Using meta-reflection for professional development: how to tap into the full potential of online discussion forums

Adrian Lam offers guiding questions and prompts that help students reflect on their own ways of thinking and working to aid their professional growth

Adrian Man-Ho Lam's avatar
The University of Hong Kong
7 Dec 2021
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Advice on guiding meta-reflection among students to get the most out of class discussion forums

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Instructors often incorporate online discussion forums into their courses, and many students write posts rich with ideas, questions and strategies during the semester. Nonetheless, both parties often fail to track the high points of the discussion and capture the take-home messages, which can be the most useful parts.

It is important for students to reflect on and synthesise significant areas of personal and collaborative learning. Here, I describe a series of steps designed to spur comprehensive meta-reflection among students – that is, to reflect on their own ways of thinking – at the end of the semester to assess collaboration, enquiry and professional knowledge-building.

The meta-reflection should start with students selecting threads of fruitful and meaningful discussion from the online forum; a good thread consists of 10 to 12 posts of sustained discussion. After that, students can give thought to the following guiding steps and stimulating prompts to facilitate their meta-reflection.

All five suggested prompts – context and topic; idea development and knowledge-building; theory-practice reflection; collaboration; and consolidation and new learning ­– can be organised to best fit students’ verbal presentations or written summaries. They should also use tables, figures and quotes to support their discussion and illustration. They may choose to annotate or mark the discussion threads to highlight key points in their meta-reflection.

An example of a group of teachers reflecting on their own online discussions regarding their school experience, through a group presentation, is used to illustrate these principles:

Set the context and topic

Students should first give a summary of the discussion, providing the context and issues considered. They might then explain why they selected that particular thread for meta-reflection.

In our example, the group selected a thread discussing the issues of curriculum development in a school-based context and how to cater to individual differences. They looked at the relationship between top-down curriculum and bottom-up student needs, and the challenges of their roles and responsibilities as middle-out teachers to mediate between these two thorny issues – even for experienced teachers. They argued that generic guidelines, often provided by authority, neglected the true complexity in addressing both topics.

Idea development and knowledge-building

Students can then consider what is the discussion about. This requires them to think about how the problems are explored and addressed collaboratively; how the ideas and questions develop; how these are improved as the discussion develops; and, most crucially, whether the discussion changes their understanding and in what ways.

In the example group, they were working at different schools with different education backgrounds and professional experience. They understood that these differences helped them question others’ beliefs and assumptions, such as whether streaming is effective in catering for learner diversity, whether school-based curricula directly affect students’ public examination results, even how can teachers alleviate the potential problems brought by the differentiated learning approach. These teacher-students treated one another as valuable resources for learning.

Theory-practice reflection

To support deeper learning, students need to consider how theories learned in the class are applied in practice and how their experience is interpreted, with concepts for deepening practice-based learning shared in the thread. They may also consider whether they discuss theory-practice gaps and what they have learned, and how they made use of theory-practice integration to gain new knowledge.

Throughout the discussion, the example group starts to analyse learning materials at their schools with the aid of various educational theories learned in class. They realise that the school-based curriculum is sometimes widening rather than narrowing student equity. They then come up with the idea of designing an interdisciplinary community of practice to allow teachers across disciplines to collaborate and share experiences and resources, which better fits students’ learning needs and expectations.


Students think about what they have learned from their fellow classmates, how they helped their respective group to deepen the discussion and whether they are working well as a team. Through these questions, they can reflect on their understanding of why online discussion is carried out and what are the benefits of dialogue.

The example group noted that they were striving for ideas for improvement and deepening of the collective discourse. They gradually identified sub-themes and questions for further enquiry. They posed meaningful questions that helped scaffold emergent discussions and theory refinement. They built on and linked to others’ posts and comments. As a result, they deepened understanding and encouraged a natural integration of course topics with a thorough analysis of real-life school issues.

They acknowledged that the discussion forums had made them more comfortable with uncertainties as well as solutions as they needed to hold different perspectives in tension throughout the discussion process. This helped them gradually integrate skills such as active reasoning, ongoing enquiry and healthy questioning, enhancing their self-reflective practices as professional teachers. Switching the focus from trying to win the debate and back up their own stance to exploring differences in perspective and opinion, helped them develop their ideas through constant examination, testing and refinement.

Consolidation and new learning

Ultimately, students need to integrate different themes and viewpoints. By analysing their discussions, they can identify the highlights of their newly gained and changing understanding. Most importantly, they need to think about the implications for their continuing growth and enquiry in their studies and professional life.

The example group explicitly stated that they were dedicated to continuing professional teaching development beyond the completion of this task. They understood the importance of developing active enquiry and discourse, creating ongoing cycles of critical reflection, tapping into collective intelligence, building capacity for change, and improving their knowledge and practice. They agreed that the power of intellectual discussion is to inspire, enrich and derive principles to guide their professional judgement.

Adrian Man-Ho Lam is a course tutor and a guest lecturer in the Faculty of Education at the University of Hong Kong.


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