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Kathleen R. Murphy
My classroom is quiet except for the light sounds of tapping keys on keyboards. There is an occasional rustle of papers as students pour through their labs searching for data and information. I move slowly through the rows of tables, looking over shoulders, commenting quietly on work, and answering a question here and there.
Suddenly a student calls out, "Oh, I get it, Ms. Murphy! I just had an aha moment." The other students stop and look up at her.
"What do you mean by that?" I ask.
"This lab makes so much more sense now. Now I get what it was all about," she responds. "Writing this reflection made me realize why planets go faster when they are closer to the sun. It all has to do with more gravity! I mean, I know you told us that before, but I didn't really get it."
The students are in my 9th grade earth science class, and they are typing structured lab reflections for a laboratory experience they conducted earlier in the period. The student is referring to the connections she has just made from the lab data she gathered to the objective and conceptual knowledge in the exercise. What I am searching for with this activity is the "aha moment." I see it as the proof that the students have a deeper understanding of what they have just learned.
From their reflections, I can see that this was not just another lab where students simply followed steps to a procedure and submitted it for a grade without truly understanding what they were doing. By taking the time to reflect on the lab, they are building deeper connections to the concepts.
The term reflection has many different definitions, depending on context. Most commonly, reflection is defined as a thought occurring in consideration or meditation. When related to learning, Rowntree (1988) says that "reflection is studying one's own study methods as seriously as one studies the subject" (p. 8) and "thinking about a learning task after you have done it" (p. 94).
In any learning situation, he says, you should prepare for it beforehand, participate actively during it, and reflect on it afterward. Fade (2005) states, "Reflection involves describing, analysing and evaluating our thoughts, assumptions, beliefs, theory base, and actions. It includes looking forward (prospective reflection), looking at what we are doing now (spective reflection), and looking back (retrospective reflection)" (p. 4).
When I introduce the topic to my students, I describe reflection as an exercise where you stop and think about
Reflective assignments make students think about what they are doing and how it applies to the content they are learning, as well as about its context in reality. Reflection is personal, and the ideas generated will be very individual. Not every student will notice, observe, or do things in the same way, but reflection provides the opportunity for them to question what they have learned.
Having Students Use Reflective Practice
Reflective practice is a continuous process that involves learners considering critical incidents in their learning or life experiences. The concept is generally credited to Donald Schön (1987) with the publication of his book Educating the Reflective Practitioner, in which he stated that "reflective practice involves thoughtfully considering one's own experiences in applying knowledge to practice while being coached by professionals in the discipline" (p. 38).
Schön argued that the model of professional training that relied on filling up students with knowledge and then sending them out into the world of practice was inappropriate in a fast-changing world. A reflective practice model would enable learners and novices within a discipline to compare their own practices with those of experienced practitioners (Schön, 1987), thus leading to development and improvement.
The term reflective practitioners usually refers to adults in a professional field who reflect on their strengths, limitations, and areas for growth. In the education profession, reflective practitioners are educators who study their own teaching methods and determining what works best for the students. Many teachers have gone through a teacher preparation program centered on and around reflective practice. Reflection is integral in helping us perfect our lessons and become better educators for the students in our diverse classrooms.
It was one day during my after-school reflection on a particularly tough lesson that I had implemented and then assessed that I had my own aha moment. I began to wonder if my students would benefit from engaging in a similar form of reflective practice with their assignments as I did with my teaching practice. If they took the time to stop and think about the lab, instead of just doing for the sake of doing, would that help them have a better understanding and connect the ideas more meaningfully to the objective?
I thought about the idea of having my students keep a class journal or start a blog. I was curious to see if my students would be able to take ideas from their labs and connect them to the broader concepts found in the core curriculum content. That day I began to create and implement several reflection activities and embed them throughout my curriculum.
Benefits of Reflective Practice
Many articles, books, and websites publicize the benefits of reflective practice for adult learners, preservice professionals, and current professionals alike. In their book Reflective Practice in the Lifelong Learning Sector, Roffey-Barentson and Malthouse (2009) identify benefits of reflective practice for educators. I mention a few of these here because I believe that students who engage in a similar form of practice can obtain the same benefits.
Improvement of teaching practice. The first, and most important, is the improvement of teaching practice. Educators' performance improves if they take the time to reflect on their teaching, thinking about what worked for students, what limitations that they had, what sort of problems arose, and how to change those for the future. Additionally, their teaching style becomes more grounded. Personally, I have found that this validates what works best for certain lessons and the different strategies that I choose as I approach my curriculum.
Learning from reflective practice. Teachers learn from reflective practice, and purposeful reflection allows for deeper learning to take place and helps teachers make connections among different aspects of their teaching. This enhances their overall effectiveness as teachers.
In her paper "What Is Reflective Practice?" Joy Amulya (2003) writes, "By developing the ability to explore and be curious about our own experiences and actions, we suddenly open up the possibilities of purposeful learning—derived not from books or experts, but from our work and our lives" (p. 1). In the field of education, many of us learn by experience. However, reflecting on that experience deepens our personal growth and makes us more cognizant of that development.
Enhancing problem-solving skills and critical thinking. Teachers who reflect on their daily lessons will focus on the problems that arose, what went wrong with each lesson, or what they could have done better or differently. By analyzing these situations, they improve their ability to solve problems. Reflecting on these problems and contemplating how to correct them for the future, weighing the pros and the cons, enhances decision making.
Critical thinking is defined differently based on philosophical ideas, but it generally refers to the complex set of cognitive skills employed in problem solving and intellectual consideration and innovation. Reflective practice helps educators be aware of and revise what they reflect on to embrace changes in situations.
It is easy for us to be stuck in the routine of day-to-day lessons and continue to repeat the same ineffective lessons. Making the time to reflect provides us with the opportunity to critically evaluate our methods and work toward positive changes.
Benefits of Reflective Practice for Students
"Reflection on what they know and do not know helps students to appreciate that . . . learning is individual, and that only they can make the connections to existing knowledge" (UK Centre for Legal Education, 2010) to make sense of the content. Students can benefit in a similar way that educators do from engaging in reflective practice.
Improvement of student practice. When teachers reflect on their teaching, their practice improves. Students can also experience this benefit when they reflect on their learning experience, especially in a science laboratory setting. Students' performance can improve if they take the time to reflect on their procedures and think about what worked, what limitations they had, what sort of problems arose, and how to change for the future. This validates what worked for them and the different strategies that they chose to use as they approach their assignment.
Learning from reflective practice. Reflective learning is defined as "a great or deeper degree of processing of material to be learned" (Herod, 2002). Compared to nonreflective learning, where "material is simply taken in with little or no active thinking or understanding (e.g., memorization), reflective learning engages a large amount of the learner's thinking or cognitive capacities" (Herod, 2002). Reflective learning is engaging in reflection for the goal of producing learning out of the process, and it is the central tool for deriving knowledge formed through the experience.
By reflecting on their schoolwork, students make deeper connections to the concepts they are learning. It is at this point, where the assignment moves beyond the rote memorization or simple completion, that students experience an aha moment.
Improved problem solving and critical thinking. Students can certainly experience the same kind of improved problem-solving and critical-thinking skills that educators receive from reflection. The act of reflecting is a higher-order process, and by engaging in it, students develop a level of consciousness that they can use to deepen their knowledge of content.
A study conducted by Lerch, Bilics, and Colley (2006) shows that through reflective thinking students are able to develop higher-order thinking skills, develop the ability to analyze their own learning, and start the metacognitive thinking necessary for them to be effective learners. If students focus their reflection on analyzing situations where problems arose, what went wrong or right with the assignment, or what they could have done differently, their problem-solving ability improves.
Suggestions for Student Reflection Activities
Designing a practice of reflection means both clarifying the purposes it needs to serve and identifying opportunities for reflection in students' work that are realistic and yet occur at the right intervals with sufficient depth to be meaningful. "Maintaining a practice of reflection, however structured, transforms the possibility of learning from work into a reality," Amulya writes (2003, p. 2).
Reflection activities in the classroom can range from daily to weekly to biweekly, or they can occur at varying intervals, for example at the conclusion of a unit of study. The important piece is that the objective of the reflection assignment is clearly stated for the student and that the activities occur in some regular time frame.
You can implement the following activities within the curriculum to engage students in reflection.
Reflective journals or blogs. You can assign journal entries in several formats. One way is to have free-flowing entries where students can record thoughts, observations, connections, and questions in a journal throughout the lesson or unit of instruction. This type of journal entry allows students freedom of expression and should not be graded on accuracy.
The best use is to start the journal early in the year if this will be a yearlong assignment, or before the unit of instruction if this will be a unit assignment. It is helpful to spend some class time explaining to students the benefits of journals, such as enhancing observational skills, exploring thoughts, assessing progress, and enhancing writing skills. Teachers can devise their own procedure for providing feedback, discussing issues presented in the journals, and improving student-written entries.
You can also use the same format in blog form. If a teacher has his own blog set up for the class, he can assign students reflection responses in this format rather than handwritten entries in a journal. If possible, consider borrowing the school's mobile computer lab and building in blog reflections as part of the class time; this way all students can learn how to use the technology and develop their 21st century skills.
Structured reflective writing pieces. Another form of reflection is a structured writing assignment. You can use these writing pieces to direct student attention to an important concept or to connect the learning with the lesson objective or content. A structured writing piece is a great way to write a laboratory reflection. Given a few prompts to focus thought, students still have the freedom to reach their own connection, or that aha moment.
Reflective portfolios. There are several ways to assign a reflective portfolio, but the overall purpose is for students to assess their growth and progress and increase their awareness of how their understandings and connections have developed.
A reflective portfolio can be assigned over the course of a unit of instruction, over a grading quarter of several units, or as an end-of-course capstone project. When creating a reflective portfolio, students choose from a range of completed work based on the criteria assigned by the teacher. This can include homework assignments, lab experiences, tests or quizzes, or classwork.
After compiling the collection of work that students feel highlights their experiences or their learning, they analyze it in their own words. They should reflect on why they selected the samples, focus on the content concepts that the work represents, and describe how they reached the point of learning.
Improving Student Understandings Through Reflective Practice
The ultimate desired outcome of reflective practice is enhanced student learning. Learning is broadly defined to include students' capacities to think, their motivations to learn, and their effectiveness in engaging constructively with others and contributing to the world around them, along with the more traditionally defined measures of learning. As York-Barr, Sommers, Ghere, and Monti (2006) state in Reflective Practice to Improve Schools, "In our push toward measurable forms of accountability, we must not make the fatal flaw of ignoring the broader and less easily measured array of dispositions, knowledge, and skills required for future life in a complex and diverse world" (p. 11).
For many students, doing swallows up learning. Even staying aware of what we are doing does not itself create learning. Learning is a purposeful activity, although not a complicated one. "Recognizing the necessary role of reflection in excavating learning from experience and becoming familiar with the basic elements of a reflective practice will allow practitioners," in this case students, "to begin to act on the notion that knowledge is embedded in the experience of their work, and to realize the importance of this knowledge in furthering their practice," or studies (Amulya, 2003, p. 4).
Since the day I had my own aha moment, I have implemented structured lab reflections, free-flowing journal entries, and a reflective portfolio at the end of every grading quarter. As a whole, my students' performance on unit exams and lab-based experiences has improved. However, a direct study of the improvement of students' understandings and connections would be needed to verify its effect.
Students have shared with me that although they have moved on to the next grade, they have developed learning habits where they seek that connection to concepts in other classes. They look for that meaning and aha moment that give them ownership of the knowledge they have obtained.
Amulya, J. (2003). What is reflective practice? Retrieved from Learning for Innovation website: http://www.learningforinnovation.com
Fade, S. (2005). Learning and assessing through reflection: A practical guide. Retrieved from University of Ulster website: http://www.science.ulster.ac.uk/nursing/mentorship/docs/learning/RoyalBromptonV3.pdf
Herod, L. (2002). Glossary of Terms. Retrieved from Adult Learning: From Theory to Practice at http://www.nald.ca/adultlearningcourse/glossary.htm
Lerch, C., Bilics, A., & Colley, B. (2006). Using reflection to develop higher order processes. Paper Presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Education Research Association San Francisco, CA. Retrieved from http://www.eric.ed.gov/PDFS/ED491643.pdf
Roffey-Barentson, J., & Malthouse, R. (2009). Reflective practice in the lifelong learning sector. Exeter, UK: Learning Matters Ltd.
Rowntree, D. (1988). Learn how to study: A realistic approach (3rd ed.). London: Macdonald and Co. Ltd.
Schön, D. (1987). Educating the reflective practitioner. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
The UK Centre for Legal Education. (2010). What is reflective practice? Retrieved from the UK Centre for Legal Education website: http://www.ukcle.ac.uk/resources/personal-development-planning/what
York-Barr, J., Sommers, W. A., Ghere, G. S., & Monti, J. (2006). Reflective practice to improve schools: An action guide for educators. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.
Kathleen R. Murphy is a teacher at North Salem High School in Westchester County, N.Y., and a doctoral student in instructional leadership at Western Connecticut State University, Danbury.
ASCD Express, Vol. 6, No. 25. Copyright 2011 by ASCD. All rights reserved. Visit www.ascd.org/ascdexpress.
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