Reflective and other forms of writing are essential to experiential education programs. Writing is not merely
recording thought that has already occurred but is a complex form of cognitive and affective experience that can
help students process and develop thoughts, emotion, and learning. Writing develops brain function, improves learning across the curriculum, allows personal growth through transformation of narrative identity, and helps students overcome emotional difficulties.
Brain scans show that multiple parts of the brain are active when writing (Erhard et al., 2014). Specifically, writing involves “hand-eye coordination, language, memory, creativity, insight, logic, spatial intelligence, and abstract thought” (Dean, 2019, para. 3). Writing doesn’t just use brain function: it develops brain function (Willis, 2007; Erhard et al., 2014). Researchers have found connections between creativity and brain plasticity and between writing and longevity of brain function (Iacono et al., 2009).
In terms of academics, studies show that cognitive skills learned in writing transfer to general academic activities (Taniguchi et al., 2017). Other studies have shown that writing (especially reflective synthesis) can help students learn threshold concepts in various academic disciplines (Bennion et al., 2020).
Reflective writing can also help participants grow personally (Bennion et al., 2002, 2016). When the writing has a positive focus, it can aid recovery from trauma (Ulrich and Lugendorf, 2014). Wegner et al. (2017) found that “reflective writing . . . enabled [participants] to express themselves with courage and honesty, connect with themselves, identify weaknesses and let go of negative emotions and feelings” (p. 11). In short, positive reflective writing can foster productive change.
Basics of Practice
Writing is experience. When students write, they are engaged physically, mentally, and emotionally. The simpler acts of writing, such as transcribing engage less of the brain than does note taking (which requires summarizing), but other, more challenging kinds of writing, such as reflective or essayistic, researched, and creative writing use much more of the brain and more fully engage students’ emotions.
Writing can help students learn and it can also help teachers assess student learning. In other words, the link between writing and cognition makes it possible to both develop and measure many different cognitive learning outcomes through writing. While some experiential learning outcomes must be demonstrated physically—learning belaying commands, operating laboratory equipment, doing complex analysis of financial processes—other skills, such a people skills, ability to reflect, emotional engagement, can be assessed through written tests.
Students who are urged to reflect often write about personal experiences and emotional or mental illness. Remember your professional limits. While writing can aid emotional health, writing coaches should remember that they are not therapists and that they should not require students to disclose anything they are not comfortable with. You should encourage students who have serious issues to meet with a professional therapist.
- Remember that beginning writers are unable to perform the cognitive skills that they can later after long practice. Advanced practitioners are able to use more areas of their brain while writing than novices are (Erhard et al., 2014).
- Vary the types of writing you have students perform.
- Lower-level writing tasks such as listing can help students remember concrete or physical skills.
- Writing that involves a higher level of cognition uses more of their brain and helps them succeed in college and a career.
- Higher-level cognition can come from the following kinds of assignments:
- reflection in journals, short papers, and longer essays,
- analytical evaluation,
- Integrating new interpretations of research, or
- original creative writing--fiction, poetry, and essays.
- Have students use handwriting for their journals and other simple writing. Handwriting uses parts of the brain that typing doesn’t. Having students keep both a journal in which they handwrite and also asking them to synthesize or redraft material from the journal into essays takes advantage of the motor and spatial skills of handwriting and the higher conceptual skills of more complex writing.
- Use writing to measure physical program outcomes, such as identifying the steps in a process, demonstrating the ability to synthesize old and new skills, and demonstrating analysis of complex systems.
Teaching Materials and Resources
- Writing prompts that explore brain function
- “Discovery through Reflection”: a blog about the benefits of reflection and of revisiting a piece of writing
- “Reflective Writing Empowers”: a blog about how writing helped the author deal with a friend’s traumatic accident.
- "Reflection and Lifelong Learning": a blog about vulnerability, curiosity, and reflection as lifelong learning competencies.
Dean, N. (2019). A look at the write brain. Brain World, https://brainworldmagazine.com/look-write-brain/#:~:text=Through%20writing%2C%20students%20can%20increase,all%20sorts%20of%20cognitive%20activity
Willis, J. (2011). The brain-based benefits of writing for math and science. Edutopia. https://www.edutopia.org/blog/writing-executive-function-brain-research-judy-willis
Zimmer, C. (2014). This is your brain on writing. New York Times.
Bennion, J., Cannon, B. Hill, B., Nelson, R., & Ricks, M. (2020). Asking the right questions: Using reflective essays for experiential assessment. Journal of Experiential Education, 43(1), 37–54. https://doi.org/10.1177/1053825919880202
Bennion, J., Duerden, M., & Whitehouse, A. (2016). Global explorers journaling and reflection initiative. Journal of Youth Development, 11(2), 44–51. https://doi.org/10.5195/jyd.2016.445
Bennion, J., & Olsen, B. (2002). Wilderness writing: Using personal narrative writing to amplify outdoor experience. The Journal of Experiential Education, 25(1), 239–246.
Erhard, K., Kessler, F., Neumanna, N, Ortheil, H.-J., & Lotze, M. (2014). Professional training in creative writing is associated with enhanced fronto-striatal activity in a literary text continuation task. NeuroImage, 100, 15–23.
Iacono, D., Markesbery, W. R., Gross, M., Pletnikova, O., Rudow, G., Zandi, P., & Troncoso, J. C. (2009). The nun study: Clinically silent AD, neuronal hypertrophy, and linguistic skills in early life. Neurology, 73(9), 665–673.
Taniguchi, S., Bennion, J., Duerden, M., Widmer, M., & Ricks., M. (2017). Self-efficacy of risk taking in outdoor recreation as a predictor of the self-efficacy of risk taking in essay writing. Journal of Outdoor Recreation, Education, and Leadership, 9(4), 425–438. doi.org/10.18666/JOREL-2017-V9-I4-8653.
Ullrich, P., & Lutgendorf, S. (2002). Journaling about stressful events: Effects of cognitive processing and emotional expression. Annals of Behavioral Medicine 24(3), 244–50. DOI: 10.1207/S15324796ABM2403_10
Wegner, L. (2017). “The pen is a powerful weapon; It can make you change”: The value of using reflective writing with adolescents. South African Journal of Occupational Therapy, 43(3), 11–16. doi:10.17159/2310-3833/2017/v47n3a3
Dewey, J. (1934/1997). Art as experience. Touchstone.
Flower, L., & Hayes, J. R. (1981). A cognitive process theory of writing. College Composition and Communication, 32, 365–387. https://doi.org/10.2307/356600
Heinrich, W. F., Habron, G. B., & Johnson, H. L. (2015). Critical thinking assessment across four sustainability-related experiential learning settings. Journal of Experiential Education, 38, 373–393. https://doi.org/10.1177/1053825915592890
Kellog, R. T. (2008). Training writing skills: A cognitive development perspective. Journal of Writing Research, 1(1), 1–26. https://doi.org/10.17239/jowr-2008.01.01.1
Karimpoor, M., Churchill, N., Tam, F., Fischer C., Schweizer T., & Graham, S. (2018). Functional MRI of handwriting tasks: A study of healthy young adults interacting with a novel touch-sensitive tablet. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 12(30).
NeuroRelay. (2013). How does writing affect your brain? neurorelay.com/2013/08/07/how-does-writing-affect-your-brain/
Torrance, M., van Waes, L., & Galbraith, D. (2007). Writing and Cognition. Brill.