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Teaching Opinion

Response: Students Must ‘Reflect on What They Are Learning’

By Larry Ferlazzo — October 17, 2015 18 min read
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(This is the first post in a two-part series)

This week’s question is:

How can we incorporate reflection in the classroom?

When I was a community organizer, we used to say that without reflection, organizing was just a series of undigested actions. I think the same can be said about learning in schools -- it seems to me that we can shortchange the teaching and learning process without it.

Others agree...

Robert Marzano calls reflection “the final step in a comprehensive approach to actively processing information.” Former Harvard professor Tal Ben-Sahar cites research from MIT that appears to confirm Marzano’s perspective:

What the results suggest is that while there certainly is some record of your experience as it is occurring .... the actual learning - when you try to figure out: “What was important? What should I keep and throw away?” - that happens after the fact, during periods of quiet wakeful introspection.

Today, several guests - Jenny Edwards, Jennifer Fletcher, Mary Tedrow, Barry Saide, William Himmele and Pérsida Himmele - contribute their ideas on how to practically implement reflection in the classroom. You can also listen to a ten-minute conversation I had with Mary and Barry on my BAM! Radio Show. You can find also see a list of, and links to, previous shows.

You might also want to explore my post, The Best Resources On Student And Teacher Reflection.

Response From Jennifer Fletcher

Jennifer Fletcher is the author of Teaching Arguments: Rhetorical Comprehension, Critique, and Response. She is an associate professor of English at California State University, Monterey Bay. Before joining the faculty at CSUMB, she taught high school English for more than ten years in southern California:

A primary way I try to promote reflection in my classroom is by asking students to think about how they’re going to adapt and apply what they’re learning in new situations. It’s not enough for a student to be successful on a single assignment in an English class; we also want students to transfer their literacy learning to other classes and contexts. This is the real prize we’re after as teachers: our students’ ability to use what we’ve taught them in the future, especially when the tasks or problems they encounter are different from the ones we addressed during instruction.

One of the key findings now emerging from educational research is that metacognition about reading and writing leads to transfer of learning. By reflecting on their literacy practices (e.g., what and when they like to read and write, what processes they use, what they can improve), students develop the metacognitive knowledge that will help them communicate successfully in a variety of settings, disciplines, and genres. For example, a student might find that a research strategy she used in her English class can be adapted for a social science project. Or perhaps a rhetorical move a writer tried out in a science lab report can be revised for a literature analysis.

Reflection fosters a disposition toward discovery and connection-making. Students learn that they must do the detective work required to assess and respond to each new rhetorical situation--including analyzing different text types, determining the relevance of their prior knowledge, and modifying their literacy strategies as needed. Metacognition is thus an essential habit of mind for navigating the literacy demands of the postsecondary world.

I use the following questions with my students to promote this kind of connective, reflective thinking:

How is this assignment similar to work you’ve done in other classes? How is it different?
To what extent did your prior knowledge contribute to your success on this assignment?
Where do you see yourself using this knowledge and these skills again?
How might you need to adapt what you’ve learned for another genre or discipline?
What generalizations can you make about what you learned?
What did you most enjoy about this work? What would you like to do again?
What role do reading and writing play in your life right now?
What kinds of reading and writing will your job or future classes demand?

These questions nurture the “spirit of transfer” that will help students to read and write effectively for diverse audiences, purposes, and occasions.

Response From Jenny Edwards

Jenny Edwards teaches doctoral students in the School of Educational Leadership and Change at Fielding Graduate University in Santa Barbara, Calif. Edwards is the author of the ASCD books Time to Teach: How do I get organized and work smarter? and Inviting Students to Learn: 100 Tips for Talking Effectively with Your Students:

In order to incorporate reflection into the classroom, I use the Cognitive CoachingSM Reflecting Conversation. First, I ask students how the experience went. I paraphrase what they say and ask invitational questions to help them go deeper.

I avoid using “I” in the paraphrase because that would put the focus back on me. Instead, I say, “So you are feeling . . . .” “You have two ideas, X and Y.” “Something that is important to you is . . . .”

When I ask questions, they are open-ended, implying many possible responses, as opposed to close-ended, implying only one response or a yes/no response. By using plural forms and words of possibility such as “might,” “could be,” “possibilities,” and “hunches,” I am able to create a safe environment in which students can reflect. “What might be some of the strategies you were using?” I also embed positive presuppositions into what I am asking them. “As someone who cares deeply about doing a good job, what might be some of the . . . ?”

After students have shared how things went, I ask them to analyze the reasons they went well or might not have gone as well as they would have liked. I focus on asking questions to help them grow in the Five States of Mind identified by Costa and Garmston, which are consciousness, efficacy, craftsmanship, flexibility, and interdependence. Possible questions might be, “Of what were you aware in yourself as you were . . . ?” (consciousness) “What were some of the strategies you were using to make things go well?” (efficacy) “How did you decide to sequence the steps you used?” (craftsmanship) “What were some of the possibilities that you considered” (flexibility) “On which friends did you call for support?” (interdependence) I ask at least three questions to help students realize that they were the cause of things going well and to help them make meaning from reflecting, all the while pausing, paraphrasing, and asking questions to help them go even deeper.

Then, I guide them in making sense of what they discovered and developing new insights into what they learned through the experience. “What might be some of the insights you are gaining?” Next, I ask them when they might have an opportunity to put these new learnings into practice. Finally, I invite them to reflect on the conversation. “Where are you in your thinking now compared to where you were when we started the conversation?”

For more information, please see:

Costa, A. L., & Garmston, R. J. (with C. Hayes & J. Ellison). (2015). Cognitive Coaching: Developing self-directed leaders and learners (Christopher-Gordon New Editions, 3rd ed.). Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield

Response From Mary Tedrow

Mary Tedrow is Director of the Shenandoah Writing Project housed at Shenandoah University and the Porterfield Endowed English Chair at John Handley High School . Both are located in Winchester, VA. Mary has been teaching since 1978, is National Board Certified, and writes a blog:

Writing is the ideal tool to construct meaningful truths about learning from experience. Quick reflective prompts can help students identify what they already know, what they hope to learn, and what they have gained from the experiences in your classroom. Student writing translates concepts and issues into their own language, essential for understanding.

Author Flannery O’Conner once said, “I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” Writing both reveals and creates thought because the very act leads to more thinking. In this sense, reflective writing is writing done for the writer: to reveal and work through the problems of learning. Writing also moves students into active and away from passive learning.

Routines in the classroom can scaffold students into this habit of mind while also providing valuable formative assessment. When planning for reflection, think beginning, middle and end.

Beginning prompts should review what the students already know and then ask what they hope to achieve in this year, unit, or semester. Initial goal setting helps students individually frame the work of a course.

A mid-point check-in identifies where students still struggle. These reflective, formative assessments ask students to explain in writing how they would solve a problem or explain a process to another student, younger person or outsider. Awareness of gaps or misunderstandings are invaluable for both you and the student. Sharing these writings in groups can help students access language from others to describe what they know.

Another opportunity for reflection lies at the end of a process or unit. When students have been taught a long process--solving equations, conducting experiments, compiling research, producing a play, and so forth, provide class time to reflect on what they have done. Putting steps into their own words cements the learning.

Because reflective questions are open-ended and require no wrong answers, students are consistently honest and reveal much about their learning process to both the teacher and themselves. The purpose of these writings is to understand their understanding rather than laboring over errors in composition. This should be low-stakes writing: short, frequent, graded for completion (if graded at all) and not grammar.

Good questions for any subject are: Tell me what you know about ______? What do you want to know about __________? What did you do? How did you do it? What was easy? What was hard? What was important about it? What would you do differently next time? What mistake did you make? How can you fix it? Are there patterns in what I did? What will you do next time? What helped you learn ____________? What didn’t? Where could you use this again? How well did you do? How do you know? What should I do next? What else do you think is important to know?

All prompting should reveal the metacognitive process (what thinking did you employ?) of the student to him or herself. Doing the writing helps them “see what they know.” As a practitioner interested in students’ inner lives, the reflective pieces are insight into student thinking.

Response From Barry Saide

Barry Saide is a fifth grade teacher in Bernards Township, NJ. Barry is a class of 2014 ASCD Emerging Leader whose areas of expertise include character education, differentiated instruction, teacher leadership, and technology. Connect with Barry on the ASCD EDge social network and on Twitter @barrykid1:

Reflection is the driver within any lesson I teach. Within two minutes of stating the goal or goals for a lesson, I ask students to turn and talk, write down their thinking, or share their thoughts with their classmates. By cooperatively learning, students are demonstrating the reflective process to their peers. My role is to summarize back to students what I think I’ve heard or read, check for understanding aloud with students, and use that response to drive the next stage of instruction.

While this sounds overly complex in theory, it’s truly simple in execution. I’m asking students to do one thing repeatedly: tell me what you think, and why you think it. For students to demonstrate what they know, what they think they know, and what they haven’t learned yet, we’ll work through three stages in the lesson. First, we’ll explore the expectations and key understandings of the lesson together as a class. Then, we’ll extend the concepts discussed in small groups or partnerships. Last, we’ll reconvene together to report our findings.

The first stage is an opportunity for the students to be a communal think tank: we’ll brainstorm and chart our thinking about the focus or topic. Our thoughts will shape the lens we look at the lesson in, and lay the formative groundwork for what we need to learn to meet the lesson objectives. Once we have our foundational understandings, we’ll move into stage two and extend our learning in group work.

In small group or partner work, students must first reflect on their current understanding based on the whole class lesson, then incorporate that understanding when approaching the follow-up activity. Students will work collaboratively to support and challenge one another’s thinking, as they construct a deeper understanding of the lesson expectations. In order to do this, students will have fewer questions to answer. The questions are of a higher order, and their thinking must match this. As students build a reflective staircase of understanding, their peers serve as a scaffold to support them in their growth. Piling questions higher and deeper will not work for reflective learners. Fewer, more challenging questions that promote thoughtful, reflective, evidence-based responses, will.

The methodology in this approach is similar, independent of subject: in math, students may work on four problems, and fully explain why each step was taken to achieve the answer. In writing, the focus may be on writing 3-4 opening lead paragraphs for one story, with a reason why each lead was developed and how each could drive the story forward. In reading, students may be asked to keep 1-2 overarching questions in mind as they read, and be able to respond and refer knowledgeably to these questions once they’ve read and reread the text. In each instance, the meta-cognitive expectations of the lesson is what taxes the students minds: they must fully explore a math problem, writing situation, or reading expectation. In order to do any of these skills, students must continually reflect on what they know and what they’re learning to achieve true mastery.

This true mastery and embedded reflection is shared out when students return to the whole class structure. As a class, we’ll look back at our initial thinking at the beginning of the lesson. Students will then draw comparisons between what they thought they knew about the subject or topic versus what they know now. Based on these new experiences, students will share examples of new knowledge gained, reflect on where they are now as learners, and identify what they need to learn moving forward.

This instructional approach enables me to collect important formative data on where my students are as learners, as well as where they think they are. This data will inform my future instruction to better meet the needs of my students, as well as tailor my instruction to meet the individual learning profiles of each student in my class.

Response From William & Pérsida Himmele

Drs. William & Pérsida Himmele are Associate Professors at Millersville University in southeastern Pennsylvania. They are the authors of the ASCD books Total Literacy Techniques, Total Participation Techniques, and The Language-Rich Classroom. They can be reached atwhimmele@millersville.edu and phimmele@millersville.edu. Follow them on Twitter: @williamhimmele and @persidahimmele:

Whether a lesson is hands on or teacher directed, it is very important that we realize that students need to periodically stop to process what they have learned. We can get so caught up in covering material, that we forget to stop and let students reflect on what they are learning. So we ought to embed reminders into our teaching that force us to allow students to pause and reflect. That might be making use of a timer on your phone, or if we are lecturing, intentional pause points that are embedded in our slides. We do this at the university level, and we’ve successfully done this in middle schools as well.

One thing that Pérsida is doing with her university class is that she has a pause point that appears on slides that remind her to allow students to reflect on aspects of the activities or the presentations that were worth remembering. Students take about three minutes to jot down their thoughts in preparation to meet up with peers with whom they’ve made “appointments.” The thoughts are written on reflection logs (half-sheets of paper) that are prepared in advance and that specifically address the concepts being presented (see the photo of the reflection logs).

Bill uses a similar idea using Quick-Write half sheets that are blank. Once students have jotted down their thoughts, they are then instructed to meet up with their appointment for a specific designated time. Appointment Agendas are completed on the first day of class by asking students to walk around and make appointments for any of 13 agreed upon times (see photo of Appointment Agendas, and click this hyperlink for the template).

The only rules when setting up appointments are that students are not allowed to make an appointment with anyone sitting at their table, and they can’t make more than one appointment with the same person. The Appointment Agendas are used for the entire semester as a way of simply grouping any number of pairs. (To make groups of four or six, have the pairs sit down and work with the pair(s) seated closest to them.) While we work with university students, we first successfully used Appointment Agendas and Quick-Writes with middle school students (see our book, Total Participation Techniques, Himmele & Himmele, ASCD, 2011). We have found that they are excellent for supporting content-based interaction from second grade through adulthood.

Whenever we ask students to reflect, we first ask them to reflect individually, then in pairs/small groups, and then finally we bring it back to the whole group. We refer to this interactive structure as rippling, because it starts with each individual and then ripples out (Himmele & Himmele, 2011). It forces students to individually reflect on a concept, and then actually get out of their seats to find their appointment, interact around the content, and then lastly- when it comes time for volunteers to share their reflections with the class- everyone is invested.

Students have expressed their appreciation for these pauses, because it allows them to stop and reflect, while the concepts are fresh in their mind, rather than waiting until weeks later in preparation for an assessment. One of our students, Rebecca Hayes, explained her reaction to reflection logs and Quick-Writes this way: “At first, I usually suppress a groan because the reflection logs make me think. I can’t just passively absorb the content like I’m accustomed to, but then I realize that the reflection log actively engages my mind with the material and helps me make it my own. It’s no longer a set of bullet points on a slide, but they’re concepts written in my own words.”

We have had the best products when we keep our prompts open, and allow for students to internalize the concepts learned. In K-12 classrooms, consider asking students to focus on a prompt like, “What’s it REALLY about?” or “Why does this REALLY matter?” Putting the emphasis on the word “really,” as a colleague, Keely Potter, showed us, prompts students to dig deep and get to the underlying themes and connections that cause them to use higher-order thinking when responding. Even students who are still only thinking in the literal sense will be able to learn from their more critically reflective peers when they get together in pairs or small groups using their appointment agendas.

Embedding opportunities for reflection in our teaching is essential for helping students think deeply about the content. It’s not likely to happen unless we allow for intentional pauses where students can stop to process what they’re thinking, first individually, and then together with their peers.

Thanks to Jenny, Jennifer, Mary, Barry, William and Pérsida for their contributions!

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