Exam Reflections Promote Metacognition and Self-Regulated Learning

April 11, 2017 | Claudia Stanny

New college students are sometimes surprised that they earn poor grades in an introductory-level or gateway course. Based on their high school experience, they may have great confidence that they will earn high grades in college. Students often appear dumbfounded when they receive their first low exam score. They may attribute their poor performance to a difficult test, a demanding instructor, or challenging course subject matter, rather than question whether the strategies they used to prepare for the exam were problematic. Students often underestimate the amount of study time required to prepare for an exam. They may also prefer less effective study strategies (e.g., cramming) to more effective strategies (e.g., distributed practice).

Faculty can help students become better learners by prompting them to reflect on their learning. Self-reflection prompts students to think critically about how they approached an assignment, determine which strategies worked and which strategies did not work, think about why the strategy they used produced a particular outcome, and reflect on how they should approach a similar assignment in the future. Ambrose and colleagues (2010) and Lovett (2013) describe a simple and practical tool (an “Exam Wrapper”) that instructors can use to implement structured self-reflection on exam performance and promote metacognition and self-regulated learning.

An exam wrapper can be integrated into the feedback processes we create when we return graded exams to students. An exam wrapper is usually no more than a page or two long (for examples see https://www.cmu.edu/teaching/designteach/teach/examwrappers/),

Exam wrappers prompt students to think about how they studied, reflect on the difference between the grade they expected and the grade they received, identify parts of the exam where they performed well and parts where they had difficulty, reflect on why they did not perform well on some exam questions, and identify better study strategies for future exams.

An exam wrapper need not be a long reflection. Many are just one or two pages. They require a small investment in class time (10-12 minutes). Prompt student reflections with the following questions to guide reflection in an exam wrapper.

  • What did I do to prepare for this exam?
  • How did I perform? Did I get the grade I expected?
  • What types of questions/problems did I miss and why?
  • What can I do differently when I study for the next exam?

You can download examples of exam wrappers for specific courses from the Exam Wrapper resource page of the Eberly Center at Carnegie Mellon University (https://www.cmu.edu/teaching/designteach/teach/examwrappers/).

Ask students to complete the exam wrapper in class when they receive and review a class exam. Instructors can collect and review student responses to get a sense of whether students use effective study practices. Provide students with feedback and recommendations based on class patterns. Return exam wrappers to students before they begin studying for the next exam to remind them of their analysis and plans for adapting strategies.

Lovett (2013) found that first-year math and science students who completed exam wrappers were more likely to adopt effective study strategies than were other students. Similarly, Saris-Baglama reports that students enrolled in a general psychology class reported that exam reflections helped them “think about how I prepare for exams” (98.5% of students agreed with this statement) and changed “the way I prepare for exams” and “improved my study skills” (73.8% of students agreed with these statements).

Exam reflections promote metacognitive skills such as planning, monitoring, evaluating, and adjusting learning strategies. Exam reflections offer a simple way to get your students thinking about how they approach learning and how they might better manage their learning. The insights students gain by completing an exam wrapper can motivate them to adopt effective learning strategies. These improved strategies and metacognitive skills will help them succeed in other classes.



Ambrose, S., Bridges, M. W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M. C., and Norman, M. K. (2010). How learning works: Seven research-based principles for smart teaching. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence & Education Innovation, Carnegie Mellon University. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.cmu.edu/teaching/designteach/teach/examwrappers/

Lovett, M. C. (2013). Make exams worth more than the grade: Using exam wrappers to promote metacognition. In M. Kaplan, N. Silver, D. LaVague-Manty, & D. Meizlish (Eds.), Using reflection and metacognition to improve student learning: Across the disciplines, across the academy (pp. 18-52). Sterling, VA: Stylus.

Saris-Baglama, R. N. (2017). Exam reflections: Promoting metacognition and self- regulated learning. Teaching Tip submitted to the 2016-2017 Teaching Issues Writing Consortium.


This tip is based on a teaching strategy submitted by Renee N. Saris-Baglama, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, Psychology Department, Community College of Rhode Island, Warwick, RI to the Western Kentucky University Teaching Issues Writing Consortium.

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