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Educ China 2009, 4(4): 541557

DOI 10.1007/s11516-009-0030-1


ZHANG Dingqiang, ZHAO Hongyuan, YANG Hong

Fostering mathematical reflective abilities

through high school teaching activities

Higher Education Press and Springer-Verlag 2009

Abstract The reflective ability in mathematics is a highly individual mental

process, which is engaged in the course of certain types of mathematics activity.
This article describes the basic meaning, characteristics, and developmental
features of reflectivity in mathematics. It is suggested that reflective ability in
mathematics and its relations with other mathematical abilities helps improve
students long term mathematical and creative capacities. The authors develop a
trial reflective component to high school mathematics education in order to
determine the degree of short-term mathematics improvement measured by
examination success, as well as long-term benefits to the student, thus promoting
mathematics curriculum reform.

Keywords reflection, reflective abilities, encouraging students to raise questions,

demonstration, training

Translated by Heather Mowbray from Shuxue Jiaoyu Yanjiu (Journal of

Mathematics Education), 2008, 17(1): 3842
ZHANG Dingqiang ( ),YANG Hong
School of Education, Northwest Normal University, Lanzhou 730070, China
E-mail: zhangdq@nwnu.edu.cn

ZHAO Hongyuan
Wuwei Occupational College, Wuwei 733000, China
542 ZHANG Dingqiang, ZHAO Hongyuan, YANG Hong

1 Introduction
Reflection is the driving force at the very core of mathematical activity
(Freudthal, 1979), arguably forming one of the key components of mathematical
thinking itself (Freudthal, 1994). It is posited therefore that mathematical
activities cannot be carried out successfully without involving serious reflection.
From the authors extensive experience of high school mathematics teaching in
China, an interesting phenomenon was observed. Among students aged between
15 and 18, the reflection underpinning mathematical activity rarely took place,
and students consciousness of reflection in mathematical thinking was low.
Moreover, if students did reflect on mathematics, their strategies and approaches
were relatively limited; and their reflective abilities hard to detect. In this article,
reflective ability refers to the individual psychological characteristics needed
to complete an act of reflection. This phenomenon, observed by the authors, has
had significant impact on the extent to which students gain mathematical
competence and has implications for the development of their ability to innovate.
In this context, the authors started a one-year research project in September 2003
entitled, Fostering Mathematical Reflective Abilities of High School Students.
This small-scale study aimed to explore effective ways to improve high school
students ability to reflect while undertaking mathematical tasks. The authors also
put forward specific suggestions on how this could be done in practice.

2 Research targets, methods and procedures

2.1 Research targets

The targets chosen for this piece of research were two groups of students from
the same school, both in their first year of high school study. Class A included 60
sample students; Class B numbered 61. These two groups of students were
randomly assigned classes when entering high school, with most students in both
classes coming from rural areas.
Beyond a thorough literature review, research methods applied to the two
groups included observation, questionnaires, interviews and action research. The
research goal, to identify ways to foster high school students mathematical
reflective ability, was reached in non-manipulated classroom settings. Data was
collected from in-class teacher observation and questionnaire feedback, through
student interviews and by reading and analyzing homework. The data was
analyzed using the three-pronged analytical method popular in action research,
and was then sorted so that the qualitative analysis could be supplemented by
quantitative analysis.
Fostering mathematical reflective abilities through high school teaching activities 543

2.2 Research procedure

Step 1: Conduct a thorough literature review; observe the student learning process
and distribute questionnaires; identify the nature of reflection and factors that
prevent high school students from developing reflective ability in mathematical
activities; select and decide on a number of methods to help students improve
reflective abilities; build an essential model to be applied in the next stage.
Step 2: Using student questionnaire feedback, reach an understanding of first
year high school students reflective abilities and develop a research plan.
Step 3: Focus on classroom teaching; encourage students to ask questions to
reflect, and recognize the importance and necessity of reflection.
Step 4: Introduce students to reflective techniques and methods in the
classroom; assign homework so that students can experience and apply these
techniques themselves.
Step 5: Reinforce and reintroduce reflective techniques to students in as many
scenarios as possible.
Step 6: Analyze questionnaire feedback; observe student behavior in the
classroom and check reflective task-related homework; find out how students
understand and digest reflection techniques and methods; identify application
problems and solutions.
Step 7: Generalize research results and decide on the best methods to help high
school students improve reflective abilities; obtain feedback on the effectiveness
of these methods and continue to improve on them for widespread use.

3 Modeling
The following model for helping students to improve mathematical reflection
was built on the basis of a pre-research literature review, years of teaching
experiences as well as the use of questionnaires, observation, interviews and
homework analysis (Fig. 1):
Encourage Demonstration
Arouse Imitate


Improve Strengthen

Evaluation Training

Fig. 1 Basic model to help students improve their mathematical reflective abilities
544 ZHANG Dingqiang, ZHAO Hongyuan, YANG Hong

This model shows a process for helping students to improve mathematical

reflection. It contains four elements of a teaching exercisefirstly, encouraging
students to ask questions; secondly, teacher demonstration; thirdly, exercise by
the students, and finally, evaluation by students and teacher. This model focuses
on reflection. Reflection is stimulated by the student feeling there is a problem
or difficult aspect involved in the task at hand. Reflection is a highly intellectual
thinking process, involving self-perception, self assessment, and self questioning.
It plays a leading, guiding and monitoring role in carrying out the task, enabling
a decisive mathematical cognition process to be completed accurately and with a
degree of sustainably. It is therefore highly important to introduce reflection into
various aspects of teaching, and reinforce students reflective awareness in all
aspects of the teaching process.
Since reflection is stimulated by the student feeling there is a problem or
difficulty, the first step should be to help the student realize that problems are
essential to the study of mathematics. The natural sense of confusion tends to
generate a tendency towards revolution, a desire to get rid of complexity and
find solutions. This is what the authors mean by jiyi, i.e., encouraging students
to posit questions when studying. The second step is to gradually help the
students to discover the nature of the problem or difficulties they found
themselves in during the first step. At this point, reflection turns from being a
passive to being an active process. The student is helped to re-examine and
assess the effectiveness of mathematical study strategies, thus entering a state of
reflection. Step 1 discussed above has stimulated new question-raising habits in
the student and created the need for reflection, but still the student lacks real
reflection techniques and experiences major obstacles to learning at this stage.
Step 3 involves teacher demonstration designed to solve the mathematical
problem in a reflective way. The class is demonstrated to by the teacher in such a
way as to simulate the internal thinking mechanism. This step exposes the
subjects to techniques of reflection. By this method, the student gains first hand
experience and knowledge of reflection. Further exercises are then needed to
reinforce the experiences and practice techniques aiming at proficiency, and
moreover, to form an in-built reflective ability. During the exercises, evaluation
at all times is necessary, by which the students reflective ability are reinforced,
gradually being strengthened and improved. Reflection is indispensible at all the
stages discussed in this chapter (the raising of questions, demonstration, practice
and evaluation), therefore, reflection itself is a decisive factor in the attempt to
enable students to build their reflective abilities in mathematics.
The process of fostering the construction of students reflective abilities is an
upwards spiral, with one step following another in the sequence described. The
process starts from encouraging question-raising and proceeds in a clockwise
fashion. It can also start from demonstration or exercises, moving in a clockwise
Fostering mathematical reflective abilities through high school teaching activities 545

or counter-clockwise direction. Each cycle is not a simple replication of the

previous cycle, and should proceed with identifiable improvement (in reflective
ability) being noticeable at each step.

4 Applying the model in practice

The reflection construction model put forward in the previous section was
applied in the practice of high school mathematics teaching over the course of
one school year. While applying this model, mistakes occurring in students
homework were categorized and analyzed. The students were also asked to go
over their reflective techniques and methods learned using playback methods.
They also kept diaries and recorded their relevant learning activities. The
students are asked to use a manual on Polyas How to solve it to answer real
mathematical questions and to consider how reflection should be exercised in
problem-solving. The detailed process of application is as follows:

4.1 keeping students motivated, raising and reinforcing reflective awareness

and behavior among students

The abstract nature of mathematical knowledge makes mathematical study

difficult for high school students. If not driven by persistent interest and the
desire to become a responsible autonomous individual (by solving the problems
one encounters in life), mathematical conundrums cannot easily be overcome,
despite students discovering the existence of such problems. They may easily
give up mathematics study at this stage. Therefore, to foster reflective ability
among students, the primary task is to encourage curiosity and motivate a
willingness to study. As far as the authors are concerned, the first and foremost
goal of mathematics study for Chinese high school students is to pass the
university entrance exam and continue with higher education at university. To be
accepted by a good university requires a high score in mathematics in the college
entrance examinations and in many cases it is not easy to enhance students
mathematics score quickly within a short period of time. With this in mind, it is
crucially important to stress and emphasize the motives for mathematics study,
because these are established by students themselves. This is a powerful message
to high school students and acts as a flag, symbol and measurement of success.
To conclude, high school mathematics teachers should keep students motivated,
helping them to combine long-term objectives (entering university) and
short-term goals (enhancing their scores in mathematics exams). The students
should also learn to set realistic goals for their mathematics score, be internally
motivated and consequently, enhance their reflective awareness in the course of
546 ZHANG Dingqiang, ZHAO Hongyuan, YANG Hong

their mathematics activities.

4.2 Demonstration by the teacher on reflective knowledge and methods

Reflection is by nature a hidden individual thought-process. By simply observing

behavior, it is hard to see how students and teachers reflect on the mathematics
tasks. However, classroom teaching and learning allows sufficient exposure of
the thinking process of teachers and students. In our research, we asked both
teachers and students to play the role of demonstrators and work in turn as key
and supporting demonstrators.
Teacher demonstration methods included:

a. Commenting on the students level of involvement in the teaching and

learning process, in order to help student to reflect on their own sense of
b. Reflecting on the implementation of the teaching plans for each teaching
unit, in order to help students reflect on their study plans;
c. Deliberately leaving time for students to ask questions, in order to explain to
them the thinking process behind the task, thus demonstrating how to reflect;
d. Demonstrating by asking students to reflect on the process after they
successfully solved a question or categorizing and analyzing errors and mistakes
discovered in homework;
e. Designing and conducting special reflection courses using demonstration as
a key teaching method;
f. Applying indicative phrases from Polyas Problem-solving Table tips to the
teaching of mathematics.

Student demonstration methods consisted of:

a. Sharing ones reflective process with classmates by explaining how the

solution to a problem was found and by way of what thinking processes;
b. Discussion and experience sharing;
c. Sharing with others ones reflection homework;
d. Sharing ones reflection notes with others.

The results of these demonstrations by teachers and students proved to be

satisfactory. Students were able to accumulate reflective knowledge and
experience through simulations and exchange of ideas. They learnt how to reflect
and came to understand the benefits of reflection to their study.
Fostering mathematical reflective abilities through high school teaching activities 547

4.3 Reinforcing reflective techniques by carrying out supplementary exercises

Practice of the reflective techniques learnt is essential to the construction of

reflective abilities. Therefore, homework with a reflective component should be
assigned, to encourage the student to monitor thinking processes by using
reflection, adjust their channels of reflection and generally apply techniques
learnt in class. Furthermore, the teacher should give students enough time to
practice their skills, compare the results of different skills and aim for proficiency
in using reflection for mathematics. In order to do so, the authors arranged for
reflection practice to take place both in and out of the classroom teaching settings.
The specific indicators were:

a. To give students the opportunity to think aloud in class in order to

monitoring and adjusting their ways of thinking;
b. To give students the opportunity to apply indicative phrases from Polyas
Problem-solving Table in class, therefore, monitoring and adjusting their way of
c. To assign tasks at the proper level of difficulty as homework so as to enable
students to practice reflection;
d. To encourage students to monitor and adjust their own homework by
applying indicative phrases in the Polyas Problem-solving Table and to create
their own indicative phrases;
e. To encourage students to reflect after completion of phases of study and
encourage timely reviews and summarize experiences.

For teachers, the main method of instilling a habit of reinforcement practice on

the students is through the assignment of homework. In more detail, this means:

a. Asking students to compare similar mathematical definitions, concepts,

formulas and theorems, and then analyzing and enhancing their understanding of
these concepts. For example, reflective homework after studying the concept of
angles wasQ: Please discuss and compare definitions of positive angle,
negative angle, acute angle, obtuse angle, right angle, angles have same terminal
side and quadrant angle. After the trigonometric functions of these angles were
studied, students were asked to think of the connection and difference between
trigonometric functions of any angle and the trigonometric functions of an acute
angle; when students learnt the sum and difference formulas for sine, cosine and
tangent function, they were asked to find out the relation between trigonometric
functions and induction formulas, so that they could gain an understanding of the
inner relations among these concepts through reflection.
548 ZHANG Dingqiang, ZHAO Hongyuan, YANG Hong

b. After demonstration of reflective techniques by the teacher, students were

asked to mimic the reflective process. For example, by using Polyas
Problem-solving Table to solve mathematical questions and reflect on the
problem-solving process. The teacher first demonstrated how to use the table,
then assigned homework to exercise the technique. By doing so, the students
learnt step by step how to use the indicative phrases in the Polyas
Problem-solving Table to solve and reflect on the problem, thus gaining a
stronger result from the learning experience.

4.4 Strengthening students reflective abilities through authentic assessment

Results of pedagogic experiments show that students are more motivated and
active in learning in cases where they know the outcomes of what they already
learnt than when the outcomes are kept from them, and that the results of
learning are far better in the in the former case than in the latter. It is therefore
crucial to evaluate the outcome of learning in a timely manner. Evaluation, if
carried out properly, has an essential part to play in improving students reflective
abilities. Authentic assessment is a collection of evaluation methods targeted at
students learning behavior, outcomes, motivation and attitude. These methods
must be consistent with the teaching objectives and methods applied in the
classroom. For an open and fair authentic assessment, data must be collected
from multiple channels, including classroom, homework and examinations. The
data can be collected by sending out questionnaires, observation and record
taking, reading and scoring students homework and reflection diaries,
workshops and discussions, etc. (Paris and Ayres, 2001)

4.4.1 Evaluation through student performance in the classroom

a. Student participation in teaching and learning in the classroom

Mathematical questions are by nature abstract, and the more complex might
easily scare the student off from going into the topic with any degree of depth.
Some, especially those who have learning difficulties or who are less outgoing in
personality, tend not to actively take part in classroom teaching and learning
activities. Therefore, teachers should pay more attention to these students,
encouraging and affirming their participation wherever possible. The student
should also be asked to reflect on the benefit and losses attributed to participation
and non-participation so that they understand the purpose and furthermore,
enhance their learning confidence.
b. Student thinking process during classroom teaching
Students are the key engines of the classroom learning process, and must be
given space and time to think on their own. Since each student is different in
Fostering mathematical reflective abilities through high school teaching activities 549

terms of his/her knowledge structure and mathematical thinking abilities, they

are likely to think differently and come up with a spectrum of interesting
solutions. In view of limitations on time and fixed goals of teaching of each
teaching unit, teachers necessarily pay more attention to mainstream solutions
or solutions suggested by good or above average students, or even, simply the
solutions given by teachers themselves. Many solutions that are not common
tend to be ignored. To change this situation, teachers should give attention to
both mainstream and non-mainstream ideas. For mainstream ones, teachers
should evaluate and extract the rational parts of these ways of thinking as well as
encouraging students to reflect on their thinking processes. For non-mainstream
ideas, the teachers should encourage the student to keep working on his/her
original idea, or ask the student to write it down during reflective homework. By
reading this homework, the teacher will be able to help the student to reflect
further on the suggestion. One other approach is that students can share and
discuss ideas they came up with individually with the rest of the class.
Example question: What is the value of the following equation? (Use
trigonometric sum and difference formulas)
1 + tan15
1 tan15
Ask the student to find a solution to the above question. The common
mainstream method is:
1 + tan15 1 + tan (45 30 )
= .
1 tan15 1 tan (45 30 )

Most students tried to solve this question by way of the above process mainly
because they had just been introduced to the sum and difference formulas for
tangent function and their thinking was limited to this knowledge that they had
just been exposed to. In this way, the question was answered correctly, but in a
complicated way. However, there is a more direct and easy way to answer this
question: by changing 1 in the question into tan 45, which is the expansion of
the formula tan (45 + 15). How to help the student to find this easy solution?
Indicative phrases in Polyas Problem-solving Table could be used to help. The
teachers can ask students questions like: Can you find the answer straight away
from the question? What can you get out of the answer of this question? Most
students will at the stage understand the easy and direct problem-solving method,
and realize that the formulae learnt can be used in different ways. Enlightened by
this problem-solving technique, the students quickly checked their thinking
process and compared the two methods, one complicated and one direct. The
teacher further induced the students to think by asking, Which is the better
550 ZHANG Dingqiang, ZHAO Hongyuan, YANG Hong

solution? Is the mainstream solution correct? Can you simplify it? To reinforce
what has been achieved in the classroom in building reflective abilities, the
students were asked to check their homework and find out if there were easier
ways or different ways to come to the same conclusion.
For instance, one student found out that the following formulae could be used
in reverse to solve problems:
sin() cos + cos() sin;
sin(+) cos + sin(+) sin.
This experience helped students to learn the benefits of reflection, thus
enhancing their voluntary reflective abilities.
c. Lecture outcomes
With more than sixty students over different mathematical levels in each high
school class, interest in mathematics and motives of learning is bound to differ
considerably. It is very important for a teacher to evaluate the level of acceptance
of his/her lecturing style and correct problems existing in the listening process.
The outcomes of listening are reflected in how students take on knowledge being
taught at class, how they finish their homework, etc. Based on this information,
the teacher can give positive or negative comments on students listening
outcomes, stimulating students reflection on their performance in the classroom,
and ultimately, enhancing the effectiveness of the teacher-led lecturing aspect of

4.4.2 Evaluation by means of student homework

Homework is a most commonly used and timely tool of communication between

teacher and students. Students personalities can be seen clearly through
homework. The communication through homework happens almost everyday
between teacher and students. Traditionally, homework is assigned to help
students reinforce the knowledge they learnt at school during the day. The
teachers also collect information on how the students accept the knowledge for
the day. The traditional function of homework stresses the students acquirement
of knowledge; with signals sent out by homework about students thinking ability,
their learning attitude and emotional development were often neglected. In view
of this, teachers should evaluate students homework from the cognition and
common sense aspects and make full use of information hidden within students
a. How students solve problems
Exercises in students note books closely relate to what students are taught by
textbooks. The aim of exercises is to help students better understand received
Fostering mathematical reflective abilities through high school teaching activities 551

knowledge. Homework (the exercises in ones notebook) reveals how the

students grasp knowledge and their methods of thinking when trying to find
answers to the questions in front of them. For example: prove sufficient and
necessary condition for sin > 0 and cos < 0. The textbook example only proved
its sufficiency, but did not prove its necessity. Student A carried out the proof using
the trigonometric function. The reasoning was: Let P (x, y) be a point on the
terminal side of angle and r = x 2 + y 2 , then falls in the second quartrant, and
x<0 sin=y/r > 0 sin> 0
, therefore, , so: .
y>0 cos=x/r < 0 cos< 0

This is a clear and sophisticated way to solve the question, and also a good
solution. The teacher therefore marked good idea at the students notebook and
ask him to show the others the way he had solved the question, so that others
could also be encouraged to innovate.
While marking homework, the teacher should pay attention to errors and
mistakes, especially less common mistakes. The teacher should make use of
Polyas Problem-solving Table to encourage students to think more extensively
and broadly and to find related questions to the ones they are solving. In this
way, students self-monitoring abilities are expected to improve significantly.
For instance, the teacher may write down questions while marking a students
homework in order to stimulate reflection: You didnt remember the formula
correctly, what should you do if this happens? The computing of a value is
wrong, why? How to improve? Please read the question carefully, can you
verify your conclusion? Can you prove you are right at each step of your
b. Student learning attitudes
The way a student finishes his/her homework can reveal a students change of
attitude towards learning. Whether the handwriting is tidy, whether the student is
careful to avoid minor errors, and the overall quality of the piece of homework
all send useful information to the teacher about subtle changes happening to the
students attitude. If the teacher carefully picks up on signals in the students
homework, s/he can help the student to reflect by giving out reminder notes.
Writing notes on a students homework is also good approach to remonstrate
with a student who has misbehaved in class. It is always better to remind the
student of such misbehavior afterwards than it is to point it out in the classroom
in front of fellow students, taking time and risking upsetting the student.
Example notes on students homework are: Please concentrate in class; Ive
noticed an improvement in your study these days, keep it up; Your handwriting is
not very tidy, please improve; Concentrate on your study and Ill support you;
552 ZHANG Dingqiang, ZHAO Hongyuan, YANG Hong

Ask yourself a question: what is your study goal? I noticed you sometimes look
sleepy in the classroom, please take a good rest; I notice you are low these days,
try to find out why; or try harder, there is light at the end of the tunnel! These
notes on students homework help students feel that the teacher is concerned
about their individual problems and supports them, thus they are more willing to
accept the teachers advice and reflect on their shortcomings and potentially
abandon bad habits.
c. Evaluation through examination scores
In China, performance in the learning process is regularly and fairly
evaluated by class teachers. The evaluation results are mostly acceptable to the
students. However, the Chinese system has tended to use examination as the
supreme judge of a students school performance. Students therefore often
overestimate the significance of examination scores over general classroom
learning. Often a student fails to objectively evaluate his/her abilities beyond
the scores obtained. If a student does not perform well, s/he is likely to lose
confidence in further study. In the framework of this research project, the
authors conducted four end-of-chapter tests, one mid-term and one end-of-term
exam. The results of students self-evaluation of their performance show that 80
percent did not see their performance during the investigation period positively;
23 percent thought their low score in the exams was due to low intelligence.
Such self-evaluation demonstrates a lack of confidence and may well affect
students motivation in carry on studying. In view of this situation, an objective
and properly phrased remark by the teacher becomes crucially important. The
teacher should compare the student with his/her classmates, but also emphasize
the students changes/improvements over time, so as to help the student realize
and reflect on his/her progress, becoming more confident in future learning

5 Analysis of data
As part of the research, the authors analyzed the test results of Class A and Class
B (see Table 1 below):

Table 1 Mathematics test results of Class A and Class B

Class A 105 12.5 43.81 12.7 34.6 12.7 29.4 16.02 32 12.80 60.3 22.91
Class B 104 11.5 33.7 11.65 29.7 11.65 29.3 12.59 35.3 4.72 64.7 20.6

XS1: Result of high school entrance exam mathematics test (full score 150)
XS2: Result of numerical reasoning test scores (full score 100)
Fostering mathematical reflective abilities through high school teaching activities 553

XS3: Result of 1st semester mid-term examination (full score 100)

XS4: Result of 1st semester term end examination (full score 100)
XS5: Result of 2nd semester mid-term examination (full score 100)
XS6: Result of 2nd semester term end examination (full score 100)

Table 1 shows that Class Bs average score is lower than Class A at the
beginning of the trial. The class caught up gradually and overtook Class A. Class
Bs average score rose slowly but underwent no significant change. Therefore, in
the authors opinion, exam performance was not significantly improved through
the fostering of reflective abilities in mathematics.
The authors distributed a questionnaire about reflection in mathematics
learning to Class B in June 2004. All 60 questionnaires were returned and
analyzed (see Table 2 below):

Table 2 Frequency of reflection in Class Bs mathematics learning

Reflect when asked Occasionally Reflect voluntarily Reflect very often
% 44.4 25.9 11.1 18.6

Table 2 shows that approximately 29.7 percent students did reflect

voluntarily or even frequently during the academic year; 44.4 percent
reflected when prompted, and a further 25.9 percent reflected only
occasionally. This result showed dramatic improvement compared with the
figures from the questionnaire sent out at the beginning of the research
project, where almost 92 percent did not know the reasons for reflection or
how to reflect. Table 2 tells us that 55.6 percent students were now conscious
about reflection in their learning, and that some were able to reflect without
prompting. What about the rest who did not reflect? What prevented them
from doing so?
Table 3 shows that 40.7 percent of those who did not reflect lacked reflection
techniques. The reason might be because the teachers demonstration was less
effective to address student needs. 19.7 percent of students did not reflect
because they did not have time, this figure being much lower than those from
interview and reflection homework. Some students argued the opposite way,
time was not a question, reflection can be done at any time if you are willing to
do so. In Table 3, there were still 42.6 percent who attributed lack of reflection
to low motivation. Why was this still the case?

Table 3 Reasons for unwillingness to reflect (multiple choice)

Time constraints Techniques required Motivation Other
% 19.7 40.7 42.6 7.4
554 ZHANG Dingqiang, ZHAO Hongyuan, YANG Hong

From Table 4 we see that only 18.5 percent of students reflected because they
found the subject matter interesting; 48.1 percent did so because they wanted to
go to a good university and took this as the main motive for reflective learning.
(In explanation, to enter a good university, a high mathematics score is a must,
therefore, if a students score in mathematics is low or decreases, s/he will
become less motivated to learn, consequently losing their desire to reflect on the
mathematical skills being learnt.) The research project then put forward a further
question: What do you think of your performance in mathematics after the
introduction of reflective learning? (see Table 5 below):

Table 4 What are the motives for reflection in your study?

Interest Aspiration To enter a good university To improve intelligence Other
% 18.5 16.7 48.1 11.1 5.6

Table 5 Self-reflection on mathematics performance

Improved Decreased The same Do not know
% 27.8 0 9.2 63

Table 5 shows that 37 percent believe that their mathematics score improved
or stayed at a stable level. No student thought his/her score went gone down
after they conducted reflection in mathematics learning. However, there were
still 63 percent who did not know how their performance changed through
reflection. Why is that? The authors discovered that this might because of the
timing of this questionnaire, since when the students were asked this question,
the end-of-term exam has not yet been taken, and students were not sure of the
change in their performance. Besides, through interview with students, the
authors noticed that some students had the feeling that they made progress in
learning mathematics, but their score in exams did not improve remarkably.
What did the students think of the role of reflection in their mathematics
learning? (See Table 6)

Table 6 What do students think of the role of reflection in their mathematics learning?
Not necessary Not essential Fairly important Very important
% 0 9.2 38.9 51.9

Table 6 shows that only 9.2 percent thought reflection was only optional to
study, but 90.8 percent believed reflection was fairly or very important; more
than half, 51.9 percent, thought of reflection as very important. Why do students
take reflection so seriously? (see Table 7 below):
Fostering mathematical reflective abilities through high school teaching activities 555

Table 7 Positive and negative attributions to reflection in mathematics study

Not good for mathematics Neither good nor bad Some benefits Great benefits
% 0 3.7 46.3 50

Table 7 shows that 96.3 percent of student gained benefits from reflection,
but what were these benefits? This question is an open-ended one. Students
benefited in various ways because they reflected at different levels and using
highly different methods. The authors summarized some of the answers

a. Reflection gives me a space to think in which I can express my ideas and

opinion freely. It gives me the chance to come up with some original ideas.
b. Reflection helps me sort through what I learnt. Through reflection, I can
link new knowledge with old knowledge, which helps my understanding.
c. Reflection changed the way I think. I have become more active in thinking
and doing. I have learnt and am now more motivated.
d. Reflection helps to train my thinking ability. I am able to think quicker and
more flexibly, and in particular, I can think about a topic more broadly than
e. Reflection helps to change my stereotypes about mathematics. I used to
think mathematics was very abstract and unattractive. Through reflection, I
have started to find it interesting and I am more confident in doing it the right
f. Reflection helps me to be persistent in my study, and ensures that I dont
give up easily. I am more confident and courageous at solving difficult questions.
g. Reflection helps us each find the joy of study as well as the best study
method for ourselves individually. I have found through reflection that parts of
knowledge are supplementary to each other.
h. Reflection helps me to think more carefully, cautiously, completely and
accurately. I learnt how to think and have got into the habit of reviewing and
improving my work after finishing the draft answers. I ask more questions, my
mathematics score improved, and I have gained a deeper knowledge of
i. Reflection is not only helpful in the study of mathematics, it also helps in
many other aspects: Polyas Problem-solving Table is useful for mathematical
questions as well as for chemistry and physics. Reflection helps me realize that I
should reflect for everything I do. Also, reflection helps me to see a problem
from a broader and bigger perspective.
556 ZHANG Dingqiang, ZHAO Hongyuan, YANG Hong

6 Conclusion
To conclude, more than 90 percent of students benefited from reflection and
came to believe that reflection was indispensible in learning. One student wrote
in his reflection diary: Why is reflection so important? Because high school
mathematics is more abstract, more difficult than before. If I dont reflect, I
cannot use my knowledge to solve problems freely. However, reflection also has
its downsideit does not suit all students, with some developing negative
feelings towards the additional task of reflection. In more detail, firstly reflection
causes a psychological burden. Reflection is after all a painful action. Problems
discovered through reflection must then be solved, bad habits must be diminished,
which requires courage and crossing mental barriers to realize. In this research
project, there was one case of a student who was not very good at mathematics,
and of average intelligence. Reflection did not help him to improve his score but
instead caused him to develop a negative self-evaluation which consisted of him
feeling less intelligent and less capable than before. It is not difficult to imagine
that the more students reflect, the more problems they think of, and consequently
the less confident they feel. Secondly, reflection takes time that could have been
used more efficiently elsewhere. Students found the reflection homework an
extra burden for them. The time spend on developing reflective abilities could
have been used on real mathematics questions instead.
In a word, so as to foster reflective ability in mathematics, teaching is an
effective way of changing learning habits, enhancing motivation and
improving self-awareness, but it is not effective at improving examination

acute angle quadrant angle
authentic assessment right angle
concept terminal side
formula theorem
negative angle trigonometric function
obtuse angle trigonometric function sum and difference
positive angle formulas

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