The Importance of Student Self-Reflection in K-12 Lesson Design

You sit down at the dinner table with your children and ask about their day. When you ask your high school student what he did at school, the response is “nothing.” Now, we all know that isn’t true. Your child had seven class periods, from Spanish to geometry to western civilization. So, how can your rather intelligent son have no idea what he did at school today? Sound familiar?

Why Is Self-Reflection Important for Students?

Educational researcher John Hattie has conducted a multitude of research studies that analyzed the effects of different teaching strategies, including those that emphasize the importance of reflection for students. Summarization and self-reported grades, for instance, are two approaches that can be particularly impactful.

We know that reflection matters. Research shows that thinking deeply about a subject improves learning. We must create systems and processes that foster a culture of reflection in our classrooms if we are to help students reach their learning goals. A commitment to purposeful instructional planning can help.

When students reflect on their learning, they can:

  • Move information from short- to long-term memory
  • Develop a growth mindset
  • Create natural curiosity
  • Share their ideas and thinking

Self-Reflection Strategies for Students

Here are four teaching tips to plan your curriculum in a way that encourages student self-reflection.

1. Try Chunk Learning

Students’ attention spans typically correspond with their age. An 8-year-old can focus on a task for about eight minutes. This means that as we plan instruction, we should create a pace that moves students from opportunity to opportunity every eight minutes. In other words, we need to “chunk” the learning that happens.

"We must create systems and processes that foster a culture of reflection in our classrooms."

For example, after I give direct instruction for the allotted time, I could move students into a reflection activity that asks them to react to the information. You could say to your students, “I’m going to give you 90 seconds to write down everything you heard me say during direction instruction.” Then, after 90 seconds, have students discuss their notes with classmates. This helps students think about the information, process it in their own words, and compare their thinking with that of their classmates. Based on the age of your students, create chunks of time in your schedule for instruction followed by reflection.

2. Leverage or Create Reflection Tools

Many schools have students write their homework assignments in planners. In addition to their assignments, you can have (or even require) students to write one key lesson they learned or a question they have about the material. If you build this as an expectation across the school, you will move the entire school culture into a mode of reflection. Let families know about this new reflection tool, too. This will encourage caregivers to start discussions with students about what they wrote in their planners.

When I worked as a principal, we created our own logbooks and had them printed locally so we could intentionally build reflection into the school day. Teachers required self-reflection three times throughout the day.

3. Utilize Small Groups or Breakout Rooms

Learning is social. We are able to move new information from short- to long-term memory in many ways, including discussion with peers. Plan multiple points in your lesson to allow students to discuss learning with each other. If you are in a remote space, this can be accomplished through virtual breakout rooms or discussion boards. In a hybrid classroom, pair students who are in class with those learning from home. Of course, in an actual classroom, you can create space for students to meet face to face.

To make the most of these small-group learning opportunities, the key is an appropriately placed task or question. Spend time in your instructional planning being specific about the tasks and questions planned. You need to prepare in advance; don’t wing it!

4. Visualize the Day

This may seem hokey but stay with me. As you plan your lessons, imagine students participating in direct instruction, working through guided or independent practice, collaborating in small groups, or reacting to your purposefully placed questions. The idea is to do more than just plan the work, but also to reflect on how students will interact with the learning opportunities presented. These visual exercises will help you to expertly craft an instructional plan built on rigor.

Ultimately, your lessons should integrate relevancy into why students need to learn the content, maximize learner engagement, and most importantly, build a culture where relationships are valued. If you prioritize student self-reflection in the classroom, whether it’s in person or remote this school year, it will be worth the effort!


Educators, students, and families can teach and learn at school, at home, and anywhere in between when you think connected. Explore HMH's Connected Teaching and Learning for best-in-class instruction, along with reliable assessment, relevant practice, and a growing library of on-demand educational resources.

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