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Are you wondering why students often don’t come to class prepared? Curious about what they are really learning, and not learning? Are you looking for some new strategies and approaches?  Join one of our Winter workshops!

Are they really learning? Methods for gathering formative feedback to improve teaching

Our tests, papers, and assignments allow us to see how well students have learned. But, there are ways to find out more about what they are learning along the way.  What did students actually learn from the last class activity or homework? Are they starting to grasp the important concepts or organize their thinking in ways consistent with the discipline?  What methods can we use that allow us insight into our students’ thinking and learning progress, without taking too much time? In this session we will explore and see examples of a variety of methods for gathering feedback on student learning.

January 26, 3:00 – 4:30 pm
OTL Conference Room, 345 Anderson Academic Commons
Facilitators: Bridget Arend and Rob Flaherty

Register here

Why don’t my students come to class prepared?

DU instructors are using more active learning methods in class. In order to make the most out of class time, it is critical that students come to class prepared. However, this is not always the case. In this session, we will discuss common reasons why students do not prepare for class, and explore a number of methods instructors can use to help motivate their students.

February 11, 2:00 – 3:30 pm
OTL Conference Room, 345 Anderson Academic Commons
Facilitator: Bridget Arend

 Register here

One of our teaching goals at DU is to help empower students to be self-directed learners and to own their learning process. A common method used in this effort is the “wrapper.” A wrapper is a short form that students complete along with an assignment or exam that focuses on the learning process rather than on the content itself.


Marsha Lovett and her colleagues at Carnegie Mellon University are credited with creating the exam wrapper technique. Wrappers were developed in reaction to their findings that many successful high school students were arriving at college with study habits that are ineffective for higher order learning. Wrappers provide students with a chance to reflect upon, compare, and adjust their learning habits and strategies. Lovett showed that student made real and important changes to their study strategies as a result of using exam wrappers (Lovett, 2013).

Guidelines for using Wrappers

In general, wrappers ask students to think about how they prepared for the assignment/exam, what went well, what didn’t, and how they might change their study habits for the future. To use them effectively, it is suggested that the wrappers:

  • focus on the study/metacognitive skills the instructor wants to promote,
  • be repeated during a class,
  • are flexible enough for minor adaptations for particular assignments,
  • are short enough to complete relatively quickly (either inside or outside of class), and
  • are non-graded or graded based on completion only.

The process

  1. The wrapper is usually handed out to students when the exam or assignment is returned.
  2. Students are asked to fill out the form in 10 minutes or less during class, or outside of class if necessary. If possible students can discuss their forms in small groups. Students are not graded based on the content of the wrapper, but rather receive credit for completing the form.
  3. The instructor and/or TA collects the forms and reads through them, looking for general themes. Potential adjustments to the course may be made as a result of the findings.
  4. When it is time to begin preparing for the next exam/assignment, the instructor returns the forms to the students. The instructor may hold a discussion about recommended study strategies, or have the students discuss and compare their strategies in small groups.
  5. This process can be repeated during a course.

Exam wrappers are the most common form of wrappers. However this technique could be used with many types of assignments or papers.


Examples of exam wrappers

Examples of wrappers for writing or performance assignments

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

The OTL Conference in April gathered nearly 150 DU faculty and staff members to discuss ideas and best practice around Empowering Students to be Self-Directed Learners.



Did you miss the event?



What did participants gain from the conference?

  • We have pulled together a list of specific ideas and teaching methods that participants gained at this conference.
  • Based on the conference survey, many participants enjoyed networking with colleagues across campus, hearing the experiences of other DU instructors through the panel and poster sessions, and gaining awareness of this issue along with practical ideas to use in their classes.
  • We also heard your feedback that you would have appreciated even more opportunities for interaction, and that afternoon coffee is a must!



What now?

We don’t want to lose the momentum and excitement around this topic, and we asked participants what further support they would like to see to keep a focus on self-directed learning at DU. Based on your feedback, we’ve put a few things in place and others are in the planning stages.

  • A new webpage on our site explains self-directed learning and provides resources and examples.
  • Those who attended the conference will receive an end-of-year follow up email asking them to share anything they have tried out and the results.
  • Many OTL staff members have spent the last year reading about and exploring methods for encouraging self-directed learning. Feel free to contact us to brainstorm ideas or set up a time to review a particular assignment or method.
  • We have plans to offer some follow up sessions next year, including short workshops focused on specific methods and informal faculty working groups.

Attendees at the 2014 OTL Conference: Empowering Students to be Self-Directed Learners, were asked to share specific ideas and teaching methods that they gained at the conference and plan to implement in their classes. Here are some of the most common responses:

At the beginning of class

  • Be more specific at the beginning of the class (and quarter) on the goals.
  • Have students write their own goals and identify learning plans.
  • Include self-directed learning elements in the learning objectives of my syllabi.
  • Introduce students to self-directed learning concepts.

During class

  • Add active listening confidence questions during class.
  • Stopping during class to allow reflection exercises.
  • Use of mind maps to help students connect major theoretical and conceptual thoughts.
  • Have students “read-recall-review” aloud in class or in groups.
  • Use in-class reflective assignments about our material and our activities.
  • Use pair & share reflective activities.
  • One Minute Papers to gauge their learning progress.
  • Molly Smith’s RDQ method.
  • The idea to pause before, during, and after an activity for reflection.
  • Make more use of visuals to illustrate learning.
  • Use a Visual Summaries Matrix to see what I need to do differently.
  • Have students engage in structured weekly reflections.
  • Asking students to share their “muddiest point” as a way to check on student understanding and self-reflection.
  • Have students engage in group study in class.

Along with assignments/tests

  • Use “wrappers” around assignments, tests, and or video/podcasts.
  • Have students fill out the rubric when submitting assignments.
  • Ask students to reflect on their performance through “test autopsies” (after an exam, give students a form to evaluate the points they lost and why).
  • Have students write 300-word abstracts of their papers.
  • Include time for peer review of papers during class.
  • A pass/fail self-assessment on how they (students) studied for weekly quizzes/tests and how that affected their grades
  • Choice is key–allowing for choices more often when it comes to assignments.

At the end of class

  • Students write a letter to the next cohort about how to succeed.
  • Use Knowledge Surveys to get a sense of students’ confidence level before and after learning.
  • Use reflective assignments but grade based on Pass/Fail.

Overall emphasis on self-directed learning

  • Throughout the course, be aware myself and help students be aware of the learning process.
  • Integrate an exercise about learning into each class.
  • Make students aware of how their “context” affects their performance.
  • Make sure that experiential learning reflections address the actual learning process rater than focusing primarily on the result.
  • More “how” questions – How have you changed? How can you change? How will you start? How will you succeed?
  • Remember Julie Morris’ Karate Kid metaphor.
  • Personally reflect on my own teaching – remember that the best students can be the worst teachers.
  • Being more intentional about incorporating metacognitive, emotional and physical aspects in the planning, monitoring and evaluating phases of teaching.


For more information and ideas, visit our webpage about self-directed learning.

Today’s college graduates must be able to think critically and creatively, and be able to communicate and collaborate effectively. Twenty-first century teaching and learning must be focused on more than knowledge acquisition. It must also involve a process that empowers students to self assess and take responsibility for their own learning. Yet most students are unaware of how they learn or what constitutes the most effective ways to study.

AAC Stock 9.29.13_group of students working on computers

What is self-directed learning?

“Self-directed learning” is a term we use broadly to encompass many aspects of taking initiative for, being aware of, and monitoring one’s own learning, including aspects of self-regulation, metacognition, and motivation. A self-directed learner knows how to learn in different environments and for different purposes, and takes initiative and responsibility for one’s own learning. It is one of the biggest predictors of a student’s overall academic success because the learner drives the learning experience.

Self-directed learning is about creating lifelong learners. It helps students see their own learning gaps and develop skills to make the most of any learning situation. It is about socializing students to be productive citizens in a world where access to information and the construction of knowledge is rapidly changing.  Self-directed learning helps students understand the value of what and how they are learning.

Why is self-directed learning important?

Many of our course improvement efforts require that students know how to learn in different ways in order to be successful. Pilot projects undertaken at DU to redesign courses, or create hybrid, online, or flipped courses, have shown that students often struggle with new teaching methods and can not always easily adapt to different learning environments. Many students are unaware of how they learn or what constitutes effective ways to study.

The good news is, self-regulation is not an innate ability but can be developed by any student. Independent learning skills can be taught and encouraged through specific teaching methods.

Strategies for encouraging self-directed learning

Planning for Learning

  • Include self-directed learning outcomes in your syllabus.
  • Ask students to set their own goals or learning outcomes for the class, through a discussion, a short assignment, or a learning contract.
  • Include a short reflective assignment such as, “How I earned an A in this class.”
  • Help students learn about learning. For example ask students to read and discuss Robert Leamnson’s article Learning (Your First Job)
  • Use knowledge surveys (where students do not actually answer content questions but report their confidence at being able to do so) at the beginning, beginning and end, or throughout a course as a way for students to reflect on what they think they know and can apply.

Monitoring Learning

  • Wrappers” are short handouts or surveys that students complete along with an assignment or exam. The wrapper focuses on the learning process rather than on the content itself. Exam wrappers are often completed after an exam is returned. Other types of cognitive wrappers  help students self assess their learning progress before, during and after an assignment.
  • Reflective writing assignments can help students explore their own learning. Molly Smith from University College uses RDQ prompts with course readings: what Resonated with you, what do you Disagree with, and what Questions do you have?
  • Simple Classroom Assessment Techniques (CATs) can be used to help students monitor their learning progress. Useful methods include One Minute Papers (simply asking students to take a minute to answer 2-3 questions such as “what was the most important thing you learned today? or What question remains unanswered?) and The Muddiest Point (“What is the biggest area of confusion for you in this assignment/today’s class?”)
  • Encourage students to read materials using a version of Read-Recall-Review.
  • Concept maps are useful tools for both students and instructors to explore how ideas and concepts relate to each other. Some instructors have students create simple concepts maps early in the course, and then revisit them over time as a way to see how their knowledge has changed and grown.
  • “Test autopsies” ask students to describe their study time and strategies, and examine their test answers, to look for patterns and identify successful and unsuccessful study methods.

Evaluating Learning

  • After providing detailed feedback to students, ask them to paraphrase your feedback back to you in their own words.
  • Ask students to write a letter to the next class/cohort, describing what worked for them in this course and what they would have done differently.
  • Have students create a list of personal takeaways or write a “future uses” paper describing how they anticipate using 3-5 course concepts or skills in their future lives.

Who’s doing it at DU?

The development of self-directed learning is something that all DU instructors can do within their courses. Many of the examples below were presented at the 2014 OTL Conference.

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