What Benefits Might Reflective Writing Have for My Students?


Getting Started

Why include writing in my courses?

What is writing to learn?

What is writing to engage?

What is writing in the disciplines?

Useful Knowledge

What should I know about rhetorical situations?

Do I have to be an expert in grammar to assign writing?

What should I know about genre and design?

What should I know about second-language writing?

What teaching resources are available?

What should I know about WAC and graduate education?

Assigning Writing

What makes a good writing assignment?

How can I avoid getting lousy student writing?

What benefits might reflective writing have for my students?

Using Peer Review

Why consider collaborative writing assignments?

Do writing and peer review take up too much class time?

How can I get the most out of peer review?

Responding to Writing

How can I handle responding to student writing?

How can writing centers support writing in my courses?

What writing resources are available for my students?

Using Technology

How can computer technologies support writing in my classes?

Designing and Assessing WAC Programs

What is a WAC program?

What designs are typical for WAC programs?

How can WAC programs be assessed?

More on WAC

Where can I learn more about WAC?

In The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action, Donald Schön notes that

When we go about the spontaneous, intuitive performance of the actions of everyday life, we show ourselves to be knowledgeable in a special way. Often we cannot say what it is that we know. When we try to describe it we find ourselves at a loss, or we produce descriptions that are obviously inappropriate. Our knowing is ordinarily tacit, implicit in our patterns of action and in our feel for the stuff with which we are dealing. (49)

He then explains one of the major functions of reflection for the practitioner:

Through reflection, [the practitioner] can surface and criticize the tacit understandings that have grown up around the repetitive experiences of a specialized practice, and can make new sense of the situations of uncertainty or uniqueness which he may allow himself to experience. (61)

As writers, students have less tacit understanding of how to construct texts generally and much less tacit understanding of how to construct texts in their new content disciplines. Thus, the first major contribution of reflective writing for students as writers is that such work allows student writers to examine their tacit understandings to see where and how those might be elaborated for the complex or uncertain rhetorical contexts they write within.

In addition to this advantage of reflection, many teachers of writing have found that students who reflect about their writing processes and decisions are able and careful critics of their own work. They often see exactly those shortcomings that a target reader will identify. Students can, then, anticipate the responses that teachers give to the text, often in productive ways if the reflective writing occurs before final submission of a writing assignment.

Teachers who assign reflective writing, however, are not solely concerned with having students consider their writing processes and rhetorical decisions. Many teachers across the curriculum strongly believe in the value of reflecting on one's knowledge and practices, particularly in clinical, professional, and classroom settings.

To sum up responses to the question, then, reflective writing benefits students because it

  • Helps students identify their tacit knowledge as well as gaps in that knowledge
  • Brings to the surface rhetorical and writing process decisions that can focus subsequent revision or learning
  • Encourages growth as a working professional

Beyond the Basics

Reflective writing is used across disciplines, but it most widely accepted as a pre-professional practice in nursing and teacher education. (See Mortari 2012, for a partial review of the literature in nursing.) The sheer number of recent titles on reflection in the literature of these disciplines puts an exhaustive review (or even listing) beyond the scope of this text, but the table below captures some of recent titles across the curriculum. Please search key disciplinary journals to find those sources most pertinent to the courses you teach.


Disciplinary area Title (specific discipline; type of reflective assignment)


Ho & Lee, 2012 (interdisciplinary; essay)

Jehangir, 2010 (interdisciplinary; essay)

Leijen et al., 2012 (interdisciplinary; varied)

Lew et al., 2011 (interdisciplinary; journal)

Park & Milora, 2012 (interdisciplinary; varied)


Baker & Krout, 2012 (music therapy; songwriting)

Barney & Mackinlay, 2010 (indigenous studies; journal)

Browning, 2011 (communication studies; short papers)

Gulwadi, 2009 (interior design; journal)

Ponte, 2006 (law; essay)

Prescott, 2012 (creative writing; "life-writing" commentary)

Ryan & Brough, 2012 (fashion design; garment critique)


Bisman, 2011 (accounting; journal)

Chu et al., 2012 (nursing & information management; blog)

Vega, 2004 (business management; case writing)

Wills & Clerken, 2009 (business management; simulation and critical writing


Badley, 2009 (education, essay)

Bairral & dos Santos, 2012 (mathematics pre-service; e portfolio)

Brown & Coles, 2012 (mathematics pre-service; analysis)

Ciminelli, 2011 (pre-service literacy education; interactive intervention)

Cisero, 2006 (educational psychology; journal)

Dianovsky & Wink, 2012 (elementary ed chemistry; journal)

Fadde et al., 2009 (pre-service education; video editing and writing)

Hagavik et al., 2012 (teacher education; action research)

Harland & Wondra, 2011 (pre-service education; blog and essay)

Hughes, 2008 (sexuality education; integration papers)

Kajdar & Parkes, 2012 (pre-service education; blog and videolog)

Knapp, 2012 (pre-service education; journal)

Lai & Calandra, 2010 (pre-service education; online prompted journal)

Lee, 2010 (physical education pre-service; journal)

Mortari, 2012 (teacher education; journal)

O'Connell & Dyment, 2011 (physical education pre-service; journal)

Parker, 2010 (pre-service education; literacy narrative)

Schwartz et al., 2004 (secondary science teachers; journal)

Starks et al., 2012 (pre-service education; teaching critique)

Social Sciences

Attard, 2012 (social sciences; narrative journal)

Brewer & Josefowicz, 2006 (economics; journal)

Holtzman, 2005 (sociology; activity)

McGuinness, 2009 (geography, diaries)

McGuire et al., 2009 (social work; essay)

Mott, 2008 (political science; personal essay)

Nesoff, 2004 (social work; journal)

Rusche & Jason, 2011 (sociology; sequence of tasks)

Trepagnier, 2004 (sociology; portfolio reflection)

Walmsley & Birkbeck, 2006 (social work; personal narrative)


Bairral & dos Santos, 2012 (mathematics pre-service; e portfolio)

Balgopal & Montplaisir, 2011 (biology; 10 essays)

Brown & Coles, 2012 (mathematics pre-service; analysis)

Cisero, 2006 (educational psychology; journal)

Clark, 2010 (psychology; final paper)

Dianovsky & Wink, 2012 (elementary ed chemistry; journal)

Kalman, 2011 (general science; concept writing)

Kalman & Rohar, 2010 (physics; varied)

Mayne, 2012 (bioscience; reflective writing)

McDonald & Dominguez, 2009 (science, guided writing)

Parry et al., 2012 (bioscience; critical incident report)

Schwartz et al., 2004 (secondary science teachers; journal)

Shepherd, 2010 (health science; essay)

Simmons, 2008 (natural resources; memoir)

Walker, 2006 (sports science; journal)

Professional Practice

Chu et al., 2012 (nursing & information management; blog)

Lie et al., 2010 (internal medicine; narrative paper)

Hill et al., 2012 (speech therapy; journal)

Smith-Battle, 2012 (nursing education; student-created dramas)

Sung et al., 2009 (teachers; digital teaching portfolio)

Wald et al., 2009 (medical education; field notes)

Often, reflective writing is assigned or captured in journals (kept in hardcopy or online). One common complaint from students is that so many of their teachers assign reflective journals that students feel overburdened with this kind of writing. Teachers, on the other hand, sometimes complain that students do not engage in authentic reflection and rely instead on simple description of activities or events. To address these typical problems, Dyment et al. (2010) consider the factors that limit the effectiveness of reflective journals for students. They provide useful suggestions for setting clear expectations by specifying the purpose of the journal in the specific course as well as connecting journal goals to a larger educational program or professional practice. Dyment et al. also explore the importance of noting the audience for the journal and its "mechanics"—how much it counts in a course grade, how often students should write and for how long, what specific requirements the teacher has for entries, and so on. They continue their helpful logistical advice with notes about how to help students to read and write journal entries and how and when to respond and grade journals. (See also Mills, 2008.)

Hubbs & Brand (2010) add to this basic information about setting up a reflective journal by defining two dimensions common to journal activities -concrete/abstract and cognitive/affective spectra. They contend that having students analyze their own journaling helps them to connect and critique classroom learning and practical experience.

Moving beyond the journal as the vehicle for reflection, Rusche & Jason (2011) describe a detailed sequence of reflective writing tasks that culminate in a final reflective essay. Although their sequence derives from sociology, the activities might easily translate to other disciplines. Similarly, Mair (2012) describes an online resource designed to facilitate reflective writing, develop students' metacognitive awareness and, ultimately, enhance learning.

Rai (2012) turns to questions related to assessing reflective writing, focusing specifically on the emotional elements often included in reflection on practice in disciplines such as social work, nursing, and teaching. Like Rai, Tummons (2011) questions the validity of assessing reflective writing. Unlike Rai, Tummons' position is more critical of our current assessment practices. He argues that our typical assessment practices mask complexities and contradictions in how students write reflective assignments and how we read them. He calls for new assessment based on clearer theoretical underpinnings, particularly from social theories of language and literacy. Although not focused exclusively on assessment of reflective writing, Ross (2011) also takes up theoretical viewpoints on the affective dimension of reflective writing and how teachers might consider issues of identity, authenticity, ownership, privacy and performativity in compulsory reflective writing.


Attard, K. (2012). The role of narrative writing in improving professional practice. Educational Action Research, 20(1), 161-175.

Badley, G. (2009). A reflective essaying model for higher education. Education & Training, 51(4), 248-258.

Bairral, M.A., & dos Santos, R.T. (2012). E-Portfolio improving learning in mathematics pre-service teacher. Digital Education Review, 21: 1-12.

Baker, F., & Krout, R. (2012). Turning experience into learning: Educational contributions of collaborative peer songwriting during music therapy training. International Journal of Music Education, 30(2), 133-147.

Balgopal, M.M., & Montplaisir, L.M. (2011). Meaning making: What reflective essays reveal about biology students' conceptions about natural selection. Instructional Science, 39(2), 137-169.

Barney, K., & Mackinlay, E. (2010). Creating rainbows from words and transforming understandings: Enhancing student learning through reflective writing in an aboriginal music course. Teaching in Higher Education, 15(2), 161-173.

Bisman, J. (2011). Engaged pedagogy: A study of the use of reflective journals in accounting education. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 36(3), 315-330.

Brewer, S.M., & Jozefowicz, J.J. (2006). Making economic principles personal: Student journals and reflection papers. Journal of Economic Education, 37(2), 202-216.

Brown, L., & Coles, A. (2012). Developing "deliberate analysis" for learning mathematics and for mathematics teacher education: How the enactive approach to cognition frames reflection. Educational Studies in Mathematics, 80(1), 15.

Browning, B.W. (2011). Gladwell and group communication: Using "The Tipping Point" as a supplemental text. Communication Teacher 25(2), 90-93.

Chu, S.K.W., Chan, C.K.K., & Tiwari, A.F.Y. (2012). Using blogs to support learning during internship. Computers & Education, 58(3), 989-1000.

Ciminelli, M.R. (2011). A model for developing pre-service teacher reflection: An interactive intervention strategy. AILACTE Journal, 8: 1-14.

Cisero, C.A. (2006). Does reflective journal writing improve course performance? College Teaching, 54(2), 231-236.

Clark, K.M. (2010). Applied and transformed understanding in introductory psychology: Analysis of a final essay assignment. Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 10(3), 41-57.

Dianovsky, M.T., & Wink, D.J. (2012). Student learning through journal writing in a general education chemistry course for pre-elementary education majors. Science Education, 96(3), 543-565.

Dyment, J.E., & O'Connell, T.S. (2010). The quality of reflection in student journals: A review of limiting and enabling factors. Innovative Higher Education, 35(4), 233-244.

Fadde, P.J., Aud, S., & Gilbert, S. (2009). Incorporating a video-editing activity in a reflective teaching course for preservice teachers. Action in Teaching Education, 31(1), 75-86.

Gulwadi, G.B. (2009). Using reflective journals in a sustainable design studio. International Journal of Sustainability in Higher Education, 10(1), 43-53.

Hagevik, R., Aydeniz, M., & Rowell, C.G. (2012). Using action research in middle level teacher education to evaluate and deepen reflective practice. Teaching and Teacher Education, 28(5), 675-684.

Harland, D.J., & Wondra, J.D. (2011). Preservice teachers' reflection on clinical experiences: A comparison of blog and final paper assignments. Journal of Digital Learning in Teacher Education, 27(4), 128-133.

Hill, A.E., Davidson, B.J., & Theodoros, D.G. (2012). Reflections on clinical learning in novice speech-language therapy students. International Journal of Language & Communication Disorders, 47(4), 413-426.

Ho, S., & Lee, V.M.W. (2012). Toward integration of reading and service learning through an interdisciplinary program. Asia Pacific Education Review, 13(2), 251-262.

Holtzman, M. (2005). Teaching sociological theory through active learning: The irrigation exercise. Teaching Sociology, 33(2), 206-212.

Hubbs, D., & Brand, C.F. (2010). Learning from the inside out: A method for analyzing reflective journals in the college classroom. Journal of Experiential Education, 33(1), 56-71.

Hughes, J.L. (2008). Encouraging students to apply human sexuality material to themselves by using integration papers. American Journal of Sexuality Education, 3(3), 247-253.

Jehangir, R. (2010). Stories as knowledge: Bringing the lived experience of first-generation college students into the academy. Urban Education, 45(4), 533-553.

Kajder, S., & Parkes, K. (2012). Examining preservice teachers' reflective practice within and across multimodal writing environments. Journal of Technology and Teacher Education, 20(3), 229-249.

Kalman, C.S. (2011). Enhancing students' conceptual understanding by engaging science text with reflective writing as a hermeneutical circle. Science & Education, 20(2), 159-172.

Kalman, C.S., & Rohar, S. (2010). Toolbox of activities to support students in a physics gateway course. Physical Review Special Topics - Physics Education Research, 6(2), 2011-2015.

Knapp, N.F. (2012). Reflective journals: Making constructive use of the "apprenticeship of observation" in preservice teacher education. Teaching Education, 23(3), 323-340.

Lai, G., & Calandra, B. (2010). Examining the effects of computer-based scaffolds on novice teachers' reflective journal writing. Educational Technology Research and Development, 58(4), 421-437.

Lee, O. (2010). Facilitating preservice teachers' reflection through interactive online journal writing. Physical Educator, 67(3), 128-139.

Leijen, A., Valtna, K., Leijen, D.A.J., & Pedaste, M. (2012). How to determine the quality of students' reflections? Studies in Higher Education, 37(2), 203-217.

Lew, D.N.M., & Schmidt, H.G. (2011). Writing to learn: Can reflection journals be used to promote self-reflection and learning? Higher Education Research and Development, 30(4), 519-532.

Lie, D., Shapiro, J., Cohn, F., & Najm, W. (2010). Reflective practice enriches clerkship students' cross-cultural experiences. Journal of General Internal Medicine, 25(2), S119-S125.

Mair, C. (2012). Using technology for enhancing reflective writing, metacognition and learning. Journal of Further and Higher Education, 36(2), 147-167.

Mayne, L. (2012). Reflective writing as a tool for assessing teamwork in bioscience: Insights into student performance and understanding of teamwork. Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Education, 40(4), 234-240.

McDonald, J., & Dominguez, L. (2009). Reflective writing: Developing patterns for thinking about learning in science. Science Teacher, 76(3), 46-49.

McGuinness, M. (2009). Putting themselves in the picture: Using reflective diaries in the teaching of feminist geography. Journal of Geography in Higher Education, 33(3), 339-349.

McGuire, L., Lay, K., & Peters, J. (2009). Pedagogy of reflective writing in professional education. Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 9(1), 93-107.

Mills, R. (2008). "It's just a nuisance": Improving college student reflective journal writing. College Student Journal, 42(2), 684-690.

Moore, F.M. (2008). Agency, identity, and social justice education: Preservice teachers' thoughts on becoming agents of change in urban elementary science classrooms. Research in Science Education, 38(5), 599-610.

Mortari, L. (2012). Learning thoughtful reflection in teacher education. Teachers and Teaching, 18(5), 525-545.

Mott, J. (2008). Passing our lives through the fire of thought: The personal essay in the political theory classroom. PS: Political Science & Politics, 41(1), 207-211.

Nesoff, I. (2004). Student journals: A tool for encouraging self-reflection and critical thought. The Journal of Baccalaureate Social Work, 10(1), 46-60.

O'Connell, T., & Dyment, J. (2011). Health and physical education pre-service teacher perceptions of journals as a reflective tool in experience-based learning. European Physical Education Review, 17(2), 135-151.

Park, J.J., & Millora, M.L. (2012). The relevance of reflection: An empirical examination of the role of reflection in ethic of caring, leadership, and psychological well-being. Journal of College Student Development, 53(2), 221-242.

Parker, D.C. (2010). Writing and becoming [a teacher]: Teacher candidates' literacy narratives over four years. Teaching and Teacher Education: An International Journal of Research and Studies, 26(6), 1249-1260.

Parry, D., Walsh, C., Larsen, C., & Hogan, J. (2012). Reflective practice: A place in enhancing learning in the undergraduate bioscience teaching laboratory? Bioscience Education, 19: 10.

Ponte, L.M. (2006). The case of the unhappy sports fan: Embracing student-centered learning and promoting upper-level cognitive skills through an online dispute resolution simulation. Journal of Legal Studies Education, 23(2), 169-194.

Prescott, L. (2012). Life writing and life-learning: An analysis of creative writing students' work. Studies in Continuing Education, 34(2), 145-157.

Rai, L. (2012). Responding to emotion in practice-based writing. Higher Education: The International Journal of Higher Education and Educational Planning, 64(2), 267-284.

Ross, J. (2011). Traces of self: Online reflective practices and performances in higher education. Teaching in Higher Education, 16(1), 113-126.

Rusche, S.N., & Jason, K. (2011). "You have to absorb yourself in it": Using inquiry and reflection to promote student learning and self-knowledge. Teaching Sociology, 39(4), 338-353.

Ryan, M., & Brough, D. (2012). Reflections around artefacts: Using a deliberative approach to teaching reflective practices in fashion studies. Journal of Learning Design, 5(1), 1-11.

Schwartz, R.S., Lederman, N.G., & Crawford, B.A. (2004). Developing view of nature of science in an authentic context: An explicit approach to bridging the gap between nature of science and scientific inquiry. Science Education, 88(4), 610-645.

Schön, D. (1983). The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action. New York: Basic Books.

Shepherd, R. (2010). If these walls could talk: Reflective practice in addiction studies among undergraduates in New Zealand. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 8(4), 583-594.

Simmons, S.R. (2008). "Knowing our place and time": Memoir as pedagogy. Journal of Natural Resources and Life Sciences Education. 37: 1-7.

Smith-Battle, L. (2012). Learning to see the other through student-created dramas. Journal of Nursing Education, 51(10), 591-594.

Starks, D., Nicholas, H., & Macdonald, S. (2012). Structured reflective communication as a meta-genre in teacher education: Creative uses of "critique" in a teacher education program. Australian Journal of Teacher Education, 37(3), 90-110.

Sung, T.Y., Chang, E.K., Yu, C.W., & Chang, H.T. (2009). Supporting teachers' reflection and learning through structured digital teaching portfolios. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 25(4), 375-385.

Trepagnier, B. (2004). Teaching sociology through student portfolios. Teaching Sociology, 32(2), 197-205.

Tummons, J. (2011). "It sort of feels uncomfortable": Problematising the assessment of reflective practice. Studies in Higher Education, 36(4), 471-483.

Vega, G. (2010). The undergraduate case research study model. Journal of Management Education, 34(4), 574-604.

Wald, H.S., Davis, S.W., Reis, S.P., Monroe, A.D., & Borkan, J.M. (2009). Reflecting on reflections: Enhancement of medical education curriculum with structured field notes and guided feedback. Academic Medicine, 84(7), 830-837.

Walker, S.E. (2006). Journal writing as a teaching technique to promote reflection. Journal of Athletic Training, 41(2), 216-221.

Walmsley, C., & Birkbeck, J. (2006). Personal narrative writing: A method of values reflection for BSW students. Journal of Teaching Social Work, 26(1-2), 111-126.

Wear, D., Zarconi, J., Garden, R., & Jones. T. Reflection in/and writing: Pedagogy and practice in medical education. Academic Medicine, 87(5), 603-609.

Wills, K.V., & Clerking, T.A. (2009). Incorporating reflective practice into team simulation projects for improved learning outcomes. Business Communication Quarterly, 72(2), 221-227.