How many pictures do you take when you go on a trip? A dozen? One for every meal? As many as your phone storage will allow?
Do we take vacation pictures because we think we’re going to forget that we lounged on the beach or that we climbed a mountain? Probably not. But the details of the trip tend to get fuzzy the further away we get. The pictures of that inspiring view and the sunscreen-slathered selfie help us remember and make connections to other experiences we have.
This is similar to what students experience in the middle of a course. Much of the information they learn is still easily remembered because it’s being applied but, step away from the course for a few semesters, and those details get pretty fuzzy. However, when students have the opportunity to reflect on what they are currently learning, it’s easier to see how that information applies throughout their learning journey. And these reflections provide a simple way to look back and remember ideas more clearly.
Academic journeys, much like our vacations, should provide ample opportunity for capturing and reflecting on the experience and making connections between what students have learned and their wider life experiences.
In the scope of a life, 16 weeks is barely a blip. And yet, students spend four months (or less) studying a subject as part of their degree program. With students juggling multiple courses in each term, students can become myopic in their learning. They focus on the course content, memorizing facts to be acknowledged on tests and then thrown aside.
Reflection prompts force students to slow down and look at the big picture ideas within a subject. With good questions, students are able to connect what they are learning to information they previously covered or experiences they had at other points in their lives. These types of activities encourage better study habits by building those connections.
Also, reflection helps students better understand what they are learning. Explaining those connections and big picture ideas gives students practice at conveying to others what they know.
Reflection during a course forces students to lift their heads out of their study guides and look around at the information in front of them. It can be as simple as a quick prompt after a student completes a quiz that requires them to stop before jumping into the next task.
Placing the reflection beside the actual activity provides a just-in-time opportunity for students to “see” their own learning and to reflect on how this activity fits into the course as a whole. Instead of just checking something off the activity list, the reflection can give the student an opportunity to see the assignment in context. Students can identify the skills used to complete the assignment successfully, or if the assignment didn’t go as planned, assess why that happened, and how they can improve on the next assignment.
Adding reflection prompts regularly throughout the course helps build a habit for students that they can use at other points in their learning journey.
Here are some questions that could work as in-course reflection prompts:
- What did you do to complete this assignment?
- Was the assignment successful? Why or why not?
- How can you use this experience to be successful on future assignments?
- How does this assignment show your knowledge of the course outcomes/content?
While quick reflections within the context of the course are important, taking a backward look at the course as a whole can highlight larger connections. This is also where students can look at more than just the course content. They can identify transferable skills and competencies that they can apply to their professional career.
Helping them reflect on the challenges in the course encourages students to identify ways they managed those challenges. It also helps them think of other ways that might have been better, now that they are on the other side of the course.
Here are some questions for post-course reflection:
- What challenges did you face in this course and how did you overcome them?
- How does this course fit into the curriculum as a whole?
- How does what you learned here apply to other courses or to other areas of study?
- What skills did you use in this course and how will you use these skills in other courses and in your work life?
Students’ lives are complicated. Not only are they juggling several courses, but they often also have work and family obligations as well. In a quest to mark off all the tasks in a course, students might skip reflection prompts or not take them seriously. Here are a few ways to make sure students take advantage of reflection prompts.
Students who didn’t have reflection prompts in prior learning environments might not understand the importance. Make sure it’s clear what value students get out of completing these activities.
Provide low-stakes incentives such as badges or a leaderboard for students who complete the reflection activities.
Reflection prompts are designed to help students make big-picture connections and shouldn’t be tied to formal assessments. But assigning points does tend to get students’ attention.
These reflections will likely have insights into how students grow over the term. Encourage students to pull those insights on new skills and competencies into something they can use, such as an elevator pitch for interviews or a sample cover letter.
At TEL, we are working to make learning visible for students. That means providing more opportunities for students to track their progress not only in the course but in skills that they will need throughout their learning journey. Reflection prompts and journaling are coming soon to the Student Learning Dashboard to help students understand more than just the content.