I distinctly remember learning to take notes in school, because I hated it. We were introduced to a two-column style of note-taking in fourth grade, which meant writing summaries or important points from readings in one column and questions about the material on the other. It wasn’t until the end of high school that a teacher mentioned the questions didn’t necessarily have to address confusion about the material, but could include speculation about further applications of ideas or personal notes connecting class reading to other information. What a relief—and what a shame I’d spent nearly eight years inventing questions I already knew the answers to, just to fill up that second column. I didn’t realize it then, but my teachers were describing the process of reflective learning.

Reflective learning, on a basic level, means exactly what you would expect it to mean: analyzing what you’ve been taught after learning it. On a more complex level, reflective learning has gained many staunch adherents in the past decade; it has also been the subject of a great deal of research attention in an attempt to determine whether using reflective learning techniques results in a quantitative difference in student achievement. Professors at Harvard Business School conducted a study with results that suggest learning is indeed most effective when a hands-on approach is combined with reflection on that action. The study’s outcome also provides support for the idea that reflection can improve students’ confidence, thus increasing their chances of performing well.

There is a wide variety of resources available to students and teachers seeking to employ reflective learning techniques; one such resource is from Thompson Rivers University in Canada and is in the form of a guide that provides instructions on keeping a reflective journal, freewriting and mind mapping. A reflective journal allows students to track not only their acquisition of knowledge, but also the thought processes that led them to their conclusions. Freewriting, on the other hand, is intentionally unstructured, allowing students to look back after writing and analyze possible solutions to problems without the pressure of directly seeking a solution. Mind mapping is just as it sounds—a central idea, problem or word is used as a starting point, and related concepts or words are arranged around that point to create a visual representation of the idea or problem. There is software available for digitally making mind maps as well, such as XMind and Lucidchart, among many others. Exeter University offers a series of examples  of reflective essays along with analyses of how and why they are effective, allowing students to see a variety of ways to use reflective learning to their advantage.

Although I struggled with two-column notes, I did grow to appreciate the usefulness of reflective techniques, especially when I started working with more complex texts in college. I found that the practice of asking questions—sometimes even questions I felt I knew the answers to—often led me to a deeper understanding of the text I was working with. Even the process of creating questions was useful in spending more time contemplating the work in front of me, which seems to have been the intent all along.

Did You Know?

According to Kolb’s Experiential Learning Theory, there are four distinct styles of learner: the diverger, the assimilator, the converger and the accommodator. Each style is associated with a particular set of characteristics; for example, divergers often prefer to watch and gather information and tend to have a broad variety of interests. Assimilators like using logic and organization to approach problems and tend to be good at dealing in the abstract, while accommodators like setting definite goals and working in a hands-on, intuitive learning environment. Convergers tend to be good at finding practical solutions to problems and excel at technical tasks.