John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

What Are You Learning? How Are You Reacting To It? And What Are You Going to Do with it?: Teaching for Reflection

These are three of the most important questions I learned early in my professorial career that I should be asking my students in every single class period. I didn’t originally ask these questions when I started teaching. In fact, I had been teaching at the college level for six years before I was a participant in the University of South Carolina’s first “faculty training” or the University 101 first-year seminar. And that “training” was transformative for me as a young professor. And that “transformation” is precisely why so many colleges and universities have been offering such “training” since ours began in 1972.

It would be a subject for multiple blogs for me to recite all I learned in that training. But two basic ideas were to focus on what students were learning—or what you wanted to teach them—on both the cognitive level (i.e what did you learn?) and on the affective level (i.e. how are you reacting to it?). I had never considered before how I learned, our students learn, at both levels and how the two interact and influence each other.

I had also not thought about taking those questions to the next level. Why of course after asking students to think and draw some conclusions about what they are learning and their reactions thereto, it was now important to ask them: and what are you going to do with what you learned? I realize this suggests a utilitarian, potentially practical view of learning. But I don’t mean to overemphasize that view. It could certainly be just a matter of a student deciding that something he/she learned was intellectually curious and should be filed away and remembered as such.

It was about 20 years later that I was serving on the board of directors for AAHE, the former American Association for Higher Education. And in that important service I met the father of the service learning movement, Professor Edward Zlotkowski, a Professor of English at Bentley College in Waltham, MA, and the editor of AAHE’s series of 25 volumes on “Service Learning in the Disciplines.” And it was Edward who gave me new language for this process of what we had been asking students to do in the first-year seminar: “reflection.” Edward argued, persuasively, that some of the most powerful learning that takes place is when we ask our students to “reflect” on what they are learning, its meaning to them, and what they are going to do with it.

I have maintained ever since that we should, most importantly then, be teaching for reflection. Once I started practicing this pedagogy, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

-John Gardner

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