Better Metacognition Through Reflection

As teachers we use every tool in our toolbox to facilitate and inspire student learning and creativity (ISTE Teacher Standard 1) . We often model innovative thinking for our students, we strive to foster creativity by giving students choices and encouraging them to follow their passions and we create real world opportunities for them to collaborate and problems solve with others.

The one area of the standard that I think is often neglected is 1c: Promote student reflection using collaborative tools to reveal and clarify students’ conceptual understanding and thinking, planning and creative process. Reflection is an easy thing to run out of time for. It’s usually something that we plan for at the end of the lesson in the form of an exit ticket or a quick quiz or short essay question. Most of the time it’s used as formative assessment to see whether the students understood what we thought we taught them. It can help guide our lesson planning for the next day, which is valuable, but I would argue that those types of activities are not true reflection.

Reflection is a metacognitive process. In an article called Defining Reflection: Another Look at John Dewey and Reflective Thinking  the author (Rogers 2002) distilled it down to four important criteria:

  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. It is the thread that makes continuity of learning possible, and ensures the progress of the individual and, ultimately, society. It is a means to, essentially, moral ends.
  2. Reflection is a systematic, rigorous, disciplined way of thinking, with it’s roots in scientific inquiry.
  3. Reflection needs to happen in community, in interaction with others.
  4. Reflection requires attitudes that value the personal and intellectual growth of oneself and others.

To me it’s not just about what you learned but how you learned it, what strategies you learned to do that thinking, what you learned about how you learn as a student, and thinking ahead to where you might use that type of thinking in other contexts.  Formative assessment is essential but often only touches on surface learning. Metacognition (thinking about your thinking) can be a useful tool for developing in students the ability to think deeply, develop and apply strategies to their learning, and encourage the transfer of learning skills and content to other disciplines as well as. There is too much information for anyone to know so it’s important we teach our students the metacognitive strategies that will allow them to learn in any situation, and become more independent, self directed learners.

In John Hattie’s (2009) Visible Learning he developed a list of teaching and learning strategies that he listed by effect size. If you look at even the top 20 on his list you’ll see at least 6 that I believe are related in some way to the reflective process of thinking.  

Hattie Ranking of Effect Sizes
From: with my own emphasis.

Cognitive task analysis, conceptual change programs, and concept mapping are all tools that help students visualize their learning and think more deeply about how they learn. Self-reporting grades allows students to measure themselves against criteria and expectations and analyze their own effort and understanding in the learning process. Gathering feedback from peers and teachers and asking their own questions can help them celebrate their successes and also learn to set goals for themselves to make improvements. All of these create a sense of agency for students. They have ownership and buy in to the learning process because they know and can articulate the effort and strategies they put into learning.

As a classroom teacher I used a number of different paper and pencil processes to help students track their own data, set goals and to give feedback. Most were unwieldy, were prone to being “lost” and were a paper management nightmare. I wish I had found a product like SowntoGrow earlier.  I heard about at a recent EdSurge event in Issaquah. I liked it and had shared it with the teachers I work with. One teacher took me up on it and took a look. She loves it and has been using it with her students.

The tool allows a teacher to create activities and assign them to students. You can set success criteria based  on completion or set mastery levels and you can set “learning cycles”, which is basically the time frame of the activity. What I like is the student view. Students first rate how they are feeling about the activity with various sad, neutral and smiley faces. This will make it accessible for even younger users. They get feedback with some quotes to help encourage them. Then they set goals based on the score they want to achieve. The teacher would need to do some pre teaching to help students learn to set goals. When the activity is completed the student can go back in and add their score and again rate how they are feeling and then there is space to reflect on what they learned and what they might do differently next time if they want to improve. The teacher then gets a dashboard where they can see all the students reflections and give them feedback.

What I’ve seen happen with tools like discussions in Canvas is that even quieter students will be willing to reflect, sometimes in some very profound ways, even if they won’t raise a hand or speak up in class. Online is a safe place for some kids and they know only the teacher will see their thinking. This tool also supports the growth mindset we want to reinforce with our students. They get to celebrate and get feedback on their goals and they have a place to refer back to in order to see their progress over time.

It feels like a tool that, in many ways addresses all four of the criteria for what defines reflection. It allows a student to set, measure and track goals and gives them a journal-like space to think and write about what they did well, what they could do to improve and what they learned. Teachers could provide prompts at first to encourage students to think deeply about their learning process. There is a certain amount of structure to the Sown to Grow reflection process that can help students think about the stages of their learning and to see growth and change happen over time. The community piece currently only happens with feedback from teachers but additional tools like online discussions could be woven into parts of the reflective process to develop the larger community piece. Finally, the process of reflection that also supports growth mindset thinking will help foster a sense of “I haven’t learned it..yet” in students that, along with the other pieces of this tool like pre and post data tracking and self reporting of attitudes towards learning, will support a positive attitude toward learning as a process, not an endpoint.

Reflection needs to be a part of a teacher’s process as well. Last year I built reflection into the final session of the class I teach. Each participant presents an IGNITE session to the class as their final reflection the year. An IGNITE is presentation of 5 minutes using only 20 slides to tell your story. It’s a chance to think about how their thinking has changed over the course of the year as part of our cohort of learners. Last year’s presentations were amazing and very thoughtful. I’m looking forward to hearing this year’s final projects next week.


Waack, S. (2014, March). Hattie effect size list – 195 Influences Related To Achievement . Retrieved April 11, 2017, from

Rogers, C. (2002). Defining Reflection: Another Look at John Dewey and Reflective Thinking. Teachers College Record, 104(4), 842-866. Retrieved April 10, 2017, from