Reflection is a powerful approach to learning in higher education. They benefit most from field work, service learning, role play and simulation, and even problem based learning when they reflect on the experience in a meaningful way. Similarly, if we can assist students in thinking about their thinking, or metacognition, they not only learn the material more deeply, they also increase their ability to apply their learning in new situations and even become more efficient and effective in their approaches to learning. As teachers, however, we must design deliberate and purposeful ways for our students to reflect on their learning – it may not happen naturally.
Key features of the strategy
The Center for Teaching at Vanderbilt University offers a very substantive and helpful overview of reflection and metacognition. Here they outline a range of different strategies that support students in the process, including:
- pre-assessments (which could be effectively bookended with José Bowen’s approach to cognitive wrappers)
- prompts at the end of class that encourage students to identify the most challenging or “muddiest” point
- reflective journals with prompts that encourage students to think about their learning process
Examples and Variations
The Louisiana State Center for Academic Success offers some excellent resources for students to build skills for metacognition. They offer opportunities for students to better understand their learning style through a strength inventory, learn to manage time and reduce stress, and better prepare for exams. Within the section on preparing for exams, they have devised an interesting study cycle process and accompanying video. In addition, they offer a number of resources for concept mapping, which could be very helpful for comparing and contrasting concepts.
Dr. Tamara Rosier offers a substantive, but practical approach to reflection that she calls Knowledge Ratings. She argues that, “Knowledge Ratings are quite effective because they evoke a sort of metacognitive dissonance – creating a lack of harmony in one’s mind. Students will work to restore continuity or harmony in their thoughts.” In this strategy, students are challenged to assess what they do and do not know relative to a course topic. Not only does this information prove very helpful for the instructor in tailoring learning experiences, it also helps students to continually assess and identify gaps in their knowledge, thus helping them strengthen their weak points.
Ed Nuhfer, Retired Professor of Geology and Director of Faculty Development and Director of Educational Assessment, shares many different approaches to helping students develop their metacognitive skills. One of my favorites was his post on Developing Metacognitive Literacy through Role Play: Edward De Bono’s Six Thinking Hats. In this series of activities, each students takes on one of six roles (practical, positive outlook, cautious/negative, emotional, provocative, summarizer) as they work through a team-based challenge, discussion or other activity. This is a very deliberate and conscious approach to monitoring and regulating thinking. And as Dr. Nuhfer notes, “We can become aware of metacognition by reading about it, but we only become literate about metacognition through experiences gained through consciously applying it.”
Connections to 21st Century Skills and Technologies
Reflection can support the development of two key 21st century skills – self-regulation and knowledge construction. Reflection is a key way to help students develop self-regulation skills. These skills help them to monitor and regulate their own approach to learning and to process their notes or other class work. Less obviously, perhaps, as students deliberately and substantively reflect on their learning, they are building their knowledge relative to the concepts and ideas presented in class or through texts and other materials.
While technology is not critical to student reflection and metacognition, it can help them to document and clarify their thinking. A simple journaling application (e.g., Day One), word processor or blog can help them to articulate and archive their ongoing thought process. The advantage to using digital tools for this purpose is they can be quickly searched and organized/reorganized by the student. In terms of studying and preparing for exams, simple strategies and tools can help students avoid cognitive overload by taking intermittent and regular breaks. A favorite of mine is to use a simple app to implement the Pomodoro technique in which you alternate brief blocks of time between uninterrupted focus and rest. While an app isn’t essential to the technique, it does help to automate the process efficiently.
What strategies do you use to help students be more reflective in your courses?
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