Getting Students to Think Deeply About Their Work

By Scott Sterling

As we are all familiar by now, one of rigor’s most important components is autonomy for students. Part of working autonomously is the opportunity for students to reflect on what’s working, what’s not, and where they go from here.

This level of metacognition rarely comes as an innate skill. It has to be practiced, just like most other aspects of learning. The good news is that practice in metacognition and reflection can be a continuous process that doesn’t require much class time at all and can happen in any subject area. It can simply be through the adoption of routines and processes added to your existing curriculum.


Journaling has been a popular practice in education for a while now. Where that practice tends to fall short is that the journaling lacks structure. There’s quite a difference between reflecting on what has happened in class that day and reporting what the student had for dinner last night. Unfortunately, journal writings about the latter are just as common as the former.

That structure can be provided by a set of standards questions that you would like to see them answer in their writing. Feel free to modify these samples for the age and understanding of your students.

  • What was the purpose of today’s lesson?
  • To what extent did it enhance your achievement toward the learning goal?
  • What questions were raised today?
  • What problems did you encounter on today’s task?

Post these somewhere in the room and condition the students to refer to them when doing their regular journaling.

Academic notebooks

Students should be treated as partners in the learning process, rather than products. To that end, they should be just as informed about their progress as their teacher. One way of them organizing that form of reflection is through an academic notebook.

Any data that is gathered on student performance can be put in the notebook, along with charts and graphs that can show where the student is and where they need to be. Regular conferences can help students make sense of the data. Written comments from both teacher and student can serve as another outlet for reflection. No matter what, make sure the academic notebook stays positive and constructive.

Peer response groups

Many teachers utilize peer response in an effort to get students to reflect on their work before turning it in as a final product. The problem with peer response tends to be disorganization. Students can go “off the rails”, slanting toward the positive or the negative and not being constructive either way, or they get wrapped up in minutia—not seeing the forest for the trees.

Find a repeatable structure for peer response. You can either create your own or adopt one. One of our favorites is PQP (Praise, Question, Polish) from the Bay Area Writing Project. It can keep students positive while still giving them an outlet to receive some clarification and offer some constructive criticism that can make everyone better.


Finally, when all of this is done, the student can take an opportunity to think for themselves about how this particular lesson or unit went for them. All of the other metacognitive exercises above can be used as evidence for the student’s own reflection. This process can be informal, such as creating another journal entry. It can also be formal, with the student actually offering a prospective grade for their work based on the rubric you provided at the beginning of the assignment. You may even elect to give the student an opportunity to revise their work after their self-reflection, further deepening the self-evaluation process.

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