For an Uncertain Fall, Reflective Activities are a Powerful Tool Institutions Can Use to Support Students

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Research shows that reflection is critical as students make connections between theoretical information and practice, and that it grows in importance with increased situational complexity. As we look toward a fall semester clouded by uncertainty, integrating reflective activities might be one of the most effective ways institutions can support student learning. 

In order to thrive, students need to know what they’re doing and why. This sense of meaning can drive a greater sense of purpose and commitment to their discipline and institution. If classes are moved online again in the fall (as they have already been for many institutions including the Cal State system), this intentionality will be critical in boosting student success and persistence levels.  

Learning How to Learn Through Reflective Practice

Among the most difficult transitions for college students to make is leaving behind the more structured and prescriptive nature of high school and taking on greater responsibility for their own education. In addition to homing in on what to study in order to pursue their desired career, students must also learn how to learn — but such lessons are not always explicitly taught. Reflection can cultivate intentionality, while also helping students identify which learning styles and strategies work best for them. Ursinus College in Pennsylvania recently aligned its gen ed curriculum around four reflective questions and found the benefits have even extended to their enrollment numbers. 

These types of activities can be built into any learning environment, and may be used in pursuit of a variety of different goals. Student Life, for example, may encourage reflection about changes caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, and how it is affecting students’ social well-being and academic performance. A First-Year Experience instructor might use reflection during a lesson on critical thinking to challenge assumptions and view issues from multiple perspectives. Reflective activities scaffolded into upper-level courses can deepen students’ understanding of difficult concepts. 

Connecting Skills Learned in College to Life After Graduation

Reflective practices help learners at all levels map newly acquired skills onto real-life activities. For years, the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) has advocated for reflection as an integral tool in developing the self-awareness required in today’s ever-changing workforce. This begins during the application process, where reflection can help job seekers craft a narrative about how their skills are best-suited for the company. This level of self-awareness and situational acuity then empowers workers to perform with higher levels of motivation and a greater capacity for recognizing patterns, emerging trends, and potential opportunities. Establishing a habit of reflection in academia lays the groundwork for individuals to be able to identify their own knowledge gaps later in life and choose what they want to learn next. 

The need for reflection is obvious, whether explicitly built into institutional practices or done at the individual level. However, even in the best of times, college students have so much on their plates that we can’t take high-impact practices like reflection for granted. And now, with public health and economic crises unfolding around the country, and with classes being changed at a moments notice, it’s more important than ever that institutions of higher education ensure students have the opportunity to practice reflective thinking.