George Lucas Educational Foundation
Teaching Strategies

Treating Reflection as a Habit, Not an Event

Regular reflection helps students learn, and some simple strategies can make it a regular and meaningful routine.

May 8, 2019
A teacher talking with a student in the middle of class
©iStock/SolStock

We know that reflection increases student learning. It supports growth mindset and encourages students to improve and learn from their mistakes. We may engage our students in reflection in our classrooms, but it’s not often habitual—I know I’ve been guilty of treating reflection as an event rather than as something we do all the time.

With all the challenges of teaching content and assessing learning outcomes, we can fall into the trap of skipping the reflection. And benchmarks in the year such as student-led conferences or mid-semester reflection points may perpetuate the narrative that reflection is an event. But while these benchmarks are important, we need to move away from larger events and make time for frequent reflection as part of the classroom culture and routine.

What can we do to make this a reality in our crowded schedules?

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Setting More Frequent Short-Term Goals

Instead of—or in addition to—setting goals a few times a year, have students reflect more regularly about what they’re working on. Daily learning targets are a great tool to have students regularly reflect on their goals.

After presenting the daily learning target, ask students to set a goal related to the content or a behavioral focus. At the end of the lesson, have them quickly reflect on that short-term goal—they can experience a quick success and sense of accomplishment, or if they didn’t quite meet the goal, they can think about how to change what they did to help ensure a better outcome next time.

Similarly, have students set goals for a unit—they’ll reflect more regularly than with a semester- or year-long goal. While this goal setting might seem like an isolated event at first, if you incorporate it into all units, it will become a normal routine. These goals can be monitored throughout the unit as often as needed, and can help foster a sense of growth over time as reflection is a normal way of interacting with the goal.

Checking In Quickly

Quick check-ins can make reflection routine, and they’re critical to following up on short-term goals. Questions are key here. Straightforward questions framed around “What?” “So what?” and “Now what?” help students to process their learning, make connections, and set next steps in a safe, low-stakes way.

Ask your students things like:

  • What did you accomplish today?
  • What was something you already knew that was reinforced?
  • What was the most important thing you learned today?
  • What did you appreciate the most today?
  • What do you need to learn more about?
  • What emotions do you need to be aware of next time?
  • What are you most interested in learning about next?

You can also use formats like “I used to think..., but now I think...” or a Think, Pair, Share. Even just some quiet think time is a powerful way to engage in reflection. With quick, low-stakes strategies, reflection can become routine.

Adopting A Process Portfolio

Portfolios tie in nicely with both short-term goals and quick reflections. While teachers often have students keep portfolios to show their best work, portfolios that show growth and honor the process of learning can support regular reflection.

A process or working portfolio supports a culture of reflection. A process portfolio shouldn’t contain only a student’s best work. Instead it should have works in progress—students should include images or samples of that work and the corresponding reflections.

I’ve seen process portfolios go wrong when teachers wait until student conferences, for example, and then rush to have students add work and reflection evidence. This, again, conveys that reflection is a major event. If students instead add to the portfolio regularly and include artifacts that demonstrate learning in progress, when the big moments come along they won’t need to do much if anything to prepare.

Making Sure It’s Routine

I know I’ve experienced this scenario as a teacher: I announce, “We’re going to do a short reflection today,” and the students mutter a collective, “Ugh.”

The teacher may perceive this as reflection burnout, but it could be that students perceive the teacher’s phrase as raising the stakes and imposing busy work on them, even though our hope is that they will see reflection as something that helps them learn and grow. Instead of making a big announcement about reflection, try telling students simply, “I’d like you to respond to this prompt in your portfolio.” Keep it low-key and routine.

Reflection is a powerful practice and mindset to foster in the classroom. Teachers can serve as mentors to students in helping reflection become part of their way of being. Through a variety of quick strategies, use of portfolios, and frequent goal setting, we can make reflection a meaningful and routine norm.

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