Reflection and Self-Evaluation

Consider: When you tell, who does the thinking? 
When you ask, who does the thinking?

Reflection is a powerful teaching and learning strategy that is too often overlooked. The key to reflection is the skill of asking self-evaluative questions. It is the most effective, yet neglected, strategy both in learning and in dealing with people. Using this skill also reinforces the other two practices of positivity and choice.


Reflection is necessary for long-term memory reinforcement. Its absence in the learning process can be likened to chewing—but not swallowing. The food is tasted, but unless it is digested, there is no nutritional value. Before elementary students leave a subject or middle and high school students leave a classroom, teachers should lead students to reflect upon the lesson. “John Dewey phrased this concept in a formula: “Experience + Reflection = Growth.”

In order to create meaning from a new informational experience, we need “internalizing time.” The human brain is a meaning-seeking organism. Much of what we are exposed to in learning happens so fast that we need time to process it. The brain continues to process information before and long after we are aware of it. This is the reason why many of our ideas seem to “pop out of the blue.” For this reason, a teacher can either call for learners’ attention to new information or have them make meaning—but not both at the same time. This “down time” (which is not really down), is a significant step for enhancing long-term memory.

Cramming more content per minute or moving from one piece of learning to the next without reflection virtually guarantees that little will be retained. Planning time for reflection also encourages students to let the teacher know when they did not understand or did not get a point the teacher made.

A quick-check technique is for the teacher to stop every so often and say, “In case you did not understand something, you and your partner write it down and turn it into me, and I’ll read it over.” Often, students will ask a question about something that the teacher thought was made clear but for some students was unclear.

A good way to promote reflection at the end of a class period is for students to keep a daily learning log. Students jot down at least one thought they had as a result of the lesson and explain the significance of the thought. Helpful prompt questions are, “What did I learn today?” “What do I need to work on tomorrow?” “In what did I do well?” and “What could I have done differently?” The questions asked are often more valuable than the answers.

A “keeper journal” is another reflective approach and has the advantage of feeling more personal. Students write down one comment, thought, or learning that they would like to keep (remember). If such a journal were started at the beginning of a typical American school year (although the activity can be started any time), each student would accumulate 170-200 specific remembrances from a teacher. What a wonderful way to extend a teacher’s influence!


As important as reflection is in learning new information, the practice is equally as important for self-growth. When applied to oneself, reflection is referred to as self-evaluation. This practice engenders self-correction—the most effective route to improvement and growth.

Asking evaluative questions such as, “What can you do to accomplish that?” and “What would you do if you knew you could not fail?” are designed to provoke deep and reflective thinking. When you use these kinds of questions, you are directing the other person’s thinking in a positive way. The answers can be a gift to the person asking questions because is a quick way to obtain and understand the other person’s perception and viewpoint, crucial in a student teacher relationship and so many other settings.

In addition, asking these kinds of evaluative questions empowers the other person because the ideas that people support most are ones they come up with themselves; the answers that are most important to people are their own. Ownership is a critical component for self-evaluation and change.

The following questions are extremely successful for changing behavior, especially for a student with a discipline challenge:

  • What do you want?
  • What are you choosing to do?
  • If what you are choosing is not getting you what you want, then what is your plan?
  • What are your procedures to implement the plan?

Here are additional questions for specific purposes:

For Getting on Task

  • Does what you are doing help you get your work done?
  • If you would like to get your work done, what would be your first step?
  • What do you like to do that you can apply to this task?

For Commitment

  • In the realm of all things possible, could you have kept your commitment?
  • What are you going to do to make it happen?
  • On a scale of 1 to 10, how would you rank your commitment to it?

For Improving Quality

  • How does that look to you?
  • What would you like to have improved even more?
  • If there were no limitations on what you did, what would allow you to do it even better?

For Complaining

  • How long are you going to continue this?
  • Is what you are doing helping you get what you want?
  • What do you notice about the experience you are having?

For Starting Conversations

  • What was most pleasing for you today?
  • What bothered you the most today?
  • What was your biggest challenge today? How did you deal with it?
  • If the situation came up again, what would you do?

The quality of the answers depends on the quality of the questions. Here are some ineffective questions which increase stress because of the responses they engender. Notice how reactive and counterproductive they are to changing behavior.

  • What’s the problem?
  • What’s your problem?
  • Why are you doing this?
  • Who did that?
  • Why did you do that?
  • Don’t you know better than that?

The key point to remember is that the quality of thinking and the quality of answers depends upon the quality of the questions. This is especially the case when dealing with discipline problems.


Reflective questions require a thinking response. Such questions

  • are usually open-ended. They require more than a “yes” or “no” answer.
  • focus on the present or future (as opposed to the past).
  • help people learn through the process of thinking.
  • help people ask questions of themselves.
  • are framed to fit the situation and clarify.
  • often start with “What?” or How?”

Questions that can be answered “yes” or “no” are closed-ended questions because they often close conversations. However, they can be used if they lead to self-inquiry or self-evaluation, such as, “Is your time being used most profitably?” In some instances, just asking a question is sufficient. In other situations, “yes” or “no” questions can be effective if followed up with another question which calls for a solution. Here are some examples of effective closed-ended questions:

  • Is what you are doing working?
  • Is what you are doing helping to get your work done? How?
  • Is what you are choosing to do helping you get what you want? How?
  • Are you willing to do something different from what you have been doing?
  • Are you taking the responsible course? How?
  • Is there any other way it could be handled?
  • If you could do better, should you?
  • Are you satisfied with the results?
  • What do you think an extraordinary person would do in this situation?

Questions do not need to end with a question mark. For example, “Please describe to me . . . .” is an effective clarification question. Other openers are “Illustrate. . . . ” and Walk me through. . . .”


Avoid asking a “Why?” question. Many times a young person does not know the reason for a behavior. Besides, such a question gives the student an excuse not to take responsibility. This is especially the case where youngsters are labeled. Even though the classification is meant to help, the label becomes a justification. “I can’t help it. I have poor attention,” is an example. Moreover, even if the “why” were to be known, articulating the explanation is very difficult. Most important, however, asking a “Why?” question has little effect on changing behavior.

“Why?” questions have an accusatory overtone. If you are really curious, ask a nonjudgmental question: “Out of curiosity, why did you choose this rather than that?’ Change the structure of the question to eliminate any negative inference. A negative implication can be implied in other than “why” questions such as, “When are you going to stop doing that?” Notice the unspoken demand and negative undertone. In contrast, asking “How long will you be continuing that?” is inquisitive when asked in a non-accusatory tone. Of course, the tone of the voice is critical. The adage, “What you are doing speaks so loudly that I can’t hear what you are saying” rings true here.


Stress is reduced when we ask reflective, self-evaluative questions. The reduction of stress comes about because of the position in which we place ourselves. When influencing someone, only a noncoercive approach is effective. A person may be temporarily controlled, but any lasting change comes only when the person wants to change. With this awareness, the first act is mental positioning. When practicing any skill, putting yourself in position always precedes any action. This is as true when asking evaluative-type questions as it is when holding a golf club before the swing, holding a baseball bat before the pitch arrives, shooting a basketball, holding a tennis racquet, or playing any musical instrument. The first step is placing yourself in a mental stance to employ noncoercion. You do not shout a question. The tone of voice communicates at least as much as the words. Even a horse understands this, as was reported by the trainer of Seattle Slew, the 1977 Triple Crown Winner. “Slew’s a show horse. Thousands of people visit him each year. He’s tough but kind, and he will do anything you ask him to do as long as you pose it as a question. If you give him an order, you are going to have a fight on your hands. And you’re going to lose.” (Time, April 28, 1997, p. 27)


Asking evaluative questions is a skill. As with any skill, you will feel awkward at first, but the more you practice asking self-evaluative questions, the more comfortable you become, the more confidence you develop, and the more effective you are. In addition, regardless of how often the strategy is used with a person, it is still effective because the strategy is noncoercive and empowering.

Practice is the mother of skill. Thinking about a skill is not practicing it. Thinking is necessary for focus, but only the actual asking of self-evaluative questions will give you the skill. With this in mind, the question is asked, “How do you develop the skill?” Answered the sage, “With experience.” “But,” asked the disciple, “How do you get the experience?” Came the answer, “By asking poor questions.” Remember: you cannot learn a skill and be perfect at the same time. Each question asked is a learning experience and, if the desired result is not obtained, it should be thought of as feedback, not as failure.


  • Reflection is a powerful teaching and learning strategy that is too often overlooked.
  • When applied to oneself, reflection is self-evaluation, which engenders self-correction—the most effective route to change and growth.
  • The key to fostering reflection is the skill of asking evaluative questions, the most effective yet neglected strategy both in learning and in dealing with people.
  • Asking evaluative questions is a skill and is only developed and becomes easy through practice.
  • Asking self-evaluative questions reduces stress—especially when dealing with discipline challenges.
  1. I was struck by the effect of the non-open-ended questions such as

    ■What’s the problem?
    ■What’s your problem?
    ■Why are you doing this?
    ■Who did that?
    ■Why did you do that?
    ■Don’t you know better than that?

    — and the point that these engender defensive reactions. The questions that require a more reflective response, or a less defensive one, would seem to defuse the tension in the situation- which I’ve seen in the classroom, esp middle school.
    Mike Copass, Student.

  2. Reflection is a means of internalizing information. It is the process of taking what has been taught and making a a part of ones understanding and knowledge. Reflection allows for better learning and teaching as it give the brain time to mull over what has been presented without rushing.