George Lucas Educational Foundation

High Tech Reflection Strategies Make Learning Stick

Routinely asking students to ponder -- deeply and seriously -- what and how they've learned could be the "mind's strongest glue."
Suzie Boss
Journalist and PBL advocate
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Share to Learn:

Teacher George Mayo helps students Fernando, Binyam, and Johana edit their blog posts before publishing them. In their blogs, the students record podcasts and write about a novel they read.

Credit: Courtesy of George Mayo

When he started teaching middle school five years ago, George Mayo immediately began using blog posts to teach writing because he knew that there are myriad benefits to using the technology. Chief among them, Mayo says, is that blogs "naturally put an emphasis on reflection."

At his Maryland middle school, Mayo asks his students -- many of whom struggle with reading and writing -- to create at least one blog post a week. After a couple of months or so, they can look back and see the accumulation of their writing, and they are surprised," he says. "It helps build their confidence as writers."

Indeed, as Mayo anticipated, blogs have consistently inspired the emerging writers in his classroom to reflect on their progress. In a recent post, for example, one seventh grader wrote about her academic growth by noting, "Before I started this class, writing was my enemy, but now I like writing. Writing all this makes me feel that I know more."

Sam, one of Mayo's former students, came to enjoy blogging so much that last spring, he asked Mayo whether he could continue his blog after the school year ended. Sam said he didn't want to start a new one precisely because he liked being able to look back at all his previous posts and, as he put it, "see how I've changed as a writer." Sam, who is now 14, blogs about his experiences as a ninth grader, and he says that as a result of Mayo's classroom exercise, "I've learned to write more personally, as though I'm talking one-on-one with a person."

Sam's reaction is exactly what Mayo had in mind when he introduced his classroom to blogging. Although he's still the only teacher at his school who uses blogs, Mayo is more convinced than ever of the value of technology-rich teaching strategies that, he says, "lead to deeper reflection."

"It's powerful stuff for students," Mayo adds.

A Critical Piece to Learning

Although reflection is often the first thing to go when teachers run out of time on a project or a unit, activities that prompt students to look back at what they've learned and accomplished isn't just busywork or an unnecessary step, educational experts say. In fact, encouraging students to pause and think about what they're learning and why it's relevant to their lives is a critical piece, according to Katie Charner-Laird, a principal at Lincoln-Eliot School, in Newton, Massachusetts. She is the coauthor of the book Cultivating Student Reflection, which describes reflection as "the mind's strongest glue" for making the connections essential to understanding, regardless of the subject matter.

"If you don't do the reflection in hands-on science, for instance, the whole thing can be meaningless," she says. "Kids may be thinking, 'OK, we built a stream table. It was fun. We got messy, we got gooey, we got sand all over the floor.' But what does that tell you about the Earth? What's the connection?

"If you have the reflective stance as a teacher," she adds, "you're going to end whatever class or project you're doing by pulling it together and asking the kids what they learned."

Teachers can use a variety of media -- from blogs to audio interviews -- to encourage and capture reflection, Charner-Laird says. In a busy classroom, the key is "setting up an expected structure so that the last five or ten minutes of class is going to be about reflection," she advises. She adds that the goal of highlighting reflection in the classroom is to encourage students to begin to reflect more frequently and naturally in their day-to-day lives.

A Novel, High Tech Approach

Technology tools, in particular, can keep reflection exercises from becoming tedious or time intensive, reflection advocates say. Ruthe Farmer, for example, wanted to document the ways in which her middle school students' thinking evolved over a few months as they participated in Fair Play: Design and Discovery, an intensive preengineering program offered by the Girl Scouts of the USA.

Borrowing an idea from reality television, Farmer set up a self-contained "video confessional" in the corner of the classroom equipped with a stool and a video camera on a tripod, which she then surrounded with a curtain for privacy. When students had a free moment from their engineering investigations, they could duck behind the curtain, hit the Record button, and talk about how it felt to be an inventor.

"They already know how to do this from watching reality TV," says Farmer, who now works with the National Center for Women and Information Technology.

Farmer says the makeshift recording booth not only encouraged students to articulate what it means to think like an engineer or a scientist but also unexpectedly captured her students' feelings about the program. "From reading a written journal, I wouldn't have gotten the emotional attachment they had to their projects," Farmer explains. "On video, you can see them kind of puff up a little if they're excited or proud of what they're accomplishing."

Questions That Inspire

With her video-confessional approach, Farmer provided a fresh way of eliciting genuine student responses, which Charner-Laird says is the key to fruitful reflection. Kids can grow weary of "the reflection question" if teachers always present it to them the same way, she says. As an example of what hasn't worked, Charner-Laird recalls a time when she was new to the classroom and she told her students, "OK, guys, it's Friday afternoon. Let's reflect on the week."

Their response? "A massive amount of groans," Charner-Laird says.

The experience taught Charner-Laird that her students had come to equate reflection with writing a predictable paragraph, and that's when she started asking herself, "What else does reflection mean?" She had a realization: "Some of us do it better in a conversation with another person. Some do it better in writing," she says. "We need to provide students with a lot of opportunities to reflect in different ways."

As an alternative to Farmer's do-it-yourself video method, for example, some teachers prefer to record their own interviews with students. This approach can range from person-on-the-street interviews with a handheld video camera to a more formal, sit-down interview, complete with a set of prepared questions.

Regardless of whether students are expressing their ideas on camera, through a blog, or on paper, the right questions can help make reflection a healthy habit instead of a groan-inducing exercise. "You don't want students giving you rote answers," explains Charner-Laird. "Keeping it open ended allows them more space to reflect."

Farmer encouraged her students to be reflective by posing a new daily prompt related to the design process. "I'd ask them to talk about specific questions: Where are you with your project? What challenges are you having? What are you planning to do about those challenges?" Farmer says.

Georgia educator and longtime edublogger Anne Davis adds that asking elementary school students to simply reflect on what they've learned could result in superficial answers such as, "I had fun," she notes. In a recent blog post, Davis instead suggests asking younger students the following specific questions:

  • What did you learn?
  • How do you know you learned it?
  • What got in the way of your learning?
  • What helped your learning?
  • How did you feel?

Mayo says it also helps to model reflection. When classes started this fall, he gauged his students' reading and writing habits through a written survey. After several weeks of classroom blogging, he asked them to write about whether their attitudes about literacy had taken a turn toward the positive. Before sending them off to their blogs to reflect, he shared a post of his own about his hopes for his students as readers and writers. "They saw me writing in a reflective way," he says, explaining why he showed students the entry.

And, as Mayo observes, using technology to promote reflection has yet another benefit: A teacher can digitally archive student work, extending the reflection exercise beyond a single project or school year. "I try to save as much student work as I can," Mayo says. "I like the idea of students coming back ten years from now and finding things they worked on. Imagine if you started blogging in kindergarten and blogged all the way through high school."

"Wow," he says, pausing to consider the implications, "talk about reflection!"

Suzie Boss, a journalist who lives in Portland, Oregon, is coauthor of Reinventing Project-Based Learning: Your Field Guide to Real-World Projects in the Digital Age. She also blogs for

Comments (9) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Michelle Palmieri's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I really enjoyed reading this article. I also believe that reflection is extremely important to the learning process. Giving students time to reflect helps them understand what they just learned and how they can apply it in other subjects or areas of their life. George Mayo was smart to use blog posting as a means of reflection for his students. When I think of the kind of reflection I did in school, it probably was writing a paragraph or two about what I learned and I don't think I was very excited about it. Being that there is so much technology out there, why not put it to good use? Blogging has been around for awhile, but not too many teachers are taking advantage of it. New options for reflection make it more exciting and easier to look back on. If you keep a blog, it is all digital, easy to access, and you can go back to it years later. With blogging, you don't have to worry about losing papers. You also have the added feature of others being able to comment. Another idea I really liked was "voice thread" or connecting pictures with voice recordings. This can be another fun way of reflecting. You could make a slide show of pictures and students recordings of what they learned or them describing what is going on in a picture. I think if I had these options when I was in school, I would have gotten more out of my learning. One more thing.. you mentioned Mayo made a comment, "Imagine if you started blogging in kindergarten?" Just think about that! You could easily access your kindergarten writing years later and get to read what you were thinking at that time. To me, that's amazing. We have the ability to do so much, we need to take advantage of it! Thanks for the great reflection ideas! :)

Darcy Zappia's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I enjoyed reading your article. It definitely inspired me to try to implement something like this in my classroom. I think that the students would respond well to this concept. I liked the point about the students being able to go back and look at what they have accomplished. That is such a great task and something different. Thanks for the good ideas.

George Mayo's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

On Twitter, my friend Kyle Simon asked me this question: "How to get started (with student reflection) without laying down strict requirements and making it just like responding to essay prompt?" I thought I would respond here to see if others would also like to chime in.

I think if you want students to honestly reflect on their learning you have to first allow them to produce work they care about. If you don't, they most likely won't put much effort into their reflections. Also, it's important to give them multiple ways to respond when reflecting. I'll often propose prompts, but also allow them to come up with their own. The important thing isn't that they respond to my prompt, but that they think about what they are learning, and how they are progressing in class.

Carla Nicholas's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As a high school student, one of the most memorable activities assigned by a teacher was to take the first five minutes in class to write in a journal. The teacher wouldn't read our journals but would just make sure we were writing each day. I remember enjoying that time to write my thoughts and to this day I still write in my journal. Had I not had that first exposure to writing for reflection I may not have ever done it. To be able to go back and see how I grew as a person was very inspirational. With today's technology, blogging is the perfect continuum to journal writing. Even as a graduate student writing in a reflection journal for the class still gives me that moment to stop and think about the what, why and how of my thoughts. Great article and hopefully more teachers can adopt it into their classroom practices. It is a lesson that will last students a lifetime.

Karen Abbamonte's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This is interesting. I believe it is important to advance teaching methods by staying current with how kids communicate. I know for sure that my kids dont enjoy reading for pleasure, writing essays, etc. They sure don't mind communicating on My Space, Facebook, texting their friends, blogging, etc. One of my sons is even "listening" to The Grapes of Wrath on the computer. He listens to the book while doodling or playing solitare. I was unsure how comfortable I would be having him listen to the book instead of reading it, but he's actually enjoying it. He's going ahead in chapters on his own...can't complain about that.

mimuti's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I believe blogs, podcasts and all interactive media is the key for next level of education. In present time there are a lot of new technologies and tools, which, if used correctly, can dramatically improve educational process and help to teach and prepare students for the real life in modern world.

Janice Nazarewicz's picture
Janice Nazarewicz
Student Support Teacherr Grades 7-12 Worcester, MA

We should be taking better advantage of the tools that students already have at hand. Instead of just banning electronic devices in school, battles that we will never win, we should present students with the opportunities to demonstrate how the current technologies such as how smart phones can and are being used for positive changes in our society.

Peter Pappas's picture
Peter Pappas
Exploring frontiers of teaching, jazz, yoga, Macs, film

HI Suzie,

Great post with a useful survey of reflective approaches. I especially like the prompts for younger students from Anne Davis. Students should learn to monitor their own progress and best to start them young. You've also assembled a nice collection of tech tools to assist the process as well.

If your readers are looking for some more reflective prompts, they might enjoy my 4-part series A Taxonomy of Reflection: Critical Thinking For Students, Teachers, and Principals

Linda's picture

Thank you for the examples of tech-driven tools that can lead to successful student reflections. I have heard of most of them before. I am especially interested in learning about the Flat Classroom Project. Have you or someone you know had a great experience with this? I'm excited to research more about it.

Chrysalis School Montana

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