As many of us begin making the transition back to school after Winter Break, we often reflect on the school year so far, considering what has been working, what has not been working, what we have learned about our students over the last several months, and what changes we can make to improve our instruction. Indeed, self-reflection is such a core instructional skill that it features prominently in professional development and certification programs around the country.
However, despite what we know about the value of reflection as educators, many of us fail to recognize the value of self-reflection for our students as well. Certainly, when I first began my educational career, it never occurred to me to integrate a student reflective component into my lessons plans. The closest my lesson plans came to having a reflective component was the integration of an occasional entry or exit ticket prompt that asked students to think about a recent lesson in connection with the current one. That’s it. One little question that asked them to connect a set of dots.
But we know that’s not true reflection. True reflection asks us to think critically about what has been working and what hasn’t. Where we feel success and where we feel additional practice is needed. What we have learned about a topic on both the micro and macro level. And I certainly had not begun my career by asking my students to do anything approaching that level of reflection.
It wasn’t until I began pursuing National Board Certification that I truly began to integrate student reflection into my lesson plans. I’d love to say that I started integrating reflection because, as a developing educator, I had a sudden epiphany that this was the right thing to do. But I can’t. The truth is, I only began integrating student reflection because the program expected me to. But once I started integrating it, I understood: student reflection allows both students and educators to assess actual – rather than perceived – learning.
By asking students to reflect upon their own learning, first and foremost, we shift the burden of learning onto the students. In order to successfully reflect upon their learning, they have to think critically about the process they went through for any given task and their reasons for making those choices. They have to be able to connect the steps they took along their learning journey to the outcome. Often, the reflection component allows students to see exactly where a disconnect, if one exists, is located.
But self-reflection is not simply a tool for getting students to accurately understand their assessment scores. More importantly, it’s intended as a tool for learning. Student reflections can be used to help them explore and make connections across skills.
The ability for student reflection to connect learning throughout the curriculum is shown in a recent reflection written by one of my seniors. As part of the Winter Writing Menu Board activity, I asked students to reflect upon the role of sensory language in writing. Rather than reflect in what had been the default manner earlier in the year (which would result in language along these lines: sensory language helps make the writing feel more realistic), this student demonstrated an ability to understand the connection between writing and meaning when she reflected:
“By putting [sensory language] into practice, I was able to see how by describing feelings gathered by a setting, you are also developing the setting…”
We see here how the student reflection requirement forced this student to consider, critically, the connection between sensory language and the larger narrative. In this case, this student recognized that sensory details can function to develop the setting and its significance to the larger narrative. Might this student have come to this conclusion on her own without the reflective component? Perhaps. But realistically, we know that all too often our students do exactly what we ask them to and nothing more. If I had not asked students to include a reflection at the end of their writing that explained their choices and how those choices impacted the overall piece, it is unlikely that this student would have recognized how her choice of sensory details functioned in this instance. It is only when we begin to recognize the effect of the choices we make that we begin thinking critically about those choices in the future.
Student reflections can also be used to recognize their successes and identify areas to target for further improvement. When, for example, I had my students score their own work against the scoring rubric and then justify the scores they assigned themselves, I saw students recognize – many for the first time – that they were repeating their evidence and their claims from paragraph to paragraph. Others finally understood that, while they were completing a task with proficiency, they could find no evidence in their work to support the “artful” component necessary to earn the highest score; a score which they previously simply expected to receive. As a consequence, I saw student effort increase dramatically – they were eager to earn the scores they wished to receive, and for the first time, they were paying attention to what was actually required to earn those scores.
Since I integrated a reflective component across a range of assessments, students have reported being able to more clearly identify which skills to focus on during study sessions and, as a result, are both saving time and seeing improvement in skills acquisition. In addition, they are developing their own agency, recognizing that they do, in fact, have the skills they need to manage their own growth and development.
These days, a student reflection component features prominently in many of my learning units. In the upcoming Writing Wednesday book, Artfulness, for example, you will see that the overwhelming majority of writing tasks ask students to reflect on their writing process. Many students initially feel this step is unimportant – just some busy work to close out the lesson. But they soon come to realize that, in fact, the reflection is often one of the most important components of their writing that day – it helps them crystallize their process, giving them valuable data when tackling upcoming analysis and writing tasks.
Whether it aids students in more accurately assessing their growth, identifying connections between and across discrete skills, or determining areas to focus on for further development, student reflection is an important tool in every educator’s tool box and should be integrated often as part of our students’ core learning experiences. Student reflection helps make the learning process transparent, providing students greater agency in their own educational journey.