The Underestimated Benefits of Written Reflection

In theory, many of us know that reflective writing and journaling in the classroom is a good instructional strategy, but not many of us seem to find time to work it in.  Either the students are restless or hesitant in the beginning and we give up, or we feel like we need to hurry and ‘teach’ more or have the students ‘do’ more in order to keep up with our scope and sequence and so don’t take the time.

Prioritizing written reflection on a regular basis, though, may have benefits you’ve overlooked that could have a powerful impact on student learning.

Develops focus.  In a world that moves so fast where we & our students are often multitasking and being distracted consistently by different alerts and notifications, many of us don’t often have a silent space to focus deeply on one thing, with no distraction and no right answer.  Being able to think deeply and uninterruptedly about something is a skill that needs to be developed and that will help them as they progress to higher grades or postsecondary studies and need to have the discipline and focus to study effectively on their own. 

Encourages processing.  Often for the students who don’t raise their hands much and sometimes are just going through the motions in class, providing this space to think can be crucial.  As they start articulating their thoughts freely on paper, they are able to recognize their level of understanding, what questions they have, other ideas for solving the problem, or come up with a number of other valuable conclusions.  This takes time, though.  If the first couple of times you try this the kids are restless and so you abandon it, or you get restless and cut it short, it’s not going to work.  Try allowing at least 2 full minutes the first time you do it and then build up to 5 or more minutes, depending on the amount of content they’re reflecting on. 

Cements understanding.  Even for the students who always want to participate and have lots to say, silent writing time is valuable.  Often the quick thinkers can have lots of ideas in their heads at one time and can quickly move on to the next idea.  If they have time to write and reflect on their ideas, they’ll be able to evaluate different ideas, expand on some, or discard others in order to come away with a more developed idea that is more cemented in their memory.  

Doesn’t have to be in words.  Another option for reflection and processing is having students represent their learning in picture or symbol form.  The benefits of this are numerous.  First off, if it’s silent, they’re getting that think time they need.  Second, they’re forcing themselves to think symbolically and perhaps metaphorically as they try to figure out how to distill an idea down and represent it pictorially.  And finally, our brain likes visuals, so having an image they personally connect with the content will help them retain that content.

An easy way to start students writing is by having students explain how to solve a problem or summarize what they’ve learned.  If they get stuck, the act of writing will help get the wheels turning, so you can offer a sentence starter or tell them to write about their confusion until the ideas come.  With a little time and patience, they’ll be off and running with it.

How do you incorporate writing in your classroom?  Add your tips and advice in the comments.

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