Reflective learning involves actively monitoring and assessing your knowledge, abilities, and performance during the learning process, in order to improve the process and its associated outcomes.
For example, if you’re studying for a test, you can engage in reflective learning by asking yourself how well you understand each of the topics that you’re studying, and based on this figure out which topics you need to spend more time on.
Reflective learning can be beneficial in various ways and in various contexts, so it’s often worthwhile to engage in it. As such, in the following article you will learn more about reflective learning, and see how you can engage in it yourself, as well as how you can encourage others to engage in it.
Examples of reflective learning
An example of reflective learning is a person who starts a new hobby, and asks themself how well they’re learning the new information that comes with the hobby, whether there are any gaps in their knowledge, and which learning strategies they enjoy using the most.
Other examples of reflective learning appear in various domains, both in academia and outside of it. For instance:
- A student taking a difficult course can ask themself which parts of the material they struggle with and why, in order to figure out what they should be focusing on, and how they can modify their learning to make it more effective.
- An intern learning to perform various tasks at their new workplace can assess their ability to perform those tasks, so they can know which tasks they need to ask for help with.
- An athlete who’s preparing for a competition can think about which learning strategies aren’t working well for them and why, and then either improve the way they use those strategies, or replacing those strategies with better ones.
The benefits of reflective learning
There are many potential benefits to reflective learning:
- It can help you assess your situation, for example by prompting you to identify gaps in your knowledge and areas where you need to improve.
- It can help you figure out how to improve your learning process, for example by prompting you to figure out which learning techniques work well for you and which ones don’t.
- It can help you understand yourself better, for example by prompting you to consider what kind of assignments or information you struggle with the most.
- It can help you develop your general metacognitive skills, by training you to think critically about how you learn.
- It can increase your feelings of autonomy and control, by making you feel that you’re actively in charge of your learning process.
- It can increase your motivation to learn, by making you feel more in control of the learning process, and by making that process more deliberate and effective.
- It can improve your learning outcomes, both directly, by helping you modify the learning process, as well as indirectly, through the other benefits that it offers, such as increased motivation.
Accordingly, many studies have shown that reflective learning can lead to personal growth and improved learning. For example, one study found that encouraging students to reflect on what they’re learning and how they learn had a positive impact on their learning outcomes, and had additional benefits when it came to their critical thinking skills and their ability to organize their thoughts. Similarly, another study found that reflective learning helped students process the learning material and link it to material that they’ve encountered previously.
Furthermore, in addition to students, instructors can also benefit from the reflective learning that their students engage in. For example, reflective learning can prompt students to generate helpful feedback that instructors can then use to improve their teaching, for instance by identifying areas where students require more thorough explanations, or by identifying teaching methods that need to be modified.
Overall, reflective learning has various potential benefits, including helping learners assess their situation and improve their learning process, helping learners understand themselves and develop their metacognitive skills, and increasing learners’ feelings of autonomy and control, as well as their motivation. Accordingly, the importance of reflective learning is widely recognized in various fields, and it’s an important part of many education, training, and work programs.
How to be reflective in your learning
Being reflective in your learning means thinking about what you’re learning and how you’re learning it, in a way that helps you understand yourself and your learning better. There are several things that you can reflect on:
- Your understanding of the material. For example, how well you understand certain concepts.
- Your understanding of how to implement what you’ve learned. For example, when and how you can use a certain formula.
- Your learning process. For example, how well certain learning strategies work for you.
- Your abilities, preferences, and thoughts. For example, how difficult or enjoyable you find a certain topic.
- Your goals. For example, where and when you plan to implement something that you’ve learned, and what you hope to achieve by doing so.
You can reflect on these things in various ways and to different degrees.
For example, in some cases, you might engage in quick and shallow reflection while you’re studying, by asking yourself “do I really understand this material?”. Alternatively, in other cases, you might want to engage in slower and deeper reflection, by writing down all the key topics that you’ve learned about, and going over this list to identify areas that you don’t understand well.
Similarly, in some cases, you might want to quickly ask yourself “is this learning technique working well for me?”. Alternatively, in other cases, you might decide to write down a list of all the learning techniques that you’re using, and then rank them based on how effective they are for you. Furthermore, if you do this, you can also ask yourself what all the techniques that work well for you have in common.
When doing all this, you can use various questions to guide your reflection, as shown in the examples above, and the following are some specific questions that you might benefit from using:
- Which parts of the material do I understand well? How do I know that I understand this material well?
- Which parts of the material do I struggle with? What specifically am I struggling with, and why?
- Which learning techniques do I feel are helpful? Why do I feel that they are helpful?
- Which learning techniques do I feel are unhelpful? Why do I feel that they are unhelpful?
- Are there any changes that I can make to my learning process to make it better for me?
- Should I ask someone else for help, either with my reflection or with my learning? If so, then what should I ask about, and who is a good person to ask this?
Keep in mind that it’s often more difficult to engage in reflective learning than it is to simply move forward without reflection, especially in the short term. Accordingly, people often avoid reflection, particularly when they’re under time pressure. However, in the long term, reflective learning can be better, both when it comes directly to your learning outcomes, as well as when it comes to related benefits, such as your general ability to learn and your motivation to do so.
Overall, you can reflect on various aspects of your learning, including your understanding of the material, your understanding of how to implement what you’ve learned, your learning process, and your abilities, preferences, thoughts, and goals. You can encourage and guide reflective learning by asking relevant questions, such as “which parts of the material do I struggle with?”, “which learning techniques work well for me?”, and “is there anything I can do to make my learning process more effective?”.
Note: when engaging in reflective learning, you can also benefit from focusing on knowledge-building, an approach to learning and teaching that involves relatively deep engagement with the study material.
Reflective learning as a shared activity
Reflective learning can be something that you do by yourself or together with others. When done as a shared activity, reflective learning can take many forms. For example, it can involve a group of students openly discussing what challenges they faced while studying for a test, or a one-on-one meeting between a student and a tutor, where the tutor asks the student guiding questions about the student’s learning process.
There are advantages and disadvantages to individual reflection and shared reflection, as well as to the various forms of shared reflection. For example, while shared reflection as part of a group exposes people to more perspectives, which can help them identify more issues with their learning than they would be able to identify in a pair or by themselves, this approach can also make the reflection process much more stressful for people who are shy and struggle to work in groups.
Accordingly, when deciding whether and how to make reflective learning a shared activity, it’s important to consider the situation, and take any potential advantages and disadvantages into account.
Note: when it comes to shared reflective learning, an important concept to be aware of is the protégé effect, which is a psychological phenomenon where teaching, pretending to teach, or preparing to teach information to others helps a person learn that information. This is because the protégé effect means that shared reflective learning can help not only the person who is reflecting, but also those who help them do it.
How to encourage reflective learning in others
To encourage reflective learning in others, you can:
- Explain what reflective learning is.
- Explain why reflective learning can be beneficial.
- Explain how people can generally engage in reflective learning, potentially using relevant examples.
- Explain how they specifically can engage in reflective learning, potentially using relevant examples.
- Create an environment that is conducive to reflective learning, for example by giving people enough time to engage in reflection.
- Guide people’s reflection directly, for example by asking them questions that prompt them to think about their learning.
There are many ways in which you can do this. For example, you can give students a worksheet a day after an important exam, which has questions that guide them through the reflective-learning process. Similarly, you can dedicate 10 minutes at the end of class to having discussions in pairs, where students are encouraged to help each other reflect on their studies.
When encouraging reflective learning in others, you should remember that the end goal is to help them develop their skills and improve their learning outcomes. As such, you want to avoid the potential pitfalls of promoting reflective learning in an inappropriate manner. This can happen, for example, if you make the reflection feel like a pointless exercise, if you push learners to share information that they don’t feel comfortable giving, or if you force learners to use reflection techniques that don’t work well for them.
For example, this means that if you generally use reflective writing as a technique for promoting reflection, but someone feels much more comfortable engaging in reflection through sketching and drawing, then you should consider letting them do so, as long as it’s appropriate given the circumstances.
Reflective learning and reflective practice
Reflective practice involves actively analyzing your experiences and actions, in order to help yourself improve and develop.
The terms reflective learning and reflective practice refer to similar concepts, and because their definitions vary and even overlap in some cases, they are sometimes used interchangeably.
Nevertheless, one possible way to differentiate between them is to say that people engage in reflective learning with regard to events where learning is the main goal, and in reflective practice with regard to events where learning is not the main goal. For example, a nursing student might engage in reflective learning when learning how to perform a certain procedure, whereas an experienced nurse might engage in reflective practice while performing the same procedure as part of their everyday routine.
Alternatively, it’s possible to view reflective learning as a notable type of reflective practice, which revolves around improving one’s learning in particular.
Overall, there is no clear distinction between reflective practice and reflective learning, and these terms are sometimes used interchangeably. However, potential distinctions between these terms are generally not important from a practical perspective, since they are unlikely to influence how the underlying concepts are implemented in practice.
Summary and conclusions
- Reflective learning involves actively monitoring and assessing your knowledge, abilities, and performance during the learning process, in order to improve the process and its associated outcomes.
- For example, if you’re studying for a test, you can engage in reflective learning by asking yourself how well you understand each of the topics that you’re studying, and based on this figure out which topics you need to spend more time on.
- Reflective learning has various potential benefits, including helping learners assess their situation and improve their learning process, helping learners understand themselves and develop their metacognitive skills, and increasing learners’ feelings of autonomy and control, as well as their motivation.
- You can reflect on various aspects of your learning, including your understanding of the material, your understanding of how to implement what you’ve learned, your learning process, and your abilities, preferences, thoughts, and goals.
- You can encourage and guide reflective learning by asking relevant questions, such as “which parts of the material do I struggle with?”, “which learning techniques work well for me?”, and “is there anything I can do to make my learning process more effective?”.