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Teaching self-reflection: A necessary part of the learning process

Author: Gerard Dawson, English & Journalism Teacher, Hightstown High School, New Jersey


Teaching students to self-reflect is important. It’s also challenging, especially if you’ve never fully realized the benefits of self-reflection for yourself.

I always thought reflection was just an “add-on” or “bonus” activity that teachers asked me to do in school. It wasn’t until entering the classroom as an educator that my perception changed: I realized self-reflection is a necessary part of the learning process. Teaching students to self-reflect meant teaching them to teach themselves.

Here are the top four things that you’ll learn in this article:

  1. How I learned the value of self-reflection (not until I was 22)
  2. Famous educational thinker John Dewey’s thoughts about reflection’s special power
  3. Simple, powerful questions that lead students toward successful reflection
  4. The difference between “what” and “why” self-reflection

Why learning through reflection is important

It was my semester of student teaching, October of 2010, basement library computer lab at The College of New Jersey, Friday evening after rugby practice. There, I found myself pounding away at the keyboard, reflecting on the just finished week of student teaching.

This happened over and over again through the semester, me writing incessantly about the small wins and big mistakes of the five days of teaching, and feeling like the words were flowing from my fingertips through divine inspiration. I’d re-read the reflections, and they were largely incoherent, but the process of writing them was priceless for figuring out what it meant to do this job.

I remember my supervisor and still-today mentor Mr. Sowder responding to one of my emailed reflections with “You like writing these, it seems.”

It was then that I realized the value of self-reflection as a student: reflection allowed me to teach myself. Reflection is a way to learn from experience, without anyone else needed to guide me or talk to me. While many mention the growth mindset as something abstract, teaching students to self-reflect is a tangible strategy for building a student growth mindset.

Fortunately, there are educators with far larger pedigrees than mine who have espoused the benefits of teaching students to self-reflect.

Importance of self-reflection for students

Any discussion of teaching students to self-reflect must include John Dewey, the great American thinker, and education reformer. Dewey put forth many of the ideas that teachers today view as truisms: educational materials should be relevant to students’ lives, students should engage in valuable activities instead of rote learning, and classrooms should function as communities to prepare students for participation in a democracy.

If somebody mentions something “innovative” in education today, John Dewey probably said it in 1930.

In his work How We Think, Dewey says that self-reflection is the only type of thinking that leads to learning.

In chapter one, “What is thought?” he writes (bold is mine):

In some cases, a belief is accepted with slight or almost no attempt to state the grounds that support it. In other cases, the ground or basis for a belief is deliberately sought and its adequacy to support the belief examined. This process is called reflective thought; it alone is truly educative in value” (Dewey 2).

Based on Dewey’s comment above, you can see how self-reflection differs from other types of thinking, and why it is so important to teach students to self-reflect. But how do you do it? I only learned to reflect at the age of 22, but surely students can learn as early as elementary school.

How to teach self-reflection to students: Self-reflection questions

Said simply, you can teach students to self-reflect by asking them the right questions. As a teacher, you know that there is often a difference between the students’ perceptions of their ability, and the reality of the situation, so teachers have to guide students through reflection carefully at first.

I like to share the three simplest reflection questions I use with students. These questions are:

  • What’s working?
  • What’s not?
  • What next?

“What’s working?” asks students to think about the ways in which things are going well. It’s interesting to note that some students will comment on their own learning process or outcomes (e.g. “My essay is coming along much more easily than I expected”) while other students may reflect on the class or the activity (e.g. “I like getting to share our essays with our partners before we submit them”).

“What’s not?” asks students to find the areas that can be addressed for improvement. Some students will be overly self-critical here, while others will be naive about their own abilities, so I often pay careful attention to how students answer this question.

“What next?” is the most important question for students, in my opinion, because it asks them to make a choice and a plan about how to move forward. When I use this series of questions with students working on a writing assignment, I use this question to ask students to create a “revision plan” that they can use to improve their essays before submitting them to me or a peer.

Teachers can also teach students to self-reflect as part of an ongoing process instead of just on a single assignment. For example, in a blog post titled “Student Reflection: A Tool for Growth and Development,” Brooke B. Eisenbach noticed that her own weekly process of reflection as a teacher would become more robust if her students became involved.

Brooke explains:

I implemented student reflection as a weekly component of my classroom instruction. Every Friday, students spent 10–15 minutes reflecting on our week together. They responded to four key questions that prompted personal reflection:

  • What did you learn this week?
  • What activities helped you to learn?
  • What activities did you find engaging?
  • What questions or comments do you have for me?

Notice that by making this a weekly process, Brooke is teaching her students that self-reflection is an integral part of the learning process, not simply a one-off activity. Also, again notice the simplicity and power of the reflection questions.

Many times, teaching students to self-reflect has an added bonus of making the formative assessment process more precise and useful for teachers. As students become comfortable explaining their own thinking, teachers can gather better data about their students’ learning to use for future instruction.

In conclusion: how we teach students to self-reflect matters

Although teaching self-reflection need not be a complicated process, please keep in mind that is also not something to haphazardly wander into. It is clear that self-reflection can lead to better formative assessment data for the teacher and hopefully more self-awareness for students.

As a final word of advice, keep in mind the way in which you frame your self-reflection activities for students. Above, I mentioned that I asked students (and myself) to explain “what’s working?” “what’s not?” and “what next?” not “why am I doing well?” “why am I struggling?”or  “why should I do X?” This is in keeping with Harvard Business Review’s findings that self-reflection leads to self-awareness, particularly when people ask questions that begin with “what” as opposed to questions that begin with “why.” This is because it places the focus on situations and outcomes instead of one’s own internal qualities.

So, ask students to reflect in the right way and ask them to do it often to confer the greatest benefits of teaching self-reflection.



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