Active Process Engages Learners

Student plan and reflect their way to success

For Middle Level

Most young adolescents are more interested in doing than in thinking. I've come to see that planning, reflection, and a focus on metacognition can help students become interested in learning and more aware of their academic development. For some time, I've wanted to slow down my lessons to give them time to plan before working and reflect afterwards, and I've finally begun to do it!

Choice and reflection boost learning
During a comparative-religions unit, I used choice-rich planning and provided reflection time. Offering choice helped keep my students' interest level high. They focused better on their research, and the quality and quantity of their work improved. Systematic reflection allowed them to meet daily goals. And, as is often the case, the questions we asked proved to be a key part of the learning process. My professional goal for this comparative religions unit was to concentrate more on planning and reflection. The main student goal was to develop expert-level understanding about one of five religions: Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism, Islam, or Hinduism. The final product was to be a research paper. They had no say in this, and when I explained the scope of the project, my students listened respectfully, but to say the least, they didn't appear thrilled. When I was ready to tell them the questions their research needed to answer, I noticed their daunted looking faces and realized I needed to include them more in the process. The unit as it had been presented so far was entirely teacher-directed, and I was running the risk of losing some of them.

Student involvement in planning
A simple question did the trick. Instead of telling them the research questions I had in mind, I asked, "If you were to learn about a new religion, what are seven important questions you would like to answer?" The room immediately became lively. We brainstormed many possibilities. After posting our brainstormed list we selected our research questions by using a consensus model similar to the one we had used to create our Social Contract. Individuals selected seven, brought their questions into small groups and sorted/condensed questions until the group agreed on seven. We finished by merging these into a classroom set. These seven "essential research questions" became the "have-to's" to be answered. In fact, the entire research portion of our project was now student-directed! (Interestingly, the questions we agreed upon were similar to the questions I had been about to impose on them.)

Seven questions
Students considered the following questions for Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and Hinduism:

  • Where and when did the religion begin?
  • Who are the most important people in the religion's history?
  • How do the people worship?
  • Are there beliefs regarding birth life, and death?
  • Who are the gods or goddesses or figures of worship?
  • What are the important symbols, and what do they mean?
  • What ceremonies and celebrations does the religion have?

Informal reflection
I separated the reflective part of the unit into two categories: daily and summative. Each day, I asked students to reflect on their work sessions. Often, I used an informal "thumbs up, thumbs sideways, thumbs down" nonverbal check-in technique. I made a simple statement, like "I completed my task;" "I used my time wisely;" "My notes kept to my web's framework." Students responded with the thumb gesture that reflected their work that day.

I also used entry or exit answers to elicit students' reflection. To help them access prior knowledge at the beginning of class, for example, I asked students to complete sentence starters like "Islam is...", "Judaism
is..." or "Buddhism is...." Typical exit-card topics included "Today I learned...;" "One thing I struggled with today was...;" "Today I met my goal by...;" "Tomorrow, I'll begin by...."

Goals achieved
One of the best methods of informal reflection I used was to ask students to set a goal for a work period, check in with it once during the session, and assess the degree to which they were successful in meeting the goal at the end of the period. This sequence was slightly more formal and took time to process, but the results were worth it: whenever we used this reflective technique, almost all students met the daily goal.

Formal reflection
At the conclusion of the unit, students wrote a formal reflection on the research process. This work guided them towards metacognitive thought by asking questions like:

  • What was easy for you?
  • What was difficult?
  • What part(s) of the research process did you like most?
  • What would you like to change about the research process for next time?
  • How will the process of doing quality research help you in the future?

As a culminating activity, I used an engaged-learning strategy called Jigsaw to share what we'd learned about the five religions. I created groups of five students, each of which chose one of the religions. As each group member shared out what he'd learned, I observed and noted which students were engaged positively as they shared. The results were very encouraging: 95% of my students were fully, happily engaged when they summarized their research projects to their Jigsaw groups! That, combined with my daily observations of the work periods and the quality of the research papers, was more than enough to make me want to continue to build in time to plan and reflect with students.

Content vs. process
Looking back on the comparative religions unit, I know I still have a way to go before I can say that I've made reflection a natural part of my routine. Time management was an issue for me, as was finding time to plan the process parts of my lessons. I didn't feel entirely comfortable with the content-I hadn't taught the unit before-so I had to spend a lot of time learning the content of my lessons. Through continued reading about ways to assess and about theoretical work on metacognition, and by teaching the unit again once I'm comfortable with the content, I feel I can further improve the quality of student reflection in my class.

Sarah Ibson teaches 7th/8th grade Social Studies at Crossett Brock Middle School in Duxbury VT.

Published January 2008