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3.3: What is Reflective Thinking?

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    Learning Objectives

    • Define reflection as an intellectual process

    Reflective thinking involves “consideration of the larger context, the meaning, and the implications of an experience or action.”[1] In other words, reflection doesn’t just mean jotting down what you did or plan to do. It means considering why what you did or plan to do matters; it means writing to help you better understand something; it means exploring emotions, feelings, reactions, and knowledges; and it can even mean catharsis. Think of reflection as exploring the “so what” instead of just the “what.” Let’s look at an example:


    Many people keep diaries or write in journals. There has been a shift from paper to digital over time, but the concept is the same: Writing about experiences helps people make more sense of them. Let’s say John has been arguing a lot with his girlfriend lately, and he is upset about the situation. Writing about the experiences affords him the opportunity to express his feelings and to consider some of the bigger picture ideas such as the future of their relationship, his happiness, and what causes their arguments. In short, reflective writing can be a rewarding mental exercise. This is just one example of so many reasons why people reflect in their personal lives, but let’s turn to academic reflection.

    A lot of college students take four or five classes per semester while juggling many other responsibilities. So how do you maximize your learning in these classes? One way is through reflection. Take a lecture-based science class for example. A teacher can talk to a class for fifty minutes while students take notes, and students can study those notes in preparation for the test. But what too often happens in these instances is rote memorization of information in order to perform well on an exam. Some students with good memories may recall certain information down the road, but much of it probably gets lost over time.

    What if, though, students were asked to use reflection to apply or further consider the knowledge, which is how many scholars insist students learn best. A scenario might look something like this:


    A Biology teacher lectures for fifteen-twenty minutes on pathogens. Then, students take five minutes or so to write a short reflective piece capturing what they think they have learned, what questions they still have and why, perhaps their own experience with or knowledge about pathogens before the course, and why such knowledge might matter to them down the road. Ideally, the chance for students to stop and reflect, and maybe even make a personal connection to the material, will help them not just remember, but better understand the material and its significance. Plus, in a typical fifty minute class, this pattern can happen a couple of times.

    1. Branch, W. T., & Paranjape, A. (2002). "Feedback and Reflection: Teaching Methods for Clinical Settings." Academic Medicine,77(12): 1185-8.
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