INTRODUCTION: Reflection, because it requires active engagement on the part of the learner, is a critical step in creating deep and lasting learning. Yet in today’s fast-paced world, students don’t often take time to reflect on what they have learned; they move from one assignment to the next and leave the assessment of their learning to instructors or other professionals. As a writing instructor, I know that students who think about, assess, and evaluate their own learning are able to retain and apply their knowledge in future learning situations. I have found that asking students to write letters about what they have learned is an effective and enjoyable way for them to reflect on their learning experience and, therefore, to deepen and strengthen their learning.
I introduce letter writing as an end-of-term activity that allows students to reflect upon and assess their own learning in the class. I ask students to think critically about what they have learned during our three months together and to write a letter describing their learning experience. Students enjoy going through their work and rediscovering all that they have accomplished, and writing a well-crafted letter requires that they analyze their experience and articulate their learning clearly and logically. Because I teach writing, I am interested in offering students as many varied opportunities as possible to practice writing, so a collateral benefit of this assignment is that students learn the practical skill of writing in a standard letter format.
This learner-centered activity can easily and imaginatively be adapted to classes and learning situations across the curriculum. History instructors might ask students to write a letter from the perspective of a specific person during a particular time period, for example, a letter home from a Land Grant college or a Civil War battlefield. Science instructors might ask students to write letters from the perspective of a Nobel Prize-winning researcher who has worked for years to unravel the mysteries of a complex problem.
Students can easily access online resources for assistance with letter writing. The Purdue Online Writing Lab, for example, offers guidance regarding a standard business letter format.
- To help students create deep and lasting learning by reflecting on their learning experience and writing letters about their learning.
- Document 1: Letter Writing Assignment—one for each student (Appended in Support Materials below)*
- Document 2: Grading Rubric—one for each student (Appended in Support Materials below)*
*Both documents can be modified to fit individual instructor’s course content and timeline.
1. Explain the purpose of the assignment to students:
A. Reflection is a critical step in creating deep and lasting learning.
B. Writing letters offers a great opportunity to reflect on learning.
C. Therefore, to create deep and lasting learning, they will write letters about what they have learned during the term.
2. Hand out Documents 1 and 2.
3. Tell students they have one week to complete the assignment described in Document 1.
4. Explain to students that they will be assessed using the Grading Rubric in Document 2.
In my class, students have been writing paragraphs and essays, so writing letters requires that they learn a new format. Upon receiving the assignment sheet, students often think first about the recipient of their letter. One student, an aspiring teacher, decided to write to her high school English teacher; an immigrant student wrote to his parents; a returning student shared reflections on learning with her best friend. Thinking into the future, a young expectant mother shared her experiences and dreams with her unborn child. Hoping for change, one young man wrote to his mother, expressing his love for learning and his hope that one day she would be able to understand his goals and aspirations. Perhaps because there was so much personal investment in this activity, all students seemed to enjoy the assignment and turned in well-written, correctly formatted letters.
The purpose of this activity is to help students create deep and lasting learning by reflecting on and writing letters about their learning experiences. In their letters, students share deep thoughts and feelings about their learning, both in the writing class and at the college. They describe learning not only the basics of academic writing but also how to function effectively as college students. As they reflect on their learning and express thoughts and feelings in writing, feelings of satisfaction and accomplishment become evident. At the end of the term, students often express confidence in their capacity to succeed.
One student wrote about how his attitude toward writing had changed:
Writing is not only a way to communicate with others but a way to be honest with myself. I have come to realize that I enjoy writing. It is not the mundane, arduous task I used to believe it was.
A young second language learner shared his new understanding of sentence structure:
Now I know what I was missing in my writing. Each time that I felt something was missing, I would look back to my book, and it would explain how to correct my sentences.
A young woman wrote to her mother about punctuation:
This class was a class to build writing skills. I was having many problems with punctuation, and I became much better with punctuation throughout this course.
A re-entry international student wrote to her best friend:
We have learned about punctuation, and fragments, and the best of the best, we got to find out about forms of the verb “to be.”
A determined student wrote to her father about doing homework:
At the beginning of the semester, once I got out of class I went straight to working on homework. I kept this up for the first month, but then I began declining on following through. I became too busy with other things, was too tired, or simply decided to wait until I got home. This was my own irresponsibility. I was not disciplining myself or having determination to continue making smart choices about my schoolwork. The lesson was that if I want the greatest outcome from school, I’m the one who has to pursue it for myself.
A future firefighter expressed satisfaction with his learning:
At the beginning of the semester, our English teacher said that if we tried our best we would come out learning tons of information. And she was true to her word. She let students choose what we wanted to write about, and I liked that. I feel like I am caught back up on everything after being away for a year.
Finally, a student addressed his letter to a tutor in the Center for Academic Success:
You have given me encouragement and inspiration to go on with school, and without that, I think that I would have dropped out of college.
I have used this strategy in several classes, and I will definitely use it again. Students demonstrated thoughtful and insightful reflections not only about understanding and applying writing skills but about their attitude toward writing. As another benefit, they also learned to write letters in a standard format. The letter writing activity, because it requires students to choose a personal audience, serves as an engaging way for them to synthesize, summarize, and describe their learning. I have confidence that students have become more confident, competent academic writers, and my hope is that their learning will be deep and lasting.
Document 1: Letter Writing Assignment
You have almost finished this class, and you are on your way to becoming a successful college student. Please reflect on what you have learned in our class and at the college this semester. Think about the reading you have done, the textbooks you have used, homework you have completed, essays and journal entries you have written, as well as work you have done in class and in lab. Think also about the friends you have made and any changes you have noticed in your attitudes and behaviors.
Using the letter format shown at the Purdue Online Writing Lab (OWL) site, write a letter to someone you care about, for example, a friend, a parent, or a brother or sister. In your letter, explain in as much detail as possible the most valuable things you have learned in this class. Think not only about writing, but about yourself, about others, about being a college student, and about your future. What have you enjoyed? What surprises have you experienced? What challenges have you faced? How did you overcome the challenges?
Your finished letter should be one to two pages long. Please proofread and edit carefully. Don’t forget to run the spellchecker, and remember to think before making changes the spellchecker suggests!
Purdue OWL: Writing the Basic Business Letter: http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/653/01/
Document 2: Grading Rubric
Student Rubric: Grading will be based on the following
Letter about Learning (20 points)
20-18 points – Demonstrated excellent work. You have responded thoughtfully and honestly to all issues on the assignment sheet. You have carefully proofread and spellchecked your work.
17-16 points – Demonstrated good work. You have responded thoughtfully and honestly to most of the issues on the assignment sheet. You have generally proofread and spellchecked your work.
15-14 points – Demonstrated average work. You have responded to some of the issues on the assignment sheet. You have not carefully proofread and spellchecked your work.
13-12 points – Demonstrated below average work. You have not responded to the issues on the assignment sheet. You need to work on your proofreading and spellchecking.
11 or below – You need to reread the assignment sheet. Your work demonstrated little evidence of proofreading and spellchecking.
–Teresa Ward, Interim Dean, Language Arts and Humanities, Butte College, CA