Wrapping to Uncover Learning – Monica Vesely

Many of us have likely heard the term wrapper or cognitive wrapper used when discussing ways to help our students in becoming more independent and self-aware learners. In particular, this term comes up when discussing assessment as a learning opportunity. So what exactly is a cognitive wrapper and how can it be used to aid learning?

In brief, a cognitive wrapper is a tool to guide students before, during or after a teaching and learning event to help them identify their own approaches to the teaching and learning event and what aspects of their behavior are productive and which aspects are not. It encourages students to purposefully examine what they can and should change so as to improve the teaching and learning experience. Wrappers are a structured way to guide students through a reflective process that increases their self-awareness and leads to a modification of behavior through self-regulation.

 The exam wrapper

The most common application of a cognitive wrapper is the exam wrapper. In a typical case within a given course, students prepare for the first iteration of a test or mid-term exam in their usual way. On the day that the exam is returned, the students are given a series of questions to be completed related to their experience with the exam. These questions can be handed out on paper in class or administered online with a learning management system such as LEARN. The completed ‘wrapper’ is collected by the instructor. (The instructor can choose to review the student comments or not depending on how much support they plan on providing.) The completed exam wrapper is returned to the individual students in time for them to start preparing for the next test or mid-term exam. The students are directed to remind themselves of their post-exam comments and are encouraged to follow their own advice for modifying their study behavior in preparation for the upcoming exam.

The power of the wrapper lies in the selection of the wrapper questions. In general, there are three kinds of questions that can be posed. The first type of question will ask about the kind of preparation the student engaged in when preparing for the exam. What did they actually do? How long did they do it? When did they start? Did they prepare for the exam alone or did they work with a partner, with a study group, in consultation with a tutor or TA? This question can be posed in an open-ended fashion or a series of prompts. Often when a list of study strategies is used that in itself can suggest future options for the students to consider. The second type of question, asks about the mistakes they made in the exam. Students are shepherded through a review of their exam with a view to identifying where they lost marks and why. They are guided to identify mistake categories (did not understand question, did not know how to apply concept or formula, did not recognize content, question type, careless mistake, etc.) The third part of an exam wrapper is the future facing question. What could they do differently? What is an easy fix? What might be more challenging? Why? What additional tools or supports do they need? Encouraging students to develop a realistic and specific plan for their exam preparation will increase motivation and the likelihood of success.

 Other cognitive wrappers

Apart from wrapping exams, cognitive wrappers can be used to effect with other activities. An example of a cognitive wrapper that is used in advance of a teaching and learning event would be a homework wrapper. A homework wrapper might ask such questions as ‘What do I already know? What should I do first? How much time do I have? Which resources should I use?’

A lecture wrapper is an example of a cognitive wrapper that can be used during a teaching and learning event. Questions that could be posed here might include: ‘Where does this point fit in to the agenda for today? How does this material relate to the preceding unit? How is this information personally relevant? What information is important to remember? Is something missing?’ Not only do these questions encourage ‘on-the-fly’ reflection they may also help develop active listening skills.

So why use wrappers?

By and large, wrappers can be incorporated into our teaching and learning environments without significantly impacting class time. They are flexible and reusable, thereby, not heavy on an instructor’s workload. Wrappers are helpful both to students and instructors in achieving the intended learning outcomes; and above all else, they support the development of metacognitive skills including the ability to analyze personal strengths and weaknesses, identify personally effective study approaches and provide a change-mechanism for adjusting learning strategies.

The metacognitive role of wrappers helps learners choose the right approach to the task at hand and by playing a significant role in successful learning, wrappers can support academic success.


Bowen, J. (2013). Cognitive wrappers: Using metacognition and reflection to improve learning. Retrieved from http://josebowen.com/cognitive-wrappers-using-metacognition-and-reflection-to-improve-learning/

Ebbler, J. (2013, July 31). Exam wrappers. Retrieved from http://teachingwithoutpants.blogspot.com/2013/07/exam-wrappers.html

Fact Sheet. Metacognitive Processes. TEAL. (February 2012) Retrieved from https://lincs.ed.gov/programs/teal/guide/metacognitive

Lovett, Marsha C. (2013). Make exams worth more than the grade: Using exam wrappers to promote metacognition. In M. Kaplan, N. Silver, D. LaVague-Manty, & D.  Meizlish (Eds.), Using reflection and metacognition to improve student learning: Across the disciplines, across the academy (pp. 18-52). Sterling, VA: Stylus.

Pinchin, S. (2013, June 17). Exam wrappers: A novel way to review exams. Retrieved from http://meds.queensu.ca/blog/undergraduate/?p=653

Photo by Thomas Hawk. Used by permission under Creative Commons license 2.0.



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Monica Vesely

Monica Vesely is an Instructional Developer with the Centre for Teaching Excellence where she conducts teaching observations, facilitates the Instructional Skills Workshop (ISW), coordinates the Teaching Squares Program, and assists new faculty with their teaching professional development. In her focus on new faculty, she chairs the New Faculty Welcoming Committee, supports new faculty initiatives across campus, consults with new faculty to assist them with the preparation of individualized Learning About Teaching Plans (LATPs), facilitates workshops and builds community through various communications and social events. Prior to joining the Centre for Teaching Excellence, Monica worked with the NSERC Chair in Water Treatment in Civil and Environmental Engineering, taught in the Department of Chemistry, and designed learning experiences with Waterloo's Professional Development Program (WatPD).

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