The educational benefits of reflection

If there was a magic potion that turned glum, unkempt, “I dare you to learn me some teachin,” students into captivated, self-directed, and perpetually inquisitive knowledge hounds, we’d all want to know about it, right?  Of course, student development does quite work that way.  And yet, there are specific pedagogical exercises that seem to be pretty influential in our first year students’ growth – for those students lucky enough to encounter in it.


One such exercise is reflective learning.  Although we often think of reflection as something that might be found in a journal assignment (or a mirror), it can happen in lots of settings and formats.  And while some criticize reflection as little more than rationalized navel gazing, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that reflection – when facilitated well – can be a powerful learning tool.  So I decided to see if reflective learning had any impact on the educational development of our first-year students who participated in the Wabash National Study in 2008.  After all, since many of the “high-impact experiences” we often talk about (e.g., study abroad, internships) are rarely accessible to freshmen, we need to know the kinds of learning experiences that can make the first year of college more than “just a year of waiting to get to the good stuff.”


The Wabash National Study accounted for reflective learning by combining three questions.  They asked, “During the current school year,


  • how often did you examine the strengths and weaknesses of your own views on a topic or issue?”
  • how often did you try to better understand someone else’s views by imagining how an issue looks from his or her perspective?”
  • how often did you learn something that changed the way you understand an issue or concept?”


Available responses included 1=never, 2=sometimes, 3=often, and 4=very often.


It turns out that the frequency of reflective learning reported by students at the end of their first year significantly influenced increases in Attitudes toward Literacy, Intellectual Curiosity, Intercultural Competence, Psychological Well Being, Socially Responsible Leadership, and Civic Engagement.  These increases continued to be true even after accounting for differences in incoming ACT score, sex, gender, socio-economic status, instructional clarity and organization, integrative learning, and higher order thinking.


This finding is even more interesting because the average scores on each of these outcomes didn’t change during the first year.  In other words, while there were enough students who either regressed, increased, or stayed the same on each of these outcomes to keep the overall averages static, the students who made gains on these outcomes seem to have (at least) one thing in common – increased reflective learning experiences.

Coincidentally (ok, not really), on Wednesday of this week (1/25) at 4 PM, Kristin Douglas, Rebecca Cook, and Stephanie Fuhr will host a presentation in the Treadway Library about the ways that Biology has successfully infused reflection into the major.  They’ll talk about the challenges and successes they have seen and hopefully give you some ideas of ways that reflective learning might work in your course or major.  In addition, Ryan White, Director of the Center for Vocational Reflection, is offering a one-time stipend to help faculty integrate reflection into their courses.  If I weren’t on an airplane on Wednesday, I’d be there.


I hope you’ll attend and consider finding ways to infuse this “magic potion” into your teaching.  Maybe it’s not really an instant elixir – think of it a time-release capsule.



Make it a good day,



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