Critical reflection is a “meaning-making process” that helps us set goals, use what we’ve learned in the past to inform future action and consider the real-life implications of our thinking. It is the link between thinking and doing, and at its best, it can be transformative (Dewey, 1916/1944; Schön, 1983; Rodgers, 2002). Without reflection, experience alone might cause us to “reinforce stereotypes…, offer simplistic solutions to complex problems and generalize inaccurately based on limited data” (Ash & Clayton, 2009, p.26). Engaging in critical reflection, however, helps us articulate questions, confront bias, examine causality, contrast theory with practice and identify systemic issues all of which helps foster critical evaluation and knowledge transfer (Ash & Clayton, 2009, p. 27). While critical reflection may come more easily for some students than others, it is a skill that can be learned through practice and feedback (Dewey, 1933, Rodgers, 2002).
Guidelines for Integrating Reflections into Your Course
Incorporating the following characteristics into the design of your reflective activities can help make the reflective process as effective as possible.
Create curiosity. When students learn new concepts or subject matter, they often experience a sense of uncertainty and disequilibrium until they can make sense of the new information. Critical reflection is necessary to assimilate the new information and resolve the state of disequilibrium. It takes time to do well; sparking students’ curiosity can motivate them to engage in the reflective process (Dewey, 1933; Rodgers, 2002). Providing appropriate question prompts, activities, problems and tasks can help spark the necessary curiosity. See Examples of Assignments.
Make it Continual. Build in “periodic, structured opportunities to reflect and integrate learning” (Kuh, O’Donnell & Reed, 2013). Because critical reflection is a defined way of thinking, students have to have numerous opportunities throughout the course and the program to practice and receive feedback. See Examples of Assignments.
Connect it. Activities to promote reflection can range from writing/rewriting exercises, problem solving activities, discussions, role playing/simulations, and group work to name a few. To be effective, though, be sure to explicitly connect the reflective activities to course/program learning outcomes, specific assignments, course concepts or experiences.See Examples of Assignments.
Give it context. Design reflective activities to support integration of learning across courses and to engage students with “big questions” related to community/public issues that matter beyond the classroom. Ideally, reflective activities should ask students to consider messy, ill-defined problems that do not have a ‘right’ answer (Moon, 1999). This helps move them towards higher order thinking and higher levels of reflection. See AAC&U Integrative Learning VALUE rubric.
Consider your class size. Assessing and providing feedback to reflections require time and resources. For smaller classes, it might be manageable to assess individual reflections through journals, logs, and blogs. For larger classes, consider facilitating whole class discussions and opportunities for peer feedback. Dividing a large class into smaller groups for discussions and small group brainstorming sessions can provide the practice and feedback students need without all the feedback having to come from you, the instructor. Having students share reflections through ePortfolios is yet another way for students to receive feedback from peers.
Model the reflective process. During class discussions, model the reflective process by asking the kinds of questions that members of your discipline ask. Explicitly point out how you support a claim with evidence. As you go through the process, explain how you are modeling the critical reflection process. Providing students with a rubric may help them practice the process themselves.
Breakdown the assignment. When you provide students with details for a particular assignment, lead a discussion asking them as a group to outline a process for tackling the assignment. Have each student then create a personal plan for addressing the areas which might cause them more difficulty. Ask students to hand in different pieces of the assignment throughout the term, providing feedback to the various components. Over time, less guidance and feedback will be required to help students with the reflective thinking process.
Encourage multiple perspectives. Being exposed to different perspectives (through discussions with classmates, or through resources such readings, websites, case studies, simulations that represent different points of view), and being able to participate in a dialogue with others (peers, instructors) about matters of importance is critical to the reflective thinking process. Having students work on collaborative projects can facilitate this; they learn to listen to others and consider different approaches to solving problems.
Provide a safe environment where students can explore and articulate emotional responses. Students might not mind sharing their knowledge and understanding about content with their classmates, but may be less inclined to share emotional responses with others. In these cases, consider splitting up the task so that the descriptive, non-personal component is done in class and the articulation of learning part is handed in individually to a TA or instructor.
Assess it. Making reflections part of a course grade encourages students to engage in the reflective process, helps them track their growth and development over time, and signals to them that critical reflection is a worthwhile and valued activity. Provide students with ‘frequent, timely and constructive feedback’ to the reflective activities. See Examples of Assignments.
Provide clear marking criteria and exemplars. Clearly state the criteria for success and show students an example of a good reflection. Explain why the example is a good one (e.g., show how the reflection provides concrete examples to support the observations, and ties the observations back to the course content/learning outcome). Provide students with opportunities to self-assess, or provide peer-feedback using the rubric that you will use to assess their reflections.
See AAC&U VALUE rubric.
See examples of rubrics associated with assignments:
Choose prompts that suit your goals
Use language that suits your course and discipline. The term ‘reflection’ has come to mean different things to different people (Rodgers, 2002). Use a term that makes sense to your discipline. Science students might roll their eyes if asked to reflect on personal development in a Chemistry course. Is there a term that your discipline uses instead of the term reflection (design notes, lab notes, documentation of bugs)?
Choose the type of reflection that suits your goals. Reflective activities can be of two types: one type helps students focus on their growth and development, and on their personal learning process and another type fosters students’ capacity to think deeply about content and concepts. Be sure to choose reflective prompts that align with your course goals.
- Process reflection. This type of reflection prompts students to think about their progress and the strategies they are using while they are working on a project or assignment (e.g., where are you with your project? What challenges are you having? What are you planning to do about those challenges? What problems did you encounter in completing the assignment? How did you troubleshoot them? What still needs work?) This can be done individually or, in large classes, consider using small group discussions.
- Inward-looking reflection. When reflecting inward, students focus on their personal strengths, gaps, resources, standards, values, response to challenges, strategies, etc. See examples of self-reflection questions
- Outward-looking reflection. By observing others, students can build their awareness of alternative perspectives and ways of doing things. When contrasts are noted, students can give examples to support their observations.
See for example:
- Forward-looking reflection. At the beginning of a course, project, or assignment, prompt students to think about which components look familiar and which look more challenging and difficult, and why. Towards the end of the course, hand these lists back to the students and have them discuss whether they have met their goals. As a class, have the students list which of the goals they believe they achieved, and which they did not. Alternatively, have students write a letter to the students who take the course next, giving advice and encouragement.
Backward-looking reflection. At the end of a project, work term or volunteer experience a backward-looking reflection is a good way for students to take stock of their experience. See for example:
See examples of self-reflection questions
See examples of questions to foster students’ capacity to think deeply about content and concepts, and readings, research, or lectures.
Ash, S.L., & Clayton, P. H. (2009). Generating, deepening, and documenting learning: The power of critical reflection in applied learning. Journal of Applied Learning in Higher Education, 1(1), 25-48.
Boss, S. (2009). High tech reflection strategies make learning stick retrieved from http://www.edutopia.org/student-reflection-blogs-journals-technology
Dewey, J. (1916/1944). Democracy and education: An introduction to the philosophy of education. New York: The Free Press.
Kuh, G. D., O’Donnell, K., & Reed, S. (2013). Ensuring quality and taking high-impact practices to scale. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.
Moon, J. (1999). Reﬂection in learning and professional development. Abingdon, Oxon: RoutledgeFalmer.
Rodgers, C. (2002). Defining reflection: Another look at John Dewey and reflective thinking. The Teachers College Record, 104(4), 842-866.
Schön, D. A. (1983). The reflective practitioner: How professionals think in action (Vol. 5126). Basic books.
This Creative Commons license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon our work non-commercially, as long as they credit us and indicate if changes were made. Use this citation format: Critical Reflection. Centre for Teaching Excellence, University of Waterloo.
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How deep is your commitment to reflective practice?
Do you maintain a reflective journal? Do you blog? Do you capture and archive your reflections in a different space?
Do you consistently reserve a bit of time for your own reflective work? Do you help the learners you serve do the same?
I began creating dedicated time and space for reflection toward the end of my classroom teaching career, and the practice has followed me through my work at the WNY Young Writer’s Studio. I’ve found that it can take very little time and yet, the return on our investment has always been significant.
Observations about reflection
- Reflection makes all of us self-aware. It challenges us to think deeply about how we learn and why and why not.
- Reflection deepens ownership. When we reflect, we become sensitive to the personal connection that exists between ourselves, our learning, and our work. The more we consider these connections, the deeper they seem to become. Reflection makes things matter more.
- Reflection helps us get comfortable with uncomfortable. It also helps us fail forward. It’s through reflection that we’ve discovered our greatest power as a writing community: our collective expertise and our willingness to encourage and celebrate risk-taking.
- Reflection helps us know ourselves better. It helps us sharpen our vision, so we can align our actions to it. Reflection also helps us notice when we’re getting off track.
- Perhaps most importantly, reflection helps us advocate for ourselves and support others. Taking the time to reflect enables us to identify what we want, what we need, and what we must do to help ourselves. It also helps us realize how our gifts and strengths might be used in service to others.
I find that often, we struggle to find time to support reflective practice. Deadlines drive instruction far too much than they should, forcing learners and teachers to value perfection, products, and grades more than the development of softer and perhaps, more significant skills. Devoting a few moments at the end of class can make a real difference though, particularly when you pitch a few powerful prompts at learners. These are the ten questions that elicit the most powerful responses from the students I work with.
Ten Reflective Questions to Ask at the End of Class
1. Reflect on your thinking, learning, and work today. What were you most proud of?
2. Where did you encounter struggle today, and what did you do to deal with it?
3. What about your thinking, learning, or work today brought you the most satisfaction? Why?
4. What is frustrating you? How do you plan to deal with that frustration?
5. What lessons were learned from failure today?
6. Where did you meet success, and who might benefit most from what you’ve learned along the way? How can you share this with them?
7. What are your next steps? Which of those steps will come easiest? Where will the terrain become rocky? What can you do now to navigate the road ahead with the most success?
8. What made you curious today?
9. How did I help you today? How did I hinder you? What can I do tomorrow to help you more?
10. How did you help the class today? How did you hinder the class today? What can you do tomorrow to help other learners more?
The learners I serve typically capture these reflections in a special section of their notebooks. These entries grow in number over the course of time, and eventually, they revisit them to prepare for conferences.
The influence that asking reflective questions has on the quality of our conferences is incredible. In fact, I hesitate to confer with kids unless they’ve had a chance to pursue purposeful reflection first.
Try it yourself. See how it makes a difference for your students. You can find a set of printable reflective prompts here.
About The Author
A former English teacher, Angela Stockman is the founder of the WNY Young Writer's Studio, a community of writers and teachers of writing in Buffalo, New York. She is also an education consultant with expertise in curriculum design, instructional coaching, and assessment. Read more from Angela at Angelastockman.com.