Tom Schimmer is an author and a speaker with expertise in assessment, grading, leadership, and behavioral support. He is a former district-level leader, school administrator, and teacher.

The 4×2 of Student Self-Reflection

The story self-reflection within the context of my own career is a good news/bad news story. First, the good news. While there is much I’m not proud of when I reflect on the early part of my career – especially from an assessment and grading perspective (e.g. zeros, no reassessment) – the one thing I did do is have my students engage in some self-reflection.

The bad news? Well, I didn’t engage my students in self-reflection very often and when I did, it was awful; I didn’t know what I was doing, there was no structure to it, and it, more often than not, ended up being a waste of time.

Self-reflection is essential to the development of our students’ metacognitive awareness that allows them to plan, monitor, and assess their learning and themselves, as learners (Clark, 2012; Jones, 2007). Metacognition entails both the knowledge and regulation of one’s cognition (Pintrich, 2002). Through the processes of self-judgment and self-reaction (Zimmerman, 2011), self-reflection plays an essential role in the cyclical process of metacognitive awareness before, during, and after the learning.

My issue in the early days of my career was not intent; rather, it was the lack specificity and structure. Many teachers have a visceral response to idea of structured reflection as they don’t want to limit or restrict their students. While an understandable sentiment, the truth is that students and teachers will get out of the self-reflection processes only what they put into it; structure allows them to reflect beyond the superficial to examine themselves deeply.

So, when engineering the opportunity for students to self-reflect, I’d like to suggest 8 possibilities. First, there are four directions from which students can reflect: they can look inside, outside, ahead, or back. We can multiply those four directions by two since the examination can be about their learning or themselves as learners.

We can, inadvertently, get locked into particular protocols of student self-reflection which may, depending on the nature of the activity or the focus of the experience, not always be the right fit.

So let’s look at the eight possibilities.

  1. Look Inside – Learning:

This is the protocol that is most common; students will examine their strengths and next steps to grow toward proficiency. It might be also be an acute reflection that triggers future goal setting in reference to the established criteria.

Possible prompt: “What aspects of your learning are strong? What are your next steps?”

  1. Look Inside – Self:

We want students thinking metacognitively so we might ask them to reflect on their learning experience. It’s a chance for them to think about how they learned. The prompt below creates the opportunity for students to reflect on the strategies that supported their learning; the awareness of the strategies increases the likelihood that students can draw upon them again.

Possible prompt: “Think of time during the learning where you felt stuck. How did you push past that point and what did you learn about yourself once you resolved the issue?

  1. Look Outside – Learning:

Now the students begin looking outside themselves. For example, you may have students examine other demonstrations of learning (e.g. projects, essays) from other students and consider the aspects of quality that others presented. It gives them a chance to notice the aspects from other demonstrations that could enhance their future opportunities for success.

Possible prompt: “What is something you noticed about a few of your classmates projects (or essays, etc.) that you wished you had incorporated into your assignment?

Some coaching is likely needed here. The question is not what would you like to copy from your classmates; the question is what elements would you incorporate or which aspects did you think were effective? Emphasize that they notice the thinking behind the aspect or element, not the aspect or element itself.

  1. Look Outside – Self:

Students examine external influences over how they learned. It could be a reflection on a management strategy or structure that they found the most effective and efficient experience. It could also be an examination of the dynamics within a collaborative effort; how did the group positively or negatively impact their learning.

Possible prompt: “Was there an aspect or circumstance within your collaborative teamwork that made you feel more engaged? Less engaged?

  1. Looking ahead – Learning:

This one is relatively straightforward and is likely to encompass some goal-setting should the standard or target be assessed in the future. Rather than waiting until next time it’s advantageous to do the forward leaning reflection while it’s still fresh. Then, when the future opportunity does arrive, students can refresh their memories and recommit to their goals.

Possible prompt: When we ________________________ again (while the learning is fresh) what new goal will you set for yourself?”

  1. Looking ahead – Self:

Students reflect on what lessons as learners they are moving ahead with. Did they come out of the learning experience with a greater awareness of themselves that will permanently and positively impact their future success?

Possible prompt: “What did you learn about yourself through this process that you believe makes you a more thoughtful learner?

  1. Looking Back – Learning:

Admittedly, the line between this one and looking inside-learning can be blurry. The point here is more about a do-over if, in fact, there won’t be a future opportunity. Did they cut corners or maybe not explore the topic as deeply as initially thought? Did they learn other lessons; it’s possible they went down a curiosity rabbit hole and this gives them a chance to articulate it?

Possible prompt: “What other learning  – aside from the intended objectives or standards for this unit – did you gain during this process?”

  1. Looking Back – Self:

The goal here is to have them examine their approach to the learning to see what they believed was effective, what they might reconsider, and how their whole approach to learning could have been elevated. 

Possible Prompt: “If you had the chance to do this again, would your approach to it change? What would you do differently to better prepare yourself?

A few other points to consider:

  1. The possible prompts provided are just that; possible. There are a number of different iterations of prompts within each of the 8 possibilities for student-self-reflection.
  2. Create a prompt that is the best-fit for the circumstances. The 8 options are just that; options. It’s possible some combinations are never used; it’s not a checklist.
  3. Obviously, the age and maturity of the learners will drive how sophisticated the prompts are. We need to ensure we don’t over- or underestimate our students’ abilities to reflect deeply.
  4. The format of the self-reflections are limited only by our imagination. Reflections can be written, oral, posted on a blog, video recorded, etc.

Yes, there is a case to be made for reflections to be more open-ended and I suggest you do that sometimes; however, there is also a case to be made for being more purposeful about the prompts to allow students to dig deeper and reflect with more intentionality on their experiences.


Clark, I. (2012). Formative assessment: Assessment is for self-regulated learning. Educational

Psychology Review.


Jones, D. (2007). Speaking, listening, planning and assessing: The teacher’s role in developing

metacognitive awareness. Early Child Development and Care, 6/7, 569–579.


Pintrich, P. (2002). The role of metacognitive knowledge in learning, teaching, and assessing.

Theory Into Practice, 41(4), 219–225.


Zimmerman, B. J. (2011). Motivational sources and outcomes of self-regulated learning. In B. J.

Zimmerman & D. H. Schunk (Eds.), Handbook of self-regulation of learning and performance (pp. 49–64). New York: Routledge.


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