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Using reflection triggers while learning in an online course


  • The authors work with the Centre for Learning Sciences and Technologies (CELSTEC) of the Open Universiteit Nederland. The study takes place in a research program dedicated to prompts and interface for meta-learning support, in regular, adaptive, mobile and serious game e-learning.

Mr Dominique Verpoorten, CELSTEC, Open University in the Netherlands, PO Box 2960, 6401 DL Heerlen, The Netherlands. Email:



This paper reports on a controlled experiment on the effects of three types of reflection triggers in an online course. Fifty-four volunteers, distributed in five groups, used these structured opportunities for reflection during learning. Results show that reflection triggers were extensively employed by the test persons and were perceived as quite useful to reflection and learning. Test persons in the experimental groups reported significantly more reflective prompting and more intensive reflection than those in the control group. In contrast, no positive effects on learner performance and retention could be established. This paradox elicits different possible explanations, which are discussed in the light of the common pedagogical claim that more thoughtful approaches to learning should be promoted.

Practitioner Notes

What is already known about this topic

  • • For many years, both teachers, researchers and prominent authors (Schön, Bateson & Kolb) have been stressing the importance of reflection for learning, both in regular classrooms and in e-learning settings.
  • • Reflection can aim at enhancing the effectiveness of learning and/or promoting metacognition or similar notions such as “learning to learn” or “self-regulation,” all considered as essential skills for knowledge workers.
  • • Today's electronic learning environments expand opportunities to reinforce reflection by prompting learners about the content at hand and about own ways of internalising it.

What this paper adds

  • • Although a wide variety of reflection triggers can be observed in the literature, there is only little and scattered research evidence available about the assumed effects and usage. This paper addresses this lack of empirical data by surveying three concrete and structured reflection affordances.
  • • The promotion of reflection is nowadays often associated to post-practice reflective tools such as a portfolio or learning diary. This paper brings in the forefront a different type of tool that targets reflection in action.
  • • This paper relates its findings to similar experiments and pending questions in order to offer a context for the discussion about compact and cost-effective ways to stimulate reflection while learning.
  • • This study demonstrates that the positive appreciation of reflection triggers by users does not necessarily cohere with increased performance and retention.

Implications for practice and/or policy

  • • Some institutions are experimenting with efforts to teach more than how to pass exams: they are looking for ways to enhance their students' metacognition. This study explores the provision of reflection triggers as one possibility to make learning processes and habits (good or bad) more tangible.
  • • Teachers might feel that they lack time to promote metacognition. However, the reflection triggers suggested in this paper might amount to very short periods of time. This cost-effective approach might allow teachers to avoid “sacrificing” content or burdening learners.
  • • The paper invites teachers to evaluate against their audience and learning goals the relevance of giving a face value to reflection instead of assuming that this reflection will occur. If they would then decide to use reflection triggers, the paper offers ideas for innovative crisscrossing between cognitive and metacognitive landscapes in online formal learning settings. It also elaborates on the observed limitations of the approach.