March 13, 2017

On Student Reflection In Physical Education

I was recently a guest on Ryan Ellis‘ podcast: The PE Umbrella.

One of the questions Ryan asks his guests is “what would a typical class look like in your physical education program?”

Here’s (part of) my answer to that question:

Reflection is a huge part of the way I teach physical education. I’m constantly trying to help my students to think about their learning and progress in class.

Now, I know some people might think “but aren’t you taking away from activity time when you stop class to get the students to reflect?” The answer is: yes. Yes, I’ll sacrifice some activity time within a lesson in order to give my students an opportunity to discuss the challenges they are facing, any success they’ve experienced, or any new ideas/strategies they are trying out.

I’ve never once regretted having done so.

We’re physical educators. Our goal isn’t just to have our students be active within the lessons with teach them or the years we spend with them. Our goal is to provide our students with the knowledge, understanding and skills they need to continue to develop their physical literacy throughout their lifetime and enjoy a lifetime of physical activity.

Only focusing on maximizing physical activity time within single lessons is short term thinking. We need to be thinking in the much longer term.

So how do we do that? Well, the simple answer is: by making sure our students are learning in physical education. Why focus on learning rather than just plain, ol’ games? Because without learning, our students won’t develop the competence and confidence they need in order to be motivated to participate in physical activity throughout their lifetime (special thanks to Dean Kriellars for helping me understand that).

Our role as educators is twofold:

On one hand, we need to design learning activities/environments that provide our students with an appropriate amount of challenge. Challenge that, with hard work and focus, they can grow from and eventually overcome in order to experience success. It’s the age-old formula of “Challenge + Success = Fun”.

On the other hand, we need to provide our students with opportunities to reflect on their learning, their failures and their success. Why? Because, in my opinion, if a student can understand what led to success, they will be in a better position to recreate that success outside of the structured school environment. That said, I’m introducing a new formula to the mix:

"Success + Understanding = Confidence"

Knowing that you can recreate a previous success if needed helps develop confidence. It comes from understanding why you were successful, an understanding that we develop by reflecting on our success. That’s why you’ll see my students taking breaks from activity time in order to reflect on the “why”, “what” and “how” of the activity and their learning.

I’d like to share with you a few different ways that I get my students to reflect in my lessons. Please take note that what works in my situation might not be possible in yours (there is no “one size fits all” for physical education”). That being said, I still wanted to share:

Reflecting On The “Why” Of Physical Education

I’ve blogged before about how I introduced the “Why” of my physical education program to my students. The Adventure Pyramid helps my students think about how what we are learning in today’s lesson isn’t only for today’s success today, it’s for all of tomorrow’s adventures as well.

An important thing to remember is that the introduction of the Adventure Pyramid isn’t a “one-and-done” activity: the pyramid gets brought back up frequently in our lessons to encourage students to try and understand how what we are learning ties into the bigger picture of lifelong engagement in physical activity.

The Adventure Pyramid gets brought up using the app Paper during the “What/Why/How” portion of our lessons.

Reflecting On Successful Learning In Physical Education

Last summer, I was lucky enough to be invited to speak at the Elementary Physical Education Workshop at CalPoly in San Luis Obispo, California (I’ll be there again this summer too, woohoo!)

At the workshop, I got to see my friend/inspiration Terri Drain present a series of sessions on physical literacy. In one of her sessions, Terri shared an activity that she does with her students in which she has them reflecting on what it means to be a “successful” learner. Looking over Terri’s students’ answers, I was amazed at how rich some of their thoughts were.

When I got back to school in late August, I decided to do the activity with each of the grades I teach (one, two, three and six). Here’s how we did it:

I introduced the question (i.e. “what are the habits of successful learners?”) to the class and then had my students partner up and do a “walk and talk” around the gym (i.e. where students discuss their question with a partner, usually during physical activity, before bringing their answers back to the class discussion… it’s an idea I got from the one and only Andy Vasily)

When students were done their walk and talks, the class came back as a group and shared their answers. I tried to write down everything they were saying as fast as I could.

Grade One responses.

Grade Three responses.

Grade Four responses.

Using my students’ answers, I then created a Habits of Successful Learners Mural to serve as a reminded to them of what they know makes for a successful learner. These are strategies that will be brought up in group or individual discussions when students are having difficulty with a challenge.

Reflecting On The What/Why/How Of Each Lesson

This is something that I have blogged about before and yet another idea I got from Terri.

You can download these graphics for free on the Visuals page.

On most day, we’ll start our physical education lessons off by going over the What, Why, How of that lesson: what are we learning today, why are we learning it, and how will we know we have learned it.

Although I usually prepare the “What” and the “How” portions of this practice prior to each lesson, I often have the students determine the “Why” by reflecting in partners again through “walk and talks”.

Making the “What, Why, How” discussion part of my lessons helps set clear expectations for my students and, more importantly, allows my students to tie meaning into what we are learning in class.

Individual And Peer Reflection

My students also perform a lot of individual and peer assessment in class. I do my very best to make sure that the assessment tool is designed in a way that allows the student reflect on progress and set new goals. Here are some examples of these types of assessment tools:

Grade 2 Foot Skills assessment sheet. Students update this sheet throughout the unit, monitor their progress, and determine which critical elements they need to focus on.

Grade 6 Mini-Coach Sheet. Students use this sheet to view patterns, monitor progress and set goals.

Also, students use their Assessment Magnets in class in order to quickly reflect on where they are at in their learning. Here’s a video explaining the Assessment Magnet system and how I set it up (I start explaining the magnets at 2:12):

Here is another, different example of how we use peer-assessment (which we call Mini-Coaching) in physical education to get students reflecting:

Reflection Through And In Games

I use a games approach in my teaching and have been a long time fan of the Teaching Games for Understanding Model. If you’re unfamiliar with the model, here is a video to help get you started:

When I was learning about the TGfU model in university, I was taught how to gradually increase the tactical complexity of games by building them up, layer by layer. Here’s a video that explains that process:

As you can tell from the games in my Standards-Based Games database, I use this layering method in all of the games I teach. Although this is true for several reasons, one of the main reasons is that layering allows me to add breaks to the game in which the class (or a group when we have multiple small-sided games on the go) can engage in tactical talk.

Tactical talk discussions involved conversations about the tactics and skills being explored through the games. During these talks, we will discuss the challenges students are facing, how they are experiencing success, what they have learned from failure, and what new goals they have set for themselves.

Following the discussion, we will then go back into the next build of the game which will add a new layer of complexity to it. Remember that you can also tailor the level of complexity of a game by modifying secondary rules for specific students. Learn more about that in my Designing Games for Learning blog post.

Not sure what questions to ask during tactical talk? Don’t worry: all of the game descriptions for the games in my Standards-Based Games database including discussions questions that you can use. Not sure how to build games up? I’ve got you covered! The games in the database are all broken down into multiple builds. Here’s an example:


So those are a few of the different things I do in my teaching to help promote student reflection. Again, I cannot stress the impact adding time for your students to reflect on their learning can have on their overall development. Success + Understanding = Confidence!

I’d love to hear how you include student reflection in your lessons, so feel free to share your experience with it in the comments below.

Thanks so much for reading and happy teaching!

Joey Feith
Joey Feith is a physical education teacher based out of Nova Scotia and the founder of
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