7 Ways Reflection Gives Students Ownership of their Learning

In his book, The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg describes keystone habits as,“small changes or habits that people introduce into their routines that unintentionally carry over into other aspects of their lives.” Reflection has been one of habit that has transformed my life as a teacher, leader, author, and dad.

My day is probably like most of yours. I wake up, drink some coffee, read, write, attempt to work out, get dressed, give the kids and wife a kiss goodbye, head off to work and grab something to eat.

I then spend hours at work in meetings, talking with people, creating, managing, teaching, learning, and eventually get to head home where I’ll play with my kids, go to events, sports practices/games, activities, sometimes out to eat (or a rate date), help put my kids to bed, and then get to spend an hour or two hanging out with my wife thankful the house is quiet for the moment.

Student lives look very similar to adult lives, except they rarely have any choice in what they do. Students are consistently shuttled from one class to another, one spot to another, one event to another. When the day is over, have they even had a minute to think about how each class or event went?

It wasn’t until I actively started to reflect, both by myself in writing each and every day, and also with my wife at the end of the day, that I could open up my world to new possibilities. Reflecting helped me recognize where I was currently at (in my job, in blogging, in being a dad and husband) versus where I wanted to be.

If we don’t reflect, we tend to go through the motions, not conscious of what steps we can take to get better or move forward.

The same goes for students. When students are allowed, given time, supported, and praised for their reflection, something changes. They begin to own their experience, instead of being forced into a series of choices they aren’t sure about.

Here are Seven Ways Reflection Gives Students Ownership of their Learning:

#1. Reflection is an accurate view of how students see themselves as learners

In John Hattie’s review of 900 studies in Visible Learning, one of the highest indicators of positively impacting student learning was reflection (or self-reported grades).

Hattie's Rankings

Hattie’s work references that students are extremely accurate predictors of their achievement. However, they will often aim for average or “good enough” and therefore achieve average or good enough. Hattie believes, “Our job as teachers is to help students exceed their targets (based on their reflection).”

When we allow students to reflect (on a consistent basis) we end up with more opportunities to challenge our students to a higher standard and help them reach it.

#2. Reflection breeds humility

“Implementing extreme ownership requires checking your ego and operating with a high degree of humility. Admitting mistakes, taking ownership and developing a plan to overcome challenges are integral to any successful team.”―Jocko Willink

When we reflect we must be honest. At least honest with ourselves about our choices, our success, our mistakes, and our growth.

This is a constant reminder to stay humble and continue working hard to achieve results.

#3. Reflection is linked to Growth

With all the attention “growth mindset” over the past few years in education, we often miss one of the most critical pieces which is reflection.

Dr. Jackie Gerstein has seen this in her work and created a checklist for students when reflecting (and how it impacts on growth mindset):


#4. Reflection is tied to sharing

Although reflection can be a private practice, it is also necessary to reflect in groups. When reflection is used in group work and group scenarios it can be a powerful tool to learn from each other.

We love Reality TV because we are witnessing constant reflection on the part of the people in the show. We see their actions and then they cut to a video of them reflecting on what happened, what went right/wrong, what they would have done differently etc. This same method can be used in the classroom to share what worked and what didn’t (and what you learned from the mistakes).

#5. Reflection leads to more ideas

It is hard to imagine coming up with a new idea if you aren’t reflecting on a personal experience or something you’ve witnessed, read, or watched.

When we reflect on these experiences we begin to connect and mary different ideas and solutions together. Reflection is a driver of big ideas and new innovative practices.

#6. Reflection is a form of curiosity

Einstein was curious...

When we reflect we become naturally curious of “what could have been” and what we might do different. Reflection is also a practice in which we can become more and more curious over time. It is the act of being mindful of the possibilities in any given situation.

#7. Reflection leads to Empowerment

“My philosophy is that not only are you responsible for your life, but doing the best at this moment puts you in the best place for the next moment.” ~ Oprah Winfrey

As John Spencer and I were looking at research and reflecting on our own teaching and learning experiences for our upcoming book, Empower, we started to see how reflection was a key piece to many of the stories we were reading (and those in our own classrooms).

When students do projects such as Genius Hour, 20% Time, Geek Out Blogs, and others that we cover in the book, they aren’t just given freedom to choose their content.

They are given the freedom to change their learning path. They will reflect on what is working (and what is not) and then pivot, tweak, and modify how they are learning and creating.

If you are anything like me, you’ve spent years putting reflection on the back seat. Other things seemed more important. But, when I finally gave reflection the respect it was due and made it a daily practice, things changed in my own life, and in my classroom for my students. 

Would love to hear your thoughts below!

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Join the discussion 14 Comments

  • Kriss says:

    I am in total agreement!! I taught a STEAM class this year, a pilot program in my Junior High. All year was building challenges. After each one, we discussed what went right, what went wrong, and what changes they could have made in their prototype. Where I went wrong was that is where the reflection piece stopped. I WILL be making changes this next year. We will not stop in discussion. I want my students to make those changes and adjustments, and reflect again. It may take several times to get to a working prototype. It is the “process” students need to learn. It is making mistakes, failing, but going back to the drawing board to solve a problem. It is learning to reason through problems and find solutions. Reflection is key in this process!!

  • Lyle Hicks says:

    I took forward to having my business class use this to improve their learning.

  • PJ Weaver says:

    Please suggest a baby steps of reflection to start daily routine? I want to have this relationship with myself regarding my teaching and leading at my school. Then will share my experience. Thanks for sharing your work.

  • Lynn Cashell says:

    The first thing I am going to do is print out and post Jackie Gerstein’s Growth Mindset chart because I don’t see most of my students taking the time to do quality work using their resources or taking that step to reflect.

    We just spent several weeks researching and discussing homework at the elementary level. The research does not demonstrate positive outcomes for achievement by giving meaningless homework. We landed on a homework grid or menu where students are given choice and it includes time to reflect.

    While our new supervision model felt a bit cumbersome at first, I appreciated that it includes sections for teacher reflection. We talk as teachers, but it often goes down the path of complaining, rather than true reflection towards a growth mindset. I am hoping that we can incorporate reflection more often with our and for our students and ourselves.

  • Kristin says:

    Even the youngest learners can reflect on their thinking. In first grade, we use design challenges and the LAUNCH cycle in our classroom daily. When they share their ideas, they tell what they created and why, how they created it, and any problems they had to solve. We talk about what they might try differently next time, and get feedback. I find reflection, and feedback help my students grow as learners.

  • I enjoyed the article and have shared it with other teachers. This will be one of my goals for next year.

  • Tina says:

    I have been using reflection after all labs, projects, and discussion to try to help my students think more deeply. I have found that asking for evidence helps the students think more deeply. For example: How did you include research to develop your argument, include evidence from your project to support your answer. I do not use this for all questions but I found it leads to the students having to justify their self reflections by actually going back and reviewing their work.

  • Agree 100%! I have seen tremendous growth in my students thinking and understanding of their own learning and place in our community through their reflections this year. It was tough for them at first because they hadn’t been asked to write in this way or think about their learning other then to relay facts or demonstrate understanding on traditional assessments. In all my years of teaching, I feel as though I know this class of students far better than any of the others. I was particularly drawn to the thoughts about reflection keeping you humble. I have seen this in the reflective practice I am developing by starting my own blog as well as in the responses of my students. We have a line in our school prayer that has always been my favorite. “Turn our eyes inward to focus on the spirt and outward to see our obligations in the world.” I have seen them humble themselves, admit mistakes and see themselves as part of a broader community and I want to continue to develop that empathy within them.

  • Jodi says:

    I am an Art Teacher and use self assessment with all of my grades 3, 4, and 5 classes. You are right, the students really are good at assessing themselves. After reading this, however, I’d like to do more reflection along with the assessment. After a unit (in grades 1-5) I may have a test or a worksheet with reflection questions which I’ve always enjoyed, but your right I do need to do more. I’m also thinking that Seesaw (a digital portfolio) would be a great way to achieve this. This way the parents would be involved too. Thank you!

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