Looking Back and Moving Forward Blog Series · reflections · writing workshop

Student Self-Reflection: Looking Back and Moving Forward

Someone once told me (or maybe I read it somewhere) that the best stories are like pearls on a string. Each moment or scene in the story is polished, lovely to read. But it is the string of scenes, all tied together that gives the whole story meaning and purpose. The pearls on their own are lovely, but threaded together they become something more.

We often think about the quality of the writing as the main goal of writing workshop. But there are also very important goals involving: work ethic, the ability to give and take feedback, setting goals, persevering, collaborating, conversational skills, and so much more.

Each lesson we teach in writing workshop is like a pearl on a string. But it’s the other stuff (the goal setting, the conversational skills, the hard work) that threads it all together and gives it meaning and purpose.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been trying out tools, strategies, and new routines to try to support students in recognizing some of that “other stuff” that threads our units together.  Along with the teachers I work with, we’ve been brainstorming. “How do we teach students to self-reflect and self-assess? How do we help them be aware of what they are learning–all the things they are learning?”

This work is grounded in the belief that self-reflection and goal setting will support student growth. When students can articulate how they have changed, when they can name the strategies they’ve used, talk about how they have grown–then we help them make that growth replicable the next time they face a challenge. (It helps to know  this is grounded in quite a lot of research on student expectations and self-assessment as well.)

Here are five things we’ve tried recently:


Many teachers create a separate section in students’ writing notebooks or folders for reflection and goal setting. In this section, from time to time, students are prompted to look back at examples of their writing or think back to moments during writing time.

You might try getting students started with open-ended questions. My favorite reflective quick writes are the ones that look back and look forward. Here are a few examples:

“I used to think… but now I know…”

“Last year/month/week I… but now I…”

“Right now I know how to… But what I really want to be able to do is…”


My favorite quick reflection tool is to ask students to rate themselves on a sliding scale. I pose a question or a prompt, for example:

“I use the feedback my teacher and writing partner gave me.”

“I am an active listener when I’m working with my writing partner.”

“I made major revisions to my writing today.”

On one end of the scale might be “never” and on the other “always” and then each student places a post-it or a sticker anywhere on the line to represent how close to “never” or “always” they believe their work to be.

On the whiteboard, kids can add a dot to the scale to show where they are.

Once all the stickers are on display, you have a pretty good sense of how the class is thinking about their own work. The important thing is to give them the opportunity to brainstorm what’s next. “How do we move toward ‘always’ as a class?” “How can we help each other?” this could be a written reflection, or perhaps students turn and talk to a neighbor, or as a whole class about their next steps.


Most teachers I know give some sort of pre-assessment before diving straight into a new unit of study. The information that can be gleaned from just a short on-demand piece of writing can be incredibly useful in determining what your students need to learn, and thus can help you make decisions about what to teach. Then, at the end of a unit of study, a post-assessment is used as an opportunity for students to independently apply everything they’ve learned throughout the writing process to a new piece of writing – without conferring or teacher input.

But what about students? How do your students use the pre and post assessment to figure out their own strengths and next steps?

One option is to teach kids how to use a student-friendly version of the rubric or checklist to self-assess their own pre-assessment on-demand writing before the unit begins. Another version of this is to provide a really strong mentor text and show kids how to compare their own work to it.

Another option is to do a round of conferring at the start of your new unit of study to share your feedback from the pre-assessment and/or most recent post-assessment. This could include some student self-assessment and goal setting as well.

A third option is to teach your students how to provide thoughtful, constructive, peer-feedback to each other by teaching them to use a student-friendly checklist with a partner, as a jumping off point to talk to each other about their strengths and next steps.


Typically, teachers get together and create a rubric or a checklist to use to assess the work that students will do. But what if kids had a hand in creating those rubrics?  Student-created rubrics and checklists provide an opportunity for students to reflect on what they already know about the topic and provides a great tool for a teacher to build from that list.

A few ways this might go:

Using an existing checklist, you might invite students to rewrite the wording together or create their own picture clues to make it even more kid-friendly and easier to understand. I’ve seen this go really well as a whole class, moving through a checklist just a few items at a time, in bite-size chunks.

Students decided what should go on this checklist. (Their words, not mine!)

Alternatively, you might provide a very strong mentor text for students to study and name what the writer has done really well that they might try in their own writing. Creating a list of what the writer has done (and why) can become the checklist for their own writing.

Another option is for a checklist or rubric to grow out of an issue or problem that has sprung up in your class. A “1” on the rubric is a description of the problem as it stands — the starting point. For example:

  1. Kids aren’t listening or looking at each other during partner time.

Then each point on the rubric is a description of what the work looks like at increasingly better stages–incremental goals to reach for.

2. Kids take turns and make eye contact during partner time.

3. Kids take turns and make eye contact during partner time. They also ask each other questions and give compliments.

4. Kids take turns and make eye contact. They ask each other questions, give compliments, and make suggestions for their writing partner.


Often, these conversations grow out of a problem that needs to be discussed, and the conversation is a brainstorm of various ways to solve the problem. For example, I might gather my writers and say, “You know, it was noisy today during writing workshop. Some kids told me it was too noisy to think straight about their writing. What can we do about this? Who has an idea for a solution?”

Through a combination of partner talk (“Turn and talk to your partner…” and whole class conversation (“Who will start us off? Talk to each other…”) the class generates a list of ideas, which I’ll often chart for them as they talk. In these conversations, I play a role as facilitator, but I rarely join the conversation with my own ideas. The point is for kids to reflect, brainstorm, problem solve, and set goals.

The same format can also be applied to celebrating successes as a class. “Wow! You all wrote more than ever today! What do you think it was that made today different than other days?”  or “Holy smokes! I think your partner conversations were the best they’ve ever been today! What do you think you did today that you could do again tomorrow (and any day)?”

These opportunities to reflect help student tie together all the separate lessons, conversations, and bits of writing they’ve done. Taking all these separate bits and asking, “How is it going? What’s next? What do I think about all this?” helps students learn not only how to reflect on their writing lives… but on their lives in general.

Last but not least, one the most important things you can do is to be a reflective practitioner. You can start by reflecting alongside your students. As you think back across the year, to each unit of study, each type of writing you taught: What patterns emerge? What seem to be the common threads? Was there a recurring success, mistake, issue, or highlight? What can you do to make the successes and highlights happen more often? What can you do differently to avoid repeating the same mistakes and issues?

Some teachers have students keep a space in their writer’s notebook or writing folder to write a short reflection each week. How did things go this week? What went well? What did not go well? I think I’ll start doing the same in my plan book.

For more ideas on incorporating more opportunities for student reflection across the school year, here are a few more great reads:



  • This giveaway is for a copy of Day by Day: Refining Writing Workshop Through 180 Days of Reflective Practice. Thanks to Stenhouse Publishers for donating a copy for one reader. (You must have a U.S. mailing address to win a print copy of this book. If you have an international address, then Stenhouse will send you an eBook of Day by Day.)
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11 thoughts on “Student Self-Reflection: Looking Back and Moving Forward

  1. I appreciate the rate yourself activity and like that it does not correspond to letter grades. It could offer a nice way to reinforce writing skills and strategies that you want students to internalize.


  2. This line, “…one the most important things you can do is to be a reflective practitioner. You can start by reflecting alongside your students,” really spoke to me. I think reflection is the key to keep growing as a student, teacher, or coach. I liked your idea to write a weekly reflection in your plan book, too.


  3. Thanks so much for the additional ideas about reflection. We have just finished our state testing and I love the reminder of all the aspects of writers and writing we need to develop, not just writing for a test!


  4. I appreciate the emphasis on having the students do this work. Not everything should be teacher-driven.

    Your five suggestions will be easy to implement even if reflection hasn’t been at the forefront during the school year. It’s never too late to start being reflective.


  5. Beth,
    The “habits” of writing are often as important as the qualities of the writing in the bigger scheme of developing a “writerly life”. Thanks for the five ideas that will be so handy to consider as the year ends. Perfect timing! ❤


  6. Thanks for the great ideas on self reflection! It is such a quick easy part of learning, but something that often pushed to the side by teachers. Your blog is amazing! I just discovered it because I’m reading Ralph Fletcher’s book Joy Write.


  7. Wow! This came at the right time as we have chosen to end the year with personal narrative like we started the year. Kids looked back at their first published piece to notice areas of growth and how they might focus this last piece of writing.


  8. Thank you, Beth, for providing easy to implement reflection options that are heavily student-driven. I also appreciate your call to have teachers of writing reflecting alongside our Ss. This is something I do regularly; however, I don’t always record my thoughts in writing. I will be putting thought into how I structure my own plan book to allow a designated space for these reflections. Thanks for such a detailed look st this important step in the writing process!


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