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Reflecting on learning activities

Use of Reflections in Asynchronous Online Engineering Courses

I stopped having my students take written exams in my classes several years ago. Most of my classes emphasize both project-based learning and the development of critical thinking skills. Research on student learning shows many benefits to the use of reflective writing in clinical or professional experiences. Students asked to reflect on their learning experiences are better able to retain and transfer their learning to new contexts. The act of reflecting requires retrieval, elaboration, and generation of information can make learning more durable for students [1].

Promoting reflective thinking is important to helping learners develop strategies to apply new information to unpredictable situations in real life. Knowledge is created through the transformation of experience. Reflective writing could be one method for promoting reflective thinking that allows learners to consider their experiences and transform them into knowledge that can be applied in new contexts. Reflective writing is an effective method for promoting metacognitive thinking.  Reflective writing can be a good tool for communication between students and mentors in experiential learning activities [2].

Reflection might be thought of as a cycle of thinking and doing. When learners reflect their implicit knowledge is digested through active interpretation, questioning and exploration. In computer programming classes, novice programmers should focus less on the correctness of their solutions and more on developing their skills of reflecting on their process. This will help them improve their abilities to solve new and unseen problems. As learners improve their reflection skills, they may become more effective lifelong learners [3].

The use of frequent, low stakes learning assessments can benefit student performance in many different disciplines. Quizzes are often used in this regard. Quizzes provide students with opportunities for students to practice retrieving and applying information from memory. One study found that quizzes and reflection activities were equally effective in terms of assessing student learning. Reflection provides opportunities for students to think about their performance, consider which strategies were effective, and contemplate how to improve their process. In work contexts, individuals who engage in reflection have lower error rates when learning new skills [4].

At least one study involving students taking a computer architecture class found that asking students to answer reflective questions prior to taking an exam resulted in their  improved performance on the exam. Students believe that answering reflection questions helps to think critically by encouraging them to take a holistic view of the course material [5]. Reflection assignments might a good pedagogical tool for helping students connect course topics with the overall curriculum for the major area of study.

In asynchronous on-line courses, student reflective activities are really important since students and instructors do not have opportunities for face to face communication. If gathered over a period time, the student answers can guide instructors in refreshing course content. If reflections are collected over the course delivery, students can use them to monitor their own progress. In face to face classes, reflective writing can be used to initiate in-class discussions in small group activities [6].

Reflective writing can take many forms: lab notebooks, project change logs, minute papers, or project postmortems. I often simply ask my students to answer three questions when they reflect on their work after completing a project milestone (document or prototype).

  1. What went right?
  2. What went wrong?
  3. Lessons learned/process improvement suggestions:

There are some other ways to integrate reflective writing in an authentic assessment program. Students might be asked to write a reflective memo to themselves to help them process the feedback received before revising their work products. This is especially helpful if peer review is used before submitting a work product to the instructor for grading. Asking students to write formal reflections following the completion of an internship or capstone assignment encourages students to elaborate and synthesize the value of their learning experiences [1].

My classes emphasize project-based learning. The most common student activities are group projects of all sizes and durations. In engineering, reports (both written and oral) and prototypes are the most common work products. It makes sense to have students develop progress report memos, lab reports, posters, and reflection pieces describing their lessons learned following textbook readings and learning activities. These are short, frequent, and low stakes graded work products. Students complete 3 or 4 every week in my classes. This is an example of a rubric I might use to evaluate a chapter reading reflection.

Reflection Question Rubric


  1. Writing Across the Curriculum, “”Using Reflective Writing to Deepen Student Learning”,  The WAC Clearinghouse, University of Minnesota,  (accessed September 3, 2023)
  2. Kingkaew C, Theeramunkong T, Supnithi T, Chatpreecha P, Morita K, Tanaka K, Ikeda M. A Learning Environment to Promote Awareness of the Experiential Learning Processes with Reflective Writing Support. Education Sciences. 2023; 13(1):64. (accessed September 4, 2023)
  3. Villareale, J., F. Biemer, C., Seif El-Nasr, M., & Zhu, J. (2020, September). Reflection in game-based learning: A survey of programming games. In Proceedings of the 15th International Conference on the Foundations of Digital Games (pp. 1-9). (accessed September 3, 2023)
  4. Clinton, V. (2018). Reflections versus Extended Quizzes: Which is Better for Student Learning and Self-Regulation?. Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 18(1), 1-10.  (accessed September 3, 2023)
  5. Resch, C., Stapleton, P., Rheault, B., Wu, A., & GaRdner-Mccune, C. (2022, August). Analysis of Effect of Answering Reflection Prompts in a Computer Organization Class. In 2022 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition. (accessed September 3, 2023)
  6. Ragonis, N. and Hazzan, O. “Reflection Pre-learning in Computer Science Courses”, Communications of the ACM BLOG@ACM, January 2022,, (accessed September 4, 2023).