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Is reflection an afterthought in active learning?

11 Feb 2019 | Klodiana Kolomitro A blog piece by Klodiana Kolomitro, PhD. Klodiana is an educational developer with the Centre for Teaching and Learning, and cross-appointed with the Department of Biomedical and Molecular Sciences at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada.

A blog piece by Klodiana Kolomitro, PhD. Klodiana is an educational developer with the Centre for Teaching and Learning, and cross-appointed with the Department of Biomedical and Molecular Sciences at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. This blog is part of the Advance HE Scotland Thematic Series, the Winter 2018/19 episode of which is concentrating on active learning.

I don’t intend to dwell here on the dichotomous debate of active learning versus lecturing. Active learning can be superficial or meaningful just as lecturing can encourage insights and complex learning, or simply miss the mark on both. Inviting others to think with us can be accomplished through effective lecturing and storytelling or through meaningful engagement in active learning. Although at times I have asked myself the question: Are my students truly engaged or simply entertained? I am mindful of Maryellen Weimer’s warning on “missing the boat with active learning” when we focus on the activity and less so on the learning experience we are trying to cultivate. Nevertheless, I hope we can all agree that active learning enhances student learning when it is aligned with the type of engagement we are trying to promote, and implemented with fidelity and thoughtfulness. 

My concern relates to the place of reflection in active learning (I sure hope I haven’t lost you all now that I’ve mentioned reflection!). When we hear the term reflection, we often tend to think of an individual sitting down in isolation and looking back at their life. Reflection becomes a luxury, experienced at certain stages in life, and one that is often quickly dismissed in academia (although nice to do but really who has the time for it) in an already busy class time. Yet, as John Dewey so eloquently said: “We do not learn from experience…we learn from reflecting on experience.” Some might argue that reflection is inherent in active learning (I do too!) yet inviting students to meaningfully reflect individually and in groups becomes a mere afterthought.  We need to purposefully think of building habits of reflection prior to, during, and after we ask students to engage in active learning. How are we encouraging silent thinking before engaging with an assignment or a classroom activity? We have all seen some students thrive by focusing on the outer world and immediately engaging through discussion, asking questions, and offering input.  I wonder how this disadvantages those who tend to focus on the inner world and need the time to take in the information, process it, and be still as they ponder the meaning and relevance of that information and formulate their thoughts and ideas. 

How often do we invite students to reflect in action by using pauses/reflect prompts?  Building habits of mind calls for inviting students to think on their learning, compare intended versus perceived outcomes and constantly link and construct meaning from their experiences. Although some reflection can be best done alone, we need to think about how we are creating accountable classroom environments that are conducive to sharing those reflections. I would like to think we are at an advantage, as active learning spaces tend to promote collaboration rather than competition. Collaboration often allows students to recognize learning as a messy journey and exposes the individuality of learning pathways. How do we make space for reflection after the task is completed?  As students share their reflections on learning they are in a better place to start connecting experiences across disciplines, domains of learning, and contexts.  At the same time, learners can identify misconceptions or areas of confusion and think more deeply about their assumptions and beliefs.  

Costa and Kallick (2008) said that through reflection “Learning becomes a continual process of engaging the mind that transforms the mind.” As educators, it is incumbent upon us to take a reflective stance as we consider active learning, and strive to model and build habits of reflection in our classrooms.

Find out about Advance HE Scotland's Thematic Series, the Winter 2018/19 episode of which is concentrating on active learning.

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