Reflection – a critical step in learning


I have a new transfer student in my chemistry class.  Yesterday, I overheard her talking to her classmates about her previous science class.  She said something along the lines of,

“we did a lot of experiments where we had to design our own experiment and write lab reports about it.  We didn’t really learn anything, though.”

Hearing this, I had a couple of thoughts:

The first was that this teacher may have had his or her students doing experiments for the sake of learning “THE Scientific Method.”  I was often guilty of this during my first couple of years of teaching.  Kids would to inane experiments like testing which type of bubble gum had the longest lasting flavor.  Afterwards, both they and I felt like they hadn’t learned much.

The second was that, even if they were doing experiments based around rigorous content, they probably were missing out of the key step of reflection!

Reflection is a critical step in the learning process. It is also one of the most overlooked steps. At the culmination of any learning experience, students should reflect on that experience. This enhances metacognition and helps to “lock in” learning.

I like to have my students reflect on a variety of things at the end of a project or inquiry experience. I ask them to reflective questions, such as:

  • What did you learn about content? (this is usually specific to the main topic of the project or inquiry experience)
  • What did you learn about yourself?
  • What did you learn about doing a project? (this is sometimes specific to they type of product but not always)
  • If you had it to do over, what would you have done differently?

Why is reflection so important?

One of the biggest reasons that I have noticed is that when I shortchange reflection, I sometimes hear comments like,

“we did all of that work and I didn’t learn anything,” or, “that project was boring because we didn’t really learn any science.”

Conversely, when we spend adequate time reflecting on the content, process, product and their effort, students tend to say (or write) comments like,

“I can’t believe how much I learned from this project. It was really hard and at first I thought I couldn’t do it. Now I know I can!”

When they spend time elaborating what they have learned, I find that I can tell a LOT about their learning just by reading their reflections. They refer to content learned and how and why they learned it is ways that leave no doubt that they now own that knowledge.

That’s what all teachers want right?

Photo used under cc license from the flickr stream of Jim Moran
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4 Responses to Reflection – a critical step in learning

  1. whatedsaid says:

    You’ve noted something important here. Irrespective of whether it’s science or another type of inquiry, reflection and metacognition play a big role in the learning process. That’s what’s missing from a lot of rote learning and old style ‘teacher is boss’ learning… but as you point out, it’s also sometimes absent in classes where inquiry is completely unstructured. So, as important as it is for learners to question, it’s even more important for them to learn how to think about their learning.


  2. jfb57 says:

    I think it may come from our fast way of life & the fact that much of what we come into contact with is disposable. Reflection takes time as well as an understanding of the purpose behind it. I think teachers are sometimes under too much pressure to get the next topic delivered & see reflection as a luxury. Also, you can’t ‘mark’ thinking so for some that is a scary area that they cannot control which comes back to the pressures of tests etc.


  3. ktenkely says:

    This is a great reminder that true learning isn’t just about “hands on”. That you can have hands on activities and still be void of a learning experience. The purpose and reflection pieces that you mentioned are a critical part to a well rounded learning experience.


  4. Sarah says:

    I completely agree about the reflection side of things and how important it is to the learning process. Wouldn’t it be great for kids to see more teachers actively involved in the reflection process. I wonder how many kids actually realise that all those teachers out their with blogs etc. are reflecting on a daily basis about their own and others practice. If they see the bigger picture for it, and how it’s used throughout life, I think that helps add to the learning experience.
    It seems a shame that reflecting is often seen as something done at the end of a project or inquiry or piece of learning. Yes, it still has it’s benefits for the next piece of learning but it would be much more powerful to reflect during as well as after.

    Just came across this blog – really enjoying reading it. Thanks.


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