1.3 Reflection and course study
Many of the units on the OpenLearn website include self-assessment questions and activities designed to require you to stop and think, sometimes to take action. This is also true of many Open University courses because Open University course teams typically want students to question what they read and to try out ideas for themselves. Every time you pause to do your own thinking in this way, you are reflecting on what you have learnt.
This course includes several activities that are specifically designed to be reflective. The reasons are as follows.
First, reflection is essential for the development of understanding and of the ability to make use of complex ideas and concepts. Second, it is also essential for raising awareness about how we learn and might improve our learning.
These reasons are the foundation for all the hints and tips about study skills and improved personal communication that you will find in this course – indeed they are not likely to have much effect if you do not combine them with self-reflection and review. Reflection on your own learning is part of this course because it can improve both the quality and the quantity of what you learn, especially if you give yourself time to reflect adequately as a regular part of studying.
Reflection is also something we do spontaneously in everyday contexts, and we may not often notice when and for how long we are reflecting. It may seem unfamiliar, even strange, to reflect as a specific and planned activity. The reason for doing so is because a more strategic use of reflection – giving yourself time to do it regularly and building it into your study methods – enables you to monitor progress, learn from good and bad experiences and plan for better ways of doing things.
More universities are including study skills and 'learning-to-learn' materials in their programmes to encourage students to develop their general learning abilities. Students at the University of Humberside, for example, are provided with a structured programme of learning-to-learn activities which include reflection on outcomes. Reflection is said to be used more often and to better effect by experienced learners. One example of what this might mean in practice is outlined in the scenario in Box 1 'Reflecting on research', taken from the Humberside Learning to Learn Student Workbook.
Box 1 Reflecting on research
Let's imagine that you are involved in a project which involves you undertaking some research with a small group of other students. Your initial view is that trying to do this work as a group is likely to be frustrating and time consuming, so you go off on your own and do the research yourself. However, another member of the group persuades you to come to a group meeting to discuss what you've all found. To your surprise, the others have come across some really useful material that you missed. Furthermore they are quite happy to share it with you, even though you've got very little to give back to them. You end up re-writing your report and getting a very good mark.
How might you reflect upon this experience? Here are three possible scenarios:
You decide that you were really lucky, and go out to celebrate your high mark by buying the other group members a drink.
You decide that working in groups has its advantages and that next time you will participate in the group right from the start.
In addition to revising your views on group activities, you think through how working in this way could be even more beneficial. You decide that although the other members of the group had found some material you had missed, this occurred by chance. What the group should have done is to arrange for each member to have responsibility for researching a different aspect of the topic, and then to collate all the material at the end. You discuss this idea with the rest of the group. Though some of them disagree, you decide to try the idea out in your next group project.
The point of this example is to demonstrate the kind of 'added value' that comes from reflecting more deliberately and with the purpose of finding out what can be learned for the future. There are many different ways of building on the ability we already have for reflection, and the next section describes in more detail the kinds of thinking that reflection for more effective learning requires.