TEACHING NOTES: How do we cultivate reflective learning?

Welcome to the final article in our series on Strategies for keeping students engaged in class. In our March 2018 issue, we explored active learning and much discussion was generated from the concept of metacognition in learning. This month we explore this a little further with a look at reflective learning. Reflective learning can be defined as ‘consciously thinking about and analysing what one has done (or is doing)’ (Henderson et al., 2004). Metacognition is a type of reflection – a thinking about one’s own thinking. Reflective tasks are commonplace across the University but are sometimes viewed as an end in and of themselves. Ideally, they should not be static and should be used in a variety of active ways to get students engaged in their own learning.

Student engagement is considered to be a good predictor of learning (Carini et al., 2006) and supporting students to be involved in their own learning is one method of engagement. Put simply, metacognition allows students to become more aware of what they do when they learn and so make decisions about how they learn best. For example, imagine a student is writing an essay. They get stuck and perhaps gloss over an idea or otherwise evade dealing with it. Where that student has learnt to reflect on their writing, then at various problem points they will make notes about that problem as well as what helps to better understand the writing process. Ideally, when reviewing the essay, the student will look at their notes and be able to problem-solve rather than relying on feedback from a teacher, making them a more self-directed, self-regulated learner. Self-regulated learners are more active participants in their own learning motivationally, metacognitively and behaviourally (Zimmerman, 1986).

So how do we help our students better engage in reflective learning? Below are some ideas to get you started.

To begin with:

  • Explicit training is needed – students need practice and experience to develop their metacognitive abilities. Integrate this into the topic content and talk with students about why metacognitive practice is useful.
  • Provide prompts – specific, guided prompts allow students to direct their thinking appropriately (e.g. have a class blog and request students to post to it when they need help and for other students to respond. They can also post experiences of success in their work. This allows students to observe both their own and their peers’ learning processes, make use of potential advice and provides a record of reflection to come back to at a later date for self-evaluation).
  • Use authentic assessment – reflections can fail spectacularly because they aren’t grounded in relevance. Have students take advantage of case studies or WIL-based assessments that have relevance to their future practice. Reflective practice is a crucial part of many professions so grounding students’ reflections in similar tasks can work wonders for their engagement as well as adding to employability at a later date.
  • Encourage collaboration – social learning is a part of reflective practice so allow students to do this together at times. This helps them understand their own learning in relation to others’.
  • Consider ‘reflection-in-action’ – ‘reflection-on-action’ is common, being a reflection after the task or process. However, reflecting mid-point can help students to change poor habits or disruptive mind sets.
  • Reflect often – reflection is most effective when it’s consistent and undertaken in a variety of ways (formal and informal) and when you respond promptly to them. Consider semi-formal reflections in-class, self-reflections on assignment drafts or collaborative troubleshooting exercises.

In practice:

  • Pre-writing – this asks students to reflect on an assignment requirements (i.e. paraphrase what they’re supposed to do; identify individual tasks; identify areas to be clarified; consider the assignment purpose; outline necessary knowledge and what they already know and develop a plan of action).
  • Peer review – ask students to peer review work and have them actively engage with the feedback they receive in revising the work. They could do this by explaining why they do / don’t follow an aspect of their peer’s advice.
  • Self-reflect on drafts – students can be asked to identify areas of challenge; request some specific advice and comment on an aspect of the work that is going well. When you look at the work you can then engage with them on those specific points.
  • Self-reflect on final feedback – students can respond to your final assignment feedback that indicates what was most helpful to them; what was their biggest take-home message; what revision suggestions do they agree / disagree with and why.
  • Articulate transferable skills – students reflect on a skill the assignment helped them to develop and imagine how it can be used across other situations (e.g. if a student had trouble creating a cohesive narrative and used a storyboard to help with this, how might they use that same skill in a marketing course or in a job as a health promotion officer).

You might like to adapt some or all of these strategies into your teaching as they relate to planning, monitoring and evaluating students’ own learning.


Carini, R.M., Kuh, G.D., & Klein, S.P. (2006). Student engagement and student learning: Testing the linkages. Research in Higher Education, 47(1), 1–32.

Henderson, K., Napan, K., & Monteiro, S. (2004). Encouraging reflective learning: An online challenge. In R. Atkinson, C. McBeath, D. Jonas-Dwyer, & R. Philips (Eds.), Beyond the comfort zone: Proceedings of the 21st ASCILITE Conference, Perth, 5-8 December (pp. 356–364). Perth, WA: ASCILITE.

Silver, N. (2013). Reflective pedagogies and the metacognitive turn in college teaching. In M. Kaplan, N. Silver, D. LaVaque-Manty, & D. Meizlish (Eds.), Using reflection and metacognition to improve student learning (pp. 1–17). Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing.

Zimmerman, B.J. (1986). Becoming a self-regulated learner: Which are the key subprocesses? Contemporary Educational Psychology, 11(4), 307-313.

Written by Cassandra Hood
Lecturer in Higher Education – CILT

Posted in
Teaching Notes

One thought on “TEACHING NOTES: How do we cultivate reflective learning?

  1. Thanks Cassandra, the piece on reflective learning was most useful. I particularly like the idea about pre-writing, I think that could be helpful for tasks perceived to be complex and daunting. cheers, Kaye

Leave a Reply