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My Five Best, Easiest Active Learning Tactics for Reflection

My Five Best, Easiest Active Learning Tactics for Reflection

This morning I had a back-and-forth Twitter conversation with my brilliant colleague Jade Davis on the importance (or lack of same) of "reflection" or what is sometimes called "meta-cognition."   I grew weary of trying to explain the different active learning techniques I use for reflection via 140-character tweets so I'm switching to blog land for that purpose.

First, why?  I've learned that my students become so excited by active, engaged learning practices that they sometimes are not aware of how much they are learning.  After a dozen or more years learning in the passive way--from reading textbooks, listening to lectures, and, mostly, cramming for the 110 high stakes standardized tests that the average K-12 student now must take in the course of her schooling--they often don't even think of what they are doing in my classes as learning.   To counter that, I now include active learning exercises about what and how they are learning. 

All the research on reflection underscores that these meta- practices also have an impact on the two aspects of learning that matter most to me:  retention (beyond the test) and applicability (being able to take learning from the classroom and apply it to other situations).   I help these along with the following Think-Pair-Share and Exit Ticket exercises:

Think-Pair-Share (TPS), for those who don't know this technique, is a structured exercise where students very quickly "think" on paper (I like 90 second bursts), jotting out their ideas or answers to prompts; then "pair" with a partner (I have them ritually take turns, one person reading their card while the other listens, then reversing--and then, together, coming up with and writing out one item they will . . . "share" with the class as a whole.

TPS Reflective Exercises

TPS 1:  What are three ideas/insights that you know now and didn't know when you walked into our classroom a few hours ago?  (then the rest of the TPS drill to discuss with a partner and share with the class as a whole; I also often tell my students this is called "metacognition"--they appreciate having a term for the process).

TPS 2:  From whom did you learn the most interesting new idea/method  and how? (then rest of the TPS drill...  often students write that they learned it from their partner in the first TPS drill so they reflect on that, esp if it has been scaffolded with discussions of activism, engaged learning, hierarchy, authority, knowledge, and power)

TPS 3:  Considering the single most interesting idea/method you learned, how would you teach this concept/skill/insight to someone else.  (TPS again--and of course it encourages students, especially graduate students, to interrogate their own tendencies to be transmission-style profs, even when they don't like learning that way)

TPS 4:  What made this so compelling--and how can you imagine extrapolating from what you learned in other situations beyond this classroom?  Is what you learned "merely academic" or is it applicable in other situations? in other subject areas?  How?  (And TPS again)

Needless to say, I rarely do all four--but sometimes I do.  Each of them helps students think about how they learn, what interests them as opposed to what captures the attention of others in the class, and how they can use any of these insights--on any meta level--in the rest of their lives. 

Dialogue with another student reinforces and expands the ways of knowing, takes students outside their own ways to see what is meaningful to others, why, and how.  Hearing everyone's answer read out loud in class inspires them to think, "I noticed that too but didn't think it was interesting" or "I already knew that" or "I missed that completely." 

Hearing the ways others extrapolate from situational knowledge to practices in other courses or in social engagements or in practical or career situations also broadens the ways of knowing for each student. 

All of these help students to have a more powerful relationship to their own knowledge--how they acquire, produce, and reproduce it in other situations--and counters twelve years of thinking all learning must originate with the prof and be reducible to a score on a machine-graded one-best-answer standardized, high stakes, summative test.

Active learning teaches deeply.  We know that.  But it doesn't "feel" like learning at first because, well, it isn't boring, painful, and pointless like (sadly) so much of what is quantified as learning in formal education.


And #5:  Exit Ticket Reflective Practice

An Exit Ticket is an idea a student jots down, following a prompt, and leaves with the prof.   I use these to get a bead on my students' thinking and learning and to see patterns across the class (what am I missing?).  I have them sign them so I can follow up one-on-one if appropriate.  A friend who teaches a lecture class of 600 uses Exit Tickets for this purpose and also, because they are typically signed, as the equivalent of a pop quiz and also to take roll. 

Exit Ticket for Reflection Purposes

What happened in class today that is still making your head spin, seems wrong, is puzzling, is unresolved, that you can't stop thinking about, or otherwise needs more attention and follow up?


I promise, all of these very simple techniques, scaffold everything else the students are learning and make them feel like they are not only enjoying the class but learning in ways that will help them in the rest of their lives.



I'm going to use your first and last TPS for my final Global Culture class this semester.  It's an interesting question how to make students understand they are learning when doing active learning, or even if it's necessary.  I struggle with what the right balance is.  A class I taught last semester was primarily active learning filled with hands on activities and the students thought it was really fun and engaging but I'm not sure how much they felt they really "learned" after looking back on the evaluations.  So I over corrected this semester with too much lecture and not enough of the fun active stuff.  So that question of how to scaffold active learning in a way that students recognize the purpose of it is a really interesting one!


There is a lot of literature on this.  Without reflection, students do not believe they have learned if they are learning with formative feedback and active learning, especially if it is fun.  Some reasons people give lots of quizzes with active learning is (1) it affords plenty of opporutnity to learn from one's mistake and that is highly motivating; and (2) without a baseline, learning happens all the time and we don't even know it.  We are keenly aware of our lapses, losses, failures--and take in accomplishment simply as "life," not as learning.  We have so segmented and regimented learning that, when it happens most effectively, which is to say as deeply as possible, we don't see it. The testing is a sign post. 

I see this all the time with end-of-year evaluation, including for those I supervise and for those who supervise me.  Unless one sign posts what one has accomplished and learns over the course of the year, it can feel like "same old/same old."  However, that reflection on what one has done, especially in collaboration with others who also mark (i.e. the "teacher" or "mentor" or "supervisor" role) helps one to see one's own learning.

It is an invaluable part of the process--perhaps the single most valuable part.   And letting your students know that helps them to understand and take responsibility for their own role in the learning.  It's key.