Learning From (Reflection On) Experience

May 16th, 2016 No Comments Features

learning and teaching

“Within the world we find two dimensions, reflection and action, in such radical interaction that if one is sacrificed—even in part—the other immediately suffers.” –Paolo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed

Skilled learners are aware not only of what they’re learning but how they’re learning (or not learning) it. They stop a moment during their studies to consider how much they’re retaining, assess their methods, shift gears, and test their own understanding of new material. As we’ll see, doing so is crucial to any successful education. The good news is, making a habit of it is far less complicated than it sounds.

“When students are aware of themselves as learners, anything is possible,” says Starr Sackstein, a high school English teacher in New York and the author of Teaching Mythology Exposed: Helping Teachers Create Visionary Classroom Perspective. “Think about how much easier it would be to help students get their needs met if they knew exactly what to ask for help with. It has been my experience that teaching these skills to students enhances their learning experience exponentially.”

She adds: “Every kid is getting what he or she needs and the one size fits all approach isn’t the norm. I think kids are more independent learners now too because they realize they don’t need me for everything. I’m here to support, but not as the only one who knows how. It’s great to see kids trusting themselves more.”

Joshua Block, a humanities teacher at the Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia, agrees. “The end of a [course] period may often feel like a time to slow down and regroup before another set of students arrives. An alternate view is that these last moments, which usually occur when ideas have had a chance to marinate, can be a time when quiet thinkers finally articulate their ideas.”

Additionally, the time when a large piece of work is submitted is an important opportunity for students to articulate their own learning and self-evaluate in order to improve learning and the quality of their work for the future.

Learning About Learning

New research published by the Harvard Business School confirms not only the words of Sackstein and Block, but also those of American philosopher, psychologist, and educational reformer John Dewey: “We do not learn from experience; we learn from reflecting on experience.”

One study involved a random sample of 202 people, each individually given an online creativity test. One group of test-takers was instructed to reflect on a pre-test, writing down any strategies they thought might be helpful for the next test. A second group was told to also write down their thoughts and strategies, with the caveat that their notes would be shared with others. The final group was given no instructions for rumination.

In the end, both of the groups that were tasked with thinking about the pre-test performed significantly better than the group that did not spend any time thinking about the tasks at hand.

Why, exactly, does reflection improve a person’s problem-solving capacity? “We propose that the link between learning-by-thinking and greater performance is explained by self-efficacy, or a personal evaluation of one’s capabilities to organise and execute courses of action to attain designated goals,” the researchers write.

Researchers at Colorado State report similar findings, among the following:

–Reflection transforms experience into genuine learning about individual values and goals and about larger social issues.

–Reflection challenges students to connect service activities to course objectives and to develop higher-level thinking and problem solving.

–Reflection works against the perpetuation of stereotypes by raising students’ awareness of the social structures surrounding service environments.

–By fostering a sense of connection to the community and a deeper awareness of community needs, reflection increases the likelihood that students will remain committed to service beyond the term of the course.

–Reflection transforms experience into genuine learning about individual values and goals and about larger social issues.

–Reflection challenges students to connect service activities to course objectives and to develop higher-level thinking and problem solving.

–Reflection works against the perpetuation of stereotypes by raising students’ awareness of the social structures surrounding service environments.

“Metacognitive reflection… takes this process to the next level because it is concerned not with assessment, but with self-improvement: Could this be better? How? What steps should you take?” the authors write. “As a result, metacognitive reflection can be used to develop resilience in the face of a challenge. Many young children (and some adults) will throw down their work when they become frustrated with it, unable to transcend the struggle. By contrast, a student who has learned the value of metacognitive reflection will recognize frustration as a signal to pause and think through the situation instead of plowing ahead with the same approach or giving up entirely.”

Though it may seem like a lot of work, reflecting can actually happen without any effort at all.

Several studies published in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science show that “resting” our brains—i.e. daydreaming—is linked with improvements in self-awareness, learning, and memory.

“We focus on the outside world in education and don’t look much at inwardly focused reflective skills and attentions,” study researcher Mary Helen Immordino-Yang, a professor of education, psychology and neuroscience at the University of Southern California, said in a statement. “But inward focus impacts the way we build memories, make meaning and transfer that learning into new contexts.”

While “outward attention”—like what a person might learn and put into practice during a course—is important, we also need a healthy balance of reflection and daydreaming time. Research even suggests that people whose minds wander during simple tasks may actually have a higher capacity for working memory.

Reflective Activities

Educators at the University of New South Wales recommend the following ativities to encourage students to reflect:

Learning journals

“Students keep a learning journal to track the development of their group skills. For example, after each task or key stage of a project, they reflect in the journal on the things their group is doing well or not so well, and consider what they could do to improve in later stages of the task/project. Learning journals are also an effective way for you to monitor group activity and processes, in particular the relative contributions of group members.”


“Checklists help students reflect on their group’s preparation and performance of tasks. For example, students (individually or as a group) can complete checklists to help them reflect on their group contributions, performance in group meetings, performance in a group presentation; or the process of compiling a group-written report. You can use checklists to ensure that students create time for reflection in meetings, so that they come to understand that reflection is integral to group work, and factor it into their future meetings.”

Peer review

“Encouraging students to give each other regular feedback in group meetings helps them practise integrating reflective practices. In peer review, students reflect on their own and others’ performance of group tasks. Reviewing the performance of their peers (strengths, weaknesses and areas for improvement) builds students’ understanding of the principles of effective group processes and behaviour.”

Group discussions

“You can ask students, once they have reflected on their group’s performance, to share their reflections with the rest of the class: the aspects that they found rewarding or challenging about the experience, and how they think they could improve as a group next time.”


“Provide opportunities for students to practise articulating aspects of their skills development. Employers and recruitment agencies expect students to understand what is meant by effective group skills and to articulate their experiences and particular strengths.

Reflective papers

“Students complete and submit a report on group processes to help them reflect on various group processes e.g. how they got to know each other as a group, how they organised group meetings, how they allocated tasks, what processes they used to develop a group presentation etc. See the student handout Steps in writing a collaborative report on group processes. This paper can be extended to deal with individual performance, e.g. What were the best aspects of my performance? What were the worst? What did I learn from listening to my peers’ presentations? How can I improve my performance next time? For more information, see Assessing Group Work.”

Student portfolios

“Student portfolios can help students keep track of the development of their group work and other skills, and provide a powerful reflective tool. The UNSW Student Portfolios Support Site has been designed to support students in the development of a Graduate Capabilities portfolio. Staff and students across all disciplines can use this site, and tailor it to meet the needs of their particular field of study.”

How to Encourage Reflection the Right Way

1. Make reflection feel as natural as possible.

I can’t emphasise the importance of this enough. No student wants to fill out a slip of paper with questions like “What did you learn from this experience?” and “Is there anything you wish you’d done differently?” It feels like work. We can all be a little more creative and think of a way to encourage reflection organically. Ideally, students should feel like it was their idea to reflect on their learning experience in the first place.

2. Make time for it.

“What we spend time doing in class shows what we value,” says Sackstein. “At the beginning of a term, [my students and I] set goals and review the standards. After every major project or paper or writing assignment, students are asked to reflect. At the end of each term and at midterm, students are asked to reflect on progress. These reflections then become the lens through which I see the students. They are providing me with a road map for reviewing their work. What do they feel they are doing well against the standards. What did they struggle with? What kinds of strategies can I provide for them to help them grow? The most important lens is that of the students’ since it is their learning, after all. We can only serve them if we know what they need.”

3. Record your reflections.

“Sometimes I use Google forms with specific questions when I’m looking to gather data for planning. I have a poster that breaks down the process hanging in my room. We spend a good deal of time talking about standards and how the work we do connects to them and demonstrates their learning. There are some prompts I use for students and I also tell them what not to do. I’m not interested in them telling me what they like or don’t like about the project. I want them to discuss what they learned, how they learned it and what challenges they faced—what they would do differently next time.”


Saga Briggs is an author at InformED. You can follow her on Twitter@sagamilena or read more of her writing here.

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