• The Scholarly Teacher

Reflective Writing-to-Learn: Motivating and Involving Students in Their Own Learning

Lori Baker Professor of English - Southwest Minnesota State University


In all of my classes, I find that students are more involved and motivated if they are aware of and vested in the course objectives. To enable this, I use a “reflective writing-to-learn” strategy that easily translates to other disciplines and can be done as an activity in class or as an assignment for a grade.


On the first day of class, after we go through the course syllabus, which of course describes the course objectives, I have every student write down one personal goal they have for the class. I collect these and hold on to them. At mid-semester and at the end of the semester, I have students revisit their personal goal and the course objectives. At mid-semester, we go through a short in-class writing exercise in which I hand out a sheet with the course objectives and ask students to reflect on how they think our class is meeting these objectives so far and how well they personally are meeting these objectives. I might have them write down some notes, but generally we share in small groups first and then have a whole class discussion. Then, I hand back their original personal goal statement from the first day of class. Often they don’t remember what they wrote. At mid-semester, students have a better idea of what the course actually entails than they did on the first day, and they can adjust their personal goal for the remainder of the semester. I ask them to write on this original personal goal sheet, noting whether they think it was a good goal to begin with now that they are more informed, whether they are on their way to accomplishing it, or if their personal goal had shifted during the class. They revise their personal goal if needed. I collect the sheets again. Ideally, they will write their personal goal on their course syllabus so they can refer to it periodically.


At the end of the semester, we go through a similar activity where we review how well we met the course goals, and I hand back their personal goal statements. At this stage, because I teach writing, the students have often created portfolios of their primary writing assignments. In this case, I make the reflection on the course objectives and their personal goal part of a longer take-home portfolio reflection assignment. As part of their portfolio reflection, where they are looking over their body of work, they have to cite specific examples from their semester coursework that demonstrate how they have met each of the course objectives. In classes without a portfolio requirement, I run the activity much like at mid-semester. I like to do this before formal end-of-class evaluations, because it reminds students of the course goals and helps them see their own progress. An additional aspect that can be included is to have them write down what, given their own personal victories and struggles in the class, they think they need to focus on in future classes.


This strategy is adaptable depending on the type of class it is being used in. If I am doing this as a general class activity, it’s not graded in and of itself, but counts towards their daily work/participation grade. We also might have a small group or class discussion to share what they found most difficult, what they found easiest, or if the course objectives seem to have been met as a whole. If this is part of a required portfolio reflection paper, then points are awarded based on two requirements: 1) whether or not they provide evidence and examples from their portfolio papers that demonstrate how they met or struggled with each of the course objectives, and 2) that they address their personal objective.


"It helps students themselves identify, in a fairly concrete manner, what they have learned; it helps students take charge of at least a portion of their own learning agenda, as they set and reflect on their personal goals; and it supports a truly useful outcomes-oriented approach to teaching."

I like this activity for a number of reasons. One, it helps students themselves identify, in a fairly concrete manner, what they have learned. This is especially true of the portfolio reflection version of the activity. Although there might be initial grumbling about yet another writing assignment at the end of the semester, my experience has been that students end up appreciating this activity; a number of them comment on how eye-opening it is for them, as they realize just how much they learned and can see how hard they worked. Two, it helps students take charge of at least a portion of their own learning agenda, as they set and reflect on their personal goals. And three, it supports a truly useful outcomes-oriented approach to teaching; rather than outcomes being stated on the syllabus just to satisfy a departmental requirement or accreditation mandate, the outcomes provide a frame for the class at the beginning, middle, and end of the course. Using this activity, I can measure how the class is doing and make any necessary mid-term adjustments.


Additional Resources

What is Writing to Learn, The WAC Clearinghouse (Writing Across the Curriculum), Colorado State University

IDEA Paper No. 44 The Learning Portfolio: A Powerful Idea for Significant Learning, John Zubizarreta

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