Writing for Self Reflection

by Harmony Button

This week’s tip for writing across the curriculum has to do with using student self-reflection as a learning tool.  

“Once the sentence starts its course,
your grief and failure come clear at last.

Old inflections move from case to case,
to gender, softening consonants, darkening
till they sound like the sea moving
back and forth in its mouth.”

Bill Holm


Not all self-reflection is about failure but in order for students to learn to see opportunities for improvement, they have to take ownership of what they have done, and embrace the idea that perhaps there are things they should do differently.  Writing short, guided self reflections can help students take ownership of their learning, identify their habits, and evaluate the efficacy of their strategies.  

The Thinking: Students are creatures of habit (as we all are).  In order for them to actually change their habits, they need to internalize the motivation to change: in addition to getting feedback from peers and teachers, they need to tell themselves what they want to do differently.  Building in moments of written self reflection gives students the chance to solidify good habits and question less effective ones. Improving their learning is often just as much about identifying their personal pitfalls of faulty logic or mind-habits as it is about knowing the “correct” answers or techniques. 

The Application: Following a test, paper, or other large assignment, build a reflection piece into your curriculum.  This can be done on in class or on Canvas as a way of guaranteeing that students are looking at your feedback, not just their overall score.  There are several forms you can use for a self reflection, but the more targeted, detailed or guided, the better.  Don’t expect students to be intuitively good at reflection they often tend towards the general, or say things that they think they are “supposed” to say.  It may take some time and practice to get them to really engage with productive reflection.  Give them good models of effective reflections, or point out the strong ones as they arise. (A bonus: sometimes students who don’t usually perform well in your subject write pretty good reflections here’s your chance to praise something they’ve done well!) 

Here are a couple examples of sets of reflection questions: 

BEFORE A TEST (this one is kind of geared towards the mathy-sciences, or perhaps foreign languages although oddly enough this set might work really well for sports coaches, too): 

1. What have you learned that feels easy to you now?  At what point in the learning process did it feel intuitive or natural to you? 

2. What are you still struggling with?  What feels awkward, difficult, or unnatural? 

3. Give an example of one specific concept / skill / problem that gave you a hard time so far: 

4. Where did you go astray when you tried to answer this at first? Where did your logic or reasoning go awry? (How did you get to the wrong answer)?

5. What’s the real answer for #3?  Explain the logic or reasoning behind the correct answer.  

6. What do you need to do to make sure you don’t make the same mistake again? (maybe make up a memory device, a pneumonic, a song, a rhyme, something to re-wire your brain so that you remember the right way to solve the problem, and don’t get stuck in your first mistake again). 


1. What went well on this project?

2. What skill did you learn on this project that you think will be helpful in the future? Why?

3. What are you still working on? 

4. Why are you still struggling with this (#3) issue?  

5. What do you need to do to improve on this issue? 

6. What are some external factors that you think might have influenced your performance on this project? (were you doing it on the bus, did you try to write while watching TV, did you write it at 3am, did you give yourself time to do several drafts, did you visit the Writing Center?) What was the impact of these factors?  

And so on.  You can tailor your questions to address different sets of skills: you can write a reflection to focus primarily on work habits and conditions (where do you study, with whom, how does it work, what could be better, etc) or you could target nitty gritty of the subject matter (how do you remember how to cite a quotation, how do you learn to “trust your ear,” how do you improve your punctuation?).  

The Habit: If students get in the habit of evaluating themselves at all stages of the learning process, they’re more likely to internalize this self-reflection process.  If they get used to responding to these detailed process questions in all disciplines, they’re more likely to start thinking in this fashion without being prompted.  They’ll start to think about what kind of grade they anticipate getting on a paper, and why… and then, when they get it back, they’ll be more engaged in the feedback: do their predictions match up with their teachers’ feedback?  Grading and feedback then become part of a conversation, instead of a score that students interpret as an evaluation of their static self-worth.  Students who practice self-reflection are more likely to see their skill level as something that can change: just because they did poorly on a math test doesn’t mean that they are “bad” at math.  Self reflections reiterate the idea that grades are based on performances and practices, not on identity traits or inherent intelligence.  

Start small!  Begin by asking students to estimate their grade on a particular assignment, and justify their estimate.  Then, upon returning the assignment, ask them to compare their estimate with the feedback from you. Ask them to write a short paragraph on the similarities or discrepancies between the two evaluations.  Build outward on your self reflections from there.  

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