“But we just went over that!” Using reflective writing for better retention and learning.

Cate Almon
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Self-reflection can be a powerful tool for learning. I know it works for me as an instructor when I reflect on a tough class, considering where things went wrong and what I could do (or shouldn’t do) in a similar situation next time. Why didn’t they respond to my discussion question about the reading? Oh, I think I was asking too many questions at once and they weren’t sure how to respond. How did they bomb this linguistic test? Right, I didn’t give them a chance to practice applying new terms the way I asked them to here, on the fly, in a high stress test environment.

I also encourage teaching assistants in our First Year Writing practicum to engage in reflective writing as novice teachers, where they write about their own encounters with academic literacy. Some had never really thought about what they’ve done to be a successful student, but after thinking about instructor feedback they’ve received over the years, they start to trace how they knew when something they were doing was right, and how, as graduate students themselves, they will continue to grow their academic literacy in new genres and with increased demands, and how all of this translates to teaching writing –to unpack the learning process in order to share it with students.

Reflective writing is also useful for undergraduate student learning (and not just for the Humanities!). I find that students enjoy reflective writing assignments; it’s a manageable task for them since it’s about something they’re familiar with – themselves. Reflection is also grounded in learning theories as it provides an opportunity to make connections with prior knowledge, something Ambrose et al. talk about in their work on various learning theories. As students reflect, they bring their habits into consciousness, they have a chance to personalize learning by making connections to what they already know, and we get a chance to see the connections they are making and what they are doing, or not doing if they’re facing any barriers. Then we can talk about opportunities for modifying the way they study or dive into a task or for finding appropriate resources on campus for support.

Should we actually teach students not just our content, but also how to learn? Absolutely! The goal is for students to become more independent as they are equipped with strategies to learn so that we don’t find ourselves repeating over and over something they haven’t retained. One of Ambrose et al.’s learning principles suggests, “To become self-directed learners, students must learn to assess the demands of a task, evaluate their own knowledge and skills, plan their approach, monitor their progress, and adjust their strategies as needed” (191). All of these activities involve metacognition, or students thinking about their own thinking processes, and faculty can offer opportunities for students to engage in these activities through reflective writing.

Does assigning reflective writing add to our workload? Well, it is another assignment to read, but it doesn’t have to take a huge investment of time. It’s mostly for students to engage in self-monitoring, so it can be marked in a low-stakes way, such as with a complete/incomplete, perhaps with just some key comments.

Here are some specific ways reflective writing can be used:

  • Students can write about their process for completing an assignment. For example, “using your own words, describe what you have to do in this assignment. How is it similar to or different from other assignments you’ve done? What is the first step you will take to start this assignment?” These questions can increase student awareness about a task and prevent them from going into auto-pilot with approaches they’ve used in the past that might not be relevant for this task.
  • In a Canvas discussion, students can post strategies they will use to study for an upcoming test, with questions such as “How many hours will you need to study? Where will you start? What does your study environment look and feel like? Describe the circumstances surrounding the last time you performed well on a test?” This can be their space to share strategies, but an overarching comment in class can address an important point (like, are we sure the multitasking is working?).
  • Students can reflect on what happened when they didn’t perform well on a test or an assignment. We can lead them to focus on things that are in their control such as trying a new study technique or exploring campus resources for tutoring or counselling.
  • We can model reflection by sharing with the class what we would do to study for a test or start an assignment (noting that experts take more time to plan but less time to finish a task, illustrating that jumping into something and having to backtrack later can waste valuable time – see more in Ambrose et al.)
  • We can give students an opportunity to reflect on personal experience to connect with new material. For one of my linguistics classes on Grice’s maxims of conversation, students reflect on a time they witnessed someone being rude (everyone has an example!) and then consider which underlying rules seemed to have been broken in that particular social context.

These are just a few options that offer a chance to increase self-awareness in students. They might not lead to an immediate change in behavior, but it’s certainly a step in a helpful direction.

For further reading (available online in Temple’s library)

Ambrose, Susan, Michael Bridges, Marsha Lovett, Michele DiPietro, and Marie Norman. “Chapter 7: How Do Students Become Self-Directed Learners?” in How Learning Works: 7 Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching. Jossey-Bass, 2010.


Cate Almon is Associate Director of Temple's Writing Program.

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