Using Reflection Activities in the Field to Deepen Student Learning

This page is authored by Holly Hughes, Edmonds Community College, based on activities developed with Dr. Hans Landel while team-teaching the learning community "Exploring Natural History in Word and Field."
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This page first made public: Oct 9, 2012


This activity offers one of the reflection activities we developed in our learning community "Exploring Natural History in Word and Field." In this class, the students learn about natural history by reading natural history essays and participating in field trips. In this activity, we use reflection before and during a field trip to an Old Growth forest to help our students clarify their own stance for a position paper on whether and under what conditions logging should be allowed in Old Growth forests. The reflection activity during the field trip gives them an opportunity to experience the Old Growth forest in silence and in a more reflective way after spending several hours running transects and collecting data from different age forest stands in preparation for writing a team field report.

Learning Goals

Learning Goals:

1) To give students the opportunity to reflect on their previous experience in old-growth forests and their role as consumers of forest products.

2) To give students the opportunity to experience the old growth forest through several senses: seeing, listening, smelling, touching.

3) To give students the chance to experience directly the difference between the younger age forest stands and old growth forest.

4) To give students the opportunity to see the forest that's been written about by natural history writers like John Muir and William Dietrich.

5) To give students the opportunity to reflect on the different stances represented in the course readings and clarify their own stance on preservation of old growth forest.

Context for Use

This activity is appropriate for first or second year college students and is conducted in the field. Specifically, students need access to an old-growth forest and ideally, several hours in the forest. For this reflection activity, they need to be able to spend at least a half hour in silence in the forest, including the time spent freewriting. This activity takes place the 3rd week of the quarter, after the students have learned to identify a variety of native species and have been introduced to basic ecological concepts. (See the Survival Handbook for a full list of class outcomes). We've also introduced them to the process of observing/reflecting/freewriting and have practiced this in the field on a short field trip. By now, they've written and illustrated several entries in their Personal Place journal, where they spend a half hour each week quietly observing and doing sketches in a natural setting of their choice. This activity could easily be adapted for use in other natural settings.

Description and Teaching Materials

For the past seven years, my colleague in Biology, Dr. Hans Landel, and I have taught a coordinated studies class called "Exploring Natural History in Word & Field" in which we ask students to not only learn natural history—both in the field and on the page– but to participate in environmental restoration projects with non-profit organizations working in the community. Over the years we've taught together, we've observed that the combination of field trips with a hands-on Service Learning project provides a critical opportunity for a different level of engagement, engagement that allows students to address the affective dimension of these problems. Over the course of teaching together several quarters, we've also learned that how we structure this activity matters; in order to deepen their learning, we need to include reflective activities throughout the project. This teaching activity will address the Field Forest Project, specifically. For information on the Service Learning Project, see "Using Reflection Activities in Service Learning to Deepen Student Learning."

For one of their first assignments, students are asked to write a position paper clarifying their stance on the logging of old growth forests: should it be allowed and under what circumstances? If not, what are the arguments for prohibiting logging in old growth forests? The Position Paper asks them to synthesize research with their own experience, giving them an opportunity to combine intellect & affect, though the form is presented as an analytical paper (which is required by the English department). As preparation for this assignment, we ask them to write a Pre-Reflection (Reflection #1) to assess their knowledge, experience and values regarding old-growth forests and forest practices, then to post their reflection in our Blackboard classroom Their reflections become the basis for a class discussion on old growth forests and forest practices before we assign reading and go into the field. We then ask our students to return to their reflections after the field trip–and see if their views have changed.

We typically offer this class in the fall, so that we can take our students on several field trips, culminating in a weekend field trip to Mount Rainier and an old growth forest, where they have the opportunity to practice identifying native species, learn to run a transect and collect data in preparation for writing a team field report. After spending the morning at the Pack Forest experimental station collecting data from several different age forest stands, we load our students into vans and drive up to the Twin Trails trailhead, where we split into groups to take the students deeper into this old–growth forest. After a 20 minute hike in which we ask them to observe how the old growth forest differs from the younger forests we'd visited that morning, we do a Reflection activity. Because they've spent the morning engaging their left brain in collecting data, it's important that they also spend some time alone with the forest so they can experience it on an affective level. We ask our students to find a place to sit quietly alone where they can't see or hear another student, then to sit in silence observing the forest with all their senses for 15 minutes, being as quiet as they can so that the life of the forest continues. They make notes on what they observe, then write for 15 minutes, reflecting on their personal experience in the old growth forest. See Forest Reflection (Reflection #2) for specific instructions. Many of them report that this is the most meaningful part of the field trip (see sample Sample Old Growth Forest Reflections in Supplemental Materials folder)

Here's a list of the assignments:

Pre- Reflection (Reflection #1) provides the questions we ask before visiting the OG Forest to assess the students knowledge, experience and values regarding old-growth forests and forest practices.
Forest Reflection (Reflection #2) -provides the instructions for the reflective activity in the forest which encourages them to experience the forest with all their senses, then write about what they observe. This also helps them clarify their views for their position paper.

Position Paper Assignment gives the specific instructions for writing the position paper, including the list of readings we assign.

Sample Old Growth Forest Reflections gives examples of student reflections written in the old growth forest.

Introduction/Context for Reflection Activities (Microsoft Word 43kB Feb29 12)

Pre-OG Forest Reflection Activity (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 70kB Dec30 11)

OG Forest Reflection Activity (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 113kB Dec30 11)
Sample Student Reflections (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 160kB Dec30 11)
Position Paper Assignment (Microsoft Word 40kB Dec30 11)

Teaching Notes and Tips

The value of this assignment is in being able to give students a direct experience of an Old Growth forest so they can better formulate their own stance regarding its best use. The contemplative reflection activity gives them an opportunity to value not just scientific research/writing, but their own subjective experience. Of course, taking students into the field often requires filling out waivers of responsibility–be sure to check with your college's Field Trip Policies before doing so. If it's not possible to visit old growth forest, this could be adapted to another type of forest or natural area, since the focus in on experiencing the forest with all one's senses.


Students receive up to 10 points for posting their Old Growth Forest Reflection in a Blackboard discussion board forum and responding to two other students' postings. They also receive 5 points for completing the Pre-Reflection. We usually assign this during class, then use it as the basis for a short discussion so students can share their knowledge of old growth forests and forest products they use. For the Position Paper, we use a formal assessment grading rubric that's handed out to the students when we pass out the assignment so they know exactly how they'll be assessed. We make it clear that they won't be graded on their position, but on how effectively they state and support their position, using evidence from the class readings, lectures, and their experience in the forest.

References and Resources

"Finding Zen in a Patch of Nature" by James Gorman. The New York Times 23 Oct. 2012: D1. Profile of David Haskell, ecologist and evolutionary biologist, who sits quietly in the forest as part of his field work.

A Trail Through Leaves: The Journal as a Path to Place by Hannah HInchman ,1999. An excellent hands-on book that discusses both sketching and writing in the wild as a way to better know our place. Beautiful illustrations by the author.

Keeping a Nature Journal: Discover a Whole New Way of Seeing the World Around You by Claire Walker Lesley and Charles Roth, 2003. Again, a good resource with hands-on activities for different age students.

Awake in the Wild: Mindfulness in Nature as a Path of Self-Discovery by Mark Coleman and Jack Kornfield, 2006. This book has more of a Buddhist focus, using the principles of mindfulness practice.

Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, 4th ed. by Betty Edwards, 2012. This classic book was first published in the 1970s but has been re-printed and has helpful instructions on learning to see shapes and patterns when drawing.

Zen Seeing, Zen Drawing by Frederick Franck, 1993. Similar to the book above, but with a Buddhist approach to seeing and drawing.

Evergreen State College