Paper Submissions and Student Reflection

Do you have students complete a post-writing refection as they submit assignments? Having students reflect on the assignment builds their own meta-cognitive skills and awareness of the writing process, lets you know where they struggled and succeeded with the assignment so that you can give specific feedback, and can provide you with valuable information about students’ understanding of the writing prompt and their preparation. Of course, much of this information you can gleam from the student work itself, but why not have students take a critical look at their work as a concluding element to your valuable assignments?

In the blog post Cover Memos as Reflective Writing, Stephen Bernhardt of the University of Delaware describes how he collects post-writing reflections from his students. Bernhardt’s method caught my eye since it is a perfect use of an overlooked feature within many learning management systems. In particular, he takes advantage of the fact that when students upload documents to the dropbox, they are also offered the ability to type comments in a textbox. This textbox – presented just as students submit their papers – is a perfect spot for their reflections. Note that while Bernhardt’s post references the learning management system Sakai, students uploading papers to the dropbox in Pearson LearningStudio have an identical set-up:

screenshot of student view of Pearson LearningStudio dropbox submission

Using the textbox for student reflections is such an elegant solution because it nicely sidesteps the tricky timing issues associated with having students complete a reflection. Ideally, you’d like students to have some critical distance from the written product itself, but not let so much time elapse that students forget the actions, struggles, questions, and triumphs that characterized their writing process. Likewise, you also may not be able to take limited class time away from new business to dwell on past topics.

If you’re not using Pearson LearningStudio, you can still have students complete a reflection. If you’re loathe to use any class time at all for post-writing reflections, they can be done at home. Alternately, you can use the first few minutes of class to have students write, and then they can turn in their printed papers and handwritten reflections together. Students can write on the back of the last page of their paper or on a separate sheet of paper that is then stapled to the final draft. If your schedule allows, you might even build in a transition day between topics where students can write their reflections, discuss them, and then, with your guidance, shift to the next topic as a continuation of their prior work.

Bernhardt provides some sample questions that he asks students to address in their reflections:

  • What have you done well? Where do you need help?
  •  If you had more time, what would you work on?
  • Was this a valuable assignment, a good use of your time? What did you learn?
  • Did anyone help you? Was peer review useful? Did you take advantage of the Writing Center? Should you acknowledge sources of help?

I love that last question. Asking students to take a step back and think about the sources for key ideas in their papers helps build awareness that scholarly endeavors rely on properly crediting others. To that end, I might even ask students to focus on the print and internet sources they used in the hopes that this pointed reminder might prompt them to pause and review whether they’ve cited all the works they consulted.

Depending on the topic, you might add in some more specific questions beyond “What did you learn?” I’m a fan of the following questions:

  • How did your thinking about x evolve as you researched and wrote this paper?
  •  Do you think one argument had an easier case to make? Why?
  • What helped your writing process for this paper? What hindered your writing process?

You can also target your questions to particular requirements of the paper, giving you some insight on how students approach primary documents, make use of the library liaison for the course, consult multimedia sources, integrate interview data, apply your lecture content, etc. With each question, your goal is to draw out actionable information that will either help the students learn something about themselves as writers and thinkers or help you learn something about the ways in which your students understand the topic, write their papers, or apply new knowledge.

A post-writing reflection only needs a few questions, and only need take a few minutes to complete. This isn’t an onerous task; it’s an easy way to gather valuable data.