For many, the beginning of the new calendar year means making resolutions and setting goals. While they can be motivating and productive for some, too often they are short-lived and, before long, people settle back into old routines and habits. There are many theories as to why this happens. I attribute it partly to the fact that most of us do not take time to reflect on and process the past before setting our new intentions. Thus we set goals while missing out on critical information.
Why don’t we take the time to reflect?
I believe there are several reasons. One, despite maintaining that “those who don’t learn from history are destined to repeat it” (Santayana), we are very much a “forward-looking” and future oriented society. Thus, we don’t tend to create opportunities for ourselves or each other to reflect on past events, let alone deeply process and learn from them. Therefore, in order to gain insights from their past, individuals need to be very intentional about doing so. Two, even if we try to be more intentional about reflecting, I don’t know of many people who are likely take time to reflect when things are going well or reflect retrospectively on things that went well. Why rock the boat? It seems most of us tend to go with the flow, keep moving, and prefer to look forward to the next thing, perhaps hoping to capitalize on the positive momentum. Unfortunately this means missing out on great opportunities to use past positive performance to help create future successes. Finally, most people don’t enjoy revisiting situations that didn’t go well or that resulted in a poor or disappointing outcome. It’s understandable. After all, at best we were disappointed or felt uncomfortable; at worst our futures may have been negatively impacted or we may have been deeply hurt. Why would anyone want to relive any experiences that resulted in negative emotions, even if one could learn great deal from doing so?
Dwelling versus reflecting
One observation that may seemingly contradict my last point, and is important to point out, is that while research shows negative events have more impact on us psychologically and we may dwell on them more, referred to as “negativity bias,” we don’t necessarily spend constructive time thinking about how those events came to be. Nor do we try to understand them in order to maximize the learning opportunity. During my time in higher education, this seemed particularly true for high-achieving students who “failed” or had a disappointing outcome or experience. While they may have revisited the situation in their minds, they tended to spend time fixated on the outcome or “beating themselves up over it.” Without support and coaching many failed to, resisted, or found it challenging to think deeply about what happened and why. So while they continued to relive the negative feelings, which sometimes were exacerbated by dwelling on the experience, they missed out on the opportunity to understand what contributed to the experience, what was within their control, and how to address issues and make changes so that a different outcome was more likely in the future.
Value in reflecting on both positive and negative previous experiences
In light of all of this, I can not emphasize enough how helpful it is for students to take time to meaningfully reflect on the recent semester and intentionally process their experiences before the start of the upcoming semester. I believe there is value in all students doing this, whether they were “successful” in the fall or experienced some disappointment or “failure.” For those who were satisfied, it’s an opportunity to better understand their role (and decisions) that resulted in that success, identify key factors/resources that can assist them in the future, and to be more intentional about starting the spring semester. It will also be helpful when (yes, when…not if they have some challenges). For students who did not have the fall they had hoped for, it is an opportunity to purposely process their experiences, understand opportunities for change, and be proactive in creating an action and accountability plan for success prior to the next semester.
Far too often in my career I met with students who were unwilling to devote time or energy to talk about a previous disappointing semester. Others resisted being realistic in setting new intentions. All were convinced this next semester would be significantly “better.” In their defense, I was usually inviting the conversation between semesters when they were away from the stress of school and feeling rejuvenated, refreshed and confident things would be different. Despite not deliberately reflecting on their past decisions and performance, I am confident that they were genuine in their desires and had the best of intentions to “do better.” They earnestly believed they would engage in healthier habits, meet with their advisors, be more disciplined, and access resources without hesitation if they encountered challenges. Somewhere along the way, either one of my colleagues or I came up with this little phrase to summarize what we repeatedly saw play out with these students, “wishful thinking is not an action plan!” It’s easy and understandable to feel recharged and have a renewed sense of confidence during or immediately after a break as both result in some separation from the realities of college. But without giving some attention to and conscious thought about what happened, their role in the experience and what behaviors they will change going forward it is very challenging for students, even those with genuine intentions, to make significant changes.
Opportunity for students to reflect between semesters
So, during this “down” time, encourage students to reflect on this past semester. Ask them to consider the following prompts twice; once for academics and a second time for how things are going socially (i.e., are they making friends, “fitting in,” do they feel like they can be themselves). Suggest they type/write out their responses, not to share but for themselves! And yes, be prepared for the sighs and eye rolls!
- What was a highlight/success and why? What did you (and others) do or contribute?
- What was your biggest challenge? What was your/others reaction to it? What did you have control over? What did you/others do? What else could you have done?
- How did your day to day decisions support (or not) your goals last semester? Did your daily habits reflect your stated desired outcome? If not, what was the disconnect and what does this disconnect reveal?
And, lastly, here is a prompt to help students monitor their effort and behaviors in a somewhat unusual way this upcoming semester:
- What are some questions that you can ask yourself regularly such that when you answer them, you will have an understanding of whether or not you are “on it” (i.e.,“taking care of your business”) and things are going well?
For example, a student might develop questions like the following:
- How many classes have I missed this week?
- How many times have I been late or missed an appointment/taking medications this week?
- How well am I able to explain/teach “X” (i.e., specific course content, concept or homework problem) to others in my course?
- Am I submitting assignments that I feel reflect my best work?
- How well-rested am I and how much time do I have each day to relax/work out/re-charge/have fun?
- Who can I talk to about anything and/or celebrate with and/or seek support from?
- How much am I drinking or using other recreational drugs (and is it interfering with my health, well-being or goals)?
The answers to these types of questions are likely to help a student gauge how things are going for them above and beyond grades. Hopefully this information gives them a sense of how they are doing overall and on an ongoing basis as the semester progresses.
Once a student engages in this reflection, it will likely be most productive if they talk it through with someone. Perhaps they have a close family member (e.g., parent, aunt/uncle, grandparent, cousin) or a teacher, coach, or mentor from high school with whom they were particularly close and/or who is invested in their college experience. They can also reach out to a number of folks on their campus. Just because classes aren’t in session doesn’t mean that staff advisors, career counselors, dean of students staff, and other college student services personnel are not working- trust me, they are! Often they have more availability in between semesters than they do throughout the semester. And believe it or not, they really enjoy these conversations very much! Encourage students to reach out and have a call or virtual meeting with someone on campus prior to the start of the semester. Be prepared for them to initially think this whole thing is a drag. Hopefully they give it a try, take advantage of this opportunity, come to value it, and enter into the reflection conversation with an advisor or mentor willingly. If they truly do embrace it, I am confident it will be time and effort well spent.
For more reflective prompts for your student, send me an email (there are plenty more where these came from), happy to share! And if you have suggestions for ways to assist students in learning from their experiences and setting new intentions, I’d love to hear them-please comment below!
Beth A. Howland is a higher education consultant and college student success coach based in Ithaca, NY. She is the founder of College Navigators, LLC.