Using Structured Reflection to Enhance Content Learning


By Liane Robertson (English. Director of Writing Across Curriculum)       

        Effective learning depends on thinking beyond the particular situation in which something was learned by a “process of reflecting on and directing one’s own thinking” (National Research Council, 2001, p. 78). 

One of our challenges as educators is to manage class time effectively so that we don’t “lose content” during the semester. There’s so much to cover and so little time. But sometimes we’re so focused on delivering content that we don’t allow enough time or space in the classroom for that content to take hold. There’s often greater value to students in pausing to reflect on critical elements of course content than to spend every minute of class time presenting or reiterating content.

As important as providing students with the content they need to move on from your class with the knowledge they need to be successful in another, is giving them space and the tools to reflect on and process what they’re learning.  While it may seem counterintuitive to take time away from the focus on content, spending time on reflection actually pays for itself in the end. Using structured reflection as a learning strategy helps students better understand difficult material as the course moves along, take greater agency for their own learning in the course, and develop a more solid foundation for the content that comes later. Taking time to reflect slows down the pace at the beginning but later in the course, as students are better able to process learning and are more prepared to integrate new content, the pace is maintained or quickens because less time is necessary for orchestrating review or revisiting content covered earlier that students might struggle to master.

Reflection in the classroom involves instruction and practice with strategies that enable students to develop awareness of and monitor their understanding.

Reflection can also provide expert models of metacognitive processes that not only lead students toward expertise but also provide a way of entering the communities of practice and the discourse within our disciplines. It also lifts the curtain between those seeking knowledge and those perceived to be holding it. Allowing them to see or enter into the larger context gives students a frame for understanding the content of your course within its larger role in their major. Research suggests this type of contextual understanding is necessary for the transfer of knowledge to be most effective. It also helps them understand why a discipline does things or values a certain way of doing something.

 Using Reflection in Brief but Meaningful ways in Class

  • Ungraded (or for completion only) written response to a reading assignment or about a concept from class material, not so much to monitor the reading or homework but to encourage students to identify important points or react to the key concepts in course material.
  • Free write for 3 minutes at the start of a class as a warm-up for a discussion, and so you can glance over the writing later to see what students recalled or took up from a reading or assignment.
  • Free write after a lecture or mini-lecture, engaging students in reflection about content you have just presented, and asking them to think about its significance to what they are learning in the larger context of the course.
  • Foster connection of one piece of knowledge to another, by encouraging students to look for patterns and to identify similarities and differences (understanding patterns of meaning and understanding similarities and differences are characteristics displayed by novices moving toward expertise).
  • Individual brainstorm to reflect about an upcoming writing assignment to engage students in planning and thinking ahead, whether it’s about topic choice, mindful research or research expectations, or just time management for the assignment.
  • Brainstorm after the fact, engaging students in thinking about the rhetorical choices they made in a writing assignment, and whether or not they considered the effect of the genre, purpose, and audience of the lab report, artist’s statement, analysis essay, classroom observation, or research essay they just completed.
  • Before students submit a written assignment, ask them to turn over and write on the back in a 3-minute reflection exercise asking: what do they think they did well, what didn’t work out as expected or what would they work on more with additional time, and what do they think the professor will think of it? (This simple reflection, prompted by you but with the student’s full agency for the work they are about to submit, often stays with them and also models expert practice in revision through reflection.) You can also do this exercise in reflection just before you return a written assignment, and then ask them to reflect on what was expected versus what your feedback highlighted for them.

 Make Reflection Systematic and Deliberate

How can reflection really make a difference in the classroom? Reflection’s greatest role for students is as a learning strategy and a means of developing self-agency for future learning. But to ensure students get the most out of reflection, to make them true reflective practitioners for learning, the most effective reflection you can assign is systematic and deliberate.

 Systematic reflection is a 360-degree approach to engaging students in a series of opportunities to make decisions and develop an understanding of the knowledge they’re gaining in a four-part schema:

  • 1. Look backward – students recall previous knowledge, which might include prior knowledge about the subject, including reading assignments, exercises, or previous writing assignments they have produced about the subject.
  • 2. Look inward – students review the current situation and discern, from their repertoire of existing knowledge, which of that knowledge might be appropriate to draw upon for the particular context of the moment.
  • 3. Look forward – students project how their current knowledge connects to other/possible future situations where that knowledge might be repurposed.
  • 4. Look outward – students theorize how their development as reflective practitioners connects to the larger academic context beyond the current situation.

In other words, they develop an understanding of how reflection can make them better thinkers and better learners. Perhaps most important, they begin to change their relationship with knowledge, seeing it as a dynamic, fluid pursuit and process, rather than a contained entity they get access to by showing up to class.

 Why use Reflection?

Reflection works best in a course when it is used reiteratively, to connect themes or concepts across the semester, and when it is a deliberate and transparent practice that students understand as aimed at improving their ability to learn. If we are not explicit about the role of reflection, any short writing exercises or assignments involving reflection or that ask students to think rather than prove what they know, can seem pointless to them, especially in today’s testing culture.

Over the years, I’ve studied reflection theory in my discipline of Writing Studies, and I’ve witnessed it as a practice my students find helpful in so many ways. Not only does it develop the kind of contextual understanding that can allow for transfer of knowledge to occur, it is a practice that contributes to meaningful writing and writing for learning. Since writing occurs in all disciplines, across all contexts academic or otherwise, the ability to reflect through writing allows students to articulate the knowledge they develop, or grapple with concepts they are learning, rather than merely regurgitate the knowledge we convey. This is the goal of systematic and deliberate reflection: to theorize, to understand oneself and one’s learning within a context, and to understand how and why to utilize existing knowledge appropriate to that context.

If we think of reflection as a catalyst for learning, as a means of disrupting students’ tendency to seek the direct answer to something that requires exploration and analysis, it can be a powerful tool for thinking and developing knowledge.