Reflective thinking could help our students learn more by connecting their experiences with theory and incorporate their learning into future tasks. Why and how can we integrate reflective thinking into our educational activities?
Header photo: Elin Iversen / NTNU
Why encourage students to reflect?
Reflection – a skill for learning and development
Reflection is in our context of entrepreneurship education one of five key elements together with act, interact, challenge and embrace. It can be seen as the bridge back and forth between theory and practice and from prior experiences to future challenges. In entrepreneurship education with its use of experience-based learning, reflection is a vital part of the learning process – by reflecting on our experiences we enable and internalize learning.
Reflection is also what helps us “close the gap” when we are dealing with a confusing or problematic situation. External disturbances and perception of uncertainty, which often is present in entrepreneurial processes, are according to Dewey (1933) major cues for reflection. In these situations, reflection is the key to help us make meaning of our experiences, help us to clarify our intentions and move forward to further experiences. Reflection deals with our subjective and therefore personal relevant experiences. In an educational setting this implies that the students are exposed to real-life challenges in which they are engaged and motivated to invest time and effort solving. These experiences have the potential to encourage the students urge to reflect.
Through reflective processes we reconstruct this experience; we make sense of it and create our very personal understanding of an experience. Reflection therefore is a relational activity that helps us with recreating the world. Reflection and experience are closely intertwined, as any insight into our own thinking, feeling and acting also involves certain changes with respect to how we experience a (future) situation.Knipfer, Kump, Wessel, & Cress (2013)
The benefit of group reflection
Reflection as a collaborative activity has major benefits. Firstly, it triggers us to make tacit knowledge explicit and facilitates individual reflection by challenging one’s own understanding and interpretations of an experience. Secondly, it fosters sharing of individual experience and promotes joint sense-making on shared work practice. Hence, collaborative reflection both acts as a catalyst for individual reflection and enables sharing of knowledge and construction of new knowledge on a group level (Knipfer et al., 2013)
…But what is reflection, really?
Reflection is often referred to as a conscious cognitive process of thinking over a situation, person, problem or question. Boud, Keogh, and Walker (2013) also include the affective activities in their definition, by saying: ‘Reflection in the context of learning is a generic term for those intellectual and affective activities in which individuals engage to explore their experiences in order to lead to new understandings and appreciations’ (p.19).
Towards a common understanding For most of us, reflection is an activity we do on an everyday basis without labelling it “reflection”. However, in an educational context, many students find reflection a troubling and difficult concept to grasp. (Meyer & Land, 2005) Therefore, many students question how to reflect and what the difference is between a reflection and a description of an experience. The diversity among the students when it comes to for instance family background, learning style and chosen discipline in higher education can influence the pre-understanding of the concept. Still, a common understanding of reflection among those involved is often taken for granted. Since this is not the case, we believe that the concept should be explored explicitly to enhance clarity and unity on two levels: within the teaching team and within the student groups.
Since reflection may be a troublesome concept and may be given less value than the actual problem-solving activities, the support, scaffolding, and facilitation we provide as educators are crucial. Below, we have described four aspects of reflection worth to consider when introducing reflection as a learning activity:
1. What to reflect on?
The learning objectives of the program, course or workshop will help you to find the themes that is central for reflection. What are the main goals for student learning? Reflection can help the students to look back at experiences either individually or in a group. In this case, the themes to reflect upon may be related to the activity the students just went through, for instance by focusing on the content, the problem-solving process, the entrepreneurial process or the cooperation if the activity is a group task. Reflection can also be used to investigate possibilities and challenges ahead, through asking question related to a) a problem they are working on (e.g. “What alternatives can you find that may help to solve the problem?”).
2. The art of asking open-ended questions
The ‘secret’ of facilitating reflection is to ask open-ended questions, in which you do not know the answer. Simply because there is not one right answer, but many possible ways to perceive the situation or object of reflection. This may sound easy, but surprisingly many of us fall into the trap of asking questions from a role of being an ‘expert’, searching for right and wrong answers. If we want to stimulate reflection, we have to put the expert role aside and our curiosity in front (Schein, 2013). Therefore, we must try our best to formulate questions that may have multiple answers and that will engage the students in exploring their experiences based on their own curiosity and motivation to learn, and not to satisfy us as educators. Some tips are: Start the questions with ‘What’ or ‘How’ (or ‘when’ and ‘who’ if relevant). Try to avoid asking ‘why’, at least in the beginning, because this often makes us narrow down our thinking in trying to find one answer or a ‘good explanation’, but what we want is our students to open up and look at an experience and explore it from different perspectives.
3. A safe environment to reflect
In contrast to sharing factual knowledge, sharing our reflections is something personal, that can make us feel vulnerable. Some people are comfortable with introspection and sharing these thoughts, but for others this is very challenging. Therefore, it is crucial to create a safe environment that enable the students to “think aloud”. This may take time, but for a start, it is important to emphasize that there are no right and wrong answers, and that you as an educator see reflection as a means to learn something new about yourself and the content of the course. We will learn much more if we support each other! One way to do this in practice is to start with individual reflections, then ask the students to share what they are comfortable with in a small group, preferably with people they know. Eventually you can ask some questions in plenary that potentially open up those who wants to share with the whole class. Remember to be curios, humble and grateful for those who chose to share.
4. Practice makes perfect!
There are opportunities for learning through reflection from all our experiences – trivial or complex. We would encourage you as educators to find allocated time for reflection after, or possibly also before and during, all learning activities where the students have been exposed to problem solving activities individually or as a group. If reflection is done at a regular basis as part of the learning activities, this will help the students to develop reflection itself as an integrated skill. Therefore, we argue that 10 minutes at the end of a learning activity is much better than one day at the end of the semester. As all other skills, reflection is a skill that can be learned and further developed, – and practice makes perfect! However, time is always a limited resource be it during learning activities or in working life. Although time for learning and development through reflection may sound like a good investment, students may lack motivation to reflect if they have not experienced that the time invested will pay back later. This may be particularly challenging in action-oriented courses if the students experience reflection as a sudden break in their workflow. Hence, the educators need to think through when to introduce reflection activities. Anyhow, reflection must be integrated in the time schedule of the course within the time of the course to ensure it is given the needed priority timewise. The students will probably not initiate this by themselves! Reflection can be done both “in and on action”, but to put an explicit focus on it from the start, giving time to reflect through structured exercises is recommended. Below you will find two examples of structures for reflection on action.
Learning the method, not only learning from the method
No matter how much we prioritise the possibilities for our students to learn through experience and reflection, the skill level they can achieve is somehow limited due to limited time and the “not totally real life”-context they operate within. However, if we can give them both a deep understanding of skills, knowledge and general competence and rewarding experiences with deliberately reflecting on both previous experiences and scenarios to come, they can keep learning and developing skills and mindset in a lifelong perspective as professionals. Entrepreneurs often operate in a market where uncertainty and rapid change are trademarks. Through reflection to be able to use previous experiences to develop the team performance as well as the actual product or service provided from the company, are important both at the individual-, team- and organisational level to enable learning and success.
Boud, D., Keogh, R., & Walker, D. (2013). Reflection: Turning Experience into Learning: Routledge Ltd.
Dewey, J. (1933). How we think : a restatement of the relation of reflective thinking to the educative process. Boston: D.C. Heath and Company.
Knipfer, K., Kump, B., Wessel, D., & Cress, U. (2013). Reflection as a catalyst for organisational learning. Studies in continuing education, 35(1), 30-48. doi:10.1080/0158037x.2012.683780
Meyer, J. H. F., & Land, R. (2005). Threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge (2): Epistemological considerations and a conceptual framework for teaching and learning. Higher education, 49(3), 373-388. doi:10.1007/s10734-004-6779-5
Schein, E. H. (2013). Humble inquiry : the gentle art of asking inst- ead of telling. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.