Reflection: Crucial yet often overlooked

Reflection and tutoring


Learn about what reflection is and how parents, tutors and students can do it. See some recent research supporting reflection which helped students answer 50% more questions on an important test. 

Often we jump from one activity to the next, without a moment to think about what we’ve been doing and what sort of progress we have made. This includes our daily lives, and also larger projects that we are involved in. This seems to true for me, and I think it’s the same for students too. Taking time to reflect on what we are doing, and have done is an important part of learning.

Why is reflection important?

The minimalism movement encourages letting go of material goods and activities that aren’t adding any value to your life. In many cases these material goods and activities relate to striving to keep up with society, and are driven by advertising.

Through reflecting on what brings joy into your life minimalism promotes focusing on what matters to you, and letting go of everything else.

Buddhist practice has a similar notion of letting go. Buddhist philosophy suggests that pain and suffering comes from striving to be someone, and also striving to have things. I see minimalism and buddhism as stemming from deep reflection on what life is all about.

What about reflection and tutoring?

When it comes to learning, you don’t have to reflect on the meaning of life. You can reflect on what you’ve learned from doing an exercise, or writing a paragraph. Or you can reflect on a larger scale, on the progress you’ve made in your study over the last month or year.

Kolb’s experiential learning cycle includes a reflection step, but this step is easy to miss.

kolbs learning cycle

In tutoring sessions, reflection can be structured by the tutor and can be implicit or explicit. Explicit reflection involves actively reflecting on progress and learning. Implicit reflection involves changing the pace of the tutoring session, so that there is mental space for reflection.

I think this is what meditation, and letting go of stuff/activities provides – space to think and let things settle.

Reflecting on learning goals

A study by Duckworth et al. (2011) shows evidence supporting reflecting on possible futures. In this study students were asked to write about an academic goal (sitting a standardised PSAT test). Students thought about how important the PSAT test would be for them, focusing on positive outcomes of doing well.

Then, students wrote essays designed to contrast the positive future with possible obstacles. These essays also included possible ways of overcoming obstacles, while vividly describing the positive outcomes they had thought about earlier.

Students in the treatment group (the ones that wrote the essays) completed an average of 140 questions in the PSAT compared with only 84 in the control group.

While the study focused on helping students develop self-regulation, I’d like to suggest that the students engaged in a reflection exercise, geared towards their reason for studying. Thus, even though reflection is usually focused on previous experience, providing space and time to think about what we have done, and what we will do, can have great educational outcomes.

Tutors might like to think about how they can include reflection in their tutoring sessions. Parents can consider times when reflection conversations might be useful – a parent once suggested to me that car rides are a useful place for reflection – perhaps because the student can’t get away (but also I think car rides are usually quite low-key settings).

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Duckworth, A. L., Grant, H., Loew, B., Oettingen, G. & Gollwitzer, P. M. (2011). Self-regulation strategies improve self-discipline in adolescents: Benefits of mental contrasting and implementation intentions. Educational Psychology 1: 17-26