PBL Pro Tips from John Larmer: How Can You Promote Student Reflection in PBL?

Reflection is, unfortunately, one of the first things to go during a busy project when a teacher is first learning how to juggle all the moving parts. Projects can feel rushed, given the need to learn the material, do research, complete products in time for presentations, and all the other to-dos. Allowing time for students to reflect is seen as something that’s not quite as important as “work time” or “learn this piece of content time.” Which is too bad–because reflection is something veteran PBL teachers know is essential.


“Reflection” is one of the six criteria in the Framework for High-Quality PBL. Why is it so important? As John Dewey pointed out, we learn not just from experience, we learn from reflecting on experience. What he meant was that reflection is key to internalizing and organizing learning–to storing it in memory by connecting it to existing knowledge and being able to transfer it to new situations. 


Others since Dewey have noted the value of metacognition–thinking about one’s thinking–which is a key aspect of reflection. Learning how to think about their own thinking improves student motivation and their ability to learn. It also helps students develop confidence and a greater sense of control over their education.


Here’s how I would sum up the benefits of reflection in PBL:

  1. It helps deepen and retain learning.
  2. It leads to higher-quality work.
  3. It allows students to process a learning experience that can feel complex, involving not only intellectual but also emotional challenges.
  4. It creates opportunities for a teacher to learn what students need during a project and coach them more effectively.
  5. It provides information about a project that can be used to make it or other future projects better.


What Should Students Reflect On?

During a project, students should reflect on what and how they are learning, on themselves, on their work, and on the project itself. Let’s look at some examples of the kinds of questions students could reflect on at the beginning, middle, and end of a project.


At the beginning of a project…

  • What do I already know about this topic, and what do I need to know to complete the project?
  • What skills do I have that I can bring to this project?
  • How can I be a good team member?
  • What do I think about this project’s driving question?
  • Who is the audience, end user, or recipient of what we’re creating in this project?
  • How do I feel about this project?


In the middle of a project…

  • What am I learning, and what more do I need to learn?
  • What support do I need in order to learn and to do my work?
  • How am I feeling about this project/my work so far?
  • What is most challenging about this project?
  • How well am I using the skills of critical thinking/problem solving/collaboration/communication?
  • What do I think about the driving question at this point?
  • How good is the product I’m creating? What feedback do I need in order to improve it?
  • How well is this project going? What adjustments need to be made, or what additional support do I/we need?


At the end of a project…

  • How did I grow as a learner? What did I learn and how?
  • What do I need to work on next time?
  • How well did I do as a critical thinker/problem solver/collaborator/communicator?
  • What do I think about the driving question now? 
  • What parts of the project were most challenging?
  • What problems did you face and how did you overcome them?
  • What worked well in this project, and what could be changed or improved?

How to Promote and Structure Reflection in PBL

Reflection can take many forms in PBL. It can be formal or informal, done individually or with others, be done in writing (or drawing) or by speaking. The teacher should provide regular opportunities for reflection throughout a project, giving prompts and supporting the process by teaching students how to reflect. Regular protocols for reflection help to make it a familiar and effective process.


Here are some commonly-used formal methods for reflection:

  • Journals and Learning Logs
  • Paired, Team, or Whole-Class Discussions
  • Surveys
  • Exit Tickets
  • Focus Groups (e.g., the teacher meets with one representative of each team)
  • Fishbowl Discussions (a small group of students talk while the rest of the class listens)
  • Reflection/Feedback forms


Informal reflection can happen anytime–for example, when a teacher is walking around the room talking with students or when a project team discusses its work.


It’s important to build a classroom culture of reflection, too. Teachers can model what it means to be reflective–to think deeply about a topic, about learning, about themselves, or about something they’ve created. They can co-create norms with students that include reflection and make the classroom a safe space for honest and open discussion. Students should know that the thoughts they share during reflection will be honored, acted upon when called for, and not used against them. After such a culture is established, you’ll see and feel it when you walk into the room–and the work students do will get better and better!


About the Author:  

John Larmer is a project-based learning expert. In his 20 years at the Buck Institute for Education/PBLWorks, he co-developed the model for Gold Standard PBL, authored several books and many blog posts, and contributed to curriculum and professional development. John is now the Senior PBL Advisor at Defined Learning.


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