Active & Reflective Learning

Learning is not a passive activity; it’s not just listening to a lecture or reading a web page or book.  Instead, learning requires action, which involves conscious consideration of what happened during a learning experience. This includes consideration of how any insights gained from the experience might be applied.  View the following two videos that provide basic definitions of reflective learning.

Reflective learning is actually based in what we now know about brain science, in terms of the brain’s proclivity for patterns and the brain’s need for both focus and rest.  View the following two videos that present basic brain science concepts related to learning.


initial learning activity

Play to your brain’s proclivity for patterns and apply the following pattern to structure reflections on three different learning experiences.


What? Describe what you did, what you read, etc.—the actions that you took during the learning experience and their results.

So What? What do you think about what you did? Is there some important idea or insight you gained based on your experience?

What Next? Based on your ideas or insights, what are some concrete things you can do?

This pattern’s simplicity makes it memorable and easy to apply—and to keep applying—to your experience and learning activities, so that the practice of reflection starts to become embedded as an aspect of your learning.

Sample Reflection #1


As I was reading over the background information in an educational planning course, the college’s general learning goals struck me, especially the one about “breadth and depth of knowledge.” I already have some depth in my field of creative writing, especially short fiction, but not a lot of breadth in my knowledge, especially in an area such as economics.

So What?

On a professional level, I might ask why it really matters at this point in my life to understand basic economic principles. I’m not getting a degree in this field, and I don’t have to meet a general education requirement in social science with this particular course. I’m using my bachelor’s degree as a step toward getting an MFA in creative writing, so eventually I can teach at my local community college. But I’ve always been kind of lost in any discussion of economics. I don’t really understand the “fiscal cliff,” and I don’t really understand why the economy fluctuates as it does, with highs and lows in stocks, housing costs, and more. So even though the subject doesn’t relate to me professionally, it does relate to me personally (that is, if I don’t want to be without resources in retirement). So maybe I’d better start learning….

What Next?

I could pursue a number of options to learn. I could ask one of my current colleagues at work, who’s getting his bachelor’s degree in business, to look at one of his textbooks just for the content, and I could try to teach myself. I don’t know if this is the best option, because I’ve successfully avoided learning in this field for a lot of years. I might instead take a short course via local continuing education offerings to at least give me more familiarity with some major concepts and terms in the field. I could start reading the economics news more carefully and planfully in the newspaper and online. I can implement the newspaper reading right away, and will start looking for continuing education courses that will fit into my schedule. Or I can take a formal course in the area, which will provide me with general education credit in social sciences, so I can get a 3-for-1, with credit toward my degree, general education credit, and addressing of my interest in knowing more about this area for practical purposes. Who knows—I might even use my experiences as the basis for a short story!

Sample Reflection #2:


As I was looking over the contents of this online textbook, I started thinking about the heading of Competencies for Work, School, and Life.  I never really thought about competencies in terms of development; I just thought that if you were competent in something, it meant that you had knowledge or skill that you gained in some way, usually through some sort of training.

So What?

My recognition of competencies—something that popped out at me in the text—got me thinking about the different competencies and whether I had them. I started to consider situations in which I gained some knowledge or skill in a particular competency.  I started to consider that I might need to further my competence in some areas, and started to brainstorm what I might to in order to do that.

What Next?

I suspect that I need to develop my skills further in the areas of research, both in terms of finding information and evaluating the quality of the information that I find. I will see if I can incorporate some of the activities related to research skills in this course, and I will also look for a fuller course dealing with research methodologies, especially in my area of human services.

After you reflect on the three separate learning experiences, review your reflections for commonalities and differences.  Do you see any patterns among the three different learning experiences?  Write a brief reflective essay (4-5 pages) identifying commonalities, differences, and patterns, and also projecting what some useful learning strategies might be for you in the future, for different types of learning.


  • 3 reflections
  • reflective essay

in-depth learning activity

Read the article “What is Learning? You and Your Brain,” by Nan Travers, Ph.D.  Outline or list the main ideas in the article.  After the outline/list, write your own questions, observations, and insights that occurred to you as a result of reading the article, with reference to the information in the videos on this page.

Use your outline to help summarize the main ideas in the article, and write a summary.

Then incorporate your summary into a reflective essay (5-7 pages) reacting to the main ideas in the essay with your own insights, referring to and comparing information from the videos on this page with the information in the article, and also responding to the five questions posed at the end of the article. Make sure to cite your source as needed.


  • outline/list
  • summary
  • reflective essay

Related college Learning Goals

Active Learning: Assess and build upon previous learning and experiences to pursue new learning, independently and in collaboration with others.


For more information, see the College Learning Goals Policy.

Interested in Learning more about learning?


Note that there are fuller courses offered in:

  • Reflective Learning
  • Adults as Learners
  • Learning Styles