Let’s come right out with it: Reflecting about learning is a commendable practice that should be embedded into any learning experience! For both teachers and students, reflecting is an important practice to make sense of what one has been doing and/or learning. The concept of reflection as an “educative process” dates back to the work of John Dewey (1933), who pointed out that experience alone does not constitute learning; instead, a conscious realization must occur so that an experience can truly become a source of learning. More explicitly, reflective assignments “require students to engage in critical reflection and higher order thinking; they force students to be more open-ended and less prescriptive; and they permit students to be creative and questioning” (Dyment & O’Connell, 2011, p. 92).
The use of reflections in a classroom setting can help us, as educators, understand what students have learned and what needs to be covered in more depth or maybe in a different way as the semester unfolds. For the discussion that follows, we describe the use of reflective exercises, both in video and in written form, as implemented in two mathematics education classes for future elementary and middle school teachers. While this may seem like a specific type of class, we feel the concept of reflecting can be fruitful in any educational setting regardless of level and discipline.
In two mathematics education classes for future elementary and middle school teachers, we had 49 prospective teachers reflect every week in one of two ways: either in writing on the discussion board of our learning management system (LMS) Canvas (Instructure, 2008), or through the use of videos recorded in Flipgrid (Flipgrid, Inc., 2014). Flipgrid is a free resource for teachers that is accessible both via the web and in an online app and is then utilized to generate video discussion boards. Teachers can create so-called “grids” which include topic prompts for students to respond to, as well as the possibility to provide feedback to their classmate’s contributions. The topic prompts are created by the instructor and can be as simple as having students respond to that day’s activities or have students create videos to ponder and explain a particular concept taught in class. Typical video-prompts we used in our classes were the following:
- In 1-2 minutes, ponder how to best explain calculating the surface area of a rectangular prism. Be concise and precise in your video.
- In about 3 minutes, explore how to add and/or subtract signed integers using the number line and/or two-color counters as discussed in class.
- In at most 5 minutes, reflect about problems related to probability involving cards as opposed to probability involving tree diagrams.
After having our students reflect over a period of 10 weeks in both modalities (while taking turns), we confronted them with some summative, open-ended questions in order to gain insight into how they felt about the use of written discussion boards when compared to the Flipgrid video application:
- What way of reflecting (written or video) do you prefer and why?
- Did you use the Flipgrid videos to prepare for your exam? If so, explain.
- Did you use the Discussion Board to prepare for your exam? If so, explain
Of the 49 future teachers we surveyed, 47% preferred reflecting about their learning using Flipgrid videos, while 53% preferred the traditional discussion boards. The students who preferred Flipgrid videos mentioned how having to explain mathematical concepts via videos was easier than writing them out as text since they were able to include pictures and visuals to clarify the mathematical topics. Those students that preferred the written reflections highlighted the fact that putting concepts into words helped them fine-tune their own writing skills.
Reflections as Learning Tools for Students
Reflecting on one’s own learning will not only help instructors understand how their students are mastering course content, it will also directly benefit the students themselves. Reflecting on course content will aid future teachers in honing their writing skills, and, it turns out, is also helpful when it comes to studying for exams. When we asked our future teachers whether they utilized the reflections as a method to study or review for class exams, 33% stated they used only Flipgrid videos, 26% used only the written reflections, 13% used both types of reflecting, and 28% used neither one to study for exams. No matter which reflective modalities they had chosen for themselves (discussion board or Flipgrid video), at any given point in time students also had access to their classmates’ videos and written submissions. More often than not, our students stated that they utilized other classmates’ videos as alternative explanations to clarify concepts and further their own learning of class materials.
Video Reflections as Practice for Future Career Work
As a final question, we asked all class participants which reflection method they felt would help them the most to prepare them for their future career. Sixty-one percent of the future teachers felt that the Flipgrid videos would prove more helpful to them in their career preparation, contrasted with 27% who felt that written reflections helped them more. (The remaining 12% stated both methods would be equally helpful or that they would profit more from other modalities, such as reviewing course materials and textbooks.) The fact that video reflections were considered most beneficial did not strike us as surprising since the future teachers appreciated having the ability to use images and graphs in order to explain the mathematical topics covered during class in their subsequent videos. Participants also mentioned that the videos helped them build confidence in their teaching abilities. The latter point strikes us as a very important benefit triggered by the use of video reflections. Our prospective teachers did not only get a general feel for teaching mathematics, they also greatly benefited from seeing how others tackled some of the same teaching concepts they themselves were struggling with in their assignments.
Our pilot study comparing the use of multimedia vs. traditional reflection methods underscored that future teachers felt that both the written and the video format can be beneficial to them. Educators often rely on writing as the primary mode of metacognitive reflection, but students, who struggle with college-level writing, may not always get to experience the full cognitive benefits of reflection (LeVan & King, 2016). Having the ability to reflect in a different format such as audio- or, as in our case, video-recordings offers valuable and more inclusive metacognition opportunities for our diverse learner types. The majority of our participants felt that video reflecting would be most useful to their future career for a variety of reasons. This type of reflecting and presenting one’s insights on camera can be useful to students in any number of careers that may include having to present both synchronously and asynchronously as part of the job. It does not just add value for those seeking employment in the broadcasting field or sales industry, but also for people involved in teaching, professional development, counseling and tele-health, to name just a few areas. In the light of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have seen that being an articulate and well-spoken (i.e. reflective) presenter may come in very handy when one’s workplace is transferred into an online and/or remote environment. Helping our students develop their intellectual, meta-cognitive and (self-)reflective skills, while at the same time building their self-confidence and presentational skills via the use of new technologies is a win-win for all involved and a good preparation for them to join the future workforce.
Ann Wheeler is an associate professor of mathematics education at Texas Woman’s University. Her research interests include utilizing technology and children’s literature in the mathematics classroom.
Jörg Waltje is the executive director of the Center for Faculty Excellence at Texas Woman’s University. His interests include effective faculty development and tinkering with new technologies for the continuous improvement of the teaching/learning experience in higher education.
Dewey, J. (1933). How we think: A restatement of the relation of reflective thinking to the educative process. D.C. Heath and Co.
Dyment, J. E. and O’Connell, T. S. (2011). Assessing the quality of reflection in student journals: A review of the research. Teaching in Higher Education, 16 (1), 81-97.
Flipgrid Inc. (2020). Flipgrid. Microsoft. https://www.instructure.com/canvas
Instructure. (2020). Canvas. https://www.instructure.com/canvas
LeVan, K. S., & King, M. (2016, April 15). Audio reflection assignments help students develop metacognitive skills. Faculty Focus. https://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/effective-teaching-strategies/audio-reflection-assignments-help-students-develop-metacognitive-skills/