Using Reflective Writing to Deepen Student Learning

Research in learning sciences illustrates the many benefits of reflective writing. When provided with clear and authentic prompts and given repeated opportunities to think about their course work and educational, professional, or clinical experiences, students are better able to retain and transfer learning to new contexts. Reflective writing often serves multiple purposes simultaneously, enabling students to deepen their component skills and conceptual understanding within a specific field of study while also developing their metacognitive knowledge of their own learning habits and practices. In effect, while reflection involves looking back, it also serves as a mental rehearsal for future practice.

Why should I assign reflective writing?

Because the act of reflecting requires retrieval, elaboration, and generation of information, it can make learning more durable for students, as Brown, Roediger III, and McDaniel demonstrate in Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning (2014). Simply worded prompts—such as What went well? What could have gone better? What other knowledge or experiences does this remind you of? and What other strategies might you use next time to get better results? (210)— encourage students to actively monitor their learning processes, which can then cue them to maintain or adapt their strategies in other contexts. Reflective writing prompts can also be used to cue students to think about their conceptual learning: What do I already know? What do I wonder? What do I want to find out? How does this new information relate to the old stuff I thought I knew? How does this new knowledge impact other things I think I know? As detailed by Ambrose et al. (2010), becoming more “consciously competent''—developing component skills, becoming fluent with them, and applying them to relevant contexts—enables mastery of concepts (95).

Beyond the rich gains it provides students, reflective writing can also yield valuable insights for instructors about how to adjust their teaching, their course designs, and their assignments to address student-identified areas of struggle. 

How and when should I use reflective writing?

Reflective writing can take many different forms, including routine entries in lab, design, or fieldwork notebooks, revision memos, and blog and video postings; and it can range from brief, informal assignments (such as one-minute papers, muddiest points, or exit slips) to formal components of large capstone-level projects. Reflective writing can even be used beyond one’s course to integrate and deepen learning across the curriculum when integrated with eportfolios

Building window reflection

Regardless of its form or length, reflective writing is most effective when it is integrated into the design of a course, when it supports key learning aims, and when it is intentionally sequenced within an assignment—that is, when its purpose and relevance are clear to students. If students are asked to reflect on their learning experiences only once at the end of a course, they might approach such a task as a course evaluation or a generic description of their learning experiences. 

Providing specific and purposeful reflective activities throughout the semester—before a unit of study, during or after a course lecture or class discussion, or before and after an exam—can help students identify challenges and setbacks along with developing strategies for overcoming them. For example, Dr. Mary Pat Wenderoth assigns weekly learning paragraphs in her large physiology class in order to (1) have students identify their preconceptions about biological systems so those preconceptions can be challenged and prevented from interfering with their learning; (2) develop students’ conceptual frameworks to better retain factual knowledge; and (3) offer practice in metacognition.

Here are seven ways to integrate authentic and purposeful reflective writing.

  1. Ask students to combine reflective writing with goal setting. Prior to reviewing for a test or drafting an essay, ask students to anticipate concerns and challenges they may face and the strategies they might use to overcome them. For example, if students identify procrastination as a key challenge to producing a full draft of a paper or project, they can then identify strategies such as turning off their phones, working in wi-fi cold spots, or meeting with a consultant at  Student Writing Support —strategies that may help them to get started with their drafts. Inviting students to share their methods for overcoming procrastination can also be an easy, useful, and inclusive way to crowdsource effective strategies.
  2. Ask students to reflect on their work before they revise it. When students write a reflective or revision memo to themselves, they can better process the feedback they have received and determine how they are going to use it. Likewise, asking students to insert a reflective comment (pdf) on a draft of their paper that they are going to discuss with others, either in a peer response session, an appointment with Student Writing Support, or a conference with the instructor, can establish more agency for the student writer.
  3. Ask students to reflect throughout the process of writing a paper, preparing for and taking an exam, or during a group project. Jose Bowen (2012) provides a number of examples for how to integrate exam or cognitive wrappers into assignments that can help students to process and self-regulate their learning experiences over the course of a project.
  4. Ask students to reflect on their learning throughout the entire term. Learning logs with simple prompts that ask students to summarize their learning at the end of class, identify points of insight and confusion, and establish connections between key concepts can motivate students to participate more actively in their learning and provide instructors with an important gauge for modifying their teaching.
  5. Ask students to reflect at the end of the term on their development as a writer. An end-of-the term reflective essay that requires students to cite passages from their own work and to reflect on the ways those passages indicate growth, struggle, and learning can provide a strong impetus for writing transfer.
  6. Ask students to reflect upon completion of a major task or learning event. Many reflective writing tasks can take just a few minutes to complete. However, a significant learning milestone, such as an internship, a mentorship project, or a capstone assignment, will likely benefit from a more extensive reflective writing task. For these kinds of reflective writing tasks, it is helpful to offer guidelines and a series of open-ended prompts, such as those provided by Grose, Burke and Toston (2017), that will encourage students to elaborate on and synthesize their learning experiences. 
  7. Ask students to reflect on their learning for future students of your course. As recounted by James Lang (2014), a professor at the University of Richmond invites students to share their most effective learning strategies with future students in their accounting course. The incoming students read the former students’ reflections and use those insights to guide their study habits. Adapting this practice to your own course has two vital benefits: it acknowledges the hard work and successes of current students, and it clearly signals the importance and value of reflective writing in your course.

How do I respond to and assess reflective writing?

Reflective writing can generate quite a bit of reading for instructors. However, responses to reflective writing can be brief, synthetic, and periodic. For more developed reflective writing assignments, such as those described in five and six above, instructors will want to allot more time for providing feedback, and they should consider developing a rubric that identifies the key criteria used to evaluate the reflective writing. Members of the Writing Across the Curriculum team are pleased to consult with instructors on developing reflective assignments and assessments.

For the majority of reflective tasks students do, instructors can respond with a strategy of minimal marking (pdf) and a simplified grading scheme (credit/partial credit/no credit). Since a primary goal of reflective writing is for the student writer to become more aware of their own learning and writing processes, instructors can respond in ways that affirm students' insights and encourage their ongoing efforts of reflection and transfer. While such responses can be brief, they are vital and should be timely. Responses can be written, oral, or presented in audio-video formats, depending on the medium.

Here are four ways to ensure responses to reflective writing are timely and manageable.

  1. Afterclass, quickly read student responses and then summarize key themes from the responses at the start of the next class. If instructors are teaching a large class, they and their teaching assistants can read and respond to half of the class responses and then read and respond to the other half in subsequent reflective responses.
  2. Upon completion of in-class reflective writing tasks, invite students to share their responses with a partner or in small groups.
  3. For reflective pieces submitted through Canvas, instructors can provide brief responses that use the audio feedback tool, which can take less than a minute while also establishing instructor presence
  4. For multimodal reflections using tools such as flipgrid, instructors can respond in writing or video and encourage classmates to respond to each other’s postings as well

How can I foster authentic reflective writing?

For some students, reflecting on their learning may be difficult, and it may be an unfamiliar practice based on socio-cultural backgrounds and schooling histories. For neurodivergent students, reflective activities may require additional or modified instructions and different ways of responding to a prompt. To accommodate all learners and to demonstrate the value of reflective writing, instructors should consider the following:

  • Signal the importance of reflective writing by including a rationale for its use in the course syllabus. When students know in advance that they will be asked occasionally to reflect on their learning, they can seek out clarification and accommodations based on their needs. 
  • Model reflective practice in your class. For flipgrid assignments, for example, where responses are visible to the entire class, it is useful for instructors to post their own responses. Likewise, similar to metateaching, modelling reflective practice in class can demonstrate its utility to students.
  • For most reflective activities, particularly informal ones, simplify the assessment schema. Grading students on their use of grammar, mechanics, and standard written conventions may undercut the purpose of a quick reflective activity.
  • When possible, allow students the opportunity to opt out of sharing their reflections. If students do share their reflections in class, a quick word of thanks for sharing is valuable.
  • When conferring with students about their work, call attention to the insights they have generated about their learning and experiences. Building on the reflective work of students can be a powerful way to leverage feedback.