A Powerful Learning Tool: Lessons From an Exam Reflection Assignment

By Ann Galligan Kelley, CPA

Editor: Annette Nellen, J.D., CPA

American philosopher and educator John Dewey has been credited with the idea that “we do not actually learn from experience as much as we learn from reflecting on experience” (Posner, Field Experience: A Guide to Reflective Teaching , p. 21 (Pearson 2005)).

Reflection is a valuable learning tool for the classroom and for professionals in practice: Both groups can learn from reflecting on their successes and failures and the steps that led to these outcomes.

This column describes an assignment used in a university classroom after each exam to require students to be responsible for their own learning, with the goal of improving future outcomes. It also can apply to CPA firms if staff professionals reflect on their job evaluations to achieve higher goals.

Assignment Details and Motivation

Within a week after an exam, it is typically returned to students and carefully reviewed in class to enhance student learning and provide timely feedback. However, instructors frequently hear comments such as, “But I studied for hours. I don’t understand why I only got a 70.” Many students do not know how to really study or what type of learners they are. This teachable moment should not pass unnoticed. A reflection assignment provides a structure that helps students assess how they best learn and how to succeed in a course. It prompts them to think about what works for them and what they can do differently going forward. As Plato said, “Know thyself.”

Students are required to complete a “reflection paper” for homework immediately after an exam is returned and reviewed in class. Each student uploads the completed reflection paper to the instructor’s online dropbox within 48 hours of the exam review. The instructor asks several of the high-achieving students if a few of their comments may be read anonymously in class as examples of successful strategies for learning and thus positive outcomes on exams. Weaker students have indicated that hearing some of these strategies proves insightful.

As a result of this exam result assessment exercise, students:

  • Take ownership and responsibility for their learning.
  • Actively reflect on the studying and learning approaches that help and hinder exam success.
  • Improve their learning and studying approaches. They learn which techniques work for them and which do not.
  • Are better prepared for greater success on future exams.
  • Learn actions to help them improve low exam scores the next time.
  • Can better understand why their study techniques might not have resulted in a good score.
  • Can evaluate whether they made helpful changes since the last exam and reflection.

Importance of a Reflective Exercise

An instructor must set challenging, achievable expectations for students’ learning. Most students want to learn and succeed on exams. Many students are excellent learners and intuitively understand, perhaps through years of practice and getting to know themselves, what it takes to learn and do well on exams. Other students mistakenly think that if they attend class, do the minimum assigned homework, and memorize facts, they are learning. Nothing could be further from the truth. A college education should prepare students to become lifelong learners.

The authoritarian model (“sage on the stage”), where an instructor imparts knowledge via lectures to students, who memorize the material and reiterate it back on exams, is obsolete. The consensus is now clear that this does not foster learning or help build the skills necessary for today’s workforce. Many weaker students have good intentions but do not have the skills and habits expected to succeed at the college level. They may not know how to be a successful learner and may lack self-discipline, procrastinate, blame others for their lack of success, and be uncomfortable seeking help. These students will not discover how to be successful, self-directed learners until they take ownership of their learning.

Students must not assume that it is the instructor’s job for them to learn. All students must invest themselves in the process and take responsibility for their learning. This will not happen automatically. The instructor must foster this culture in the classroom and provide a structure that facilitates the process.

How Do Students Learn to Learn?

Not only must instructors set challenging, yet achievable, learning goals, but they must also explain why what is being taught is important and how it fits into the big picture. They should explain that memorization is only the first step on the path to true critical thinking. This may be a revelation for many students who succeeded in high school primarily by using rote memory skills. An instructor’s enthusiasm and excitement about a topic often motivate students to want to achieve and learn for learning’s sake.

Furthermore, when students see the relevance of the curriculum and its applicability to their future lives, most are motivated to truly learn the material rather than merely try to earn a good grade. Students should understand the purpose of quizzes, tests, homework, and projects and be impressed that those tasks are not mere “busy work.” The goal is to include students in the learning process so that they will want to learn for learning’s sake.

The Assignments

The instructor should encourage students to set goals and devise strategies for meeting them. Students should be told that accepting responsibility for one’s learning is part of the intellectual maturity process and that it takes hard work and motivation to be successful. Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. is often quoted in class and on the syllabus: “Every now and then a man’s mind is stretched by a new idea or sensation, and never shrinks back to its former dimensions” (Holmes, The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table , p. 311 (Phillips, Sampson 1858)).

After the exam is reviewed in detail, the reflection paper is discussed, with a focus on the fact that true knowledge cannot be transferred from one person to another. It has to be self-created using the tools provided to the learner. Students are then asked to think about, reflect carefully on, and answer specific questions honestly (see the exhibit).

The assignment includes questions asking when and how the homework was done and whether students reflected on what they learned in each textbook chapter as the course progressed (not including studying for quizzes or the exam). They are also asked if they read the material and did the homework to truly understand the material for life or if they mainly memorized what they thought was necessary knowledge for a quiz or test. These questions are designed for students to consider which situations help or hinder them as a learner and under which conditions they learn best. Students are also asked if they spoke with the instructor, if they felt overwhelmed or behind, or if they took advantage of the resources available to them, such as free tutoring services. The assignment also asks students to carefully reflect on their answers and determine, “What could you , as a student and learner, have done differently to produce better results?”

The reflection paper required after a second exam is similar, but it also asks students what they changed as a result of their reflection on the outcome of the first exam.

The exam reflection assignment is just one example of a reflective opportunity and structure. Another structure involves a mandatory monthly reflection paper that asks:

  1. What did you learn this month?

  2. What aspects of the course do you believe are most useful in your understanding of the subject matter?

  3. What aspects are least useful or would you like to see changed?

  4. Do you have any questions that have not been fully answered in class?

Instructor Assessment

Careful reflection on their learning and exam preparation strategies helps students own their learning. It can help them identify their learning strengths and weaknesses, how they can use their strengths to their advantage, why they have weaknesses, and what they can do differently to overcome their weaknesses. The goal is for students to adjust their learning and preparation styles to improve learning outcomes.

Students are asked at the end of the course whether the reflection exercises improved their experience as a learner. Most students do find that the exercises led to greater success.

Students can integrate their reflection insights into not only their subsequent academic studies but also their future professional life, where they can continue the exercises. Thus, reflecting with the goal of revising and improving thinking is critical not only for classroom situations but also, in fact, for accounting professionals. To quote Dewey, “[Failure] is instructive. The person who really thinks learns quite as much from his failures as from his successes” (Boydston, ed., John Dewey: The Later Works, 1925–1953 , vol. 8, p. 206 (SIU Press 2008)).

Learning Theories

Benjamin Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives (1956, revised 2000) starts with remembering and progresses by levels (understanding, applying, and analyzing) to the higher-level domains of evaluating and creating. Reflecting on what an individual has learned as well as the conditions for learning—whether in the classroom or in practice—is useful for becoming a self-directed learner. Hence, rather than merely memorizing material for an exam, students should be able to think critically and to critique information to plan and prepare reports. Reflective exercises help students reach the higher domains of learning.

The Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) published a 2007 report from the National Leadership Council for Liberal Education & America’s Promise (LEAP) called College Learning for the New Global Century . Members of the council include prominent educators and business professionals who represent more than 1,100 colleges and universities. The council’s mission is to improve the quality of student learning to prepare them for “twenty-first century realities.” Regardless of the method or program of study, the LEAP report specifies “essential learning outcomes” that all students should achieve from their college education to be productive in an increasingly complex world. It also calls upon educators to help students achieve these outcomes to become prepared for real-world demands. These outcomes, which apply to success in any professional or technical field, are achieved by acquiring the skills of inquiry and analysis and taking personal responsibility for one’s lifelong learning. A reflective exercise can help students achieve the essential learning outcomes identified by the AAC&U.

Beyond the Classroom

Professionals can use this reflective technique to determine their optimal learning style and successful strategies. Staff could enhance their professional development by preparing a written reflection on job evaluations or review notes that they would then discuss with a mentor.


Learning how to be a self-directed learner is critical in an increasingly complex world. Students need to practice reflecting on the progress of their learning to achieve the educational outcomes necessary for future professional success.

Employers can further this process in the “real world” for staff professionals by not only having those professionals reflect but also assigning mentors to help them set goals and understand how to achieve them. Staff would further benefit if mentors received training in learning styles and cultural influences.

For both students and professional accounting staff, feedback without reflection and mentoring to reach achievable goals can lead to discouragement and missed opportunities to improve performance and lifelong learning skills.


Annette Nellen is a professor in the Department of Accounting and Finance at San José State University in San José, Calif. She is a former member of the AICPA Tax Division Tax Executive Committee and is chair of the Tax Division Individual Income Tax Technical Resource Panel. Ann Kelley is a professor of accountancy at Providence College and director of the Business Studies Program. She teaches taxation and has formerly worked for both international and small CPA firms and as a tax accountant for a large New England law firm. For more information about this column, please contact Prof. Kelley at akelley@providence.edu .


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