Watch a Video
In this video, Amber Jensen, BYU, trains K-12 educators in the benefits of reflective writing with their students. It also discusses how to develop a team of peer writing tutors.
Primary and secondary educators have long used guided experience, both inside and outside the classroom, as an essential aspect of their curriculums. Educators can benefit their students by adding reflection to that mix, especially written reflection. Reflective and other experiential writing assignments used in the experiential process can amplify student learning and help make experiential learning credible to administrators.
John Dewey (1933) defined reflection as the “active, persistent and careful consideration of any belief or supposed form of knowledge in the light of the grounds that support it, and further conclusions to which it leads” (p. 118). In practical terms this means that all students can benefit from reflection on their own learning: how new learning fits with old learning, the implications of the new learning, and how they feel about the learning. This especially true of experiential learning, because mere action is not educative.
Jennifer Moon (1999), one of the foremost experts in the world on reflective writing, says, “We reflect on something to consider it in more detail” (p. 4). Moon (2004) also makes two observations about teaching reflection in the classroom: “First, just presenting learners with a task of writing a learning journal . . . or any task that involves reflection is not always successful. Not all learners find reflection easy when it is introduced as a specific assignment.” (p. 134). Her second observation is that even though most students learn to reflect, their reflections are often “superficial and descriptive” (p. 134). This suggests students need more training in reflections to make what they write significant. Other theorists and practitioners have shown that reflection can enhance and amplify learning. For example, Kristin Powell and Marcella Wells (2002) showed that, in using the Kolb cycle, including reflective writing met the established science standards for their state and improved growth with fifth-grade students. Reflection, especially written reflection, is an essential aspect of experiential learning in K–12 educational settings.
Basics of Practice
Filling out a worksheet or doing a rote assignment doesn’t use the students’ minds the way reflective or self-directed writing does. Reflection, exploration, and experimentation in writing gives them the opportunity to practice being creators and innovators. Writing prompts should be open-ended and self-directed.
Formulaic writing is the enemy of learning (Newkirk, 1989). For example, “What are the three ideas we talked about today?” is not as good a writing prompt as “How might you use what we learned today outside the classroom?” So reflective writing and other kinds of written exercises should prompt students to think for themselves, not to merely parrot what the teacher wants them to say.
Reflective writing aids learning, but what the students wrote can also be used by teachers to assess student learning.
Teachers should model reflective writing for their students (TeacherVision Staff, 2007). Just as reflective writing helps students learn, teachers can learn about their own teaching styles and practices through reflection (Collins, 2021).
On field trips, teachers can have students write field notes that can be used as material for in-class writing assignments—either a personal narrative or essay or as part of the evidence for a simple research paper.
- Make journal and assignment prompts specific (adapted from TeacherVision Staff, 2007).
- Not, “What did you think of the class?” but, “What did you learn today?”
- Not, “What did you do in school today?” but, “What happened in school today that made you feel proud? Do you think everyone else felt that way?”
- Not, “What would you like to be when you grow up?” but, “How could you use some of your strengths and accomplishments to help you in a career when you grow up?”
- Not, “What do you want to learn?” but, “How do you plan to learn this content? How and when will you do the work? How do you want to be evaluated?”
- Use reflective journals in connection with cooperation groups by having each student reflect on how they contributed to the group and what they now understand (TeacherVision Staff, 2007).
- Have students reflect on the quality of their own writing (TeacherVision Staff, 2007).
- Have students reflect on their understanding of subjects other than English or writing, such as math, social studies, or science (TeacherVision Staff, 2007).
- Imitate what two high-school teachers, Adrianna Smyth and Craig Miller, did--organize two 3-week-long, immersive, project-based courses each academic year. One year, one such project was titled, “Water in the American West: History, Policy, and Science.” Over the course of experience, students wrote field notes, conducted and transcribed interviews, and drafted research papers (Smyth and Miller, 2019).
- The article “How Reflective Writing Expands Thinking” suggests the following forms of experiential writing for K–12 writing (for specifics see their article from the Thoughtful Learning website):
- Open-ended writing. For example, take the prompt, “What can I discover about . . . “
- Journals that explore thoughts and feelings about a specific experience.
- Reflective journal exercises that prepare students to write a personal essay, story, a series of poems, or a play.
- Dialogue journals that record thoughtful conversation with a partner.
- Blog posts or social media to explore, develop, and share an idea with a wider audience than the classroom.
The website also recommends that teachers
- share personal essays and have students imitate,
- give individual students writing prompts designed for them, and
- have students respond to and reflect on their coursework.
Teaching Materials and Resources
- Template for creating a writing-based curriculum
- Template for managing a writing workshop
- Template for creating a journal writing exercise for an experiential class or program—long form
- Template for creating a journal writing exercise for an experiential class or program—short form
- “Experience in Practice on the Pacific Crest Trail: An Interview with Dana Fleming”: an account of a high school teacher’s everts to give her students outdoor experience
- “Observation Aids Reflection”: a blog post on how direct observation linked with reflection worked for the writer when she was in an outdoor high school program
- “Runoff Reflections”: a blog post about how a mother took her children on hikes and asked them reflective questions
19 Science Writing Prompts. Teacher’s notepad.
https://www.teachersnotepad.com/science-writing-prompts/ This site is created by a wife/husband team (Matt & Hayley) who have sixteen years experience teaching children aged 5-10.
Allen-Mastro, N. Making experiential learning a central part of your school program. EdVisions.
Hausburg, T., & Gudenkauf, S. (2019). Getting started with experiential learning. Edutopia.
Nutter, M. (2020). Why K–12 schools should embrace experiential learning. Vision. https://vinsonedu.com/blog/why-k-12-schools-should-embrace-experiential-learning
Reflective thinking. University of Hawaii. https://www.hawaii.edu/intlrel/pols382/Reflective%20Thinking%20-%20UH/reflection.html
What is experiential education? Independent Schools Experiential Education Network.
Collins, M. (2021). The benefits of developing a reflective routine. Edutopia.
Dewey, J. (1910/1933). How we think: A restatement of the relation of reflective thinking to the educative process. D.C. Heath and Company.
How reflective writing expands thinking. Thoughtful Learning.
Moon, J. A. (1999). Reflection in learning and professional development: Theory and practice. Kogan Page.
Moon, J. A. (2004). A handbook of reflective and experiential learning: Theory and practice. Routledge Falmer.
Newkirk, T. (1989). Critical thinking and writing: Reclaiming the essay (Monographs on teaching critical thinking number 3). ERIC Clearinghouse on Reading and Communication.
Powell, K., & Wells, M. (2002). The effectiveness of three experiential teaching approaches on student science learning in fifth-grade public school classrooms. The Journal of Environmental Education, 33(2), pp. 33-38. DOI: 10.1080/00958960209600806
Smyth, A., & Miller, C. (2019). How to set up rich experiential learning units. Edutopia.
TeacherVision Staff. (2007). Reflective journals. TeacherVision. https://www.teachervision.com/writing/reflective-journals
Balius, A. (n.d.) Recounting and reporting on my learning at the natural history museum. California Writing Project, University of California. https://www.californiawritingproject.org/uploads/1/3/6/0/13607033/k-2recounting_my_learning_natural_history_museum.pdf
Gartland., S. (2020). Exploring elementary student perceptions of experiential learning within critical service-learning. The Journal of Experiential Education, 44(1), pp. 50-64.
Halpern, D. F. (1996). Thought and knowledge: An introduction to critical thinking (3rd ed.). L. Erlbaum Associates.
Lin, X., Hmelo, C., Kinzer, C. K., & Secules, T. J. (1999). Designing technology to support reflection. Educational Technology Research & Development, pp. 43-62.
Myers, J., Sanders, J., Ikpeze, C., Yoder, K., Scales, R., Tracy, K., Smetana, L., & Grisham, D. (2019). Exploring connections between writing methods, teacher education courses and K-12 field experience. Action in Teacher Education, 41(4), pp. 344-360. DOI: 10.1080/01626620.2019.1600600