21 Great Reflection Questions That Add Depth to Student Learning

Have you ever told someone, “don’t look back”?

Odds are you have, and that it was a much-needed reminder to someone expressing regret or frustration with their past. You encouraged them to dust themselves off and keep on keepin’ on. Why? Because they’re capable and they’ve got this!

But is it always bad to look back? Definitely not! There’s a special kind of looking back that can be powerfully good at informing what we do in the future. And that’s called reflection.

“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”

—Sorin Kierkegaard

As student affairs professionals aiming to support student growth, reflection should be one piece of the pie! Reflection is also an awesome tool for boosting the effectiveness of on-campus programming efforts. We see institutions doing this already, especially in connection to co-curricular pathways and targeted initiatives.

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When we reflect, we take a close look at the effort we’ve put in, what we’ve experienced, and what we’ve gotten out of what we’ve done.

This may sound like a simple or subconscious part of moving around in the world, but the point of reflection is that it is intentional. It only takes a few minutes of looking back and focusing on the experience to get insights that will guide us as we move forward!

The information we get out of the reflection process tells us what we can do in the future to improve our results. We can identify some areas of improvement and sharpen our goals to better situate us so we can achieve what it is we want. This process is one that will result in a noticeable change in the development of ourselves, our work, and our processes.

Why You Should Reflect

Reflections do a lot! Like a debrief, they give us a sense of completion and satisfaction. They can also work as a self-evaluation wherein they create space for students to communicate personal and professional areas where they want to see growth, all while they assess how they’re working toward these.

Even if you utilize reflections already, it’s important to…reflect…on the questions you’re using to encourage reflection — a meta-reflection of sorts!

What good are you trying to do? What good are students getting? What good could they be getting? Choosing questions that are impactful is key, and if you’re looking to critically examine the programs and services you’re providing to students, look no further!

Knowing what questions to ask can be a difficult beast because we want the reflection experience to be as meaningful as possible for students to engage with.

No matter what the program that’s being reflected on, we recommend that your questions be simple, open, and practical.

  • Simple questions rewrite the narrative that reflection has to be “deep” and ensure that the barriers and stakes are both low for students to get started. (Not to mention this also makes maintenance easy for administrators.)
  • Open questions honor students’ experiences and encourage them to engage in ways that are most meaningful to them. This acknowledges the importance of agency and the ways that different experiences may be interpreted differently by different people and contexts.
  • Practical questions apply straightforwardly to students’ lives outside the classroom. This gives them a chance to develop their critical thinking skills and base of knowledge far beyond the academic venue.

It’s no secret that the content of these reflections can impact more than just students; for instance, their responses may steer the future of program tracks at your campus. Plus, you get to see what students are getting out of the programs already in place, which can spark ideas for how things might be adjusted to better achieve the program’s and student members’ goals.  

This, of course, connects to the larger vision and future of the institution. When working to drive engagement, collecting responses from students allows student affairs professionals to track student learning while showing the institution’s efficacy. That’s critical for the process of securing funding and, increasingly, for accreditation!

21 Reflection Prompts

Here at Presence, there are five main prompts that we encourage you to use. These are set as the default questions in our software when you start customizing your reflection form. They’re simple, broad, and practical.

These questions go deeper and deeper as they go on, similar to the way Bloom’s Taxonomy works. We’ve included some other questions which are variations of the core ones, targeting specific aspects which might cater better to certain programs and purposes.

Q1. Describe your experience.

Asking students to describe their experience sounds simple and unhelpful, but externalizing these experiences by putting it into words so that it can be shared is transformative. That’s because there are a lot of things we don’t realize we think until we’re asked to share those thoughts. Doing this here encourages us to be more mindful and aware of what we’re up to and how we’re spending our time.

Here are some similar questions:

  • What strengths or beliefs did you share?
  • Did anything unexpected happen?
  • How did you respond to challenges?

Encouraging the student to describe how they interacted and communicated with others boosts their self-awareness and encourages them to dig deeper, helping them recognize how they may have been perceived by others as well.

Q2. What did you like about the experience?

Asking students what they liked about the program gives them space to analyze the experience they just described but in an exclusively positive way. They get to identify for themselves what they enjoyed, which is an awesome approach to take when thinking constructively about making something better. This helps students sharpen their critical eye and strengthen their voice.

Here are some similar questions:

  • Who did you build a positive relationship with?
  • What were you drawn to?
  • What might you want to learn more about because of this?
  • What was the most enjoyable moment?

Identifying positive bits about what we’re doing (like what was special about it) increases our satisfaction in and appreciation of what we do while still keeping an eye towards improvement.

Q3. What did you learn?

Asking students what they learned encourages them to decide what the effect of their participation was on themselves personally, beyond any of our stated outcomes. They get to distinguish what they knew before from what they know now. We recognize that reflecting on learning outside of a purely academic context may seem strange to students, but these questions inspire self-development.

Here are some similar questions:

  • What were your most interesting discoveries?
  • What did you realize about yourself?
  • Did this give you a new perspective, challenge your point of view, or introduce you to new techniques, skills, processes?

Learning something particular to the program’s subject matter or something related to a problem they’re facing allows direct reflection on the ways that they might have learned something that connects to them more personally.

Q4. Why does it matter?

Asking why this experience matters encourages students to think futuristically and recognize that the learning they’re doing is real and applicable. Reflecting on the significance of their involvement gives meaning and purpose to what they do and encourages them to keep doing more of it.

Here are some similar questions:

  • Does this connect to any past experiences or themes? If so, which?
  • Were there areas of risk?
  • What does what I learned connect to?

Students get a chance to connect this experience to the bigger picture of their involvement on campus and their development as a person during their college years. Pointing out healthy risks  (opportunities to step outside of our comfort zones) inspires us to grow new skills. We also get to grow by connecting our experiences over time (past, present, and future) together.

Q5. How would you apply what you learned in school? With friends? With family? In the community? In your career?

Thinking through concrete ways to apply these new skills to certain situations regularly is another helpful way to extend the student beyond their current setting and consider how they can apply what they’ve learned.

Here are some similar questions:

  • What did you learn about yourself?
  • How did your involvement and participation in this fit into your broader goals for developing yourself?
  • What would you change?

Thinking explicitly about the other domains of our lives and how we can actively work to improve those is what this gets at. Students get to realize the real-life applicability of what they’re doing and can feel like they’re making progress in all areas of life!

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Once you begin to use some of these questions, let us know how they’re working for you by tweeting @themoderncampus!

And PS: A campus engagement tool (like Presence!) can make the creation and management of reflections simple and convenient thanks to the power of automation and conditional logic.

Sara Friend

About the author: Sara Friend (she/her) is a former Content Marketing Intern at Modern Campus Presence and a graduate of the New College of Florida. She loved being an RA to first-year-in-college students. She's now a Mentor Manager for Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Sun Coast. Learn how we can help get your students involved.