In this video John Bennion, outdoor writing educator, describes the benefits of reflective writing during experiences.
This article lies at the intersection of experiential education and reflection, which “transforms simple experience to a learning experience” (NSEE, 2013). As you encourage students to write reflectively throughout a learning experience, you will, among other benefits, challenge their cognitive skills more than mental or verbal reflection. While reflective writing is the primary kind of writing discussed on this website, other kinds of writing are also valuable to experiential learning.
Consciously or not, everyone interprets the meaning of their experiences. Reflective writing helps students become aware of their personal and cultural “recipes for structuring experience” (Bruner, 2004, p. 708)—making them more mindful interpreters of their learning and lives.
Students can use writing to remember, understand, apply, analyze, and evaluate knowledge. Students problem-solve through writing as they engage with an experience and synthesize their learning into logical theories. Reflective writing not only interprets experience; writing is experience. Just as writing integrates knowledge, writing itself is part of what students integrate into their learning.
Because the components of the experiential learning process outlined on this website—frame, engage, reflect, integrate—occur simultaneously and recursively, reflective writing should be incorporated throughout the experiential activity. Van Manen (1991) postulates that there are three different kinds of reflection: anticipatory (before the experience), active (during the experience), and recollective (after the experience) (p. 101).
Basics of Practice
The University of Birmingham (2014) describes reflective writing as going beyond description and an unstructured outpouring of feelings (p. 6). Reflective writers do not reduce experiences by saying whether they liked them or not but instead explore what they are learning from and how they are responding to an experience (University of New South Wales Sydney, 2019). Far from meandering wherever their stream of conscious leads, reflective writers balance academic writing and personal thoughts (University of Birmingham, 2014, p. 6). Successful reflective writing challenges assumptions, connects an event to other learning, considers future implications of that learning, and explores the process of meaning-making. While descriptive writing addresses questions involving the who, what, where, and when of an experience, reflective writing is more concerned with how, why, and so what (Hull Uni Library, 2014, 2:20).
Students whose teachers equip them with the tools to write reflectively can frame an experience, reinforce and retain knowledge, create bridges between knowledge and experience, synthesize old and new learning, analyze complex systems, prompt personal reflection, and predict future outcomes. Additionally, students who write consistently observe their own growth as their documented ideas change over the course of the experience (NSEE, 2013).
Students who use writing to reflect on physical experience should also reflect on the experience of writing. Because writing is experience, a writing exercise itself should also be framed. In other words, this website talks about building a reflective culture in which writing becomes part of the entire experience instead of an exercise after it.
Just as reflective writing benefits students, it also benefits teachers, who can analyze student writing in order to determine how well the experience fulfilled course objectives (Chabon & Lee-Wilkerson, 2006).
- Preparing students: Tell students they will write about an experience after it, so that they are more attentive to feelings and details during it. They may even jot notes in their journals in the course the experience, and reflective writing will facilitate their observations.
- Using prompts: if you are going to incorporate writing into the before, during, and after parts of an experience, provide students with questions that prompt anticipatory, active, and recollective reflection. Refer to the chart below, inspired by the University of Birmingham (2004), for example prompts.
- Leading group discussion: Encourage students to share their writing when they are done. Discussion enables students to consider various meanings of the experience.
- Assessing writing: Use students’ written reflections as a tool to assess how they are growing as writers and how effective the experiential activity was. Refer to the example rubric below.
- This website can show you how to plan a writing based course or program, and help you
- Design learning objectives that require higher-level cognition and that develop students’ emotional intelligence,
- Design assessment tools that measure students’ achievement of your objectives,
- Decide which genres of writing will help students achieve your objectives,
- Create writing prompts that help students reach your objectives,
- Create an environment and culture of writing and reflection,
- Teach writing skills that will benefit students in their other courses,
- Adapt experiential writing exercises to your specific program.
Teaching Materials & Resources
- Template for creating a writing-based curriculum
- Reflection prompts: anticipatory, active, recollective
- Rubric of pre-, beginning, and advanced reflection
- Template for creating a journal writing exercise for an experiential class or program—short form
- Template for creating a journal writing exercise for an experiential class or program—long form
- “Borrowing Techniques from Writing & Rhetoric”: a blog on Brian Jackson’s use of reflection in composition.
Birmingham Library Services. https://intranet.birmingham.ac.uk/as/libraryservices/library/asc/documents/public/Short-Guide-Reflective-Writing.pdf
Bruner, J. (2004). Life as narrative. Social Research, 71(3), 691–710. https://ewasteschools.pbworks.com/f/Bruner_J_LifeAsNarrative.pdf
Chabon, S. S., & Lee-Wilkerson, D. (2006). Use of journal writing in the assessment of CSD students’ learning about diversity: A method worthy of reflection. Communication Disorders Quarterly, 27(3), 146–158. https://doi-org.erl.lib.byu.edu/10.1177/15257401060270030301
Hull Uni Library. (2014, June 12). Reflective writing [Video]. Youtube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b1eEPp5VSIY
National Society for Experiential Education. (2013). Eight principles of good practice for all Experiential learning activities. National Society for Experiential Education. https://www.nsee.org/8-principles
University of Birmingham. (2014, May). A short guide to reflective writing. University of
University of New South Wales Sydney. (2019, December 23). Reflective writing. UNSW Sydney. https://student.unsw.edu.au/reflective-writing
van Manen, M. (1991). The Tact of Teaching: The Meaning of Pedagogical Thoughtfulness (SUNY Series in Philosophy of Education) (SUNY series, The Philosophy of Education). State University of New York Press.
Helyer, R. (2015). Learning through reflection: The critical role of reflection in work-based learning (WBL). Journal of Work-Applied Management, 7, 15–27. doi:10.1108/JWAM-10-2015-003.
Kolb, D. A. (1984). Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development. (Vol. 1). Prentice-Hall.
Schön, D. (1983). The reflective practitioner: How professionals think in action. Basic Books.
Wegner, L., Struthers, P., & Mohamed, S. (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, 47, 11–16. doi:10.17159/2310-3833/2017/v47n3a3.