The following is one of fifty engagement tasks in Aaron's newest book Worksheets Don't Work. Each image is hyperlinked to a Google Slide that can be copied and edited as needed. The last section has been added to modify this task for virtual learning. To have upcoming blog posts in this series sent directly to your inbox, add your email address here.
Consuming information without reflection is similar to eating food without digestion. You can eat all you want but consumption is merely a means to an end. Food is consumed in order to nourish the body and provide needed vitamins and proteins. Likewise, learning is more than simply downloading information into your brain’s file folders. Memorizing without reflecting is ultimately useless.
Reflecting on learning should be a natural part of every child’s day. As they progress throughout the learning cycle, students ought have an internal monologue assessing their level of understanding. While some students have developed this habit instinctively, others still rely on external feedback to determine their level of competence. Using a simple reflection tool, students can begin to dive into their own level of confidence in their mastery of the lesson.
Why It Works
Reflections make learning meaningful for students. They take something external and purposefully bring it into their consciousness. When students don’t have to monitor their own understanding, they are like Teflon-coated frying pans. No matter what the teacher does, nothing seems to stick. Reflections make explicit connections between students and learning. While most of them are comfortable with applying the information or skill on an assignment, internalizing the new content is something else altogether.
Often, students gauge their mastery on external feedback. When the teacher grades the assignment or the test, they interpret the numerical percentage assigned to them as evidence of learning. The common thinking is that earning a 70% or above means they’ve learned enough of that lesson to move on. If they receive a 90% or above, they truly understand it. They sometimes feel that there is no need for further explanation, elaboration, or application.
Yet at the same time, we know that percentages are highly subjective. The 90% they earned includes the two problems they guessed on, the two that were easy because they were poorly written, and the low level items that didn’t demand much thinking. Percentages are grades, not feedback. Even if the student got some problems wrong, how often are those errors explained in a way that furthers understanding? Waiting to gauge mastery until papers are graded by a teacher is a dicey proposition.
Mastery reflections take judgment out of teachers’ hands and places it back where it belongs, with the students. When students become aware of their own level of understanding, an entirely new type of insight opens up to them. Gauging their personal mastery of the lesson, they begin to internalize learning as something done by them rather than to them. Some wonder if a tree falling in a forest still makes a noise with no one around to hear it. Likewise, in the classroom, teachers should wonder if students still learn something if they never engage in reflection.
Mastery reflections can be simple conversations or recorded in journals with phrases or sentences. Here are a few things to consider when using them in the classroom.
1. Begin slow. Most teachers are naturally reflective as they ponder over the lesson, wondering why some students had an easy time with the assignment while others struggled. Unless explicitly taught to students, many will find reflections difficult and off-putting. Give them time to acclimate to this new type of thinking.
2. Model, model, model! Since this will be new for so many students, they’ll need to see and hear many examples before they can successfully turn their mind’s eye inward toward their own level of understanding.
3. Set clear expectations for whether or not the reflection will be graded in any way. My suggestion would be to keep far away from putting any type of numerical value on the reflection. To do so would risk students inflating their opinions on their learning in an attempt to raise their grade. If something has to be entered into the gradebook, students should get a completion grade for answering the questions or responding to the prompts.
4. Determine the format of the reflection. The purpose is to internalize learning, not write an essay. For some, providing question stems and allowing students to talk in pairs will be enough. If the reflection will be completed alongside the assignment rather than replacing it, a verbal reflection should suffice.
5. If the reflection will be written, determine if any other factors will help determine whether or not the reflection is satisfactory. Do students need to answer in complete sentences or can they reply with single words or phrases? If there are multiple questions, how many should students answer? Do they get to choose which questions to respond to?
6. Consider using a reflection journal for students to use. Rather than something they quickly jot down and turn in to the teacher, student reflections should remain with them. They can provide rich insight when viewed over time, allowing students to track their progress over the year.
The students in Ms. Berry’s class needed something to help them better understand their own learning. Too often they put down whatever answer they thought of first and didn’t ever really care whether or not it was correct. She had begun going over the homework with her students daily but found that they tuned out if they knew they got the answer right. Even if they had just guessed, some of her students were fine with not knowing as long as their grades didn’t dip too low.
Learning about reflections, she decided to add a few questions to that night’s homework. She placed them on the back of the assignment and made sure to go over them before class was over. Even though she had included her expectations on the back, she wanted to model the reflective process for students before letting them loose. Her students needed to start thinking about whether they understood the lesson before they got their papers graded and returned.
“Tonight’s homework has an additional four questions on the back. Flip your papers over and let’s look at them real quick. When I think about each lesson at the end of the day, I try to figure out what went well and what I need to improve. That’s called reflection, just like a mirror reflects your image when you look into it. I’m always looking into my mind trying to make sure I’m the best teacher I can be. I want you to try reflecting tonight on your homework.
“While I’m trying to think about how to be a better teacher, you can reflect on how to be a better learner. You don’t have to wait until I grade your papers to think about whether you learned everything you should have. Look at the four questions on the back of your homework. You can use them to start reflecting on how you did on your homework. Please answer these questions as best you can with complete sentences. They are each worth one point and the only way to get them wrong is to leave them blank.
“When you answer the first two questions about which problem was easiest and which was hardest, don’t just put the number. Make sure to explain why you chose each problem. If you can, use some of the vocabulary we’ve been learning to explain your thinking. The third question is simply your opinion about what we’ve been learning. Why do you think it’s important? Finally, try to think of a question that you still have about the homework. Is there something you didn’t quite understand or you needed help with? Maybe you’re wondering if there is a different way to solve one of the problems. The questions you ask will help me reflect on how I can do a better job of teaching.”
Reflections can take many expressions and utilize a variety of formats. For students that need extra support, the structure of the reflection shouldn’t be a hindrance to self-evaluation. For younger students, this typically precludes any type of written response. While their nascent writing skills are still developing, their reflections should consist of oral conversations.
Additionally, oral reflections can take many forms. Teachers might prefer to converse with students while reflecting so they can hear student self-evaluations. Logistically, however, this can quickly grow cumbersome. There simply aren’t enough hours in the school day to listen to every student reflect. When time is of the essence, students can work with a partner or group of three to reflect on learning. The crucial part is turning the mind’s eye inward, not necessarily being heard by the teacher.
Even though writing might not slow some students down, they might still shy away from written responses. Instead, some students would find much more value in drawing their reflections using pictures, images, or even graphic organizers. As with the conversations, the final product is not as important as the act of reflecting. If necessary, students can use pictorial representations as a bridge toward written responses. Once the act of reflecting is normalized, more energy can be spent on weaving thoughts into words and creating sentences.
Once students have gone through several cycles of reflection and are comfortable with the thought process, a standing set of reflection questions can be created for students to choose from. Instead of having to create a separate reflection task on the back of assignments, students can be asked to choose two to four questions to respond to. As the year goes on, teachers can add to this list and even delete questions that are either overused or not producing quality answers.
As mentioned in the implementation section, written reflections should stay with students so they can be referred to often. They are a great record of growth and deserve a better fate than being crumpled in the bottom of a backpack or the back of a desk. The journal itself can be taken for a grade if needed. For example, students might be required to reflect on two assignments per week and submit the journal for a completion grade at the end of the unit. Also, students can take some of the questions they generated in early unit reflections and revisit them after instruction has concluded.
Reflections work really well as a part of a portfolio (see Chapter 3). Along with evidence of unit mastery, students can also submit a detailed reflection on what the learning means to them. Submitting artifacts that demonstrate understanding and reflective pieces that explore thoughts on learning provides a nice balance for students. It further supports the foundational truth that growing in knowledge, not earning good grades, is the student’s true task.
Students that want to challenge themselves will enjoy creating an analogy alongside their reflection. In addition to thinking about their level of understanding, students choose an analog to compare it with. For example, one student might say that she feels like a giraffe after this lesson, stretching high for the information on the highest branches. Understanding is within reach but she has to really work for it. Another student, however, might say that he thinks his knowledge is like a bike going downhill. He doesn’t have to pedal very much but just lets gravity, or all his past practice with the skill, do the work for him.
Modifying This For Virtual Learning
Digital tools can be utilized to take this worksheet alternative to the next level. Even though writing is always important, it's not the only method that students can use to express their level of mastery. Students can search for or even create gifs or memes that accurately capture what they know. There is an awful lot of symbolism and nuance in a well-crafted meme.
More than that, students can utilize audio and video to aid in their response. Instead of writing, students can record themselves speaking about a topic or reflecting on their level of understanding after a unit of study. If posted to a digital classroom, students can even watch or listen to the reflections of other students and leave appropriate feedback as directed. The key thought process is the self-discovery, and that can take place through a plethora of media.