The importance of reflection for students – and teachers

As an academic working in Vietnamese higher education, I have found reflective work with students to be one of the most interesting kinds of projects to create and assess. It encourages students not only to think in terms of being ‘employment-ready’, but in terms of their personal development, acquisition of soft skills and civic engagement.

Deficiencies of these kinds of skills among Vietnamese university students have been the subject of both popular discourse and academic study.

Learning about ways to teach or learn to do reflective assignments are not hard to find. The DIEP model (Describe, Interpret, Evaluate, Plan) is a common approach to developing reflective practice, which entails describing, interpreting and evaluating one’s experiences.

Reflection entails careful consideration about the actions, experiences, intent, motivations, contexts and implications of one’s practice as well as that of others.

A recent study on reflective assignments in higher education defines this as a higher-order cognitive skill where people engage in specialised, purposeful inquiry based on their individual experience. Critical thinking with empathy leads to innovative problem-solving, which is valuable in the post-COVID world we inhabit.

Students who know and understand how to reflect are not just desirable, but the kind of students we desperately need. The capacity for reflection is one of the major ways in which higher education prepares learners for life and work in the 21st century by fostering creativity. Innovative ideas that are geared towards social good are premised on critical thinking and empathy.

For example, in the 2022 listing of Forbes Vietnam’s 30 under 30, several individuals were praised for their entrepreneurial creativity. This list included the likes of Le Yen Thanh, who created BusMap, an online map of routes to help people navigate urban areas, and Do Anh Thu, who started the Women Will programme to assist female entrepreneurs in developing their business ideas.

Arguably, without critical reflection which entails the ability to think deeply about problems and people, these ideas may not have existed today. This is yet another reason why it is important for reflection to be a common practice among students.

Benefits for students

The 2021 Global Risks Report cites the importance of advanced interpersonal skills as a priority for today’s learners. Such skills are often developed and realised through personal reflection.

The literature on reflective assignments typically focuses on reflective writing, but in a general sense reflective class activities are regarded as a positive aspect of good teaching practice, enabling student autonomy, motivation and creativity. This helps prepare them for life, work and their civic engagement as local and global citizens.

Reflection helps to move students from being task-oriented towards thinking in more holistic and creative ways about their experience at university and beyond.

A positive view of reflection is present in higher education literature set within the Asian context through the work of Namala Tilakaratna, Mark Brooke and Laetitia Monbec in 2019, Cecilia Chan, Hannah Wong and Jiahui Luo in 2020 and Hui-Chin Yeh, Shih-hsien Yang, Jo Shan Fu and Yen-Chen Shih in 2022.

These studies also spotlight the merits of reflection for both students and educators, which include deepening disciplinary understanding, strengthening social-cultural knowledge, teacher professional development and socio-behavioural benefits such as patience and gratitude.

I recall listening to a particular student’s in-class reflection presentation where they shared how a class I taught earlier in the same semester for the same course helped them not only professionally but personally. This student noted how our class discussions on media and communication theories helped them better understand their parents.

After reflecting on the material discussed in class, they were able to be much more empathetic, patient and understanding towards their family. In higher education in Asian contexts, parents may be less supportive of the unknown or unfamiliar forms of study and more interested in ensuring a stable career in a staple industry for their children.

This is often the case with students studying unfamiliar disciplines such as media and communications or design studies, which are less favoured in contrast to fields such as business or engineering.

After that semester ended, I was surprised to get an email from the same student and another expressing gratitude for the class activities and assessments on that course and for how it impacted their view of the world around them.

Benefits for educators

Throughout my years of teaching, I have designed reflective assessments in various formats – written, video, audio or multimedia – where students are put in a position to remember what they have done, show an understanding of this and then go further in terms of analysis and evaluation of their experience and synthesise this understanding in line with prior or concurrent experiences.

Reflective assessments align with Benjamin Bloom’s famed taxonomy of learning with which most formally trained educators are familiar. This is especially so as the 21st-century iteration of this framework includes creativity as a predominant feature.

Educators often do not know if a teaching and learning experience was meaningful to students and the implications of whatever that experience might be. I have often reminded students that their reflection should not restate what is already known or obvious to both of us – critical engagement is a very important part of this task which extends beyond just description.

The insights generated from thinking about one’s experience can be conveyed in new, unique or creative ways if this is the case. A reflection is not a report that merely provides an account of one’s actions. It is an honest look at one’s experience throughout a specified period.

Student reflections should help us as educators to reflect on our practice. Reading, listening or viewing assignments which contain reflective content from students should prompt us to re-evaluate our teaching practices and the underlying philosophy which underpins our research.

While student-based teaching evaluations are but one way to gauge the effectiveness and impact of our work, there is much that can be learned from student reflections that we may not find in other kinds of output.

Through reading student reflection work, I have learned what was helpful in the classroom as well as things to avoid. Reading student reflection work has prompted me in turn to become reflective of my academic practice.

Given the social and economic challenges which characterise Asia today, the capacity to reflect should be seen as more than a skill; it should be seen as an ethical virtue. This virtue is important, not only for the students of tomorrow, but those who will educate them.

Jonathan J Felix is a transdisciplinary academic in the School of Communication and Design at RMIT University, Vietnam, and visiting fellow at the International and Comparative Education Research Group, Universiti Brunei Darussalam, Brunei. His research includes human capital formation and higher education informed by post-structuralist thought. This article is part of a series, ‘Asian Higher Education Changes: Perspectives from within’ initiated by the International and Comparative Education Research Group at Universiti Brunei Darussalam (ICE@UBD). An overview of this series can be read here.