Many new college students earn poor grades in introductory-level and gateway courses despite having strong confidence in their ability to earn high grades. Students often appear dumbfounded when they receive their first low exam score and may attribute their poor performance to a difficult test, instructor, or course subject matter, rather than consider the exam preparation strategies that they utilized. Unfortunately, it is not unusual for students to underestimate the amount of study time required and to engage in less effective study strategies (e.g., cramming) than more effective ones (e.g., distributed practice).

One way to help students become better learners is through self-reflection. Self-reflection promotes students’ critical thinking about how they approached a task, what worked and what didn’t and why, and how they might approach the task differently in the future. Recently Ambrose and colleagues (2010) and Lovett (2013) provided teachers with a simple and practical tool, referred to as an “Exam Wrapper,” for implementing structured self-reflection on exam performance to promote metacognition and self-regulated learning.

Exam wrappers can be easily integrated into the feedback loop that takes place when graded exams are returned to students. Typically just a page or two long (for examples see, exam wrappers prompt students to think about their exam preparation (What did I do to prepare for this exam?), compare this to their exam performance (How did I perform?), analyze their strengths and weaknesses (What types of questions/problems did I miss and why?), and plan for how to adjust their learning strategies as needed (What can I do differently?). Students complete the exam wrapper in class during the graded exam review. Instructors can also review student responses to get a sense of whether or not students are using effective practices and provide feedback and recommendations. The wrappers are handed back to students prior to the next exam to remind them of their analysis and plans for adapting strategies. A study by Lovett (2013) found that among first-year math and science students, those who had greater exposure to exam wrappers were more likely to adopt effective study strategies.

When I recently incorporated structured exam reflections into my teaching, the vast majority of community college students enrolled in my general psychology classes (n=65) reported benefits (see Table 1). Students’ open-ended comments suggested that this activity improved self-awareness and self-regulated learning (see Table 2), benefits that were achieved with minimal use of class time (approximately 10-12 minutes).

Exam reflections promote metacognitive skills such as planning, monitoring, evaluating, and adjusting learning strategies, skills that are transferable beyond your particular classroom. If you want your students to adopt more effective learning strategies, exam reflections offer a simple way to quickly get your students thinking about how they approach learning and how they may better manage their learning.

Table 1. Student Perceptions of the Benefits of Exam Reflections

Statements of Potential Benefits

Percent Agreed

Exam reflections were helpful in getting me to think about how I prepare for exams.


I have changed something about the way I prepare for exams based on exam reflections.


I have improved my study skills as a result of exam reflections.


Table 2. Sample Comments on Changes Made as a Result of Exam Reflections

“I stopped cramming and was more aware of my studying.”

“I took more time to study.”

“I never really used flash cards but I noticed I did better when I used them!”

“I review my textbook notes before and after class and do not “cram” my studying.”

“Reading textbook chapters before we discuss them in class.”


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.

Emberly Center for Teaching Excellence & Education Innovation, Carnegie Mellon University. (n.d.). Retrieved from

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.

Submitted by:
Renee N. Saris-Baglama, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor, Psychology Department
Community College of Rhode Island
400 East Avenue
Warwick, RI 02886
rsarisbaglama [at] (rsarisbaglama[at]ccri[dot]edu)