The Quickwrite: A Weekly Student Reflection Exercise

Adam Sanford, Undergrad Made Easier

The quickwrite is a weekly exercise, designed to encourage students to reflect on the week's lessons and rewrite their notes while doing so. It also allows them a method of asking questions about the course concepts without having to go through the embarrassing ritual of asking in class. This method also allows the instructor to keep a finger on the pulse of the class about important concepts; if a third of the class mentions a concept as a muddy point, it allows the instructor to follow up immediately, rather than finding out on the examination.

The quickwrite consists of five questions:

1. What terms were the most important concepts of this week's lessons? Be sure to define any important terms in your own words. (2 paragraphs per lesson, 6 points to make sure they write enough content)

2. What was your muddiest point (that is, what did not make sense)? (1 paragraph for the entire week, 1 point)

3. What would you like to know more about from this lesson, and why? (1 paragraph for the entire week, 1 point)

4. How does this lesson relate to something you have already learned outside of this class? (1 paragraph for the entire week, 1 point)

5. Why do you think you were required to learn this content? (1 paragraph for the entire week, 1 point)

Put in caveats that point 2 must be about the course content (not its operations, such as how the grading system works), that point 3 cannot be answered "nothing," that point 4 cannot be answered "it doesn't," and that point 5 cannot be answered with anything relating to grades, degrees, or other achievements that do not directly relate to the course content. 

Make it clear that these disallowed questions will be an automatic fail on the assignment, so that they will take points 2, 3, 4 and 5 seriously enough to answer them. 

They may also answer point 2 with "I had no muddy points." 

Point 3 can often be the seed of a student's paper topic. 

If they do not answer the "why" question in point 3 or the "how" question in point 4, fail the question and explain why. 

This exercise makes students review their lessons in point 1, ask questions about it in a safe and private environment in point 2, explore territory not covered in class in point 3, connect their learning to outside knowledge in point 4, and do some critical analysis of the curriculum in point 5. I have had students tell me they have adapted it for use in other classes for studying and working on finding paper topics.


Start every class with a writing prompt

Here’s a strategy whose simplicity belies its usefulness: every class period, as the students come into the classroom, put a question or prompt on the board for the students to respond to, in writing. If you make this a habit, it has a number of important benefits.

  • It provides a clear break from the noise and distraction of the outside world and the focus you want to instill during class. A brief period—even five minutes—of quiet reflection and writing can help students better make this transition.

  • It lays the foundation for a good discussion. Not every student is good at thinking on her feet; many people benefit from having time to gather their thoughts and think things through before being able to discuss something constructively. In addition, those students who are shy or otherwise reluctant to speak as part of a class discussion may find it easier to do so if they have thoughts written down on the page in front of them.

  • Writing teaches writing. By making your students write about relevant subjects regularly, in addition to allowing them to think their way deeper into those subjects, you are helping them to become better writers. There is no better way to improve as a writer than to practice regularly. You may find this helps when it comes time to read their essays.

  • If you make the questions or prompts about the readings, this activity can take the place of regular quizzes. Having students regularly write a half a page in response to their reading can ensure that they’re actually doing that reading.

In regard to that last point, you may want to collect and mark these pieces of writings, even if it’s only a cursory grade to reflect a good-faith effort on the student’s part. You can have these in-class assignments add up to a very small portion of the students’ final grades, or allow it to play a significant role in the marks you give for participation. But if you do want the activity to impel them to do the reading, you will want to provide some kind of grade.  -DG


The Minute Paper: where you've been and where you're going

The Minute Paper is a flexible technique designed to get students to reflect and think critically about their learning, while giving teachers an easy way to assess how their students perceive their experience in class. It was first formulated, at least in a published form, by Thomas A. Angelo and K. Patricia Cross in their 1993 book, Classroom Assessment Techniques. It’s simple: ask students to briefly reflect on a learning experience and ask them to respond, in writing, to the following two questions: “What was the most important thing you learned?” and “What question or questions remain unanswered?”.

Angelo and Cross suggest using this technique in the last five minutes of class, to get students to reflect on that day’s content. This works to help solidify the day’s discussion in the students’ minds, but also allows the teacher, after collecting the papers, to see how the students experienced the class and what they still might not get.

Donna Killian Duffy and Janet Wright Jones suggest that the Minute Paper could be used in any number of situations: at the beginning of class to review a homework assignment, or the previous class’s discussion; in the middle of class to reinforce what’s come before and point the way forward; or at any time to gauge students’ learning experiences that took place outside of the classroom (in previous courses, for instance).

It’s an easy way to focus students and teacher alike on the ground that has been covered and the distance left to run.  -DG

Sources: Thomas A. Angelo and K. Patricia Cross. Classroom Assessment Techniques : A Handbook for College Teachers (2nd ed.) San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1993. 148-53. Donna Killian Duffy and Janet Wright Jones. Teaching Within the Rhythms of the Semester. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1995. 147-48.

Use quotations to prompt discussion and/or writing

Here’s a class activity that’s easily adaptable to a variety of classrooms and disciplines. It’s a good way to spur discussion and encourage evidence-supported argument. The activity, which comes from Constance Staley’s Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lectern, begins with the teacher distributing a number of quotations, each typed onto a strip of paper, to the students.

Staley gives a number of possible quotations to use, on such topics as education, self-understanding, and the definition of success:

  • “Education worthy of the name is essentially the education of character.” Martin Buber
  • “Learning is what most adults will do for a living in the 21st century.” Perelman
  • “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.” Derek Bok, president Harvard University

…and so on. I can see the exercise working just as well, if not better, with quotations that directly apply to the course’s subject.

In Staley’s version, after handing out the quotations, the teacher goes around the room, calling on students one by one. Each student, when called on, must read her quotation aloud, say whether she agrees or disagrees with the statement, and then “identify two pieces of support from personal experience, course material, or other relevant information sources.” This can easily be modified for larger classes, either by breaking the students up and having the discussion take place among groups, or by turning the exercise into a writing prompt—each student must write a paragraph or two explaining why she agrees or disagrees with the quotation, and must support her position with evidence. In all versions, particularly if the teacher uses quotations tailored to course content, the exercise offers a straightforward way to allow students to take an active role in the learning process, and encourage them to construct arguments with proper support.  -DG

Source: Constance Staley, Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lectern. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2003. 120-24.

Term-long informal writing exercises

Devote the first ten minutes of each class to an informal writing assignment: give the students a prompt and have them write an answer in a specially devoted notebook. You can collect these student writing journals several times throughout the semester to check on your students’ progress and perhaps give them a grade. Some portion of the final class of the semester is devoted to an exercise that asks students to reflect on their writing throughout the term. You have them respond to four prompts:

            1) Go through and choose their strongest response of the term and briefly explain why it is the strongest;

            2) Choose the response that was the hardest to do and briefly explain why;

            3) Choose the response that “does the best job of stating their values and beliefs, and then … discuss how those values and beliefs have affected their ability to understand course content”; and

            4) Compare answers written during the first few weeks of the term with those written near the end of the course and describe the changes they see.  -DG

Source: Weimer, Maryellen. “Informal Writing Assignments: Promoting Learning Through Writing.” Faculty Focus. Magna. 6 November 2012. Web. 22 July 2013. Based on research by Hudd, S.S., Smart, R.A., and Delohery, A.W. “My understanding has grown, my perspective has switched: Linking informal writing to learning goals.” Teaching Sociology, 39.2 (2011), 179-189.


Paired Reading Responses

With each reading assignment, assign two students to be the designated responders. A day before in-class discussion of the reading, one student must post a brief response to or critique of the reading on the class’s online space. The second student must post a brief response or rebuttal to the first student’s piece. All students are required to read both commentaries before class.  -DG

Source: Filene, Peter. The Joy of Teaching : A Practical Guide for New College Instructors. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 2005, 71.

Low-stakes pre-writing

At the beginning of class, give students a question about their reading, the material covered in the last class, or a topic that will be relevant to that day’s class, and give them ten minutes to write an answer. This writing can go ungraded, or it can be turned in and count for a tiny percentage of the final grade. The writing gives students time to think, reflect on the material, and get into the right mindset for a discussion in class. It can also give shy students the confidence to speak up in class, because they only have to look down and read from their paper to make a contribution.  -DG

Source: Lang, James M. On Course: A Week-by-Week Guide to Your First Semester of College Teaching. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2009, 90-92.