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Classroom Management to Facilitate Student Self-Reflection

Jordan Catapano

When we hold a mirror up to our face, we’re able to examine how we look. Just as this reflection sheds light on our physical appearance, it’s important to consider how we can reflect on our classroom management techniques and our teaching. Is there a way to hold a mirror up to our minds as well?

There’s no doubt that reflection on our performance and experiences helps us grow stronger. A 2014 Harvard Business School study suggests that individuals who take time for reflection don’t just benefit, but benefit more than people who work longer without reflection. The paper argues, “That once an individual has accumulated a certain amount of experience with a task, the benefit of accumulating additional experience is inferior to the benefit of deliberately articulating and codifying the experience accumulated in the past.” In other words, reflection yields greater results than just working harder.

Our students who are daily in the process of growing in knowledge and skills have a lot to gain from incorporating reflection into their routine – and perhaps a lot to lose if they don’t. Gary Pisano from the Harvard Business School summarizes it by saying, "When we fall behind, even though we're working hard, our response is often just to work harder. But in terms of working smarter, our research suggests that we should take time for reflection."

How can we help our students work smarter, not harder, through reflection? Here are 11 ideas you could consider making a larger part of your classroom management routine.  

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Classroom Management: Include a Reflective Question at the End of an Assessment or Project

A test that comes at the end of a unit often represents an endpoint for a given set of learning … and it’s a prime time to look back before students look forward. Instead of just having content questions on your tests, include at least one reflective question that asks students to think about how they feel about their performance on this assessment, what they could have done differently along the way, or what they appreciated most about the unit.

Students Watch Themselves on Film

Just like athletes “Go to the tapes” when they are assessing their own performance, similarly film students and have them watch themselves. It is totally awkward to watch yourself on tape … at first. But once students get over the cringe, they actually enjoy seeing themselves from the outside. This is ideal for tasks that have a visual and audio component, such as speeches and presentations, or group work. Just set up a camera, press record, and give students an opportunity to watch themselves later on.

One bonus idea to this (or for any style of reflection, really) is to have students video themselves dialoguing through their own reflection instead of just writing it down.

Students Interview One Another

We often think of reflection as an independent, internal process. But students might get more out of the reflection if they are openly interviewed by someone else. Students can partner up and prod one another with questions that force a student to verbalize and explain their thinking to others. Unlike solo, written reflection, interviews require that students justify their thinking to someone else. It also reverses roles and puts students in the seat of the questioner, helping them become better reflectors by devising their own reflective questions.

Students Watch Other Students and Offer Feedback

Another form of reflection might come from having students give and receive feedback with one another. Let’s say students are involved in a fishbowl discussion -- a peer on the outside of the fishbowl can record their own observations about how a student involved in the discussion contributes. This could make participating students more self-aware during the discussion, since they know someone is making observations about them, and it contributes to post-discussion reflection by contributing outside feedback as well.

Students Grade Their Own Work

What if when students received a test or assignment back, it didn’t have a grade on it? Instead, students received the work back with only a blank rubric and the teacher’s comments. Then, instead of just looking at the teacher’s grade and shrugging their shoulders, the student had to use this information to assign a grade to it themselves, writing a paragraph of reflection and justification for the grade they give.

Reflect on a Specified Goal

If we just offer an open-ended reflection, students may be prone to speak in generalities that don’t lead to productive thought. If this is the case, try having students state one specific goal for themselves prior to completing a task. For example, they might want to make sure they have an effective opening paragraph in an essay, ask multiple questions during a discussion, or make sure they keep their positive and negative signs accurate in a long math problem. Then, once the task is completed, they center their reflection on this self-identified area they were most concerned about.

The Daily Exit Slip

By the end of a lesson or day, students might not be thinking, “What did I just learn?” or “How well did I learn it?” Then when they start the next day, it is possible they have no idea where their learning left off. Consider making it a daily routine to have students end each class period or day by openly reflecting on what they got out of the day, what they understood, what they didn’t quite grasp, and what they see themselves doing to be successful for the next day. This not only helps students make reflection a daily habit, but it provides teachers with ongoing formative feedback to help guide their instruction.

Compare the Beginning to the End

A portfolio is often a compilation of a student’s work from one point of the year to another. Consider keeping a portfolio throughout an entire year, then at the end of the year have students compare how well they do at the end to how well they did similar tasks in the beginning. Do they see any major improvements or changes in any areas for themselves? How do they see themselves as learners and as people at the end of the year? What do they envision as their next steps for growth?

Hit the Pause Button

We have the advantage in video games of being able to press “Pause,” take a break, and come back to what we were doing. That same advantage exists in the classroom, although we don’t always utilize it. It’s OK to hit the “Pause button” multiple times throughout a lesson and have students engage in miniature reflection.

“Are you understanding what we’re doing?”

“What about this is unclear right now?”

“Are you doing what you need to in order to comprehend?”

When we give students time throughout a class period to become aware of their own engagement in the learning, we are opening up the opportunity for them to continuously assess themselves and make adjustments accordingly.

Look at Previous Reflection Before the Next Task

One interesting way to use reflection is to make sure students examine a reflection they already did prior to doing the same task again. For instance, if they reflected on how lab results turned out, have students re-read their thoughts on that lab prior to doing the next lab. Or students can look at what thoughts they had after completing a math test before they do the next math test, or speech, or group project. If they had suggestions for themselves, identified weaknesses, or found methods for success, it would be worthwhile to reflect on their reflections and apply their own wisdom.

Allow Revision for Mastery

We don’t have to make reflection come at the end of a task when it’s too late to make adjustments to it. Instead, give students the opportunity to leverage their reflection to gain mastery over a given task. For instance, let students retake a test as many times as they like, as long as they articulate what they are doing to learn and improve with each attempt. This helps demonstrate to students that as long as they continuously reflect on the caliber of their learning, they are afforded the opportunity to display the fruits of their reflection and achieve mastery on each task.

What do you think about the suggestions above? How do you use classroom management to facilitate student reflection? Share your experiences with us by leaving a comment below!

Jordan Catapano taught English for 12 years in a Chicago suburban high school, where he is now an assistant principal. In addition to being National Board Certificated and head of his school’s Instructional Development Committee, he also has worked with the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and has experience as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish.


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