Handout: Reverse Outline
A Tool for Student Self-Assessment
The Reverse Outline is a powerful tool for student self-assessment. Once a student has produced a draft, the reverse outline gives the student a method to assess how well they are meeting their goals and organizing their ideas.
The goal of the reverse outline is to streamline the writing into its pieces, allowing students to see what they have actually done in their draft. In other words, we are trying to help student get rid of the noise so that they can see the forest for the trees.
When asked to write an outline prior to writing, students are inclined to include as much detail as possible. This can make it harder for them to see what is going on with the essay. When it comes to outlining, less is truly more. The reverse outline encourages this simpler outline and helps students forward their ideas.
Additionally, even when students write an outline prior to drafting, the subsequent draft often looks quite different from what the student planned. However, this discrepancy is not always obvious to the student. The reverse outline makes it clearer.
The reverse outline can be done as an IN-CLASS exercise or as an OUT OF CLASS activity.
- Start with a completed draft (though a reverse outline can be done with a partial draft, too).
- It can help to number the paragraphs.
- Write the thesis (if relevant) at the top. This step acts as a reminder of what the student is trying to do in the essay. Furthermore, some thesis statements can act as a roadmap or organizational guide to structure, so it is helpful to see the thesis above the reverse outline.
- Write out, in as few words as possible, what each paragraph does.
Alternatively, a student could list the topic sentence for each paragraph.
- Look back at the reverse outline and assess (as relevant):
- Is each paragraph focused on one main idea? Students often overfill paragraphs with multiple ideas or pieces of evidence that would be stronger in separate paragraphs. Students also will sometimes put related ideas in multiple places, rather than clustering these ideas together in one paragraph. The reverse outline can help make this clear.
- Is every paragraph connected to the main argument of the piece of writing? Students sometimes include ideas that don’t connect or aren’t clearly connected to the thesis.
- Are there ideas in the reverse outline that aren’t captured by the thesis? Because writing is a process of discovery, students often find new ideas while writing. These ideas, however, don’t always get incorporated back into the larger argument / thesis.
- Are the ideas organized in a way that is logical and corresponds to the thesis? Organizing writing can be one of the largest challenges for student writers. By looking at the reverse outline, the student can sometimes see that some ideas are appearing too early or too late in the piece of writing.
- When using topic sentences for this exercise, the student can ask, are the transitions clear? Does the reader see how each new idea builds from the one before?
See below for an example of a reverse outline and what can be observed from it.
Other resources on Reverse Outlines:
- The University of Wisconsin – Madison Writing Center
- Purdue University Online Writing Lab. Purdue offers an alternative approach where student write the paragraph topics in the left hand margin and how the paragraph advances the argument in the right hand margin.
Sample Reverse Outline
This reverse outline is for a UWS paper that analyzes a case study (Lance Armstrong’s doping scandal) using literature on the biology and evolution of moral behavior.
Thesis: Cheating in the sports world, as evidenced by Lance Armstrong’s motivation to use performance-enhancing drugs, is caused by both internal, evolved factors and external factors.
- Internal influence – fear of loss, lots of animals cheat, evolved aversion to inequity
- External influence – social contagion of cheating
- External influence > internal desire for fairness
Important insights that can be observed from the student outline:
- Paragraph 2 seems overloaded with ideas. It’s likely that paragraph 2 would be more effective in the essay if broken down into separate paragraphs.
- Within paragraph 2, the second idea (that lots of animals cheat) seems like the most simple idea, and should perhaps come first. The other two ideas – fear of loss and an evolved aversion to inequity – will have more analytical potential in relationship to Armstrong’s behavior.
- Paragraph 4 adds the argument that external (social) influences are stronger or more important than evolved instincts for fairness. This idea does not appear in the thesis, so the student learns that either the thesis must be refined or paragraph 4 must be removed. The student might also clarify in the draft if all external or social factors are more important than evolved/internal factors, or if the argument is perhaps more nuanced.
- The essay moves straight from the introduction to the internal influences on Armstrong’s behavior. Is any background needed between these paragraphs?
- The essay is a classic 5-paragraph essay, which many students learn in high school. While this format can work for some simple college essays, more often the student would benefit from thinking about their ideas not as a list of three point, but as a growing, cohesive argument. The reverse outline makes it clear that the student is using this less effective approach to their argument.