When we design a project for our students, we have lots of moving parts. We have our students generate questions, do research, and create products and presentations. Sometimes in the mad rush, we do not take the time to look back at where we started, and how far we have come. As John Dewey tells us, “We do not learn from experience. We learn from reflecting on experience.”

Reflection challenges us to think deeply about how and why we learn (or do NOT learn). When we reflect, we can make personal connections to the learning process, which increasing ownership of our new knowledge and skills. This builds our confidence and sense of who we are – and our capacity to grow. When we reflect on how we have overcome obstacles, we are encouraged to take risks. It also helps each of us better understand what we need as learners, allowing us to be better advocates for ourselves.

We have some great opportunities to build reflection into the PBL process. There should be some product or project element that we ask our students to revise. That work should be looked at critically, and a rubric might be used to guide our feedback. This process is focused on improving the product or presentation, and that product should go through several drafts. Reflection should be woven into this process, as well as once the project is complete.

As teachers, we need to be prepared to ask students to reflect at key points in the project process. And we also should have some processes and questions in mind that would prompt this reflection.

When should we ask students to reflect?

Reflection is like a punctuation mark. It should follow a substantial piece of work. If students have completed a first draft, or a practice presentation, and received some feedback from their peers or teacher, that is a good place to ask them to reflect on their work and process so far. If students have completed a learning experience such as a lab activity or Socratic seminar, this is also a good place to ask them to reflect, to allow them to make sense and consolidate their understanding.

How should we organize this process?

On the simplest level, as students are working, the teacher can ask students informal questions drawing attention to how they are solving problems and overcoming obstacles. This can also be done through exit slips. You could also have students do a pair-share, focused on a few questions you provide. This could lead into a reflective journal entry. Debrief circles are another option. In this activity, students stand in two concentric circles, with the inner circle facing out, and the outer circle facing in. Each student faces another, and the pairs talk to one another in response to questions posed by the teacher. The circle then rotates, giving students a chance to talk to one another about what they have learned.

What questions should we ask?

One of our goals is to build intrinsic motivation by helping students notice when their curiosity was aroused, and when they found pride and a sense of accomplishment in their work. Here are some questions that might help.

  • Reflect on your work today (or in this project). What were you most proud of?
  • Where did you struggle? How did you deal with that?
  • What about your thinking or work brought you the most satisfaction?
  • What was frustrating? How will you deal with that next time around?
  • What made you curious today?
  • How did you help others? How did you hinder?

The Buck Institute for Education also offers this reflection form that students could complete following a project’s completion.

It is vital that as teachers, we reflect on our work as well.

When we make this process visible to our students, we are modeling what we are asking them to do. This makes it clear we are learners as well, and I have found students really appreciate this. Just like them, we are trying new things, and learning from our experiences. As Suzie Boss points out, we can even draw on their feedback as a valuable part of our own reflection process. When we reflect on our work with colleagues, amazing things can happen.

What have been your experiences asking students to reflect in the project process?

Anthony worked as a science teacher and teacher coach in the Oakland public schools for 24 years. He has a keen interest in teacher inquiry and has facilitated PBL workshops all over the country.