Trends and Issues in Higher Ed

May 1, 2014

Reflecting through short, easy-to-evaluate writing assignments

Mary Pat Wenderoth: Promoting student reflection to deepen learning and self-awareness

“We want students to be active, mentally. We want them to be using the information and applying it all the time.”

Mary Pat Wenderoth
Principal Lecturer, Biology, UW Seattle

When students reflect on their academic learning and its relationship to their personal and professional goals, they gain a deeper understanding of the course material, as well as a better sense of who they are and where they’re going.1,2,3 They also gain a valuable skill. Employers want to hire people who are self-aware, who know what they know and what they don’t; and graduate admissions committees notice candidates who can share a clear narrative linking their experiences to their future ambitions. Reflection exercises can also benefit faculty. For example, they can use student feedback to fine-tune their teaching. Reflection techniques such as those used by Mary Pat Wenderoth can be integrated into courses in any discipline, providing major benefits for students without major investments of faculty time.

Students in Mary Pat Wenderoth’s large introductory biology classes write paragraphs each week to help them integrate and remember the concepts they’ve studied. “To maximize their learning, students need factual knowledge, which we give plenty of, but they also need conceptual frameworks to put the knowledge into,” says Wenderoth. Reflection can help students build those conceptual frameworks, but “most undergraduates don’t do a lot of reflection. They’re glad to get their work done on time, take their test, and get on to the next class or assignment.”

Wenderoth builds reflection into her class by having students write paragraphs on the week’s material. “This gives students an opportunity to write and reflect and it gives me an opportunity to see what they’re actually thinking,” she says. She has also structured reflection so it is useful to the students without requiring a large time commitment on anyone’s part. Here are her basic principles:

Make reflection part of the class routine: Students write paragraphs every week. Wenderoth poses questions on Monday; student paragraphs are due Friday.

Ask questions that let students discuss what’s important to them while achieving learning goals: Wenderoth asks open-ended questions that help students link facts to a conceptual framework. Examples include: “How does the material you’re learning in class relate to your everyday life?” and, “What topic this week was the hardest for you, something that you’ve thought about and still can’t quite figure out?”

Motivate students through class credit, but keep evaluation simple: Writing assignments are part of the final grade (about ten percent). Increasing length doesn’t improve a student’s grade; in fact, Wenderoth requires that submissions be limited to one paragraph. Grades are credit/no credit, based on “good faith effort” to complete the assignment. The class management software Wenderoth uses groups the paragraphs so she can “skim and scroll” through them efficiently and quickly.

Give regular feedback: Every Monday, Wenderoth gives feedback to the class as a whole—a few minutes at the beginning of class. She may report that a number of students were having difficulty with a particular concept, and then review it. “I have to show them that I’ve actually sat and read their paragraphs,” she says. “Once or twice I didn’t do that and I saw the quality of their paragraphs go down.”

Collect student feedback on the exercise: Wenderoth’s students report that writing reflection paragraphs helps their learning. One wrote, “Some weeks, no matter how much I thought I was paying attention in class, it would be Thursday night, time to start the paragraph, and I’d be thinking ‘Huh? What did I learn this week? Oh yeah….’ which got me to examine what was going on in class and my learning process before the weekend completely wiped everything away.”



Resources: Wenderoth learned about low-stakes writing from John Webster, Associate Professor of English at UW Seattle, and the UW Writes resources site, sponsored by the College of Arts and Sciences Writing Program, which he directs. Her teaching methods are featured in Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning by Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III, and Mark A. McDaniel (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014); a free summary is available. Wenderoth has also co-authored a book that shows the value of student reflection on exam performance: Clarissa Dirks, Mary Pat Wenderoth, and Michelle Withers, Assessment in the College Science Classroom (New York: W. H. Freeman & Company, 2014). More details on Wenderoth’s procedures are available in the video “Learning Paragraphs.”

1 Beyer, Catherine Hoffman, Gerald Gillmore, and Andrew Fisher. Inside the Undergraduate Experience: The University of Washington’s Study of Undergraduate Learning. Bolton, MA: Anker Publishing Company, Inc., 2007.
2Atman, Cynthia J., Sheri D. Sheppard, Jennifer Turns, Robin S. Adams, Lorraine N. Fleming, Reed Stevens, Ruth A. Streveler, Karl A. Smith, Ronald L. Miller, Larry J. Leifer, Ken Yasuhara, and Dennis Lund. Enabling Engineering Student Success: The Final Report for the Center for the Advancement of Engineering Education. San Rafael, CA: Morgan & Claypool Publishers, 2010.
3Thompson, Leanne J., Gordon Clark, Marion Walker, and J. Duncan Whyatt. “‘It’s Just Like an Extra String to Your Bow’: Exploring Higher Education Students’ Perceptions and Experiences of Extracurricular Activity and Employability.” Active Learning in Higher Education 14, no. 2 (July 2013): 135–147. doi:10.1177/1469787413481129.

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Read the full Provost report on how to prepare students for life after graduation.