Stop and Think: Teaching Students to Reflect

Stop and Think: Teaching Students to Reflect

As educators, we all want to help our students develop valuable life-long skills, including the ability to think critically about their own work, truly know themselves and their learning styles, reflect on their individual strengths and challenges, and measure their progress toward goals. We want our students to become autonomous learners who take responsibility for their own learning. We want to help our students develop a growth mindset and build resilience. And we want this to happen with every lesson we teach!

How do we do this? Open-ended questions and structured reflection are strategies we can use to support our students’ ability to reflect on academic and social-emotional growth.

Open-Ended Questions

Open-ended questions can stretch students’ thinking and prompt reflective contemplation because, crucially, they have no one right or wrong answer; any reasoned and relevant response is acceptable. This key characteristic promotes engagement, encourages self-awareness, and nurtures a sense of community among classmates.

Open-ended questions also prompt students to build on what they already know as a way of exploring new content, which supports the natural way children learn. For this reason, they work well in many situations, such as when introducing a lesson, when coaching a student as they work, or when closing a lesson. They are a powerful way to help students synthesize new information, think critically about their work, and identify new directions in learning.

Tips for asking effective open-ended questions:

  • Genuinely open up your curiosity.
  • Clarify exactly what you are asking for.
  • Use words that encourage cooperation, not competition.
  • Watch out for pseudo-open-ended questions.
Reflective Open-Ended Questions
ObjectiveExample Questions
Help students focus on social-emotional learning
  • How were you a friend today/this week?

  • How did you follow the classroom rules today/this week?

  • How did a classmate help you today/this week?

  • What was a challenge you had today/this week? How did you try to overcome that challenge?

  • Did you have an opportunity to assert yourself respectfully this week? If so, how?
  • Help students become more aware of how they learn
  • What are some ways you figured that out?

  • How is this strategy helping you?

  • What class activities helped you learn the most?

  • What skills or strategies did you use to help you learn this content?

  • What help did you want from the teacher?
  • Help students take more responsibility for their learning
  • Is this what you expected or wanted your work to be?

  • What did you do to help your learning?

  • The next time you get to do this activity, what would you do to improve your performance?

  • Why might learning this skill/content be important?
  • Help students see growth in their learning
  • What did you learn today/this week?

  • What can you do now that you were not able to do last week/month/quarter/year?

  • How can you show that you met this learning objective?
  • Structures That Support Reflection

    Another strategy we can embed into our lessons to support reflection is the use of specific structures that engage students in thinking about the learning that has occurred. For each structure chosen, we must be intentional in aligning the structure to the goal, developmental needs of students, and the current mood of the class. Through the skillful implementation of structures that support reflection, our students will develop speaking and listening skills, metacognition, and a deeper interaction with the content they learned.

    Example Structures
    Silent Reflection
  • Think to Yourself – Pose a focus question and provide a minute or two for students to silently think.

  • Thumb Gauge – Have students respond to a focus question such as “How well did you follow our class rules while you worked today?” with a thumbs-up, thumbs-sideways, or thumbs-down.

  • Fist to Five – Have students respond to a question such as “How well did you work independently today?” with a zero (a fist) all the way to a 5 (five fingers).

  • Journaling – Each student responds in writing to a focus question.
  • Partner and Small Group Reflection
  • Partner Chat – Here are some tips for teaching the skills that make for successful partner conversations.

  • Interactive Learning Structures – Check out this example of an interactive learning structure.
  • Whole Group Reflection
  • Around-the-Circle Sharing – For example “I did _______ because_______.” Also, consider asking “Who remembers” questions to encourage careful listening.

  • Simultaneous Display – Sitting in a circle, students hold up or place work on the floor in front of them. Provide a focus, such as having classmates look for new ideas.
  • By adding in structured reflection and the use of open-ended questions, you’ll see your students strengthen their ability to think critically about their learning. With time, these practices will be embedded into every lesson, and you’ll see your students develop the abilities to examine their own work, know themselves as learners, and better set personal goals.


    Written by Kerry O’Grady, Responsive Classroom Consulting Teacher, and Educational Consultant and Coach
    Tags: Conversation Skills, Engaging Academics, Sharing