Critical Thinking

Frameworks for Reflection

Students get a metacognitive boost by pausing to think back on how and why they performed learning tasks.

March 20, 2018
A high school class at Compass Academy sitting around banquet tables.
Courtesy of Anna Durfee
The author’s students during the Family Dinner reflection exercise

My 11-year-old daughter takes gymnastics lessons. A few weeks ago, she came home from practice distraught. Her coach had asked her to try a new combination. Her first few tries were close, but not quite spot on. On the fifth try, she nailed it, but then failure struck. She gave the combination 10 more tries but was never able to land it again. “I just couldn’t do it, Mom! It’s like the more I practiced, the worse I got!”

That’s strange. Doesn’t practice make perfect? “What did you do differently on the fifth try that created success?” I asked. She thought about it for a moment and replied, “I have no idea.”

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Reflection is an analysis of our performance. It aids in deeper learning and helps us to perform better in the future because it boosts our sense of self-efficacy—the feeling that we’re capable of achieving our goals. As we reflect on our performance, we gain control over that performance, understanding exactly how certain outcomes came to be.

When that happens, our confidence that we can alter aspects of our work and achieve an outcome closer to our goal increases.

Family Dinner

In school, reflection should take place often throughout and certainly at the end of any project or unit. It can be a simple but impactful part of our day, and there are a few protocols or strategies that can help. I’m particularly fond of one that I call Family Dinner.

In my own home, dinner is a time of reflection. “What did you learn today?” is the hot topic. Inspired by this nightly ritual, my co-teacher and I decided to re-create it in school, setting up long banquet tables and putting out place cards with our kids’ names on them. This is a protocol we’ve used both in the middle of projects and at the end.

We pass out snacks for them to munch while they discuss and self-reflect. Questions meant to encourage them to self-reflect include, “What did I do, daily, to help the project succeed?” and “When did I feel overwhelmed in the project, and why?”

At every section of the banquet table, about every four kids, we assign roles. There’s a Question Picker, an Expounder who gets others to explain their statements, a Topic Guardian in charge of keeping the discussion on topic, and an Encourager who ensures that everyone gets a word in.

When we do this, my co-teacher and I sit with them and reflect on our own performance as well, to show our students that adults learn from their experiences too. We talk about the activities we planned and the assignments and discussions we had, and chat about how we felt about those things.

The discussion usually starts out slow, but students get the hang of it, and soon we hear, “While I’m proud of my work, I think I could have done better by...” or “I was really unmotivated during the project. I should have asked for help.” As students answer questions, they learn from each other, realizing that many of their peers had the same issues.

Triangle, Square, Circle

Smaller reflective exercises in the middle of a lesson can be extremely helpful as well. One protocol I learned from a professional development workshop uses shapes to help guide reflection. The teacher draws a triangle, a square, and a circle on the board. The question for the triangle is, “What three concepts am I taking away from this experience/lesson?” For the square, “What about the lesson squares with my beliefs?” And for the circle, “What questions are still circling my mind?”

We tried this at the end of a lab report writing activity. The activity had students respond to questions about sections of their lab reports and then interview each other to embed more detail. At the end, we ran this shapes protocol. As students got to the triangle, we heard things like, “Something I learned is that the portion of the report titled ‘Discussion’ is crucial so my audience understands the ‘Results’ section. I have to be careful to tie my results back to my hypothesis and explain clearly how I know I either proved or disproved my hypothesis.” When students got to the square, we heard, “I prefer to answer questions in order to write in greater detail. I believe that helps me be a better writer.” As they got to the circle, we heard, “Now that I’ve finished the report, I’m wondering if I have enough detail and explanation,” and “I’m wondering if I followed all of the formatting rules and grammar rules for an official lab report.”

This protocol is supposed to be short and sweet. You might find it useful at the end of an activity in which a new concept was introduced or expounded on. In classrooms where units build on each other, such as math, this protocol comes in handy at the end of a unit, acting as a bridge to the next. It’s also a very useful informal assessment for the teacher.

It All Starts With Questions

One important thing to keep in mind, whatever protocol you end up using, is that you need to pick an activity that works for your kids. It’s really the questions you ask that create true reflection. Work with the natural learning process and move up through Bloom’s taxonomy—start with recall questions and continue through understanding and application, all the way up to analysis and evaluation.

Start off with, “What did I do today?” All the student has to do is remember. If your students require it, be more specific. “What did I do after reading today?” Then work your way up: “What was important about what I did?” “Why did or didn’t I reach my goals for today?” Toward the end of reflection, you might be asking things like, “What patterns do I see when I work on an assignment?” or “How did I do and how do I know?”

It’s very likely that your students will realize things about themselves that lead to better work in the future.

We can’t assume that just because we’ve experienced success, we will automatically succeed again. And we can’t assume that because we failed, we are doomed to fail again. We have control over our ability to reach our goals, and we gain that control through reflection.