Reflective questions in the classroom: what do the students think?

I posted a while ago about one of my favourite reflective questions to ask students at the end of class: “what is stopping you from meeting your potential in maths at the moment?” In my post I outlined some key reasons as to why I like that particular question. My post today delves a little more into how I use reflective questions as part of my daily teaching practice.

I started using reflective questions because I wanted to make better use of the last few minutes of my lessons. Teaching high-school I quickly became aware of how students tend to ‘tune-out’ in the last few minutes of the lesson. They know that it’ll be finishing soon, so they’re reluctant to move to a new task, and will often begin to pack-up, and begin chatting during those last few minutes: essentially turning it into ‘dead time,’ where no meaningful learning occurred.

As I gained experience as a teacher, (although I would by no means call myself an experienced teacher: I’m currently in my third year of our uni), I began to more deeply appreciate how little insight most students have into their learning.

On a daily basis I would have variations on this conversation with at least one student:

“Miss I don’t get this!”

“what don’t you get”

“all of it!”

But upon working through the problem with the student, we would find that indeed, they did understand parts of the topic, and in fact their struggles were much more contained than what they initially envisaged.

So, in an effort to boost my students metacognitive awareness, increase their capacity to self-reflect, and better use those last few minutes of class, I began to ask daily reflective questions. These questions vary day-to-day, although I tend to have a few on high rotation. If I feel like I’m in a question rut, I ask the students what they think a good question would be for me to ask them, or for what questions they find most useful.

The format of asking questions goes a little like this. I begin with any daily ‘housekeeping’: reminding students of upcoming tests, any homework they need to do, and the like. I make sure they have adequate time to write any reminders down before I ask the questions, to ensure they are not distracted. Next introduce the question (more on this below). I let the students know they’ll have some time to think about it (usually I say they have the time it takes for me to erase whatever work I’ve written on the board so they have a visual clue). I also let the students know that I’ll be calling on three to four of them at random, so they all need to think of the question.

After asking the question, and allowing my kids time to consider their responses I’ll ask for feedback. I don’t pass judgment on answers: there is no wrong or right response. When necessary I prompt students to consider their answer a little more deeply. For example, I’ll ask them to be a little more specific in their response (e.g. rather than saying they ‘worked well’ today I’ll ask for a more specific response, such as ‘today I maintained focus on my work’ or ‘today I didn’t allow myself to be distracted’ etc).

If I strike a student that has no response I let them know I’ll ask two other people and come back to them. I find that this rarely happens, once you’re in the routine of daily questions, as most students find it a useful process.

Last year I surveyed my classes to find out what questions they found most useful. These are some of the responses:

  • What do you think you need to work/improve on?
  • What did you learn today?
  • What are you finding most difficult? (interestingly, my students found questions about what do you find most challenging/difficult more useful that what are you doing best at/finding easiest)
  • What’s helping you to meet your potential in [maths]?
  • What do you need to study for the test? (although I’m not a fan of using tests as a ‘whip’ to keep students on track)

I also asked my students why they found to be helpful about the questions themselves, and what skills or behaviour it helped them developed. These were some common responses:

  • It makes me think about what I know well, and what I don’t know (and need to practice)
  • Helps me plan my study
  • Teaches me to reflect on what I have learnt
  • Helps me to understand my learning better
  • Makes me think about what I have done
  • Helps me learn how to apply myself to maths.

I was quite overwhelmed with the volume of positive responses that I received from students. Last year I taught all junior high school (years 7 and 8) with a wide range in abilities. I wasn’t sure that my students that were academically weaker would handle or appreciate the reflective questions, but I was pleasantly surprised with how well they took to it. I think sometimes as teachers we can be too quick to underestimate what students are capable. Sometimes we need to set the bar a little higher and allowing them to meet the challenge.

Reflective questioning can be an extremely useful tool for teachers to integrate into their daily practice. It can be seamlessly integrated without major disruptions to classroom routines. In my experience it is embraced well by students, who find it a valuable tool in their learning process.

Term four is about to start: why don’t you try it?


About madelinebevs

Mathematics and religion teacher and researcher. Runner. Home-renovation enthusiast. PhD Candidate. I'm excited by education. Having taught high-school mathematics for several years I am currently studying a Master of Education (Honours) in mathematics education, with the aim to ‘upgrade’ to a PhD later this year. My research is addressing how the constructivist epistemology (more specifically explicit instruction in metacognitive and self-reflective strategies) influences students’ affective domain. Mathematics education and research excites me greatly. I’m thrilled that I have the opportunity to write and work in this area. This blog will be (mostly) a collection of opinion pieces published several times a week on contemporary issues in mathematics education, with an Australian focus. More often than not topics will be generated from recent news headlines.
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One Response to Reflective questions in the classroom: what do the students think?

  1. Pingback: Why I blog | matthitude

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