Critical Reflection Adds Depth and Breadth to Student Learning

More and more colleges and universities are developing general education curricula that include courses involving critical reflection, including how the various disciplines address some of the big questions facing today’s society. But be warned, critical reflection is not for the faint of heart.

“Critical reflection is not a neat and tidy exercise that closes an experience with a nice, tidy, little bow. Rather, reflection is ongoing, it’s often messy, and it provides more openings than closings,” said Barbara Jacoby, PhD., senior scholar at the University of Maryland, College Park. “This is one of the challenges that faculty who engage students in critical reflection find all the time. We don’t know where students will go with their reflection, and … we have to let go of thinking of ourselves as the expert in a certain topic, because critical reflection opens questions that we are not necessarily going to be the expert on.”

And yet, critical reflection continues to gain momentum as a powerful way of adding depth and breadth to learning by asking students to analyze, reconsider and question their experiences within a broad context of issues and content knowledge, Jacoby said.

During the recent online seminar How to Deepen Learning through Critical Reflection, Jacoby shared strategies for engaging students in critical reflection, including examples of critical reflection exercises from a variety of disciplines. One of Jacoby’s favorite exercises is the What? So What? Now What? exercise. She likes it because it’s basic enough to be used in almost any course, and even works well with students who don’t have a lot of experience with reflection.

Here’s how it works. Following an experience or readings that students have completed, you ask them to reflect on the questions ‘What did I learn?’ ‘So what does it mean for me?’ in the context of other learning that I’ve done in this class or other classes? And finally, ‘Now what am I going to do about (or with) what I’ve learned or experienced?’

Four Steps of Critical Reflection
As you begin to think about designing and facilitating critical reflection in your course, Jacoby recommends these four steps.

1. Identify desired learning outcomes – Begin with the end in mind, and state your learning outcomes in concrete, measurable terms. Make it clear what students can expect to gain. “Critical reflection is something you will want to consider for learning outcomes around more complex dimensions of reasoning, developing enhanced understanding, questioning knowledge, theories, and assumptions,” she says.

2. Design reflection activities to achieve learning outcomes – Here you must consider when, where, and how often the reflection will occur; who will facilitate and participate in the reflection; and what mediums will be used for the reflections.

3. Engage students in reflection – During the actual engagement portion, it’s important to provide a balance of challenge and support. As you provide students with prompts for reflection, you want to guide them to incrementally higher levels of complexity of thinking, analyzing, and reasoning.

4. Assess learning through critical reflection – Use formative assessment to make periodic checks of the reflection process against the designed learning outcomes. If necessary, refine the desired learning outcomes along the way, shift reflection strategies or change the reflection mechanism. Some of the questions addressed at this step are: What products will demonstrate learning? What criteria will be used to assess learning? What assessment mechanisms will be used? How will reflections be factored into grades?