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Encouraging Reflecting Thinking

By Susan Adams Delaney

The ICC website defines integrative learning as “the process of making connections among concepts and experiences so that information and skills can be applied to novel and complex issues or challenges.” In other words, integrative learning seeks to enable the transfer of strategies and ideas from one context to another. We want students, for example, to be able to take what they’ve learned in Academic Writing I to assist them in understanding and composing arguments in a politics class, or to take the concepts learned in macroeconomics and use them to make sense of complex problems in an advanced business seminar. So how can we structure opportunities that will facilitate this kind of integrative thinking? How can we encourage students to think reflectively, to pause in the learning process to assess prior learning and to make connections?

Those are the questions several of us sat down to consider last fall at a CFE workshop. We defined key concepts and discussed in-class activities and larger assignments. We also talked about the resistance we sometimes face from our students, who (like us) often seek the most expedient path from question to answer.

What is “reflective thinking”?

The kind of reflection we’re talking about here is more than a casual glance in the mirror—it’s a challenging intellectual task: it requires the thinker to look back at his or her own work or experience and to describe, analyze, and assess. Carol Rodger’s reconsideration of Dewey’s work on reflective thinking (2002) attempts to clarify his influential (but she warns, often complex and misinterpreted) ideas, identifying four key components:

  1. Reflection is a meaning-making process that moves a learner from one experience into the next with deeper understanding of its relationships with and connections to other experiences and ideas. [….]
  2. Reflection is a systematic, rigorous, disciplined way of thinking [….]
  3. Reflection needs to happen in community, in interaction with others.
  4. Reflection requires attitudes that value personal and intellectual growth [….] (845)

Reflective thinking, then, is what makes real learning possible. It allows us to connect ideas in order to build more complex understanding. As part of the learning process, it’s a social activity, a sharing of ideas.

What does it look like in our classes?

Reflective thinking begins any time we pause to talk about what we’ve learned and what that means. That is, we’re starting to think reflectively when our classes review an idea and then connect it to another idea, when we do the metacognitive work of asking, “What are the implications of this?” “What are the underlying assumptions of this idea?” “Where else have I heard or read something like this?”

To make this more “systematic” and “rigorous,” we can make these kinds of activities a regular part of our classes by using writing activities. Having students write for a few minutes in response to a specific prompt can help them make connections, either at the beginning or end of class discussion. Students can then periodically review what they’ve written to identify patterns or changes in their thinking and learning.

A questionnaire that students submit with a larger assignment can encourage them to identify the particular strategies and concepts they employed in completing that project. Here again students are making those integrative learning moves so important to learning transfer.

What do we do when students’ thinking stays at the surface level?

When we meet resistance from students, it’s important to first respond by affirming the concerns students raise. Yes, this is additional intellectual labor. Yes, this is complex and challenging. Having acknowledged this, then we can help them to understand reflecting thinking matters and how it can make them more effective students and problem-solvers.

The big picture view recognizes that reflective thinking helps to create a smarter and wiser community, one that encourages collaboration and civic responsibility. Students, juggling multiple courses with competing deadlines alongside personal obstacles, may not be swayed by the big picture argument. Research, however, demonstrates that reflection helps cement new ideas and skills and help students to use their time more effectively (Fondas; DiStefano et al.). That’s information that students may find persuasive!

As Skott Freedman explains in his article on the use of self-reflection by graduate students in Speech-Language Pathology,

students at all levels need to hear “that these exercises should not be viewed as yet another ‘requirement’ […], but rather a tool which can significantly improve one’s clinical skills” (380).

He even encourages supervisors to offer their own examples of self-reflection as models, and I’d suggest faculty should similarly consider sharing their own reflective thinking activities with their classes.

Works Cited

Di Stefano, Giada, et al. “Learning by Thinking: Overcoming the Bias for Action through Reflection.” Harvard Business School NOM Unit Working Paper No. 14-093. March 29, 2015. Web. January 13, 2016. <;

Fondas, Nanette. “Study: You Really Can ‘Work Smarter, Not Harder.'” The Atlantic. May 15, 2014. Web. January 13, 2016. <;

Freedman, Skott E. “Repaving the One-way Street: Self-Reflection in Speech-Language Pathology.” Work 44 (2013): 379-380. Web. January 15, 2015.

Rodgers, Carol. “Defining Reflection: Another Look at John Dewey and Reflective Thinking.” Teachers College Record 104.4 (June 2002): 842-866. Web. August 15, 2015.

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