most formative part of any learning process is environmental and interactive and that volition, the power of using one’s will, is the key to retention of experiential ‘knowledge’. Hence, the social environment of school and the social decision-making skills accrued there may well be the most important factors in any conventional education.

      Piaget said that “the principle goal of education in the schools should be creating men and women who are capable of doing new things, not simply repeating what other generations have done.”

      He didn’t say ‘ doing the same old thing in new ways’.

      Food for thought.


  3. Reblogged this on kellyannparry and commented:
    Just sitting here trying to devise an online student evaluation form for my teaching and learning programs – this was a great help!


    1. Hi Ivan
      Make feedback specific and targeted. What makes something good? How has the learner advanced? How can they improve? What skills have they shown? What do they need to work on? …


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