Use Reflection to Value the Educational Journey

Use Reflection to Value the Educational Journey

The end of the school year is always a weird time. 

The rhythm of the semester builds to a kind of crescendo of finals and AP exams, and for some, graduation and matriculation. It’s some mix of exhausting and exciting, and the swirl of emotions can be confusing. 

When I was teaching full-time as the end of the semester approached, I would hotly anticipate the chance to get off the treadmill, to rest and recharge, and then once the end arrived, and those familiar daily beats were disrupted, I’d find myself unmoored. I wouldn’t know what to do with that time and space I’d been so anticipating.

I know students experience similar emotions, particularly as high school ends and they transition to whatever is next. Many of the first-year college students I worked with over the years would look back at the people they were just a few months earlier and wonder what the big deal was. 

They’d say things like, I thought finishing high school would be huge, but… 

That but… hangs in the air as they wonder what those past experiences truly meant. What worries me is how often they question whether or not any of it meant anything beyond passing through one gate that allows them access to other gates. The intrinsic value of whatever they’ve done, whatever they’ve learned, is not only not top-of-mind, it seems barely to be a consideration at all.

It’s as though there’s not enough space for them to consider the meaning of their education beyond the amassing of credentials. 

I think this is largely rooted in the parts of the education system that our culture emphasizes, the opportunity for advancement and advantage, those barriers to entry to a good and prosperous life that must be cleared. There’s much less emphasis on what’s being acquired along the way.

In order to combat this in my courses, I emphasized the importance of reconsideration and reflection, a way to go back and appreciate the distance that’s been traveled on the way to that destination.

There’s a few specific questions that I use for this purpose:

  • What do you know now that you didn’t at the start of the semester?

This can be anything, something large or small, ranging from a discrete fact, like the chief export of Bolivia to a bit of self knowledge such as, “I do my best work between 8 and 10 pm.”

  • What can you do now that you couldn’t at the start of the semester?

This question asks students to specifically focus on any skills they may have acquired. Over time, as skills develop we sometimes lose sight of our own progress, forgetting that there was ever a time when we couldn’t do something. This asks students to pause and reflect on what they’ve gained removed from the context of a grade. Often, they’re surprised by how much has happened in terms of their skill development over the course of a semester.

  • If you had it to do over again, what would you do differently?

This is not meant to induce feelings of regret and guilt, but is instead a forward-looking question, the same way a coach may go over old game tape in order to improve performance in the next game. Here I talk about my own process as a teacher, how I always reflect on how well an assignment or lesson worked, and what adjustments I’m considering for the next semester. I’ll even solicit student suggestions for future changes as a way for them to think even more deeply about their own experiences. Many of the assignments in The Writer’s Practice have been shaped by students sharing both their joys and frustrations with what I’ve asked them to do.

Rather than seeing the end of the semester as a final climax before moving on to something totally new, I want students to see their educations as an ongoing process, a continuum where they are acquiring things they get to keep forever, experiences, knowledge, even wisdom, things that last much longer than AP scores or grades or even a diploma. 

There’s no harm in recognizing that a milestone has been reached, but it’s also important to remember the journey behind, and what’s still coming up ahead.