Learning Through Reflection

Research into student learning has taught us a lot about learning styles, motivation and approaches to learning. We learn by experience and by trial and error. We have the potential to learn from our mistakes.

In our culture phrases such as ‘that’ll teach you’ or ‘you’ll learn’ are common reprimands when experience shows us the error of our ways. Yet we talk about these conditions for learning as if the experience leads directly to improved ability or understanding. However, what gets us from experience to understanding is reflection. True, repetition and practice help us to learn but they do not substitute for the process of actively thinking about how we did, what we did well and what less well.

“By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; Second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third, by experience, which is the bitterest.” – Confucius.

Reflection is thinking for an extended period by linking recent experiences to earlier ones in order to promote a more complex and interrelated mental schema. The goal is to develop higher order thinking skills. With the aid of a simple prompt question such as ‘what might I do better next time?’ or ‘what could I do differently?’ we have the potential to draw on the past and present and direct ourselves into a better future. It is this power to effect change that makes reflective practice so fundamental to higher education and to the creation of lifelong learners.

The act of reflecting is one which causes us to make sense of what we’ve learned, why we learned it, and how that particular increment of learning took place. Moreover, reflection is the intentional attempt to synthesize, abstract, and articulate the key lessons taught by experience. Reflecting on what has been learned makes experience more productive.

Therefore, individual learning can be augmented when individuals can not only “do” but also “think” about what they have been doing. Learning by thinking comes from reflection and articulation of the key lessons learned from experience.

Summing-up: Reflection is a powerful mechanism behind learning. We do not learn from experience … we learn from reflecting on experience.

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