Blog Post

A Reflection on the Importance of Reflection

A Reflection on the Importance of Reflection

Reflection (sometimes called "meta-cognition") is the moment after learning has stopped, where you pause to think about what you think you learned, where you might even ask the co-learners if you succeeded and what was gained and what lost by the method you used, and you think (together or individually) about what you just did together.  What we know from so much research is that, actually, reflection is where pretty much all learning happens.  It's not the afterthought.  It is what sticks, what makes a difference, what translates learning from that which is immediate to that which has a chance of being retained later on.

Reflection is where the magic happens.

As we learned from one of the superb readings that Erica and Iris assigned us, when psychology students were tested four months after the class ended, their knowledge of the content in a class they had taken was only about 8% better than that of students who hadn't take the class. 

We know from ethnographers in the lobby of TED talks that, even people who emerge thinking their ideas and their lives were changed forever by those powerful (and powerfully expensive) talks, only retain about 10-20% of what they heard--and they hear it differently.  The same people, in the same row, will paraphrase the meaning of a talk they just heard in very different ways.

Pundits who are trying to destroy higher education will say this shows the bankruptcy of modern education.  Actually, it shows that, as humans, we learn in highly organic, synthetic, complex ways, picking up the learning we need as we need it, and developing our own learning as we use it.   Listening to an expert--even one of the highly manicured talks at TED--is an entirely enjoyable, even edifying experience but it rarely leads to real learning in the same way as, say, mastering a new dance step or a new computer program or a new grammatical construction in a new language or a new concept in a thoughtful, difficult essay.   You learn by engaging with the material in some way meaningful to you.

Reflection helps take ideas from the level of "coming into contact with it" to the level of evaluating it:  in other words, thinking about how it is meaningful to you by combining your evaluative, critical sense with what you just learned.  This is why giving feedback is every bit as important to the person giving it as to the person receiving it.  In both cases, you are taking what is someone else's idea and making it your own by evaluating it, engaging with it, articulating your ideas about it.  REFLECTING.


Both Erica and Iris came up with fabulous ways for us to take the abstract, sophisticated studies they assigned and making them extremely immediate.  It was fascinating to see how they used student-centered, active learning techniques in very different ways.


Are You A Summative Type or a Formative One?  Test your Evaluative IQ!

Erica turned "summative" and "formative" assessment--two terms that are so binaristic and abstract as to be close to meaningless--and gave them fun, personal meaning by giving us all a Cosmopolitan-style quiz.   It was humorous, real, and sophisticated in a fun way.  Once we diagnosed our learning styles, we formed small groups and discussed whether we thought we really had earned our chops (SHOCKER:  I turned out to be one of the rare people to come down hard on the "Formative" side of the things, on my Cosmo quiz.)  

Truly active learning.    She then had us work as a group to come up with a seventh question for the quiz.  We had to make, not just respond and discuss.  One group did a wonderful job of imitating the form and tone to a T.   Our group was more boring, didn't take it as a creative exercise, but we hit the substance. Together, we learned.

And then Erica had us reflect.   She confessed her biggest fear in doing this was that others would think she wasn't serious enough.  This was fun.  How could it be learning?  Given that she had also assigned us very serious studies to read, this was almost comical---and deadly serious.  Isn't this what a lot of us fear as educators?  If we make learning enjoyable and human and down-to-earth, we will seem like we have no standards, we are cheating our students, we are charlatans, we are not serious.

A lot of bad education comes from that insecurity.  Grappling with it is important because, if we feel it, so do our students.  It is easier for us to hide our insecurity behind pedantry.   It is easier for our students to fake it.

The one reservation I had about last night's wonderful experiment in the "temperament" of formative and summative styles of assessment is we didn't have much time to discuss the actual studies.  However, I confess that last year, in my first at the Graduate Center, stunned by graduate classes that met for only two hours a week, I came up with the idea of having one or two bloggers each week comment on the readings and everyone else's comment on the comments as a way for engaging material that there would never be time to discuss in two hours.  And we had done that. 

Reflection deflected!   A great exercise.  And it gave me real empathy into how different we are as people and why summative feedback will always be lots easier for some people than formative ever will.  It's hard to unlearn your learning and sometimes we resist it so much that an alterative will be condemned and rejected or ignored because the process of unlearning is simply too painful.  

Unforgettable.  Thank you, Erica.


The Game of History, Challenge of Context

Iris came up with the second exercise.  She made three timelines on post-its, each the same, extending from about 1620 to 1920, and then had us divide into three groups and gave us each a thick stack of post-it notes, seven notes, with major events in the history of American education on them.   We had to talk together and decide where on the timeline to place the notes.  Founding of the Boston Latin School and on from there.  

After the first group finished (the winners of our challenge!), she went around and made corrections, told us the correct date, and asked us why we had made the mistakes we had and how we had gotten certain things right.  We stood in our groups and were surprised at some things, at concurrences and confluences.

Then, as a group, we had our REFLECTION on the process.  One interesting feature--and it was a feature not a bug--was that she had given us large post its, too large for a simple memorized date on the timeline.  That meant the actual date (1836 or 1837?) was less important than a cluster of things happening around certain times.  She asked us how we made guesses--that was a great question.  What other things and people and events that we knew helped us to think through what we didn't know?   Our group had mentioned Franklin, Jefferson, the founding of Harvard, Reconstruction, the Civil War.  Known knowns that helped us to know the unknowns.

REFLECTION helped us to think about how we had come to know, what a timeline allows, what group dynamics allow, how we shared knowledge, and what we were likely to remember later by seeing it all cluster together on a timeline, actually physically adding something to a timeline, seeing others who came up with different answers, and then also seeing what we had gotten wrong and having someone who knew the correct answer correct it and having us then physically replace the post-its.

Very active learning.  A game.  A challenge.  Collaboration. Feedback. Reflections.

Danica then suggested that, if we had wanted, she could have said something like, "Wonderful! 5 of the 7 are correct but you still have two that are not" and challenged us to use our devices to review all of them to discover which were correct and to also make corrections to the ones that were wrong.  Brilliant.


Midterm Feedback (Profs Can Learn from Formative Feedback too!)

The final exercise of the evening was a formative, reflective midterm evaluation of the course: students were asked to reflect on what they have learned so far, how they've been using ideas from course in any aspect of their lives, what is missing from the course, what improvements they'd like to see, and how we can structure the remainder of the semester to ensure a successful final collaborative project that makes a public contribution to knowledge. Here is the list of student-centered learning techniques we have experimented with so far this semester:

  • Public blogs with assigned commenting
  • Private Group Forum  
  • Pre-Course Self-Introductions
  • Name Cards
  • Think-Pair-Share
  • Exit Tickets  
  • Skills Inventory
  • Collaborative Agendas
  • Everybody Raise Your Hand
  • Class Stacking [keeping track of who has already answered a question or asked one]
  • Writing Out then Reading Comments or Quotes in Class (Total Participation)
  • Fish Bowl
  • Class Constitution
  • Midterm “Construct Your Own Syllabus” Assignment (including public post and public comment)
  • Collaborative Syllabus Building
  • Writing Out then Reading Comments or Quotes in Class (Total Participation)
  • Fish Bowl
  • Student-led Reading Assignments
  • Student-led Class Exercises and Interactions
  • Final Paper/Project as Public Contribution to Knowledge
  • Midterm Feedback Form/Student Evaluation Form
  • Meta-Cognition (thinking about how we think and about the methods we use--including summative feedback like this about the methods themselves)

Thank you, Erica and Iris and everyone else, for a very stimulating and unforgettable evening.  And, upon reflection, I'm happy to report that it was even fun.



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