The Retrospective Essay as a Course Evaluation Tool

In addition to the official end-of-semester course evaluation, I like to ask my students to write a self-reflective “retrospective essay” about what they have learned and how they have experienced the course. For example, here’s the prompt I use for English 2100 (Writing I):

Please take some time to write in response to the following questions: What aspects of the course have worked well for you? What’s missing or could be improved? What is the biggest change in your writing—or your understanding of writing—since the beginning of the semester, and how are you feeling about it? What specific goals do you set for yourself going forward and how do you plan to achieve them?

I don’t grade or necessarily even comment on these—part of their usefulness is that they are not formal or “official” in any way—but I do count them toward the students’ participation grade. The responses are always interesting and usually fun to read. Students are remarkably honest, and I’ve had several tell me that they were surprised at how much came up for them in this exercise and how much they appreciated it.

As an informal self-evaluation, the assignment gives students a chance to reflect on their progress—to pause and evaluate what has happened for them during the course of the semester, and to articulate for themselves what they still need to work on and/or do in terms of process.

But from a course-evaluation perspective, there are several clear benefits for instructors, too: The responses are content- and course-specific, so I can tell if a particular teaching strategy or tool (the draft workshop, one-on-one conference, outside writing groups, etc.) is having the desired result. Also, the evaluative categories are student-generated, so what rises to the surface in these pieces is often very telling and helps me tailor future iterations of the course in content-specific ways. (I do this exercise at midterm, too, which gives me the chance to address any issues or concerns while the students are still in my course.)

This isn’t just for writing courses, either. There’s the pedagogic value of students writing about course material in their own words, reinforcing what has been learned, giving them a sense of progress, and creating an opportunity for them to take ownership of their goals and produce a game plan for future work in any discipline. Informal writing has been shown to help students learn—and remember—course content.

Another thing I ask students to do at the very end of the term is to write a brief letter to the next semester’s class about their experience over the course of the term and anything they wish they knew at the start that they know now. I then share these with my new classes, either by including outtakes on my syllabus or reading selections aloud in one of the early sessions the following semester.

These techniques don’t replace the official evaluation form, of course, but they do help give me another view into what students are learning and how they’re feeling about the course.

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4 Responses to The Retrospective Essay as a Course Evaluation Tool

  1. Leah Schanke says:

    Sean, what a great approach you have in obtaining meaningful feedback from students – particularly during the semester to enable adjustments to be made. I really like the letters to the next class – would you share some sample content of these?

    I also suggest asking students to evaluate a new lecture or new activity right afterwards. Asking questions like “What was the most important point of this activity?” would tell us a lot about whether what we intend to convey matches our students’ point of view.

  2. Cheryl Smith says:


    Like Leah, I love the idea of having students write letters to next semester’s class about their experiences and what they wish they had known at the start of the semester–I’m going to try that.

    In terms of the retrospective essay, I can see where it (or something like it) would be especially useful at midterm. I have begun leaving my class schedules more open ended or unfinished–especially for writing classes that can support a more flexible schedule, in my view. That is, instead of announcing at the start of the term what we’ll be reading and talking about all semester, I’ll give students their assignments for the first six to eight weeks. Then, at about 5-6 weeks in, I’ll give a survey or have students write about their experience of the course so far. I may ask them what they have gotten out of the course, what stands out for them, or what they’d like more (or less) of. I might generate a list of potential topics or issues we could cover and ask them to mark the ones that sound most interesting to them. (I’ll even ask them to help lead a discussion of something they say they really want to cover in class, and many are surprisingly willing to do it.) Based on their responses, I can plan the rest of the semester to fit their interests and what they (and I) see as their needs.

  3. Sean O'Toole says:


    Sorry for the delay. The one drawback of this approach is that you have to cull through the responses, then select and type up excertps. Here is the handout that I’ll be giving my writing classes this spring:

    Advice from Last Semester’s Students

    “Enjoy the class. It may seem like a lot of work, but you’ll be surprised how much your writing has improved by the end. I know I was.”

    “Be open to the exercises with other students. It was amazing how much help they provided with my writing.”

    “Manage your time! Start the writing process early to avoid late nights and a lot of stress.”

    “The draft conferences with the professor are extremely helpful. Make the most of them by turning in drafts that you’ve already revised a couple of times. If you hand in a rough draft, you’ll be less likely to get good feedback and you won’t benefit as much from it.”

    “Everyone complains about the writing, but if you do the work you’ll see a lot of improvement. Just stay on top of the schedule—it gets busy.”

    “Don’t approach the draft workshops with fear; it was a great help to get multiple opinions on my writing, and you’ll grow to enjoy this part of the class.”

    “Don’t be intimidated. I heard terrible things about writing class. But don’t worry, most of them aren’t true. It’ll definitely make your papers stronger.”

    “Pace yourself when approaching the essay assignments and break up the work into shorter sessions. Take days writing a draft rather than hours. You’ll be glad you did.”

    “Take the pre-drafts seriously. This was where my best ideas got started, and I often returned to them when I felt stuck. The one essay that I didn’t do as well on was the research essay. I blew off the proposal and I never really caught up to the assignment.”

    “The research presentations actually turned out to be fun. Keep it concise! Don’t drone on or summarize everything. Just present the problem you’ve identified and how you plan to address it.”

    “Speak up in every class. It was better when everyone participated and the professor didn’t have to call on people. The best classes were when we argued and debated as a whole group.”

    “Be prepared to revise a lot. We really focused on strengthening the argument—thesis, structure, evidence and analysis—so don’t expect simply to edit your drafts in revision. This took some getting used to, but in the end I found it to be really useful. Each time around, I got better at making the most of it.”

  4. Sean O'Toole says:


    Yes, I too hand out my assignments in parts. I put all of the major due dates on the syllabus at the beginning of the semester so that students can plan their time accordingly. But then I hand out the class schedule and essay assignments in chunks, a few weeks ahead of time on Blackboard for students who want or need a headstart. As you say, this allows for the course to take on an identity of its own (not to mention respond to ever-changing current events) and for me to tailor specific assignments to interests/needs of the class.

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