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7 Reflection Tips for Assessment, Empowerment, and Self-Awareness

University Park Campus School

Grades 7-12 | Worcester, MA

James Kobialka

Liberal Arts and Science Educator in Worcester MA
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Girl sitting at her desk in deep thought, writing

Reflecting takes many forms in the classroom, and it is an integral and indispensable part of education. Great teachers reflect on their daily practice and tweak their units, interactions, and attitudes, both at the end of a class and in the midst of their work. In the same way, students need to reflect on their actions and their work in order to build their classroom community and increase their own knowledge and skills. If you want to integrate reflection into your teaching practice, here are seven tips that you can start implementing in your classroom now.

1. Reflect With Shout-Outs

Shout Outs: Ask your students to share something positive that one of their classmates did at the end of the day.

In an English classroom in my building, they practice TL (Team Love) shout-outs. At the end of class, kids are asked to shout out one positive thing someone else did. "TL to Carla for lending me a pencil!" or "TL to Kofi for explaining his quote really well" are surface observations, but they're also kernels of reflection.

2. Reflect Through Writing

Reflective Writing: At the end of each quarter, ask students what grade they think they deserve and why. Then give them their grade, ask them to respond, set goals, and offer class feedback.

The most common form of reflection is a simple written response. Students can reflect on projects, grades, actions, and reactions. I use a reflection at the end of every quarter where I ask my students what grade they think they deserve and why, and then I give them their grade and ask them to respond, set goals, and offer any comments on the class.

I'm constantly amazed by how honest and accurate my students are. Most of them will predict within five points of their actual grade and be right on target with what they need to work on. Sometimes this practice also provides key insights, such as one student writing about having a hard time at home and that it's affecting her grade, or another student setting a goal to check off every item on his agenda each day before he leaves school.

3. Model Reflective Learning With Pluses and Deltas

 Pluses and Deltas: Ask your students to critique each other's work by giving one plus -- something positive -- and one delta -- a suggested change. Encourage their delta to be uplifting, direct, and actionable.

Pluses and deltas take the place of pros and cons. A pro and con chart points out strengths and weaknesses, giving equal weight to each. For youth, pointing out weaknesses can be devastating, especially if there are more cons than pros. Pluses and deltas instead phrases the conversation in terms of things you did well and things that need to change. It's a subtle but pervasive shift that's especially evident when students are offering feedback to their peers, and it's a great tool for your students to model reflective learning.

Each week in my science class, a different student presents a Science Friday project. At the end, four peers offer one plus and one delta each. These comments highlight the positive and then suggest a change, making the feedback uplifting, direct, and actionable. "You didn't speak well" is not a helpful comment. "You could speak louder next time because I missed some of your jokes" is better all around.

4. Reflect on Quizzes

Quiz Reflections: Be specific and actionable when setting reflection guidelines. For example say, "Choose three problems you got wrong, and for each one explain the mistake you made, redo the problem, and explain why your new solution is correct."

Tip: Be specific, positive, and actionable when giving guidance on reflection.

In math, students might be asked to reflect on the results of a quiz. Simply saying, "Reflect on your work" isn't enough. Instead, you can say: "Choose three problems you got wrong. For each one, explain the mistake you made, redo the problem, and explain why your new solution is correct." This focuses the students to reflect on one specific aspect and then gives them a specific format for the reflection. As the year goes by, less and less explanation is needed. If students recognize this format and begin to internalize it, they can use it as a baseline for what reflect means in the future.

5. Reflect on Behaviors

Reflect on Behaviors: If you ask a student to step out of class, have them write their responses to the following questions before they come back in: What did you do that led to your leaving? Why did you do it?

When a class runs particularly well, I will often end by asking for reflection on why everything went so smoothly. On the other hand, if I ask a student to step out of class, I ask them to write a reflection:

  • What did you do that led to your leaving?
  • Why did you do it?
  • How can we work together to make sure that it doesn't happen again?

6. Model Reflection for Your Students

Model Reflection: At the end of the day, reflect on your lessons with your students. You can say, "We didn't get as far as I hoped we would today," or "Can anyone tell me something wonderful that they saw someone else do?"

Beyond just incorporating it into your classroom as a formative or summative assessment tool, you can use your personal reflecting to make your class more transparent and your process more accessible to young people. Every day brings a chance to reflect on your own lessons as a teacher with your students. The end of a period is a great time to throw out some quick comments. I’ll often say things like:

  • We didn't get as far as I hoped we would today. Does anyone have any ideas why?
  • Today was great! Can anyone tell me something wonderful that they saw someone else do?
  • I made a mistake. Next time, I'm going to do this differently by _______.
  • I feel like we had a really great class today! I admired how all of us _______.

If students hear you reflecting honestly about your own lesson and pointing out your own successes and things to change, they'll be more willing to do the same.

7. Reflect on Your Teaching Practice

Develop your own practice: Build a personal reflection practice, and be honest with yourself about both your failures and successes. Find what works for you. It may be journaling daily or weekly.

Of course, not everything needs to be shared with students. Each day in a classroom brings successes and failures of various sizes. Being honest with yourself about both is absolutely imperative.

No one will ever be a perfect teacher. From the first day to the last, we will all make mistakes. As we become more experienced educators, those mistakes will change, but they will never disappear. When I started teaching, my weakest skill was making my lessons accessible. My students often had difficulty engaging with the complexity of my classes. Now, I struggle with the opposite, challenging the high-flyers in my class while still allowing everyone to participate.

I only know this because I can look back over six years of lesson plans, saved assignments, notes to myself, and journals that I've written. I write to myself at least weekly, and often go back for inspiration. Some of my colleagues write daily journals. Some use blogs, Twitter, or Facebook, and others just talk a lot about their classes. Yet we all take note of our own pluses and deltas, using those to better inform our teaching.

What are examples of how you use reflection to examine both successes and failures? Please share in the comments section below.

This blog post is part of our Schools That Work series, which features key practices from University Park Campus School.
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Judy Yero's picture
Judy Yero
Author of Teaching In MInd: How Teacher Thinking Shapes Education

Self-reflection is a critical tool for both students and teachers. But teachers shouldn't stop at reflecting on what they did and how it turned out. They will get a great deal more out of reflecting by thinking about why they chose to do what they did in the first place. What beliefs and values unconsciously drive their choices? Bringing these beliefs and values into consciousness through self-reflection, and determining whether the beliefs limit or expand our repertoire of behaviors, enriches our perceptions and how we can better facilitate learning.

Judy Yero's picture
Judy Yero
Author of Teaching In MInd: How Teacher Thinking Shapes Education

Thanks, Alex-

I'm presently working on a series of articles that bridge the beliefs of teachers in traditional education with those who teach in learner-centered schools. Once I get the articles posted to my website, I hope to spend more time posting on Edutopia. One major obstacle is that many folks don't recognize the difference between a belief and a fact. Because beliefs are personal, individuals "defend" them based largely on emotion and resist looking at the whole range of evidence. Not an easy issue. Thanks again for the suggestion.

James Kobialka's picture
James Kobialka
Liberal Arts and Science Educator in Worcester MA

Great comments, Judy! I agree wholeheartedly - and that's the value of reflecting both as an individual and as a faculty. I think that those beliefs present at learner-centered schools can be found in every learning institution - but whether they are brought to the forefront or stifled is a totally different question.

Judy Yero's picture
Judy Yero
Author of Teaching In MInd: How Teacher Thinking Shapes Education

James--I'm not sure whether teachers understand how limiting some of their shared beliefs are. As I read blogs and comments on Edutopia, it's clear that many teachers believe that learning is a result of teaching..."We have to teach children to think..." "We have to motivate children..." Etc. Before children go to school, they learn what are arguably the most important things in their lives--how to walk and communicate. And they do that largely without instruction. Why, then, do we assume that at the age of 5, they suddenly stop learning and have to be taught?

Many apparently believe that standards are appropriate (every child of a given age must know and be able to do XYZ) regardless of developmental readiness. And that standardized tests actually measure learning. What I've seen in learner-centered schools is a belief in the ability of the individual child to self-determine much of his/her own learning--just as they did before they entered school. Learners have a huge amount of choice within a broad structure of content shaped and curated by the teacher. No, every child doesn't learn the same "things." But they continually enhance and refine their capacity to learn deeply, while actually doing things that interest them. They become lifelong learners because they are given the right and responsibility to learn what is appropriate for them at a given time.

The beliefs of teachers in child-centered schools are truly focused on the development of the whole individual child rather than on content knowledge. Yet content not only doesn't suffer...these kids excel (often scoring two to three grades higher) when given the same tests (for fun) because they have a much deeper understanding of process rather than just content. I agree that the current obsession with standards and standardized testing stifles what many teachers would like to do. But if those mandates were lifted, I wonder how easily teachers could shift from a focus on transmitting content to a focus on trusting children to make significant choices. It's pretty much a 180 shift from the traditional view of the role of the teacher. To some extent, it's a paradigm shift similar to the shift between the geocentric and heliocentric models of the solar system. Can we do it? I certainly hope so.

Russ Ewell's picture
Russ Ewell
Parent of 3 and Android + iOS Educational App Developer

Reflection is deeply connected to emotional intelligence. This reflection you describe and teach absolutely produces emotional awareness and intelligence. In my view, this is one of the best tools for social and emotional learning.

James Kobialka's picture
James Kobialka
Liberal Arts and Science Educator in Worcester MA

Russ - Thanks! I agree (obviously) and I think it really is a lifelong tool.

Judy - Amazing comments, and I agree with you wholeheartedly! I think that empowering teachers and training them to be student-centered professionals instead of test-centered peons is the key. We will get there.

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