eCoaching Tip 88 High-Impact Practices for Summer Courses: Reflections and Patterns

May 15 2011

eCoaching Tip 88 High-Impact Practices for Summer Courses: Reflections and Patterns


How do I make the most of my summer term with my students? Time is short, and it is so important to be clear, focused and productive. This tip focuses on two practices that are effective for making the most of the condensed time frames of summer courses: reflections and patterns. Try them and see what you think!

 Reflection Practices

Reflection is an integral part of the four stage learning cycle developed by David Kolb in his writings on experiential education and learning styles (1984).  Where does reflection fit in the learning cycle?  It is step 2 as seen in the graphic below.

In this learning cycle, learning begins with a concrete experience in the here and now, in some immediate and personal experience.  The experience can be sourced in readings, cases or simulations, even though these experiences are a step-removed from direct experience.  That initial experience is followed by the step of collecting or recording of data and making observations about the experience. The third stage of the cycle is forming conclusions based on the meanings derived from the observations, followed by active experimenting using those beliefs.

Summer courses are by their very nature,  quite condensed and seldom provide room for all of the phases of this full learning cycle, but there are a few ways we can deepen the reflection part of the cycle. We do know that if we just keep pushing content at students without designing in time for reflection that learning doesn’t happen.

Phil Race (2006) of the University of Leeds has developed a set of questionsthat you can use in developing activities and guiding the reflective processes that are an essential part of deep learning. These questions are actually clusters of questions that can be good catalysts for discussion forums. Keep in mind that the overall goal of reflection is to “make sense” of what they are learning.  These types of questions can be easily integrated into many of your existing assignments, so you can try some of these questions almost immediately.

Here are two clusters of questions, adapted from Race’s suggestions. One of these clusters has been adapted for the reading assignments that you probably have this summer. The second cluster can be used to guide a learner’s reflection on a brief case study analysis.

Question cluster for a reading assignment:

  • How did this reading assignment move my thinking forward, or expand my understanding? How did one of the ideas connect with, deepen, or change the thinking that I had prior to the reading?  What question do I have that I would like to answer going forward?

Here is a personal example of how this might work in practice. I have been pushing myself to stay current with evolving learning theory developments by exploring a book by Lawrence Shapiro called Embodied Cognition. This is not an easy read. Making sense of what I am reading takes some work, similar to that which a student might have on a difficult reading assignment. I am fortunate that I have the luxury of reading portions of it, skipping around a bit, stopping and then going back to it in a few days or even weeks.  Our students don’t have that time, and thus the need to stop, think, record, write, discuss, and share, talk their thoughts aloud with others is essential for meanings to take root. Questions such as these can help frame their thinking and help to make sense of the ideas and experiences in the assignment.

By the way, if you are wondering just what embodied cognition is, here is a starter definition. Embodied cognition — as a theory of how we know — suggests our ability to know is shaped by how our bodies and senses interact with the world.  One of my personal beliefs that this reinforces the role that environments, including the power of authentic contexts, such as cases and simulations play in learning. Following this train of thought, the next question cluster focuses on cases, problems and scenarios.

Question cluster for a case, problem or scenario?

  • What did I find to be the greatest challenge in analyzing or judging the merits of this case? Why was this a challenge to me? What do I need to do, learn, practice so that I will be more ready to meet a similar challenge in the future?

One or two of these questions can also be used as follow up questions in discussion forums.

Where, What Spaces are Good for Reflection?

You may be wondering just where, in what types of spaces in Blackboard or Moodle that reflection practices can be used. Here are three places often work well.

Discussion Forums: First of all, these kinds of reflection questions can fit very well in the discussion forums. Because discussion forums always need to link learning back to individual experiences and what students already know, these questions will draw out fairly unique responses as learners make sense of the readings based on who they are and their prior experiences. Since we want the discussion forums to also build community and dialogue, we can also add a guiding suggestion for some of the forums, such as, “How are your ideas similar to the thinking of some of your colleagues?”

Blogs or Journals:The second great place to use these types of reflection questions to guide the students’ blogging or journaling.

Written Assignments: The third place to use these question clusters is in a short written assignment.  Or similarly, these questions can be part of the debriefing after a larger project assignment.

Before closing, let’s look at two additional high-impact, high-engagement practices.

Pattern Practices

One of the earlier eCoaching tips (Tip 70) focused on identifying and affirming patterns in your course content. This is a particularly powerful teaching approach in summer because is helps to chunk an overwhelming amount of information into more usable and memorable chunks.

A helpful quote regarding the need for patterns is this quote attributed to Marshall McLuhan,  “Faced with information overload, we have no alternative but pattern recognition.”   Marshall McLuhan, 1969.

Patterns can make your teaching easier, because learners will more quickly develop a feeling of confidence and be less stressed.  How do you get started with pattern making?  The first step is for you identify what you see as the fundamental patterns and cycles in your course content?  But not to worry, if you have not yet done this. Ask the students to share what patterns they see, what connections that they see with other knowledge. It may well be that your learners will identify patterns that you have not seen or noticed before.

When and how might be a good time to do this?  About 2-3 weeks into the course, include a question on patterns in your discussion forums or in your short paper assignments.

What patterns might get them started thinking? You can encourage thinking in terms of visual patterns as well as connections and relationships.  Here are a couple of examples.

  • The University of Northern Iowa College of Education site, InTime, provides this example of the use of patternsin a literature class. This class studied the connections between Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy to the modern topic of teen suicide rate. As stated, “This activity requires students to see patterns and make connections between the past and present, finding similarities between conditions then and now. The insights they gain will help them better understand the present through the past. “
  • In the study of leadership many patterns come to mind, such as the transactional and transformational style concepts identified by James MacGregor Burns in 1978.Examining the patterns of behavior and outcomes that result from different style would be one level of pattern making. Applying these concepts to other arenas such as social and personal relationships might be another level of pattern making and yield other insights.
  • Consider also the power of visual patterns. In mathematics, for example, fractals are patterns that contain self-similar patterns of complexity increasing with magnification. In other words, when a fractal pattern is divided into parts you get a nearly identical reduced-size copy of the whole. See examples of fractals in cauliflowers, snowflakes, and waterfalls atWired Science.

An engaging article from the Chronicle of Higher Education

As a final note, I would like to recommend an article from the May 13, 2011 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education. The article is New Technologies to Get Your Students Engagedby Ryan Cordell.  Ryan teaches English at St. Norbert College and is a regular contributor to The Chronicle’s ProfHacker blog. Ryan lists four pedagogical goals that he thinks technologies now make possible for our students and that make a difference in learning well and with purpose. These goals fit well with our focus on reflection and pattern making.

  • Conduct research using primary sources.
  • Organize their work (Recommends using free tool, Zotero, from
  • Practice real scholarship
  • Work collaboratively

Drop a note when you can about what is going well or not for you and any suggestions for future tips or webinars.


Burns, J.M, (1978, 2010), Leadership, N.Y, Leadership. Harper Perennial Political Classics, pp. 544.

Clark, D. R. (2004-2008), Kolb’s Learning Styles and Experiential Learning Model. Retrieved June 1, 2013 from

E-Coaching Tip 70 (2009) Course Beginnings – Finding the Patterns in Your Content Retrieved June 1, 2013from

Kolb, D. (1984). Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

McNally, J. Earth’s Most Stunning Natural Fractal Patterns.  Wired Science. September 10, 2010. Retrieved June 1, 2013 from

Race, P. Evidencing reflection: Putting the “w” into reflection. Retrieved June 1 2013 from

Note: These E-coaching tips were initially developed for faculty in the School of Leadership & Professional Advancement at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, PA. This library of tips has been organized and updated through 2016  in the second edition of the  book, The Online Teaching Survival Guide: Simple and Practical Pedagogical Tips coauthored with Rita Marie Conrad. Judith can be reached judith followed by

Copyright by Judith V. Boettcher