Looking Back to Learn Forward: A few ways reflecting can deepen students’ learning and understanding

By Laura Benson

Learning emerges from discovery, not directives; reflection, not rules; possibilities, not prescriptions; diversity, not dogma; creativity and curiosity, not conformity and certainty; and meaning, not mandates.
Stephanie Pace Marshall

Memories of learning. Lessons of teaching. Relationships and connections.  We are in a deep time of reflection at our house.  After forty years of teaching and learning with teenagers, my husband Dave is about to retire.  He is retiring from teaching where he attended high school himself, Cherry Creek High School. His Mom worked at CCHS for years. All the children of our extended family have attended CCSS and many had Dave as their Social Studies teachers including our son Tim. I, too, worked at CCHS (many years ago now).  Dinner conversations over the last months and talks while we walk together in the gorgeous (and rather late) Spring air have focused on Dave’s retirement, in part to help him process this transition. And to reflect on all he has gained and all he is grateful for from his time as teacher, Department Chair, and colleague. As a history teacher, we are now reflecting on Dave’s teaching history.

Learning is a process where knowledge is presented to us, then shaped through understanding, discussion, and reflection.
Paulo Freire

All this remembering is stirring my thinking about how we work to nurture the disposition of reflecting with our students. My colleague Dick Moore and I talk about this often, especially in the context of how powerful reflection is in deepening students’ metacognitive capacities. Over the course of my career, I have read or heard  John Dewey, Ron Ritchhart, Art Costa and Carolyn McKanders profile that no learning occurs without reflection. Throughout my forty years of teaching, I have seen this truth realized in my students’ learning – both children and adults – and continuously in my own learning, too.  I have witnessed, too, withered learning when I did not give learners enough time or space to reflect. Rushing doesn’t work in helping learning stick.  Reflection does.

In the bounce of childhood with all its energy and wonder, with the rush of wanting to grow up fast as a teen, and as brilliant as kids are, reflecting does not come naturally to most kids. It’s difficult for kids to know how or why to reflect.  This is where creating a culture of reflection and feedback becomes one of our chief teaching responsibilities (Benson, 2011).  Andrew Miller (2019) shares “Reflection is a powerful practice and mindset to foster in the classroom. Teachers can serve as mentors to students in helping reflection become part of their way of learning.”  We work to help reflection become a habit of students’ thinking because we know how much it chisels our own understanding of what we learn.

How can we nurture reflection?  How can we make room for reflection with our students? What does effective reflection sound like?  Let me share a few key ways I engage and nurture reflection with and for students as co-learners because I am not done getting better at all of this, too!

Cultivating Reflection in Growing
When I was growing up, we were told to stay away from people who talked to themselves.  “Those people are crazy,” was the explanation. The irony that I have spent most of my teaching career encouraging and nudging people to talk to themselves is not lost on me.  I have seen time and time again how powerful it is to share with students why and how self-talk sparks and guides understanding. So, now I would say it’s crazy notto talk to ourselves!

Just as self-talk is a large focus of my modeling learning and thinking with students during my mini-lessons, I work to cultivate students’ self-talk during their independent work time through conferring and nudge self-talk more as we close our time together.  Self-talk nurtures and reflects one’s metacognition or regulation – knowledge about one’s own cognitive processes (knowledge) and the monitoring of these processes (skillfulness) (Hattie, 2009).  In all these contexts, here are some of the self-talk models and stems I practice with students quickly adding their own insights and suggestions to our self-talk list:

“I think…”
“This makes me think…”

“I don’t really get this part…”/”I don’t understand this part.  So, I will….”
“I know…”/”I know…because…”
“I am connecting _____ and _____ now.”/”It seems important to connect ____ and ____  because…”
“This reminds me of…”
“This is like…”/”This is like…but not like…because…”
“I know that I already know…about this topic…”
“I wonder…”/”I wonder…I found out…”/”I wonder…I found out…So, now I will…”
“I bet…”/”I bet…because.  So, now I am thinking/inferring that…”
“As I read this, I inferred that…because….So, now I am thinking that…”
“I learned…”
“This seems important because…”
“Putting all of this together, I now know/realize…”
“Hmm, I am not sure but it seems like…because…”
“To summarize, the most important points/information are/seem to be…”

After or Closing Reflections
In the early days of my teaching, reflection hit me smack in the face during bus duty (of all places).  At this school, bus duty was really all about shepherding cars in and through the drop off zone as most students were picked up rather than bused. As parents, grandparents, and care givers picked up my students, I began to hear a terrible pattern.  I was horrified and knew that I was the cause of my disappointment.  Each adult would ask one of my students “What did you do in school today?” And every kid, every brilliant and energic student from my very own class answered “Nothing.”  A dagger to my heart!  That’s when I began to think about reflection in earnest and knew that reflection had to become an intentional and sacred part of each learning day.

So now, I end every lesson or, at the very least, each day with reflection. Most often, I do this by bringing the kids back from their independent practice to gather together for a few or several minutes of reflection.  Sometimes, I have time to do this and we work as a whole group community.  Other times, I have maybe one minute before the bell rings or 30 seconds until I have to let them go to their next class.  When time is very short, I use vehicles of oral reflection such as turn and talk (students talking in pairs) or blab school (all students talking at the very same time) to help students voice a reflection about their learning from that day or lesson.

To illustrate this a bit more, I close our Readers’ Workshop or Writers’ Workshop time with several minutes of reflecting in a Talking Circle.  As we gather together in a circle on the rug (or in chairs), we talk to one another with and from questions like those I offer below.  We engage in this group talk with the intention that these questions are meant for each of us first because talking about our learning and thinking as peers often makes it more comfortable to practice reflection when we are alone and on our own. 

  • What did you learn about yourself today?/What did you learn about yourself as a mathematician/scientist/artist/nutritionist/writer/ innovator/etc. today?
  • What question/s generated (or drove) your thinking today?
  • When you meet with your Kindergarten buddy, what will you tell her/him about this (skill/process/event/etc.)?
  • What did you notice about your thinking/reading/math work today?
  • What helped you understand today?
  • What helped you stick with your work today?
  • How did you talk to yourself today as you learned/read/performed this science experiment?/What did your self-talk sound like today as you worked on your own/with your study group?
  • What was challenging today? (And I might add: How did you solve this challenge?)
  • What encouraged your thinking today?
  • What went well? (And I might add:How can we repeat this to make your next learning go well?)
  • What do you need to learn next?/What will help you learn more/next?

Front Loading Reflection
Another powerful way to nurture reflection is to be proactive with students.  Some examples of awakening reflection as a learning compass include questions and nudges like the following:

  • Why learn this?/How is learning this helpful to you (or how could it be helpful to you)?
  • How will this help you as a reader/artist/writer/athlete/scientists today?/How will today’s learning help you?
  • When will this be helpful to you in your life?/When, where, and how will you use this learning outside of school?/How are you/we going to use this skill outside of our classroom?
  • What do you need to do your best thinking today?
  • Where can you put yourself to do your best and deepest thinking/learning today

Vehicles for Reflecting
Whether oral or written (although most often oral), whether working in pairs or as a whole group, where students are in their current learning journeys, and other factors such as the time of day and students’ current energy levels help me decide which reflection vehicle to employ at any given time.  For example, when we have had the fourth day of inside recess due to snow and students are super stir crazy, a movement and highly collaborative form of reflection can be very helpful and meaningful.  When I am trying to get a handle of an especially challenging time of learning for students, gaining their written reflection can be very clarifying for all of us in knowing ourselves and in charting next steps of edifying learning, too. Here are just a few reflection vehicles which support students’ reflection and I encourage you to adapt these strategies as you work with your own students:

Talking Circle: These have become absolutely essential experiences for my students over the years, whether kids or adults.  Australian educators Carol Cooper and Julie Boyd (1996) taught me many years ago, “We often don’t know that we know something until we hear ourselves say it in an interaction with another human being.” Creating Talking Circles gives growing thinkers a setting for voicing and deepening their learning.  To begin, gather all students together in a circle to generate reflections.  The sharing of reflections can be conducted by going around the circle often guided by your prompt or nudge.  Shy students or kids needing more time to reflect may be given the option to say “pass” when it is their turn in the circle. I often begin the year with prompts such as those shared earlier in this piece.  Over time, students lead our Talking Circle setting the focus and helping to pace our conversations and sharings, too.

Turn and Talk: Working in pairs, students share a reflection/s with one another often taking turns.  You can support students by timing and calling out structures such as “Partner A, you can 30 seconds to share your thinking/reflection with your partner” and then to do the same thing for Partner B. Open pair conversations work well, too. The decision about how to structure Turn and Talk reflections will depend on considerations such as how much time is needed for reflection (or how much time you have left for reflections, to be honest) and how mature your students are in the give and take of meaningful peer conversations.

Exit Card/Entrance Cards:  I don’t engage students in written reflection every day but do so when writing will help students process their own thinking and when gathering this data will be especially informative to me and the kids.  I can use the questions and self-talk shared earlier as prompts for this type of short and spirited response from students.

Blab School:  I learned this strategy from Stephanie Harvey years ago and it is amazing how much it supports kids in developing their thinking and in helping shy or quiet students become more confident in voicing their perspectives and insights.  Blab School reflections are simply asking the kids to share their thinking out loud at the very same time.  I have learned to sit by specific kids during Blab School to hear their thinking.  This is a very efficient way to grab their thinking and get to know a student a bit more by hearing their reflections.  The kids always find this vehicle to be especially fun and easy to do.

Self-Talk:  As profiled earlier, sharing our ways of creating understanding by modeling and practicing effective self-talk are huge eye-openers to growing thinkers.  Even into high school, lots of kids think that understanding is magical.  Many of my own students thought they I understood everything I read the first time I read a text.  Help them know that reading/learning/solving math problems/innovating a new piece of art can be hard for any of us.  Talking to ourselves with efficacious self-talk leads us all to better understanding and promotes resiliency when the going gets tough. Help students notice and name their own effective meaning-making self-talk.  Write down student self-talk as often it is students’ self-talk which becomes a much more reachable or connected model for a peer/s in class.

 One word summary: Ask students to provide a summary of their thinking or an understanding of a process with just one word.  These are not always as easy as they sound but they are powerful in supporting students’ discernment and synthesis.  As Mark Twain said, “If I had had more time, I would have written you a shorter letter.” Short responses can be created quickly but quality ones need time.  So, honor students by giving them some time to land on a solid one word summary when engaging them in reflection.

 6 word summary: Like one word summaries, we are encouraging students to synthesize their understanding of a concept, event, or process by asking them to create a 6 Word summary.  Short responses like this consistently bring energy to students’ reflective work.  These summaries can be assigned as oral and/or written responses.

 3-2-1 Reflection:  These are classic organizers for reflection and you can create a variety of ways to help student reflect on key information and/or key ways they processed what they are learning.  Whether oral and/or written, here is a frequent structure I use with students to support their reflection:

3 things you learned

2 ways you supported your own learning

1 question you still have

Strikes and Wonders (Benson, 2011)This is a great way to support students’ identification of important ideas and to assess their judgment of important ideas because what they voice provides me with critical data about how well this type of comprehension and evaluation is going for each child.  It’s also a positive way of nudging students to generate their own questions.  Invite students to engage in Strikes and Wonders with the following prompt: ‘A strikeis something that stands out to you as being really important or makes you say “Ah, ha!” A wonderis something that you have a question about.  What strikes you as important about this book/topic/process/issue/person?  What are you wondering?” Before engaging your students in this type of reflection, think about what you would expect to hear in students’ responses to determine whether they are making healthy process and growth in learning your focus goal/standard. These insights about student proficiency will help you utilize Strikes and Wondersas not only a form of reflection but as an additional form of formative assessment, too.

 Connect Two: This is reflection vehicle I use often with students. Just as we know students must know a synonym in learning a new word, helping students create connections before, during, and after they study key concepts strengthens their overall understanding and usually dramatically impacts their confidence, too.  Connect Two reflections can be shaped with prompts such as the following:

I am connecting _______ and ______ because…

I would connect ______ and _____ because…

I connect _____ and _____ because…and these connections are important because….

 Lines of Communication:  Have students form two lines facing one another.  This way, each person has an across-the-aisle partner to orally voice a reflection.  Often, I structure Lines of Communication with a timer and prompts or questions. We identify one line as the Partner A group and the other as the Partner B group.  Then, I call out something like “Partner A, you have 47 seconds to share your reflection about what we learned today with your partner.  Ready, go!” After the timer goes off, the process is repeated to give all Partner B’s their turn to talk.  Once the first round is completed, the person at the head of the Partner A group leaves and heads to the back of the line.  This moves everyone in the Partner A group down one person and, thus, gives everyone in the whole group a new partner.  For the second through fourth or fifth rounds of reflection sharing, I usually change up the prompts with nudges such as:

“Share two or three key connections you made today”

“If you were going to tell someone about this in an elevator where you wouldn’t have much time to talk, how would you describe this process/book/idea/event?”

“Share a key question you generated today as well as any answers or discoveries you made.”

 Nurturing Reflection in Growing Writers
Revisions is a part of writing that I don’t wait to share with students.  It’s too vital to nudging a writer’s thinking.  So, each day, I am intentional about my use of time for students’ writing and make sure that there are always even a few minutes to engage my students in reflecting upon their writing and writing process.

One key way that I cultivate a reflective stance in growing writers is by teaching them what I call the 3-Step Reflective Revision Process.  I take my time to model and practice each step with my students.  The younger students are, the slower my pace in apprenticing them in each step.  Here are the steps for nudging revision as reflection in your own students.

1. Reread your writing

To students I say, “We are going to begin to do something our favorite writers do.  As they write, our favorite authors stop and reread their writing.  Why do you suppose they do this?”

The kids and I then discuss the intentions and values of rereading our writing as writers ourselves.

Then we move on with me saying, “So, now we are going to end our Writer’s Workshop time each day by taking some time – even a few minutes – to read what we wrote. We will do this before we come to our Talking Circle.”

To you as colleagues, let me say that I know that calling this step “rereading” may be generous in some cases because we know that many of our students are not yet in the habit of rereading their own writing.  Starting this ritual with a positive presupposition, especially with growing writers who tend to be too hard on themselves, consistently helps launch and root this reflection ritual with a nurturing and uplifting energy.

After several days or weeks, you can introduce the second step of the Reflective Revision Process:

             2.  Star a part you COULD change.

Could is a very important word to use in this part of the process because it conveys playfulness and a willingness to consider alternatives.  These are very important dispositions for any writer.

To the kids, I model and voice where, how, and why I am starring a few places in my own writing to indicate changes I am considering.  “I could change the title here because, even as I wrote this title, I really did have a couple of other ideas in my head. It might be powerful to think about different ways I could name this piece. Which title would be a compelling invitation for my readers? Hmm…”

Then, I ask students to try on this part of the process. “Thinking about your writing, reflecting on your rereading of your piece, consider a part or two where you COULD make a change.  I am not saying you have to or will change that part.  Just be playful with your writing and your thinking and star a place or two where you could say that a different way, add more, or just change it up a bit!  Ready, go!”

Over time, we share some of the stars with one another – Some of the places where we could make a change in our writing. As we share our stars or changes with one another, we also voice why we think a change would make our writing stronger and more compelling to our readers.

After several days or week, you can introduce the third step of the Reflective Revision Process:

3.  Make a change!

Now that students have had some time to reread their writing and consider changes they could make, it’s time to nudge them out of the nest and ask them to generate a revision. 

I say something like this to ignite this third part of this powerful process, “Look back at one of your stars – One of the parts or places you determined that you could change.  Now, have some fun and think how you could change that part.  You may even want to try it a couple of different ways (especially with a change like a title, character trait or description, or compelling facts or statistics).  Make a change in your writing!”

 Key to making this go well is to ask students to cross out but not erase their revisions.  I always explain to kids that the changes they make in their writing are hugely interesting to me and greatly inform my understanding about each of them (And this data guides my teaching, too.).  So, in addition to saving kids a lot of time by not erasing their early thinking, these changes become rich wells of data to better understand each writer.

As with the other parts of the writing process and as a community of writers, we step back from our writing together and share why, how, and where we make/made changes in our own writing during our Talking Circle.  These reflections often awaken new ideas in students and frequently become essential affirmations of the value of taking risks and being creative with their writing.

Reflection is as essential to student learning as the white space in poetry which causes us to pause and think more deeply about meaning – Meaning of the piece, meaning of the process, and what this all means to us personally.  As Margaret Wheatley (2005) wised advices, “Without reflection, we go blindly on our way creating more unintended consequences, and failing to achieve anything useful.”  Stepping back to think about, marvel over, and celebrate learning – These are essential experiences for all growing thinkers.  Reflection is a roadmap to the heart and a compass of our minds. 

We don’t learn from experience…we learn from reflecting on experience.

John Dewey


Benson, Laura in Almeida, Lisa, Benson, Laura, et al (2011).  Standards and Assessment:  The Core of Quality Instruction.  Englewood, Colorado: Lead and Learn Press.

Cooper, Carol and Boyd, Julie. (1996).  Mindful Learning.  Melbourne, Australia:  Routledge.

Costa, Art. (2009).  Habits of Mind Across the Curriculum: Practical and Creative Strategies for Teachers.  Alexandria, Virginia: ASCD.

Hattie, John. (2009).Visible Thinking:  A synthesis of over 800 meta-analysis relating to achievement.  New York City, New York: Routledge.

McKanders, Carolyn (2014).  Adaptive Schools Training – Nansha China. Thinking Collaborative. https://www.thinkingcollaborative.com

Miller, Andrew. (2019). Teaching Strategies:  Treating Reflection as a Habit, Not an Event.Edutopia. https://www.edutopia.org/article/treating-reflection-habit-not-event

Ritchhart, Ron. (2015). Creating Cultures of Thinking:  The 8 Forces We Must Master to Truly Transform Our Schools.  San Francisco: John Wiley and Sons.

Ritchhart, Ron, Church, Mark, and Morrison, Karin. (2011). Making Thinking Visible:  How to Promote Engagement, Understanding, and Independence for All Learners. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Wheatley, Margaret. (2005).  Finding Our Way:  Leadership for an Uncertain Time.  Oakland, California: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

Laura Benson is with International School Services, working with educators to develop and refine their curriculum and engage in deeper understandings of best-practice pedagogy. A well-cited scholar and researcher, Laura has published numerous articles in professional journals.  Find her on Twitter at @LBopenbook.

Author: CCIRAblog

Check out CCIRA's website today at ccira.org

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