Reflection: An Essential Tool for Learning

By Richard M. Cash, Ed.D.
Part of our Cash in on Learning series by Richard M. Cash, Ed.D. Click to read other Cash in on Learning posts.

Reflection: An Essential Tool for LearningEach new year, I look back at my development and growth and look forward to its continuation. The act of reflection is a critical tool for learning—if we don’t know where we’ve been, what we’ve accomplished (or not accomplished), and what we want to aspire to, then we wander aimlessly through life. Teaching students the art and practice of reflection has an enormous impact on their learning, growth, and development.

Reflection, the act of thinking back on what has happened, is an essential component of critical reasoning and higher-order thinking. Famed American philosopher, psychologist, and educational reformer John Dewey suggested that reflection is a careful consideration of what one believes or knows, the experiences that support that belief or knowledge, and to what extent the acquired knowledge can be developed. Dewey also stated that we learn more from reflecting on an experience than we do from the experience itself.

We can teach students to use two types of reflection in the classroom to increase their personal growth and development: reflective thinking and self-assessment.

Reflective Thinking
Reflective thinking—often called meta-cognition (or the clumsy phrase “thinking about thinking”)—is a key aspect of developing students’ self-regulation. Teaching students to take time throughout the learning process to pause and consider what they have been feeling (affect), what they have been doing (behavior), and what they plan to do next (cognition) helps them take ownership of their learning.

The process of reflective thinking is a relatively complex mental task; therefore, students will need guidance, examples, frameworks, and formats to become proficient at it. As I alluded to above, I like to use the framework of the ABCs of self-regulation (affect, behavior, cognition) as a way to guide students toward balancing and managing themselves. Try using prompts that focus on affect, behavior, and cognition, such as:

  • How did you feel during this last activity? (affect)
  • What did you do that was successful or unsuccessful? (behavior)
  • What plan will you set for yourself the next time you encounter this problem? (cognition)

Through routinely using reflective thinking in your classroom, you can increase students’ creative abilities, academic risk-taking skills, critical reasoning skills, persistence, patience, and perseverance.

Other ideas for using reflective thinking in your classroom:

  • Intentionally use wait time to give students a chance to really think.
  • Ensure that the classroom is emotionally secure so students can make mistakes and take academic risks—errors are opportunities for learning.
  • Post, refer to, and review the learning objectives throughout lessons and activities.
  • Use real problems from students’ lives to enhance learning and expect and encourage them to come up with multiple solutions to those problems.
  • Help students find evidence and reasoning to support their claims and responses.
  • Be sure to clearly state the reasons for and meaningfulness of all activities and experiences in the classroom—students will attend to that which is relevant and meaningful.
  • Allow for an openness in the classroom, from seating arrangements to the flow of thought.
  • Craft classroom norms (not rules) that encourage collaboration, communication, and commitment to community.
  • Flexibly group students so all have a chance to work together, from small to large groups.
  • Use self-directed or independent learning as a way to encourage personal growth and development.
  • Use different formats for students to collect their ideas and thoughts, such as journals, blogs, emails, electronic file folders, conversations, and drawings.

While reflective thinking is a holistic approach to developing personal awareness, self-assessment is a more finite approach to personal performance. Self-assessment is a way for students to develop their understandings of what they are good at and where they may have room for improvement, all done during the learning process. In John Hattie’s seminal work Visible Learning: A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement (2009), he found students’ abilities to predict, reflect upon, and review their performances had the strongest effect on their achievement.

Self-assessment is performed regularly during the learning process. Allow time during an activity or lesson for students to pause and realistically judge how they are performing. Self-assessment is about comparing the accomplishments made during an activity or project against a standardized measure. Students must be aware of what is considered “exceptional” to “satisfactory” to “poor” work. For self-assessment to be effective, you must provide students with examples, rubrics, or models for them to compare with their own performance.

The benefits of self-assessment include:

  • Providing timely, on-going, and effective feedback.
  • Allowing for in-time adjustments to be made to either instruction or student direction.
  • Giving teachers an opportunity to provide targeted feedback to individual students.
  • Promoting self-directed learning and independence.
  • Increasing student motivation and satisfaction.
  • Improving collaboration and community learning.
  • Fostering personal growth, development, and other skills necessary for college and career readiness.

Ideas for incorporating self-assessment in the classroom:

  • Articulate clear expectations and objectives for each lesson and activity.
  • Provide quantitative rubrics for students to use to measure their performances. (Quantitative rubrics use numbers rather than terms such as “sometimes,” “often,” or “seldom.”)
  • Offer examples of quality products for students to model or copy.
  • Encourage students to be honest about their learning and accomplishments (you may often find students are harder on themselves than you would be).
  • Give students time to collaborate with others in the classroom and to share ideas of performances.
  • Celebrate even small successes—as success builds confidence, which builds success.

Reflection and self-assessment are key tools for helping students understand their strengths and limitations. These tools also move students away from the extrinsic reward/punishment mentality (the teacher’s assessment of their work) to an intrinsic value of their own abilities. We can develop greater self-awareness in students, which leads to greater increases in academic achievement and personal growth.

Richard M. Cash, Ed.D., writes the monthly Cash in on Learning blog posts for Free Spirit Publishing. He has given hundreds of workshops, presentations, and staff development sessions throughout the United States and internationally.

Free Spirit books by Richard Cash:

Self-regulation Advancing DifferentiationDifferentiation For Gifted Learners

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Suggested Resources
Dewey, J. How We Think. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 1997. (Original work published by D.C. Heath & Co., 1910).
Hattie, J. Visible Learning: A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement. Abingdon, Oxfordshire, England: Routledge, 2009.

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About Richard M. Cash, Ed.D.

Writes the "Cash in on Learning" post series for Free Spirit Publishing.
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