To paraphrase what philosopher Edmund Burke once said, learning without reflection is like eating without digestion. In either case you can feed as much as you want to a person but that person won’t leave nourished; it might be as though they haven’t eaten at all. With reflection, on the other hand, critical faculties become engaged, the learner’s understanding of the learning process deepens, and information becomes meaningful knowledge, connected to other knowledge, the learner’s life, and the larger world. At Georgetown, where “contemplation in action” is one of our core values, we understand reflection to be essential to the process of education.
Benefits of Reflection
Again, reflection makes learning more meaningful for students, enabling them to develop a personal relationship with the material at hand and to see how it fits into a larger picture—but its benefits are significant even if we only look at the level of cut-and-dry learning. In a thorough review of the literature in their book Make it Stick, writers and psychologists Peter Brown, Henry L. Roediger III, and Mark A. McDaniel remind us, “reflection can involve several activities...that lead to stronger learning. These include retrieval (recalling recently learned knowledge to mind), elaboration (for example, connecting new knowledge to what you already know), and generation (for example, rephrasing key ideas in your own words or visually and mentally rehearsing what you might do differently next time).” In other words, reflection involves rigorous processing that makes it more likely that students will be able to absorb, remember, and master what they’re learning.
In fact, Experiential Learning Theory and the principles of Ignatian Pedagogy (which are at the heart of Georgetown’s educational mission) remind us that reflection is really the only way we can learn from experience—and that includes class experience. That’s why higher education in this century is increasingly moving away from an education that deposits information to be absorbed, and toward an education that provides skills for finding, interpreting, integrating, and applying information across disciplines, space, and time; this is how information becomes knowledge.
Reflection also provides an effective avenue for integrating learners’ social identities (e.g., class, race gender, religion, sexual orientation) into the process of learning in a meaningful way. Reflection brings lived experience to the surface and works to resolve seeming contradictions among diverse lived experiences and between lived experience and more abstract theories. Put another way, reflection provides a basis for critical inquiry that values many forms of knowledge, including emotional intelligence and lived experience. This kind of work will prepare students not only to do well in the course but also to approach their lives and professions with purpose and wisdom.
Opportunities for Reflection
There are a number of moments throughout the semester when reflection can be introduced to great effect:
Before something important
Students could run through what they already know about a topic just before you begin discussing it in class, in order to make them (and you) aware of any pre-existing expertise they might have, as well as to surface any assumptions or misunderstandings or gaps in their knowledge, as well as ways that their perspective on a topic might be rooted in a larger (and perhaps as-yet unexamined) cultural narrative—a story the person has inherited about the way things are “supposed” to work.
Another good moment is just before students are expected to do something—write a paper, choose a project, solve a problem, apply their learning, etc. Pausing here again provides an opening to assess understanding, and it simultaneously reinforces the connection between their learning and its practical use. It also makes it more likely that students will make good, well-informed choices going forward.
During something important: To the extent that students are working on research or other long-term projects, recurring reflection (on their own and with faculty) becomes a way to become conscious about the research process and the many assumptions and decisions that can inform it, as well as to assess various methods for uncovering and creating and acting upon information and knowledge. A class blog, weekly check-in, or short reflective paper can be a good method for such a process.
After something important
You can also introduce this kind of activity just after the discussion of a topic, so that students can assess their own understanding of the material—and perhaps so that you can assess their understanding, too. This also gives them a chance to think about how the material might relate to other material they’ve studied, or to their lived experience more generally, or to broader social dynamics or issues.
At a moment like this—just after a learning experience—you can focus reflection on not just the material but also on the experience of learning. You could ask students what was most effective in helping them to understand (for example, was it when the teacher restated the main points, or when visual aids were used, or when students did hands-on work applying the ideas, or when they debated the topic?), and which moments left them the most confused. Whatever the form, activities like these can provide you with teaching feedback and give students insight into their own learning processes.
As a matter of fact, a well-constructed exam or paper assignment on the material can serve not just as an assessment but also as a prompt to reflect. See our Designing Assignments page for more thoughts on this.
Ignatian Pedagogy calls for a cyclical process: first, learners have an experience; then they reflect on its meaning on a variety of levels (personal, societal, in relation to other academic material, etc.); and then they take thoughtful action, action that itself produces more experiences and thus restarts the cycle. We explore this further on our Ignatian Pedagogy page.
How to Do Reflection
These reflection activities can follow many formats. In class, students might write a one-minute paper or just pause to think things through silently or aloud in pairs; outside class, this work might happen in informal journal entries, more organized reflection papers, or a classroom blog that encourages practical application of course ideas (e.g., to current events or student daily life or to a service project rooted in the class). Reflections can be brief or longer, and can be done individually or in a group conversation.
It’s also important to keep in mind that reflection is something that people have to learn and practice; giving students multiple opportunities to engage in these kinds of activities will allow them to think more deeply, and make more and better connections between ideas, experiences, and decisions. And it helps if you model the process yourself. In class, you can offer your own reflections on course material (while being careful not to suggest that your thoughts are the only “right” thoughts), or talk about methods you use to bring reflection into your own research, whether that involves journals, conversations with colleagues, contemplative pauses, or any other method.
Because reflection is often an exploratory process, you may want to tread carefully when it comes to grading it; students may not explore openly if they worry that they’ll be penalized for coming up with a “wrong” answer or doing it the “wrong” way.
Many reflective activities—in-class discussions, one-minute papers, etc.—may not need grades at all, or can be incorporated as individual moments in larger grading categories (e.g., participation), or you can give students all the points if they seem to you to be engaging earnestly with the activity.
If it’s important to you to assess the reflection more formally, it’s possible to develop grading standards and rubrics for the quality of the reflection. In doing so, it’s important to keep one principle in mind: unlike grading, for example, a pop quiz, in which a student’s knowledge is being assessed, grading reflection means grading a skill—grading the degree to which students are comfortable surfacing assumptions and analyzing multiple forms of information, including the information of their own lived experience in the world. A few examples of rubrics:
Still other activities—reflective essays in a class focused on essay-writing, for example—might need to be graded primarily based on their success in meeting the goals of the assignment (e.g., organization, clarity, etc.). Just be sure to make grading criteria clear to students before they begin!