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Encouraging Reflective Learning

By 14/06/2023May 24th, 2024No Comments

Top athletes rigorously reflect on their performance because they know it’s essential to create optimum training plans and make those all-important marginal gains.

Similarly in education, schools are increasingly aware that teaching our pupils to reflect on their learning leads to deeper, stronger and longer-lasting learning. According to the OECD, the ability to reflect and strategically approach learning is crucial for the future workplace too.*

So how might reflective learning be encouraged in our primary classrooms?

Reflective learning for the whole class

  • Consider documenting the learning process via an overall learning banner that is visible in your classroom throughout the year, like a kind of Bayeux Tapestry. This is a combination of photos and text where classes can record what they have learnt in various subjects and the specific skills and dispositions they have used. The display gives a ‘Where we’ve been’ overview and provides the ‘activating prior knowledge’ part of metacognition as well as a log of learning strategies that have been helpful. If space is limited, you could make a large floor book or create digital versions via a class blog, Padlet or Coggle. Make sure that pupils see and discuss this joint record often: it’s a handy reminder for spaced retrieval practice.
  • Discuss learning strategies and top tips with your students, whether it’s mind-mapping, organisation of ideas, timelines, self-regulation or identifying skill sets for group tasks. Weave them into lessons so that pupils have a well-equipped toolbox of learning skills with which to approach a variety of tasks.
  • It’s pretty standard to share the learning objective of every lesson, but you might consider breaking it down further. Once everybody is clear on what the learning will be, discussions need to be had around how to approach the task. During the lesson, teachers model the monitoring part of metacognition, making time to pause and ask the class to reflect on their performance mid-task. The teacher models self-questioning and the class shares their knowledge, findings and top tips.
  • All too often, we (myself included) miss the plenary part of a lesson because we’ve run out of time and the bell goes, but we must make sure we get to this all important ‘round up.’ At the end of the lesson, the learning objective is referred to again, providing time for meaningful reflection. Not only is this formative learning for both pupil and teacher, but it also tidies up that lesson into a neat, storable learning unit that attaches onto existing schema and can later be recalled more quickly.

Reflective learning for individual pupils

  • Start a unit with a cold task where the pupil is asked to show what they already know about a given subject. Pupils can reflect on what they already know, what they might like to find out about and what they need to get better at doing. The same exercise can be repeated at the end of the unit, with added pupil reflection. Progress should be clear to see (highly motivating for pupils) and children are able to put into words how and why their performance/knowledge/skills improved. This gives pupils more of a steer on how to approach the next task and thus they become skilled at learning to learn.
  • Learning Journals: I like these to be colourful and creative, like scrapbooks. Pupils can write in them weekly, monthly or termly. From my experience, pupils like to flex their artistry and design skills, which is really positive too. Learning journals are not formally assessed, as they represent an individual memoir of learning.
  • To obtain a deeper reflection, the teacher could ask directed questions or provide sentence starters that change each week. The focus is on learning skills and ‘me as a learner’ rather than enjoyment ,although you can put a mark out of 10 for that too – I find that children really like rating their week in this way, and it gives the teacher further insight into how a child feels.
  • 1:1 Tutorials – I would say that a 1:1 pupil/teacher tutorial once a term is essential, once a half-term if possible. These are like mini-appraisals and open up a deeper, more personalised dialogue about the holistic view of a child’s learning and attitudes to learning, much like an athlete and their coach.

Kate McCallam is a writer, teacher and consultant with over 15 years in primary education. To find out more about the author visit:


*The OECD (Future and Skills 2030) pointed out that  “Metacognitive skills include learning-to-learn skills and the ability to recognise one’s knowledge, skills, attitudes and values” were becoming essential and stated that “Metacognition, lifelong learning and understanding other cultures are needed to adapt to a changing environment.”