Powerful Endings and Reflection

Powerful Endings and Reflection

A powerful way to end a course is to empower students to reflect on the knowledge gained, skills developed and learning processes they experienced. This includes possible transformations in how they understand the world or perceive themselves as learners or agents of change.

Ending with a moment of reflection can help students recognize the additional valuable skills–and resiliency–they’ve developed while managing coursework. These translate to their work lives and careers beyond the university. Below we share ways to build a powerful ending through reflection in your course. Some incorporate your entire course plan, some you can try as additions to your existing plans. As you decompress from the semester, review your students’ self-reflections and consider sharing highlights at the beginning of the next time you teach the course.

Why use self-reflection?

An essential purpose for designing moments of reflection in a course is to help students develop their metacognition and self-directed learning capacity. Metacognition refers to the ability to “understand and monitor one’s thoughts and the assumptions and implication of one’s activities” (Lin 2001, p. 23). Research summarized by Nilson (2013) indicates that students who engage in metacognition improve their performance on exams, written and designed products, and problem-solving abilities. Additionally, metacognition helps students improve their sense of self-efficacy, independent agency, and motivation. This allows them to become more self-directed and resilient in their learning. According to Ambrose and colleagues (2010, p. 191), self-directed learners have more capacity to:

  • asses the demands of a task,
  • evaluate their knowledge and skills,
  • plan their approach,
  • monitor their progress, and
  • adjust their strategies as needed.

Such processes provide a variety of avenues for instructors to include moments of reflection for students. This is not just at the end of a class but throughout the term. If you are interested in a bevy of metacognition strategies and sample questions for your course, read Tanner’s (2012) Promoting Student Metacognition article (PDF).

Focus on experience and future applications

This approach engages students in reflecting on the depth of their learning experience and taking a long view. It includes how they will use what they learned in the future. Students often get caught up in a big push to complete course requirements, not pausing to consider what stood out most for them in their learning or how they might use it moving forward. Taking a moment for such reflection can help students clarify the class’s value and affirm their growth as learners. Possible activities include:

Identify the most significant idea or moment.

Ask students to write short statements in response to the following prompts, perhaps representing their most significant moment with an image or poster they create:

  • What was the most significant idea you learned in this class, or what was the most powerful moment of your learning? Why?
  • How has your perspective or understanding of [class subject] been changed, challenged, reinforced, or deepened due to this idea/moment?
  • What is one way you intend to use or apply your learning in your future endeavors?

Represent the big picture. 

Have students represent visually and write the overarching movement of ideas and their learning process in the course. You might use the following prompts:

  • What was the overall direction or journey of ideas in this class?
  • What was the most important idea or moment of learning for you along the way? Why?
  • How do you intend to continue this movement or journey moving forward? That is, what is something you intend to use or apply in the future?
  • How did you experience the process of learning during this class? Include one high point and one challenging moment (which might be the same).

Focus on content and skills

Students take a closer view in this strategy, summing up the content and skills they have learned for the term and identifying themes running through multiple topics. This content summary, especially recognizing the skills they are developing, is challenging for students to do when learning the course’s content. It can also help students identify challenging areas that might need more attention before a final exam. Some possible exercises include:

Identify the five big ideas of the course. 

[Adapted from O’Hare, 2018] Students often get caught up in the course details and miss the unifying elements. This activity asks them to pick out those themes.

  • Before class, have each student write down “the five big ideas of this course.”
  • Have small groups work together to come up with a consensus version of the five ideas. Use breakout rooms in Webex/Zoom for a synchronous class or the groups function in Canvas for an asynchronous one. Each group should post their list of ideas to a Canvas discussion board.
  • Have the class read the discussion posts and briefly discuss things that they find particularly interesting or surprising. This step could be done in Zoom or as comments to the Canvas discussion.
  • Have an add-on discussion about skills they have developed, including ones not directly related to course content.

Create concept maps. 

Ask students to construct concept maps that represent the full range of the course material. They will have to make choices about what is important enough to include and think about organizing the material to facilitate making connections between different topics. You might ask students to create separate maps for knowledge and skills developed in the course. Students could draw concept maps by hand, then scan or photograph them for submission or sharing in class. Alternatively, they could make use of the many online concept map construction tools.


  • Ambrose, S.A., Bridges, M. W., DiPietro, M., Lovette, M.C., and Norman, M.K. (2011). How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching. (San Francisco: Jossey Bass).
  • Lin, X. (2001). “Designing metacognitive activities.” Educational Technology Research and Development, 49(2): 23-39.
  • O’Hare, M. (2018, January 2). What To Do On the Last Day of Class. Retrieved from https://teaching.berkeley.edu/news/what-do-last-day-class.
  • Nilson, L. B. (2013). Creating Self-Regulated Learners: Strategies to Strengthen Self-Awareness and Learning Skills. (Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing).
  • Tanner, K. B. (2012). Promoting Student Metacognition. CBE Life Sciences Education 11: 113-120.

Powerful Endings and Reflection, by the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching (CELT) at Iowa State University, is licensed under Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0. This work, Powerful Endings and Reflection, is a derivative of Powerful Endings and Reflection developed by Jason Schreiner and Julie Mueller from the University of Oregon (retrieved on March 30, 2021) from https://blogs.uoregon.edu/keepteaching/2020/05/21/powerful-endings-reflection/