The Case for Reflective Assessment

All teachers can recall a time when they observed a student have a breakthrough learning moment, only to discover in the following days that the student lost track of the details, couldn’t demonstrate the skill, or, even worse, had forgotten the lesson entirely.

The struggle for students to learn, apply, demonstrate, and retain what they have learned is real. However, a growing body of research is demonstrating that metacognitive strategies, specifically reflective assessment, helps students bridge the gap between learning and retaining both content and skills.  

What Is Reflective Assessment?

The idea that reflection provides benefit for learners has been around since the time of Plato, who described reflection as “a discourse the mind carries on with itself.” In the past century, John Dewey, Jean Piaget, Lev Vygotsky, Rick Stiggins, and Arthur Costa have all pointed to metacognition, in the form of active reflection, as a necessary component for making learning stick. With the growth of formative assessment practice in classrooms around the world, assessment is transitioning from an end-point measurement into a supportive activity that informs both teaching and learning along the way.

Metacognitive strategies, specifically reflective assessment, are inherently formative in nature. In his meta-analysis research, educational researcher John Hattie provides evidence that offering students time for reflection results in their improved retention of learned material, which in turn leads to improved academic achievement. Robert Marzano’s prior research on strategies that improve learning also demonstrated a strong connection between student reflection and improved achievement.

At its heart, reflective assessment is a metacognitive strategy and formative assessment strategy that encourages students to think about their thinking. Reflective thinking helps students figure out what they know and do not know and connects their learning to other experiences and information in their world. But here’s the important point: For students to have these intended outcomes, reflective assessment should be done in a regular, active, and prescribed manner so that students build “muscle memory.” As such, reflective assessment is most effective when teachers intentionally and regularly provide time for students to engage in specific reflective-assessment strategies that focus both on content and learning processes.

Content versus Skills

When talking about content and skill acquisition, the discussion often devolves into a competition over which is more important in today’s classroom: core knowledge or 21st century skills. However, if one shifts the paradigm just a bit, it becomes clear that there is room for both. This is done by discerning between the how and the what in regard to student learning. The what is the content we want our students to attain. It goes without saying that our students need to possess a base of knowledge in order to successfully go about their future endeavors. The how is the manner in which we approach giving this content knowledge to our students, or in other words, the skills and habits we teach our students to help them master, retain, and apply knowledge. Yes, we need to ensure students learn core content. But we need to ensure we equip them with effective behaviors and habits to help them with their learning and with the application of their learning as they transition into adulthood.

Reflective assessment is an effective how to retain the what. It is not an “add on” to an already full plate, nor is it in competition with core knowledge. Rather, it is a highly effective way to help ensure students learn and retain the knowledge we wish for them to have now, and for students to use when learning on their own in the future.

And it’s important to know that spending time with students on self-reflection does not take away class time for the subject at hand. When first introduced to reflective assessment, teachers often worry that they won’t have time for it. However, once they try it out, they realize that it ends up maximizing their classroom time because it activates learning behaviors in students during typically difficult times — namely the start and end of a class period — and over time it helps them focus better on learning.

Qualitative research has proven that teachers who try reflective assessment like it, and it quickly make it a habit in their classroom. More important, numerous quantitative studies conducted over the past two decades have proven time and again, across all grade levels and content areas, that students demonstrate higher retention of information when they engage in guided reflection about what they learned and how they learn it.

Better Feedback for Students and Teachers

Reflective assessment provides time for students to absorb what they learned and to engage with thinking about how they have learned. It does this by forcing the students to slow down their process by either writing or verbalizing what they have learned. More often than not, the way in which students learn information becomes an inherent part of the process because students can rarely express what they have learned without sharing the way in which they came to understand the information. This leads to students internalizing information at a deeper level by revisiting what they have learned and actively contextualizing it into their personal experience. More important, reflective assessment opens up the opportunity for students to critically examine the way in which they learn, which holds promise in terms of helping them build processes for individual study and learning later in life.

Reflective assessment is similarly instructive for teachers. When students write reflectively about what they learned and how they learned it, the teacher gets valuable information about what the students did or did not get from a particular lesson. It also informs the teacher about the ways in which their students learn best. This knowledge can then be folded into subsequent lessons to enhance the learning and retention of students, thereby leading to improved teaching and improved academic outcomes.

A powerful combination of results happens when reflective assessment is used as a dialogue between student and teacher. When students write their reflections, they clarify their thinking and processing. They also provide important information to the teacher. When the teacher gathers those written reflections and offers quick feedback to the student, an entirely new level of learning takes place. The feedback on the reflections can guide the student toward more powerful reflection and more careful sharing on ensuing efforts. This causes students to dig deeper as they think about their thinking, which not only informs them in a more powerful way, it also provides even better feedback for the teacher as he or she contemplates the creation of new lessons.

In all, it is a powerful dynamic to observe.

Ideas for Implementing Reflective Assessment

There are a number of wonderful strategies that can be used, but the following three maximize classroom time while providing formative feedback for both students and teachers.

“I Learned” Statement

At the end of a class, student simply write down “I learned…” and then complete the sentence. Teachers collect and quickly review the statements before handing them back to students the next day. Preliminary efforts will likely be simple and concrete, but if used consistently, students will move toward completing the sentence with greater detail and insight. Formative feedback from the teacher will often nudge students into providing more depth in their responses. At the same time, teachers can use the responses to inform their teaching. Students benefit from this because they process their learning and receive feedback about their thinking. This method has the potential to positively transform those last few minutes of class time into beneficial time for both students and teacher.


This is another easy-to-implement strategy that again can maximize learning time in the classroom. The teacher poses a “question of the week” that is based on upcoming content, but that requires more than a simple right or wrong answer. As class sessions unfold, students are provided time to note their thoughts on the question at the close of each class. As students gain additional insights each day, they elaborate on their responses. This can be done individually or with a partner each day, and students should be encouraged to show their thinking using charts, diagrams, drawings, or writing. As with the “I learned” statement, this strategy provides teachers information about how students are or are not internalizing their learning while simultaneously giving students the opportunity to process new information, put it in context, and check their understanding with peers.

Talk About It

This is not unlike the oft-used “pair share” strategy. However, the emphasis here is for students to not just process their individual ideas, but to explore and explain how they arrived at their thinking. In pairs or groups of three, students share what they learned, how that learning can be applied outside of the class context, and how they arrived at that thinking. As with the other two strategies, this can make use of the final moments of a class, or it can be used as a class opener in the following session. By talking through their thinking with others, students validate or refute ideas they have formed. They also become more deliberate in their thinking. A quick, full-class sharing session provides the teacher with formative feedback regarding what students have learned.

Try It — You’ll Like It

In my own classroom, I discovered that students came up with some amazing insights about what we were learning when they were provided time to reflect. I also discovered that students learned about how they learn, and by sharing that with their peers, they often helped each other uncover new ways to process their learning. I also found that oftentimes students would be vulnerable in their written reflections in a way that they would never be in the classroom. In turn, I would write back, sharing how their words affected me and thanking them for their honesty. This forged a stronger, more powerful connection with my students that lasted beyond the time I had them in the room. While this is not a quantifiable result that measures academic achievement, it is an important part of creating strong connections within a classroom.

In my work with faculty, they often expressed concern about “adding another thing” onto the busy plate of a class period. However, what they discovered is that providing time to reflect using a structured process (such as the examples above) actually made better use of time in the classroom, and as such. There was no need to find a way to carve out time to make it happen. They ingrained the use of the procedures as part of larger exit or warm-up strategies (or both).

When we compared data on student performance, it became clear that reflection was positively impacting student achievement, which inspired the continued use of reflective assessment. Years later, those faculty members are sharing their experiences and techniques with new faculty, and so the use of reflection has become self-generative among the faculty.

Reflective assessment provides a means to teach critical 21st century skills such as self-regulation and reflection, and it can do so without sacrificing time spent on core content knowledge. It is a how (process) to more effectively get at the what (knowledge and skills). When students reflect on their learning, they forge the deep connections that allow them to assimilate that knowledge into their schema in a lasting, effective manner. By engaging students in reflective assessment during the opening or closing of a class session, teachers make better use of precious classroom time. This affords a win-win for both themselves and their students — the teacher gains insight as to what students are or are not learning, and the students gain insight about how they learn best.

Encouraging the use of reflective assessment is not just good classroom practice, it will set the stage for meaningful and lasting permanence of learning that will positively impact us all.


Bond, John B, "Reflective Assessment: Including Students in the Assessment Process," Paper presented at the Round Table on Literacy, Oxford, England, 2007, July.

Costa, Arthur L., Developing Minds: A Resource Book for Teaching Thinking (3rd ed.), Alexandria, VA: ASCD, 2001.

Dewey, John, “The Need for a Philosophy of Education,” In R.D. Archambault (Ed.) John Dewey on Education: Selected Writings, (pp. 3-14), Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1964.

Ellis, Arthur K., Teaching, Learning and Assessment Together: The Reflective Classroom. New York: Eye on Education, 2001/2010.

Hattie, John, Visible Learning: A synthesis of Over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement, New York, NY: Routledge, 2008. 

Marzano, Robert, Debra Pickering, and Jane Pollock, Classroom Instruction that Works. Alexandria, VA: ASCD, 2012.

Scriven, Michael, Beyond Formative and Summative Evaluation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991.

Stiggins, Rick J., Student-Centered Classroom Assessment, Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill Prentice Hall, 1996.

Stiggins, Rick J., “Correcting Errors of Measurement that Sabotage Student Learning,” In Carol Anne Dwyer (Ed.), The Future of Assessment: Shaping Teaching and Learning, New York, NY: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2008, pp. 229-244.

Laurynn H. Evans

Laurynn H. Evans is assistant head of school at Francis Parker School (California).