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We are told that reflection is very important in the learning process, and are encouraged to reflect a lot during our studies. What makes reflection so good and is there an effective way to reflect?

We are told that reflection is very important in the learning process, and are encouraged to reflect a lot during our studies. What makes reflection so good and is there an effective way to reflect?

Reflections are commonplace in educational settings. Every student today is supposed to reflect during their studies, that is, to make the connection between their learning experience and the more abstract meaning extracted from that experience, or in other words, to assimilate the learning experience within one’s existing knowledge about the world (Denton, 2011). For example, the learning experience of the rule that the same objects in the numerator and denominator cancel each other out can be understood by reflecting on the fact that multiplying and then dividing by the same number does not change the result of the equation. The appeal of creating assignments requiring student reflection in some form has a reason – research has shown that reflection promotes ‘deep learning’, the kind of learning which facilitates understanding and mastery of the material, and which therefore has been shown to boost exam performance (Young, 2018). John Dewey has put it quite eloquently, when he said that “We do not learn from experience, we learn from reflecting on experience.” 

However, not all reflections are the same. Reflecting well takes practice and is generally difficult to achieve (Moon, 2004). This makes the very popular practice of having students write journals in which they reflect often an insufficient means to a good reflection (Coulson & Harvey, 2013). The most important obstacles to effective reflection are time constraints, responses using vague idioms, students and faculty inexperienced with reflecting, and student fear and distrust in reflection (Riedinger, 2006). Moreover, removing these obstacles is not sufficient, as students must possess a set of abilities to reflect well, namely strong metacognition and open-minded self-analysis, capacity for abstract learning, and self-regulation and agency (Paris & Winograd, 2003). However, matters are not as gloomy as they may seem, and effective reflections are not out of reach for students. Following Vygotsky’s tradition on learning in one’s zone of proximal development (Vygotsky, 1978), Coulson and Harvey (2013) outline a four-step framework for scaffolding reflection. This article will discuss these four steps and explain why they are relevant in either removing obstacles or strengthening the skills needed for effective reflection.

“directing attention to specific aspects of one’s experience might not be seen as an intervention to bias one’s perception, but as a helpful nudge in the right direction”

The first step is to develop an understanding of the context of reflections and the right method to do so, in an academic setting. Reflection is multifaceted and can be realised in many ways, including factual written reflection, stories, art, or performance. Therefore, teachers should communicate their expectations about the specifics of reflection early on. Next to this, a framework or model should be provided to aid thinking about aspects of reflection, which provides students with clarity and helps focus on relevant aspects of experiences for the future. However, this step is rather about the general aspects of expected reflection and does not pertain to specific learning experiences. 

The second step is to prepare oneself for the specific learning experience by identifying what aspects of the experience the student should pay attention to. More generally, it is a much-supported idea within the philosophy of science that observations are naturally theory-laden, so directing attention to specific aspects of one’s experience might not be seen as an intervention to bias one’s perception, but as a helpful nudge in the right direction. In this step of reflection scaffolding, the teacher prepares the student for focusing on the different points of view, beliefs, values, assumptions, and cultural conventions that might be present in the learning experience and that would confront the student. This way, by monitoring the effects of these elements on their thinking, students are developing their metacognitive awareness. Arguably, there are ethical concerns related to the teachers’ degrees of freedom in pre-specifying what aspects of the learning experience should be attended to, for instance in specifying what values and beliefs should be questioned.

“learn what type of reflection is suitable for particular contexts, how to perceive and pin down their thinking process during the learning experience, and what type of reflective questions should be asked”

The third step is to explore the learning experience when in the midst of it, in other words, cultivating mindful awareness. This involves explicating the felt or implicit knowledge that might not be remembered later, especially an emotional experience so that it can be utilised in further reflection. For instance, this involves pausing while reading a textbook and trying to focus on what cognitive response the ideas proposed in the textbook evoke in oneself, and what comments or arguments come to one’s mind. Thus, acknowledging one’s thinking as it is experienced requires one’s attention and mindful awareness. Teachers can promote these by supporting online and classroom discussions, chat sessions, and using their own ways of questioning so that students can connect with and learn from each other during their learning experience, as well as make that experience more tangible. 

The last step is to synthesize the learning experience and integrate it into the larger context of one’s knowledge. This can be done by relating the experience to the whole course or future work, or through an intervention called guided debriefing. This refers to a method whereby teachers remind their students about the learning objectives, and encourage them to think about what did or did not go well. Also, students are questioned about how they feel about the experience, and what they think they have learned. This probes students to be more introspective, and integrating the learning experience within an existing knowledge makes the most of one’s capacity for abstract learning. Moreover, by going through the scaffolding steps in learning how to reflect, students may gain more agency and self-regulation in reflecting as they learn what type of reflection is suitable for particular contexts, how to perceive and pin down their thinking process during the learning experience, and what type of reflective questions should be asked.     

“reflection process can be widely integrated into the way professors approach their lectures, tutorial teachers approach their tutorial sessions”

Taken together, the four-step framework for scaffolding reflection seems promising in bringing students closer to finding deeper meaning in their experiences, by choosing the right method, preparation for the experience, mindful awareness, and integration. The likely responsible mechanisms might be the increased space for introspection and metacognition, facilitating abstract learning as well as providing confidence and agency for students’ future reflection activities. Moreover, it is obvious that some of the obstacles to reflection are eliminated by scaffolding reflection – the ample time devoted to reflective processes makes students more experienced in reflection, and perhaps also more trusting of reflection. Moreover, the scaffolding framework brings with it a pleasant realisation that all the reflective work need not be done by a frustrated student sitting in front of their assignment’s reflection form. It makes one realise that the reflection process can be widely integrated into the way professors approach their lectures, tutorial teachers approach their tutorial sessions, or simply how particular assignment instructions are formulated to make students focus on the specifics of their learning experience.<<

References

– Coulson, D., & Harvey, M. (2013). Scaffolding student reflection for experience-based learning: a framework. Teaching in Higher Education, 18(4), 401–413. 
– Denton, D. (2011). Reflection and learning: Characteristics, obstacles, and implications. Educational Philosophy andTheory, 43(8), 838–852. 
 – Moon, J. A. (2004). A handbook of reflective and experiential learning: Theory and practice. London: Routledge Falmer.
– Paris, S.G., & Winograd, P. (2003). The role of self-regulated learning in contextual teaching: Principles for teacher preparation. A. Commissioned Paper for the U.S. Department of Education project, “Preparing Teachers to Use Contextual Teaching and Learning Strategies to Improve Student Success in and beyond School.”, Washington, DC.
– Riedinger, B. (2006). Chapter 10: Mining for meaning: Teaching students how to reflect. In A. Jafari & C. Kaufman (Eds.), Handbook of Research on ePortfolios. London: Idea Group.
– Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind and society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
– Young, M. (2018). Reflection fosters deep learning: The ‘reflection page & relevant to you’ intervention. Journal of Instructional Pedagogies, 20.

Reflections are commonplace in educational settings. Every student today is supposed to reflect during their studies, that is, to make the connection between their learning experience and the more abstract meaning extracted from that experience, or in other words, to assimilate the learning experience within one’s existing knowledge about the world (Denton, 2011). For example, the learning experience of the rule that the same objects in the numerator and denominator cancel each other out can be understood by reflecting on the fact that multiplying and then dividing by the same number does not change the result of the equation. The appeal of creating assignments requiring student reflection in some form has a reason – research has shown that reflection promotes ‘deep learning’, the kind of learning which facilitates understanding and mastery of the material, and which therefore has been shown to boost exam performance (Young, 2018). John Dewey has put it quite eloquently, when he said that “We do not learn from experience, we learn from reflecting on experience.” 

However, not all reflections are the same. Reflecting well takes practice and is generally difficult to achieve (Moon, 2004). This makes the very popular practice of having students write journals in which they reflect often an insufficient means to a good reflection (Coulson & Harvey, 2013). The most important obstacles to effective reflection are time constraints, responses using vague idioms, students and faculty inexperienced with reflecting, and student fear and distrust in reflection (Riedinger, 2006). Moreover, removing these obstacles is not sufficient, as students must possess a set of abilities to reflect well, namely strong metacognition and open-minded self-analysis, capacity for abstract learning, and self-regulation and agency (Paris & Winograd, 2003). However, matters are not as gloomy as they may seem, and effective reflections are not out of reach for students. Following Vygotsky’s tradition on learning in one’s zone of proximal development (Vygotsky, 1978), Coulson and Harvey (2013) outline a four-step framework for scaffolding reflection. This article will discuss these four steps and explain why they are relevant in either removing obstacles or strengthening the skills needed for effective reflection.

“directing attention to specific aspects of one’s experience might not be seen as an intervention to bias one’s perception, but as a helpful nudge in the right direction”

The first step is to develop an understanding of the context of reflections and the right method to do so, in an academic setting. Reflection is multifaceted and can be realised in many ways, including factual written reflection, stories, art, or performance. Therefore, teachers should communicate their expectations about the specifics of reflection early on. Next to this, a framework or model should be provided to aid thinking about aspects of reflection, which provides students with clarity and helps focus on relevant aspects of experiences for the future. However, this step is rather about the general aspects of expected reflection and does not pertain to specific learning experiences. 

The second step is to prepare oneself for the specific learning experience by identifying what aspects of the experience the student should pay attention to. More generally, it is a much-supported idea within the philosophy of science that observations are naturally theory-laden, so directing attention to specific aspects of one’s experience might not be seen as an intervention to bias one’s perception, but as a helpful nudge in the right direction. In this step of reflection scaffolding, the teacher prepares the student for focusing on the different points of view, beliefs, values, assumptions, and cultural conventions that might be present in the learning experience and that would confront the student. This way, by monitoring the effects of these elements on their thinking, students are developing their metacognitive awareness. Arguably, there are ethical concerns related to the teachers’ degrees of freedom in pre-specifying what aspects of the learning experience should be attended to, for instance in specifying what values and beliefs should be questioned.

“learn what type of reflection is suitable for particular contexts, how to perceive and pin down their thinking process during the learning experience, and what type of reflective questions should be asked”

The third step is to explore the learning experience when in the midst of it, in other words, cultivating mindful awareness. This involves explicating the felt or implicit knowledge that might not be remembered later, especially an emotional experience so that it can be utilised in further reflection. For instance, this involves pausing while reading a textbook and trying to focus on what cognitive response the ideas proposed in the textbook evoke in oneself, and what comments or arguments come to one’s mind. Thus, acknowledging one’s thinking as it is experienced requires one’s attention and mindful awareness. Teachers can promote these by supporting online and classroom discussions, chat sessions, and using their own ways of questioning so that students can connect with and learn from each other during their learning experience, as well as make that experience more tangible. 

The last step is to synthesize the learning experience and integrate it into the larger context of one’s knowledge. This can be done by relating the experience to the whole course or future work, or through an intervention called guided debriefing. This refers to a method whereby teachers remind their students about the learning objectives, and encourage them to think about what did or did not go well. Also, students are questioned about how they feel about the experience, and what they think they have learned. This probes students to be more introspective, and integrating the learning experience within an existing knowledge makes the most of one’s capacity for abstract learning. Moreover, by going through the scaffolding steps in learning how to reflect, students may gain more agency and self-regulation in reflecting as they learn what type of reflection is suitable for particular contexts, how to perceive and pin down their thinking process during the learning experience, and what type of reflective questions should be asked.     

“reflection process can be widely integrated into the way professors approach their lectures, tutorial teachers approach their tutorial sessions”

Taken together, the four-step framework for scaffolding reflection seems promising in bringing students closer to finding deeper meaning in their experiences, by choosing the right method, preparation for the experience, mindful awareness, and integration. The likely responsible mechanisms might be the increased space for introspection and metacognition, facilitating abstract learning as well as providing confidence and agency for students’ future reflection activities. Moreover, it is obvious that some of the obstacles to reflection are eliminated by scaffolding reflection – the ample time devoted to reflective processes makes students more experienced in reflection, and perhaps also more trusting of reflection. Moreover, the scaffolding framework brings with it a pleasant realisation that all the reflective work need not be done by a frustrated student sitting in front of their assignment’s reflection form. It makes one realise that the reflection process can be widely integrated into the way professors approach their lectures, tutorial teachers approach their tutorial sessions, or simply how particular assignment instructions are formulated to make students focus on the specifics of their learning experience.<<

References

– Coulson, D., & Harvey, M. (2013). Scaffolding student reflection for experience-based learning: a framework. Teaching in Higher Education, 18(4), 401–413. 
– Denton, D. (2011). Reflection and learning: Characteristics, obstacles, and implications. Educational Philosophy andTheory, 43(8), 838–852. 
 – Moon, J. A. (2004). A handbook of reflective and experiential learning: Theory and practice. London: Routledge Falmer.
– Paris, S.G., & Winograd, P. (2003). The role of self-regulated learning in contextual teaching: Principles for teacher preparation. A. Commissioned Paper for the U.S. Department of Education project, “Preparing Teachers to Use Contextual Teaching and Learning Strategies to Improve Student Success in and beyond School.”, Washington, DC.
– Riedinger, B. (2006). Chapter 10: Mining for meaning: Teaching students how to reflect. In A. Jafari & C. Kaufman (Eds.), Handbook of Research on ePortfolios. London: Idea Group.
– Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind and society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
– Young, M. (2018). Reflection fosters deep learning: The ‘reflection page & relevant to you’ intervention. Journal of Instructional Pedagogies, 20.
Milena Kaprálová

Author Milena Kaprálová

Milena (1999) is a second year psychology student, interested in how biology and psychology inform one another. She is an open science enthusiast and likes to write about subjective experience.

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