During the summer break, college students are busy taking much-needed breaks or pursuing internship opportunities. But one of the most valuable tools in the professional development toolbox – reflection – is often overlooked. Here’s a list of four ways students can reflect and continue the learning process over the summer break.
This blog post is part of our Launch Into Summer Blog Series. Stay tuned for future posts on how entrepreneurs, educators, parents, and students can crush the summer break.
With your final exams conquered and summer break on the horizon, it’s tempting to wipe everything you learned this semester from your memory. However, if you want your classes to have a stronger impact on your career path and personal or professional growth, you’ll have to do a little bit of extra work. Reflection, the act of engaging in serious thought or consideration about a subject, consolidates learning and provides a powerful link between your academic studies and career goals.
The summer is a great opportunity to reflect on what you’ve learned and to make connections outside the classroom and your textbooks. Here are four easy ways that you can take your learning to the next level over the summer break.
Reflect Honestly on Your Experience
After final exams, a good first step is to reflect on your feelings about the course. Ask yourself: What was my favorite part of this course? What did I not enjoy learning about in this class? What activities or projects were the most interesting to me? These types of questions might seem basic, but they’re instrumental in connecting your studies to your career path and development. In fact, many companies engage in this activity as part of their evaluation and learning initiatives with employees.
This activity is formally known as reflective practice, the ability to “reflect on one’s actions so as to engage in a process of continuous learning.”¹ Reflective practice is an important part of strengthening your meta-cognitive ability, or your capacity to think about your thinking. And reflective practice is useful for more than just career development: it has also been shown to significantly improve self-evaluation skills, critical thinking ability, and creativity.²
If you find yourself stuck on questions to ask during a reflection session, consider following Johns Model for Structured Reflection. Originally developed for those studying to be nurse practitioners, this model has been adapted and used across a variety of fields to guide reflective practice. In the model, Professor of Nursing Christopher Johns recommends “looking in”, or allotting time for self-introspection and assessing your thoughts or feelings, and “looking out”, or taking time to assess a particular situation and any other outside factors.
If you’re like me and have trouble answering introspective questions about yourself, you can also refer to Gibb’s Reflective Cycle, a thorough framework for structured reflective practice. The model presents an in-depth procedure of reflection, but can ultimately be summarized to these three parts: describing your experience, evaluating the experience, and concluding what you have learned and your next steps.
There are other methods of reflective practice that can be used besides answering structured reflection questions. You might try rating your own performance or mastery of a subject matter on a scale, or simply free-writing about the content you have learned. Some educators recommend starting a blog. Blogs are both engaging and relaxing opportunities for you to reflect on topics learned in class. You can even share your posts with friends and others on social media to start up a dialogue.
Another great way to get started with reflective practice is to keep a reflective journal. A reflective journal is not only a great place to write answers to structured reflection questions, but also to simply document your thoughts and feelings. There’s no need to go out and buy a physical notebook either – reflective journals are just as effective when done on a computer. The Faculty Development and Instructional Design Center at Northern Illinois University has some awesome tips on keeping a reflective journal.
Connect What You’ve Learned to a Previous Class
By the time I was a senior in college, I had forgotten most of the courses I took freshman year. But I realized that many of my higher level classes were built upon fundamentals from my earlier studies – even sometimes across different subjects. Interdisciplinary learning, or making connections between different academic subjects, is the foundation for developing key transferable skills that will help you solve complex problems later in your professional career.
To help you get started with interdisciplinary learning, it’s a good idea to embrace elaborative interrogation. Elaborative interrogation is the process of generating explanations to facts that you have recently learned, and it helps to connect new topics to those that you already know.³ For example, you might take a theory learned in a recent economics course, and try to explain that particular model using concepts from a previous psychology or political science course.
If you find it difficult to directly relate different concepts across academic subjects, try applying what you’ve studied to your own life experiences or memories. You’ll be surprised of the many different connections that can be made when you simply take notice of what’s happening around you. The Learning Scientists have an extensive blog post on utilizing elaboration techniques with your studies.
An interesting interdisciplinary study technique is to rethink problems from the perspective of different disciplines. You might try by taking a complex social issue, such as access to quality education in low-income American neighborhoods, and approach the problem from the perspective of multiple industry experts. For example, an economist would approach this issue much differently from an education professional, sociologist, or politician. This exercise is a fun way to connect important concepts from your college classes.
Read a Book on a Related Topic
Think back to what you’ve learned over the past year. Was there a particular topic that you enjoyed or wished your professor went more in depth with during your class? Then take a trip to your local library this summer break! Reading about an in-depth topic from your class helps to both connect your studies to what’s happening in the real world and rekindle your passion for learning. You might even develop ideas for potential research projects, college courses, or other opportunities you can pursue.
If you’re going to take the time to do outside reading, make sure you are doing so efficiently. Being an active reader is always better than a passive one, and you can achieve this through slowing down and asking questions along the way. Regarding reading comprehension and speed, Yale professor Lancelot R. Fletcher warns against “a rush to interpretation and judgment strongly encouraged by most of our educational practices”.⁴
While reading, you might also try retrieve-taking, an effective note-taking strategy backed by cognitive psychologist Pooja Agarwal. Retrieve-taking is a strategy where you take breaks periodically while reading, closing the book and writing down or recalling some of what you learned from the text. It’s a great way to encourage active reading and to ensure that you are both understanding and retaining what you have read.
Stumped on what to read? King’s College of Cambridge and the University of Oxford both publish suggested reading lists for specific college majors. It’s definitely worth checking out. If you can’t make it to a local library, you can try reading research articles or journals. The Learning Scientists have a list of resources to open access journals for those interested in education or psychology. Lastly, for those who are too busy to read books, podcasts are a great way to explore new topics during your morning commute or evening workout.
Do Something Fun That’s Related to Your Coursework
Don’t forget to have a little fun over the break as well! When we talk about student engagement, the focus tends to be on students in K-12, but it’s just as important for you to stay engaged and interested in your studies! You might visit an art gallery or museum, attend a conference, or volunteer with an organization that has a mission related to what you’ve studied.
If you feel guilty about taking time off from internships or summer studies to volunteer and engage in the community, rest assured that some evidence points to the benefit of these activities to interpersonal and cognitive development. If you’re still not convinced, the National Youth Leadership Council has an archive of videos where students recount and reflect on their own service-learning experiences.
Make sure to ask thoughtful questions and look for connections to your college courses. Participating in community-based activities not only allows you to apply what you have learned in the real world, but it strengthens your professional network and connections for future career opportunities.