The Forgotten ‘R’: Using Reflection to Speed Student Learning

“Most classrooms are oriented more to the present and the future than to the past. Such an orientation means that students (and teachers) find it easier to discard what has happened and to move on without taking stock of the seemingly isolated experiences of the past.”

Learning Through Reflection by Arthur L. Costa and Bena Kallick

As I sat at a session by The Paper Graders at NCTE17 called Stop Grading, Start Reflecting,  I was struck by what an odd job teaching is. In most professions the sign that a lot of work is getting done is to see the worker actively working. We know mechanics are working when we see them under cars and we know writers are working when we see their fingers dance across keyboards. This is not the case in teaching. In teaching, student growth is the work, and often that growth is at its highest in the moments where the worker (the teacher) is not actively standing and delivering in front of students.

Of course, this is not to say that teachers aren’t central to student learning. They are. But their role is different. In that way teachers are more like farmers than anything else. Like farmers, their job is to properly prepare the ground, plant ideas at the right time and with the right spacing from each other, and then nurture, troubleshoot, and supplement as the tiny tendrils of understanding slowly turn into solid stalks rich with the fruit of knowledge.

As teachers it is easy to forget this at times and fall prey to the idea that we, not the students, are the keystone at the center of learning. This thought is seductive because it is so much simpler and cleaner than the reality. How wonderful would it be if all that we wrote in the margins of papers or said during class instantly turned into knowledge on the part of the students?

Unfortunately, in the real world learning is much more complicated and messy, which brings me back to the session from the Paper Graders (who by the way are a wonderful and thoughtful group of teachers from Boulder; their blog is well worth a regular look). In it they discussed how when students do an assignment, the person who reflects on it the most in a lot of classrooms is the teacher, not the student. That is a problem because the student, not the teacher, is the one who needs to learn the lessons, and reflection is an incredibly potent learning tool. Their core argument was that students at the very least should be reflecting as much as the teacher concerning their work, and in an ideal world they would probably be reflecting a whole lot more.

This idea struck me instantly because I have long recognized the core role reflection plays in students learning from margin comments, and in that moment I realized that I need to expand my use of reflection beyond their papers. The fact of the matter is that I almost never have students reflect on other assessments like tests or homework, despite the fact I give them feedback on those too. I also rarely, if ever, have them reflect on their reading skills or other strengths, weaknesses, and goals. Instead, I far too often do as Costa and Kallick observe in the quote at the top and look ceaselessly toward the future and that next assignment or book.

Sitting and listening to the Paper Graders was one of those rare moments of clarity where I instantly knew an answer to a problem I didn’t even know I had ten minutes earlier. If I want students to take as much as possible from each assignment or piece of feedback and grow as much as possible in all key elements of their ELA practice, I need to use all the pedagogical tools available, and that means I need to structure my class so my students engage in regular, substantial reflection on everything that matters.

Since that point two weeks ago, I have already begun to experiment with more robust reflection in my classes. For example, I had my 9th graders look at previous tests from the semester to diagnose trends and use those to prepare a plan for an upcoming test on Of Mice and Men. Unsurprisingly, when I graded them yesterday, I saw the biggest jump in performance that I’ve seen all year! I also had my Composition students reflect on their last papers to begin our new unit, and the observations and connections they made have me really excited to see how they will grow in their next papers.

Alongside my own experimentation, I have started to dig into what other people have done and have already found some wonderful suggestions and ideas. They include the following:

  • Joshua Block suggests in an Edutopia article to regularly end class with quick reflections to reinforce the lessons of the day. Some potential topics he gives are…
    • Reflecting on things learned in the class.
    • Asking questions to set the stage for future learning
    • Examining strengths and weaknesses based on the work done that day
    • Creating plans for how the students can approach things tomorrow based on what they did today
  • Arthur L. Costa and Bena Kallick in Learning Through Reflection advocate using sentence stems to help guide students in reflecting on writing, as it is not natural for many students (by the way, their article is probably the most comprehensive and well-research I’ve ever seen on reflection). Here are a few of my favorites writing stems that they give:
    • When I look at my other pieces of writing, this piece is different because …
    • What makes this piece of writing strong is my use of …
    • Here is one example from my writing to show you what I mean:
    • What I want to really work on to make my writing better for a reader is …
  • The Paper Graders have students keep journals with regular reflections on their reading and learning. This allows both them and the teacher to see their evolution over the course of the semester. Here is a shot of their NCTE presentation that shows this:
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In recent years American classrooms have gotten much better when it comes to replacing the “Sage on the Stage” model that views teaching as the simple act of transference from one vessel to another, like a pitcher pouring lemonade into a cup, with a “Guide on the Side” approach that recognizes the students are at the center of the learning process. We can see this in how lectures have turned into mini-lectures, the greater prominence given to inquiry and group work, and the way that even subjects like grammar have begun to move away from worksheets and into the context of the students themselves.

But we also still have work to do on that front, and I firmly believe that increasing the role of reflection will go a long way towards making our classrooms even more student-centered. For me, there is no more compelling argument for this than my own practice. In my book for new teachers I argue in the final lines that being reflective is arguably the single most important trait for a teacher to have when I say that it is the “one similarity shared by seemingly all great teachers.” While some might accuse me of using lofty hyperbole to end a book here, in my opinion, this nothing more than the unvarnished truth. I can think of a wide variety of great teachers, many of whom have very different styles and strengths, but I can’t think of one of them who doesn’t constantly reflect on their successes and missteps in the classroom. And so it stands to reason that if reflection is so central to developing skills as a teacher, it could and probably should play a similar-sized role in kids developing their skills as students too!

Thanks as always for reading!

Yours in Teaching,

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4 responses to “The Forgotten ‘R’: Using Reflection to Speed Student Learning”

  1. […] the fall, I wrote a post on reflection after attending a session by the Paper Graders called “Stop Grading, Start […]


  2. […] to student writing, so it is worth our while to make sure that our students receive those messages. Reflection can help with that and so can keeping our feedback focused, but ultimately nothing might be more […]


  3. […] regular reflections concerning how their writing is evolving over the course of the […]


  4. […] I already do–like having students set goals near the beginning of new units and engage in reflection near the end of quarters–and relocate those activities to landmark moments where students are […]


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