Teaching Tip: A Time to Reflect

How often do you build student reflection into your courses?  Sometimes, we get so caught up in covering content or getting stuff done, that we just don’t ask students to reflect on what they are learning.  But regular, critical reflection is a key to deep and meaningful learning.  Truly reflective learners also are more likely to be open and self-aware; they tend to be more independent learners who are curious and motivated to improve.

Reflection at its most basic level just means thinking about what we are doing and why are we doing it.  You may be familiar with the story of the new bride who cut off the ends of the roast prior to cooking it. Asked for an explanation by her new husband, she says “that’s the way my mother does it.”   In her turn, the bride’s mother says “well, that’s the way my mother always did it.”  Grandma matter-of-factly announces that she started cutting of the ends because her pan was too small to hold an entire roast.  Unreflective practice over time becomes rote and meaningless.

Describing the process of solving a problem or writing a paper, reflecting on the strengths and weaknesses of a piece of work, attending an event and then thinking about its impact or discussing how the same process can be used in different assignments or different classes are all forms of reflection that are particularly valuable to us as educators.  It’s also helpful to ask students to reflect back over the course of a semester to help them assess how they have changed and what they still need to do to continue to learn.

There are a number of fairly easy ways to incorporate more reflection into your courses, regardless of the type of assignments and activities you use.   Reflections are traditionally written assignments, but given our new technologies, they could just as easily be videos or audiotapes.  I do believe that the process of writing a reflection leads to deeper processing, but I don’t have any research to back me up on that.

  • Reflective journals are very popular, easy to assign and usually interesting to read.  You can ask students to reflect on classroom discussions, outside readings or pretty much any other aspect of the course.  When using journals, it’s important to clearly explain and model what you expect.  Asking students to “reflect” on a class discussion or assignment without further explanation can often lead to a description of the event or an outline of the article, with no actual reflection.  It can be helpful to ask specific guiding questions, and to read and respond to the first few assignments to give students a better sense of what you expect.  Responding to journals sets up a dialogue between you and the student that shows your interest in their learning.  Grading reflective journals is as easy as checking them off as done or not done.  Or you can use a journal entry as the basis for a longer, critical essay that is graded.
  • Reflections on class learning.  Brookfield (1995) describes the “classroom critical incident” questionnaire he uses as part of a student learning portfolio.  Students turn in a paper once a week that addresses the following questions:
    • At what moment in the class this week did you feel most engaged with what was happening in class?
    • At what moment in the class this week did you feel most distanced from what was happening in class?
    • What action that anyone (student or instructor) took this week in class was most affirming and helpful?
    • What action that anyone (student or instructor) took this week in class was most puzzling and confusing?
    • What about class this week surprised you the most?

    In addition to the copy they turn in, students keep one copy of each week’s entry in their learning portfolios.  They use these to reflect on their own response patterns and develop learning goals for themselves.  Knowing that they will be required to submit these forms also keeps students more focused and aware of classroom interactions.

  • Reflections on their test performances can help students improve their study habits.  Looking over the parts of the test they did well on and the parts that were difficult and relating their performance to how they studied often makes it very clear to students what went wrong (or right) and how to be successful in the future.  On subsequent tests, you could ask students whether they acted on any of the insights they gained in their earlier analysis, and how that worked.  These can earn a few points attached to the test or be graded separately.
  • Reflective “add-ons” to existing assignments.  This process essentially asks students to articulate their process e.g. how did you approach this assignment, what new techniques did you try, how did they work, what are the strengths and weaknesses of the finished work, etc.   Students have to think more deeply about their work, which helps them internalize it.  It also gives the instructor a better sense of how and why a student is utilizing class material.  (This type of assignment also can help you detect academic dishonesty if it doesn’t ring true or is missing.) These are best included as part of the required elements for the assignment.
  • End of semester reflections help students assess their own learning.  I particularly like to ask students about how their knowledge and beliefs on course-related topics has changed since the beginning of the semester, and then ask them to think about what caused the change.  It gives me important information about what worked and what didn’t work in class as well as giving students a sense of accomplishment and closure.


And — what’s good for the students is good for the faculty.  How often do we just “go through the motions”, not taking the time to reflect on our teaching practices, our routines and our choices?  How can we improve as teachers, scholars and practitioners if we aren’t reflecting on our own successes and failures, analyzing our processes and asking why?  Of course, if we truly reflected on EVERYTHING we do, we’d all be paralyzed, but systematically asking ourselves questions about our teaching and sharing our teaching decisions with colleagues is one of the best ways to enhance our effectiveness in the classroom.

How do you have students reflect on their learning?  How do you reflect on your teaching?


Writing (Teaching) Tip: I Believe Writing Reinforces Content

Looking for a way to have students both write more and engage with content?  Consider assigning a “This I Believe” essay.

If you listen to NPR, you’ve probably heard some of these essays.  Radio host Bob Edwards is a big fan of them.  They’re short (350-500 words, about three spoken minutes), direct (a single theme, no jargon), and personal–not unlike a journal entry polished for a public audience.

As an added bonus, if you require the “official” format, your students can submit their final products to This I Believe, Inc., for possible publication online.  A team reviews submissions (which takes about two months), and those that meet the guidelines appear in a searchable database, which the nonprofit describes as a “community conversation.”  Bob Edwards features one per week on his show.

You could even have your students record their essays as podcasts and post them on Blackboard or elsewhere.

Wanting educators to encourage student participation, This I Believe has published a free, downloadable college curriculum (19 pages!).  It covers the entire writing process, with suggestions for everything from discussion to audience analysis to peer review.  The database of essays doubles as a bank of model papers.

As you might expect, a large number of essays delve into love and family, but the database also delineates themes such as “science,” “democracy,” and “addiction.”   Talking about immigration, prejudice, religion, nature, or social justice in class?  You could assign a few of these short essays as a human-interest warm-up .  On This I Believe’s most viewed list, a postdoc paleoanthropologist talks about evolution, a therapist describes the healing power of play, and magician Penn Jillette of Penn and Teller argues for atheism

Search by name, age, theme, or key word, and you shall find!

GMU Journal Workshops

George Mason is hosting two intensive journal workshops in October–each a Friday evening, all-day Saturday combo.  See the flyer for details.

Jungian psychologist Ira Progoff created the intensive journal program, which crosses journaling and psychotherapy.

Gives New Meaning to “Voice” in Writing

For almost four years movie critic Roger Ebert has been unable to speak, but he escapes his own silence by writing.  Chris Jones has written a poignant profile of the Pulitzer Prize winner for Esquire.

Got Undergrads Doing Great Research?

Here’s a publishing opportunity for MU students.  This Stanford journal is no longer just for Stanford students:

“The Stanford Undergraduate Research Journal (SURJ) is now accepting manuscript submissions for the Spring 2010 issue. SURJ is an interdisciplinary journal published annually that seeks to provoke curiosity and intellectual exploration across both the Stanford community and at leading institutions nationwide. Papers should be 1500-2500 words in length and written for a very well-educated general audience. Highly technical manuscripts may be submitted for consideration but may need to be thoroughly edited if selected for publication. The deadline for submission is February 9, 2010.

You can find submission guidelines at the journal’s Web site.