Watch a Video: Reflective Writing in the University Classroom
In this video, Brian Jackson, BYU, trains university educators in the benefits of reflective writing with their students.
Most university experiential education offices focus on the kinds of learning activities students participate in outside the classroom—internships, study abroad, community engagement—but traditional classrooms can also be experiential. Educators introduce experience as a mode of learning by planning excursions or field trips outside their classroom (see Field Study) and by following experiential practice inside their classroom by including projects, research, group work, in-class writing exercises, and other activities, and by following the experiential process—creating intent, engaging in experience, prompting reflection, and facilitating integration.
Since educational theorist George Kuh (2008) recommended high-impact practices, experiential education at the university level has exploded. Linda Bachman, director of experiential learning at the University of Georgia, says, “We want to make sure all of our students have opportunities to connect what they’re doing in the classroom to what they want to do with their lives beyond graduation, personally and professionally. We know that students get more deeply engaged with what they’re learning when they have a hands-on opportunity to practice” (Najmabadi, 2017, para. 13).
Some educators say that experience outside the classroom shouldn’t replace traditional academic study (Kijinski, J., 2018), but it isn’t an either/or situation. Experience without cognition (thoughtful preparation and reflection) is not the ideal of experiential education; experiential programs that don’t involve writing limit the learning that could happen. The same is true for the university classroom, where the main pedagogical method is lecturing, which only asks the students to take notes, not to engage in a writing practice that uses the whole brain (see The Benefits of ExL). Eric Mazur, a Harvard physics professor, describes his experience sitting in a traditional astronomy classroom, “It was all sitting in the lecture, and then scribbling down notes and cramming those notes and parroting them back on the exam. Focusing on the details, focusing on memorizing and regurgitation, the whole beauty of astronomy was lost" (Hanford, 2011). In his own teaching, Mazur uses what he calls “interactive-engagement” techniques, including peer instruction. Other university professors have used the Kolb model inside traditional classrooms to good effect (Svinicki, M. and Dixon, N., 1987; Hawtrey, K., 2007; Hammer, 2000).
Basics of Practice
Good experiential educators don’t throw students into experiential programs without preparing them for the experience through gaining content knowledge or having them reflect on what they’re learning throughout the experience.
While the main method inside the classroom is still lecture, it is a method that has proven largely ineffective (Halloun and Hestenes, 1985) and often prevents students from engaging in their education and developing the habits and mindsets of lifelong learning. As such, instructors should revise high-lecture environments for greater experiential opportunities. In his recommendation of high impact programs, Kuh (2008) included first-year seminars and experiences, learning communities, collaborative assignments and projects, undergraduate research, diversity/global learning, service learning, internships, and capstone projects. These and other programs are described on this website (see Program Ideas and Resources). Many universities require all undergraduates to undertake a research project that they plan, execute, and write up, guided by a faculty mentor. This gives them out-of-classroom experience working on a project of their own design.
- Determine objectives and evaluation tools before planning activities.
- Design activities through which students can learn relevant principles rather than merely have fun. Follow the method for planning a curriculum on this website. (see Plan your Course)
- Pause your lecture or discussion to provide opportunities for reflective writing through quick writes, followed by further discussion. (See Quick Writes)
- Use activities such as group work on projects, group work on writing drafts, discussion groups, longer writing exercises (see “Craft writing prompts and assignments”), role playing, demonstrations and reports, a researched paper, and others.
- Integrate project-based learning, which helps students design a project, learn to collaborate and research effectively, and write inside a genre that best communicates their findings.
- Have students participate in group work. Such work can often be difficult to evaluate but can be measured by a combination of self and peer grading. Another evaluation method is having each person narrate what they did to help their team.
- Use your professional organizations and the publications of those organizations to learn about experiential education in your subject discipline. Use other good resources such as:
- Northeastern University College of Professional Studies
- Association of American Colleges and Universities
- The Chronicle of Higher Education
- The National Society for Experiential Education
- EdSurge, On Course Workshop, Edutopia, and other similar sites
Teaching Materials and Resources
- Template for creating a writing-based curriculum
- Prompts for reflective writing exercises in traditional courses
- Template for a single journal writing assignment tied to a reading or discussion
- Template for managing a writing workshop
- 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
- Contemporary American Political Rhetoric: an experience-based graduate course on political rhetoric (Brian Jackson, English, BYU): Syllabus and assignment descriptions.
- Experiential analysis assignment for a capstone course on rhetoric (Brian Jackson, English, BYU).
- Syllabus from a freshman composition class with experiential assignments (Brian Jackson, English, BYU). The text for this course, authored by Jackson (2017), is Mindful Writing (see Further Readings). The text focuses on reflective practice in writing.
- Final Reflective Essay Assignment and Grading Rubric (Brian Jackson)
- Syllabus of a writing course with outdoor field trips (John Bennion, English, BYU)
- Meditation stations: an essaying lesson plan
- “The Argument in our Pedagogy”: a blog by a graduate instructor who used experiential learning principles to transform her composition class from teacher to student-centric
Halloun, I. and Hestenes, D. (1985). The initial knowledge state of college physics students. American Journal of Physics 53(11):1043-1055.
Hamer, L. (2000). The additive effects of semistructured classroom activities on student learning: An application of classroom-based experiential learning techniques.
Journal of Marketing Education 22(1), pp. 25-34. https://doi.org/10.1177/0273475300221004
Hanford, E. (2011). Don’t lecture me: The problem with lecturing. American Public Radio.
Hawtrey, K. (2007) Using experiential learning techniques. The Journal of Economic Education 38(2), pp. 143-152. DOI: 10.3200/JECE.38.2.143-152
Kijinski, J. (2018). On 'experiential learning.' Inside Higher Ed. https://www.insidehighered.com/views/2018/01/08/why-experiential-learning-often-isnt-good-classroom-learning-opinion
Kuh, George. (2008). High-impact educational practices: What they are, who has access to them, and why they matter. Association of American Colleges and Universities.
Najmabadi, S. (2017). How colleges can open powerful educational experiences to everyone. Chronicle of Higher Education, web version. https://www.chronicle.com/article/how-colleges-can-open-powerful-educational-experiences-to-everyone/
Svinicki, M. and Dixon, N. (1987) The Kolb model modified for classroom activities, College Teaching 35(4), pp. 141-146, DOI: 10.1080/87567555.1987.9925469
Demmans. C., Akcayir, G., and Phirangee, K. (2019) Think twice: exploring the effect of reflective practices with peer review on reflective writing and writing quality in computer-science education, Reflective Practice 20(4), pp. 533-547. DOI:
Eyler, J. (2009). The power of experiential education. Liberal Education
Gallagher, S (2018) For experiential learning programs to thrive, they must bridge K-12
and higher ed (and the workforce). EdSurge.
Jackson, B. (2017). Mindful writing. Hayden-Mcneil.
Kolb, A. & Kolb, D. (2017). Experiential learning theory as a guide for experiential
educators in higher education. A Journal for Engaged Educators, 1(1), 7-44. Retrieved from https://learningfromexperience.com/downloads/research-library/experiential-learning-theory-guide-for-higher-education-educators.pdf