How Using Self Reflection and Grade Conferencing Can Help Students Embrace Ownership Over Learning

Today’s contributor: Rebecca Smootz is an 8th grade History Teacher at Small MS. She serves as Campus Innovation Connector, 8th grade team lead, PPfT Campus contact, and helps with Campus Testing. In her spare time, she participates in community theatre around the Austin area. Favorite roles include Frau Blücher in Young Frankenstein and Ursula in The Little Mermaid.

The one thing that I wish I knew how to do as a public school student was truly take ownership over my learning. I knew how to get good grades – turn in assignments and study. But I often didn’t know where to begin when I was absent or why I learned some ideas better than others.

As an 8th grade teacher, I have tried to find ways to help kids take ownership over their learning so that they don’t feel the way I did. Over the last few years (especially during COVID times) I have found that kids are often overwhelmed and don’t know where to begin. Let’s talk about two different ways you can help students reflect on their learning and find small ways to improve their scores and understanding. 

There are lots of ways for students to self reflect – journaling, keeping a portfolio, modeling for others, fist to five, shoulder partners…the list goes on. A way I have used for students to self reflect on their learning is a Brainstorming: Four Corners. After any new PBL I have created or any project where kids spend more than one block day working, I have them self reflect on this sheet (see image below). This gives kids a chance to look back at the activities and write out what went well and where they struggled. After each quarter, I have students use Do Now time to go back and reread Brainstorms from previous lessons. Were their struggles always the same and, if so, have they made any true step toward fixing those struggles? Did they find new favorite ways of processing? Have they gotten better at writing summaries? These may seem like small steps, but I am trying to help my students to find ways that they can reflect on their own in high school so that they become the best possible students they can be. One of the biggest things missing from middle school in general is the ability to become self sufficient learners. My hope is that kids are able to use tools like this on their own when they leave my room so they know what types of learning works best for them.

Another aspect of self sufficient learning is understanding how the TEAMS gradebook works (how certain grading categories weigh more than others, how to calculate averages, why some assignments are worth more than others). Part of my lesson for kids is helping them to realize it is perfectly acceptable (in fact, encouraged) to ask for help and to seek guidance. During the first semester, grade conferences are mandatory. I make sure to take time with each student and check in to see if they understand why their average is where it is, where they want their average to be, and how they can go about gaining points or maintaining their current grade. I often grade conference in the middle of a large PBL project so that students will have time to work with their groups for most of the period, but they will also have time to check in with me and they won’t be missing direct teaching. I have invested in some numbers (similar to the TAKE A NUMBER system…but these are reusable and can be disinfected in between classes – see image below). After the first semester, kids can voluntarily grab a number and participate in conferencing. I have found that most of my students want to continue grade conferences, even if they are doing well in class. Oftentimes, it is just a chance for kids to have a private conversation with me or they use it as a chance to ask about extra credit. Using this method of conferencing/communication with the kids allows them to feel as though they are not being singled out if they are failing, but it also is a way for those who usually struggle in other classes to gain confidence in their ability to seek help. I had students ask me to pull up other content grades and make a plan for communicating with other teachers about the student’s need for help on an assignment or their average. I love how taking a day to check in with kids is a simple way to connect with students and help them to gain confidence that they otherwise wouldn’t ever have.


Feel free to use the following template for either Brainstorming: Four Corners or Grade Conferencing.

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