My Secret Formula to Facilitate Reflection and Workshop

All, Teaching, Writing

Where__s_Waldo_by_UnknownXNothing solicits a groan from my students like the mention of “peer review” or “workshop.” By the time I get students in college, they have had a number of peer review experiences and many have been useless at best and painful at worst. The reason is simple – most students (probably most people) do not have a solid understanding of the task which can be blamed on the uneven feedback they have received in the past (poor modeling). This knowledge gap is exacerbated by a lack of confidence in their experience and knowledge (who are they to pass judgment) and further seasoned by a genuine desire to not hurt feelings and/or attract hurtful comments on their own work (karma).

There is also a deeper problem that I see play out in my classes (no matter the level or maturity of the students) – we don’t want to reflect. Some of the problem lies in our current fast-paced, high-pressure world where we all feel pressured to do more and do it faster. Reflection is not a “task” that we can show off with a Facebook post or Instagram picture (although Big Bang Theory did this great scene on this idea). Combine this with the current state of our K-12 education experience (perhaps this is a chicken-egg debate) which is focused on quantifiable results on standardized tests (is there anything more unquantifiable and unstandard than reflection?) and we have created the perfect storm. If you think about it, the question isn’t why do so many students hate peer review (aka workshop) and reflection, but rather why don’t they all? (Hint: the answer to that question is probably the National Writing Project which celebrates both workshop and reflection)

However, educators know that writing workshop is a powerful tool to help writers learn and grow and reflection is a powerful tool to help all humans learn and grow. So what can we do to support reflection and workshop in our classrooms? My secret weapon is a little trick I call the good, the bad, and the ugly.

I was first introduced to the idea by Profhacker when Natalie Houston described the 3×3 method she used to evaluate her courses. Her method is simple and brilliant and I have used it for years (just search my blog for 3×3) to help with my own professional reflection (and not just course evaluation). Houston suggests that we list three things that worked well, three things that did not work well, and three things we will do to improve. Such a simple formula and it can be applied in so many ways.

FIBA_3x3_Logo_blackAs you can see from my past blog posts, I often use the 3×3 method to reflect on my teaching as well as my professional life, but I have also adapted the method to use as we support the leadership team of the Morehead Writing Project (the life of an NWP site always includes a lot of reflection). Specifically, we used it as a key part of our Studio Learning Community. This is when we hacked the questions to talk about the good, the bad, and the ugly. In part we made the change because it was simpler and quicker to talk in shorthand like that. For us the ugly simply meant something that we could improve (think renovation here) although sometimes there was actual ugliness in our Studio classes that we needed to discuss.

Recently I read a great blog post (3 Things You Need to Work on) that offered one reason why students do not use the feedback we give them on their assignments – they are overwhelmed by the information and the task. The solution offered was to simply focus on three things that could be done. My first thought was “genius” and my second thought was how I could use my good, bad, ugly format to support writing workshop. I already use parts of this strategy, but now I’m thinking about how I can scaffold the entire workshop process using this method by adapting/combining the 3×3 method with my own good-bad-ugly format and NWP’s “Bless, Address, and Press” framework.

For example, I frequently begin the workshop process by focusing only on the good (this is usually for very early drafts). Readers share what they like about a piece whether it is a specific image or turn of phrase or idea – or the memories, thoughts, or emotions it evokes. This focus on the positive early on in the writing process can help motivate writers to finish a piece or at least continue to work on it. It is also easy and painfree for the readers.

I would not recommend using the word “bad” to label the next round of feedback (for completed drafts). Too many of our students are already scarred by previous feedback about their “bad” writing so we definitely do not want to go there. In the past, I’ve encouraged readers to ask questions or point out areas where they got lost and confused or needed more information. Perhaps we could call them “Waldos” and treat it like the puzzles? I like the idea of asking students to read work with the idea of finding three Waldos. I think this is a workshop method that readers will feel comfortable using and writers will find useful.

Flat_UI_-_clipboardI also plan to avoid the “ugly” label for the final round of workshop feedback, but I want to keep with the renovation theme. I’m thinking of using a term like the construction punch list or snag list (a list of things a contractor must fix before a project can be complete and final payment is made). I like this idea as it relates to workshop as it recognizes that the bulk of the work has been completed, but also suggests that all projects also contain some loose ends and rough spots. This could be handled two ways I think. We could simply ask readers to create a list of specific length or we could model it pretty closely to the punch list idea (where it is based on the actual contract) and have readers generate the list based on the assignment and/or rubric. I’ve had students base their final feedback on the rubric before, but I like the punch list idea and think I may be able to improve that feedback process.

I believe very strongly in the power of the writing workshop, but I also believe in the power of self-reflection. I plan to adapt my good-bad-ugly format into my self-reflection assignment in the future. Are you intrigued by the 3×3 and good-bad-ugly methods for generation feedback and reflection? How do you encourage feedback and reflection in your classroom?


  • I love this idea and how encouragement is a part of the first feedback loop. Lastly, having students use the rubric to create a list of to dos is an excellent means of getting them to actually interact with the rubric in a meaningful manner.

    • The more interaction (and input) students have with the rubric the more they understand how to use it. So many students struggle because they think the rubric (and/or grade) is really just something arbitrary the teacher pulled from the murk. I love building the rubric together as it helps with both feedback and writing.

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