Now and Then: Using Writing to Reflect on and Transfer Learning

Matthew Luskey

As the semester winds down, your students may be winding up. The syllabus and assignments you worked hard to craft and sequence in August take on new urgency in December. Office hours and Student Writing Support are now a lived reality. Amidst the end-of-term immediacy—the present tense, or tense present—it is worthwhile to ask your students to take some time to look back and to look ahead. This post suggests a number of ways you can incorporate reflective writing tasks that can help students feel more prepared at the end of the term, more inclined to ask others for help, and more equipped to offer support for their peers. Some of these suggestions can be implemented right away, and some will be useful as you plan for the next semester. All of them will benefit your students. Educational research has shown the utility of reflective, metacognitive writing activities for aiding with learning retention and learning transfer.

Suggestion 1: Ask Students to Reflect at Multiple Levels and Times in the Term

Reflective writing works best when it is used throughout the semester. Prompts that ask students to identify specific areas of struggle and accomplishment, or to identify future applications for their skills, can be tailored to a specific lecture/seminar, a unit of study, the entire course, or even the larger curriculum. Here are three examples of reflective writing tasks that address different scales of learning along with some logistical details for their use:

In-Class Writing: Muddiest Point

What is one concept covered in today’s lecture/discussion that remains unclear for you? Briefly describe your confusion and what support you need to have a clearer understanding of the concept. I will read and then respond to your concerns at the start of the next class.

Logistics: Immensely flexible and adaptable across content areas, this prompt takes about five minutes for students to write at the end of class. Responses can be collected, read very quickly by the instructor, and used periodically throughout the term to surface and troubleshoot issues. If assigned through a course learning management system (Canvas), students can share their muddiest points with others and offer suggestions to classmates. Read More about Muddiest Points.

Ongoing Reflection: Reflective Journals

Each student will keep a reflective journal for this class. In this journal, you should write 2–3 pages per week (handwritten) or 1–2 pages per week (word processed) on a topic related to the class topics of the week or professional issues in general. That is, you may read something or experience something in class or in a practicum setting that causes you to rethink an issue in our field. This journal is a record of your professional growth this quarter. (Adapted from a Communication Disorders syllabus.)

Logistics: The reflective journal is useful for fostering reflection throughout the term. However, journals require periodic feedback and/or acknowledgement from the instructor, or students may not make entries consistently over the term. Read more about reflective journaling and learning logs.

End-of-Term Writing: Reflective Essay

Review the writing you did this semester, and choose three different passages: explain how one of them shows a kind of strength in your work, another shows a kind of problem you are still working on, and a third reveals some learning —learning something about your subject, learning something about writing, or learning something about the relationship between the two.

Logistics: The reflective essay can be assigned as part of a portfolio, or as a self-standing assignment. The prompt should require students to work concretely with examples from their own work. Without reference to specific examples, reflective essays can seem vague or disingenuous. Note: You should make clear that you are asking students to reflect on their own writing and learning, not on their evaluation of the course. They will have opportunities to evaluate the course in other contexts.

Suggestion 2: Encourage Self-Reflection on All Writing Assignments

Little Bubble

Reflective writing can be integrated into any writing assignment where students will be sharing their work in draft stage with others, including their peers or their instructor. During the draft stage, invite students to insert comments on their own documents where they identify areas of concern and where they would like specific feedback. The inserted self-reflective comments can serve as the basis for a peer review session or an office hour visit. To assist students with their self-reflective comments, consider sharing this resource from The University of Michigan’s Sweetland Center for Writing.

Suggestion 3: Encourage Students to Reflect on and Share Their Successes

As a final writing task for your course, consider asking students to discuss a specific skill or strategy they have developed in the class and to imagine a future context in which that skill or strategy will be useful. Though students are essentially writing for themselves in order to foster transfer of learning, their responses, with their permission, can be shared with students in subsequent semesters. As James Lang details in Cheating Lessons: Learning from Academic Dishonesty, one professor at the University of Richmond asks his students to write him an end-of-the-semester email in which they describe an effective study strategy they used in his advanced accounting course. The professor then shares those emails with his next semester’s students.

Read more about articulating transferable skills.

Suggestion 4: Model Self-Reflective Behavior

Reflective writing requires candor and often entails self-exposure and vulnerability on the part of students. To foster a safe and productive environment for self-reflection, consider reflecting on  your own work with your students, particularly aspects of your work that exhibit struggle and unrealized potential. In his special topics course, “Writing Grant Proposals,” a professor of Educational Psychology shares one of his unfunded proposals with students, asks them to offer critical feedback on the proposal, and leads a discussion about the difficulty of personally sharing unsuccessful work. Students in the class appreciate the authentic and humanizing example, and they are often then willing to discuss their own concerns with their own projects.

What about you?

Do you assign reflective writing tasks in your course? Do you have a reflective activity that has been particularly effective? If so, please consider sharing in the comment section below.

Further support

For further support, see the Teaching with Writing resource pages, including sample assignments and syllabi. As many of you know, our WAC program also hosts the popular Teaching with Writing event series. Each semester, this series offers free workshops and discussions. Visit us online. To schedule a phone, virtual, or face-to-face teaching consultation, click here.