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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