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Unit 2: Sensory Log & Holistic Reflection

Lisa Phillips, Illinois State University,
Kate Darby, Western Washington University,
Mike Phillips, Illinois Valley Community College,


In this unit, students will keep a log of immediate, personal sensory experiences by pausing once each hour over a period of ten hours and recording the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and tactile experiences they are sensing at that moment. The log (or journaling activity) will occur outside of class and will be shared in a subsequent class meeting.

In class, students will exchange their logs, respond and discuss, and then form larger groups which will discuss disparate ways of paying attention to sensory experiences. Students will develop a deeper understanding of their own perceptions and how those perceptions can be recorded and used to evaluate an environmental setting. This activity is qualitative; it requires students to create an informal, subjective journal of their sensory experiences once each hour for a ten-hour time period prior to class.

When students share their individual qualitative experiences in pairs and small groups, they will begin to see patterns emerge that will enable them to develop quantitative observations for future use. They will also begin to relate their sensory experiences to the social, biological, and geophysical aspects of their personal environment; students will begin to explore how these system components are interrelated and how exposure to them may impact human experience and well-being. After the group discussion, students will reflect on the interstices between qualitative and quantitative analysis by way of their sensory logs and mutual discussion.

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Learning Goals

Students will:

  • Collect and record qualitative and quantitative sensory data as part of an environmental study.
  • Examine the difference between qualitative and quantitative data.
  • Evaluate the implications of terminology used in data communication.
  • Consider the relationship of the sensory data collected to their environment.

Context for Use

This unit will introduce students to different types of data and explore data generated from people's sensory experiences (e.g. sounds, smells, tastes). The activities in this unit are appropriate for introductory-level science or social science courses, and humanities courses that focus on sensory experiences or address rhetoric, communication or related topics and fields. Generally, students are culturally conditioned to privilege the distal (far away) senses of sight and hearing and often fail to account for the importance of the proximal (nearby) senses of taste, touch, and smell (see Tanya Lurhmann's article listed in the Reference section for additional context). Students will be familiar with what the five senses are, but they may not have developed an appreciation for the way each sense perception (though interconnected) does something different for their thinking and analysis of data. For example, the sense of smell is strongly connected to memory and emotion, and we process scent stimulus more quickly than any other sense perception (Classen, Howes, and Synnott). The sense of touch conveys not only intimacy but also warns us against potential pain (e.g. one feels heat before touching an open flame). Students may not realize the extent to which taste perception is based upon socio-cultural norms, influencing how students perceive each others' cultural traditions and environmental settings (see Classen, Howes, and Synnott for more on this). Students routinely privilege vision—neglecting to consider what it means to navigate an environment without it (Howes). Thoughtful hearing carries with it the process of listening to one's environment; determining what one hears and does not hear in that environment offers students the wherewithal to analyze how different sounds may alter our understanding of environmental hazards (e.g. Rachel Carson's Silent Spring).

Until students are asked to pay careful attention to each sense as both part and whole of a perceptual system within an environmental setting, they seldom consider how taste, touch, and smell can lead to a more holistic analysis of an environmental setting alongside hearing and sight. This unit helps students develop their ability to synthesize how our individual sensory experiences are enmeshed in a perceptual system that is tied to our emotional, relational, and environmental emplacements. Data collection is at its core a perceptual activity: selective attention and cultural norms inform how and why data may be collected in a given environmental setting (e.g. "licorice" smell in West Virginia coal washing water contamination). Officials start to clear West Virginia regions of chemically tainted water (article from The Guardian, 2014).

Prior to beginning the logging activity students should:

  • be familiar with informal journaling
  • be familiar with the five senses
  • be familiar with subjective and objective perspectives
  • be familiar with qualitative and quantitative data

In Unit 1 of this module, students will have done the following:

  • analyzed provided sets of different data based in qualitative observations and quantitative measurements
  • evaluated the strengths and limitations of each method using cooperative learning strategies

Upon completion of this unit, students will have done the following:

  • synthesized and reflected on patterns among sensory experiences
  • engaged with background readings on sensory perception (either one or both)
  • considered the relationship of their sensory experiences to the social, biological, and geophysical environment in which they live

Subsequent to this unit, students may develop sensory data collection protocols as part of a sensory mapping project.

Description and Teaching Materials


Students will need writing materials and their senses. In the event that someone has differently-abled sensory perceptions, that ought to be included in the discussion and development of later collection protocols. Teachers who are familiar with the concept of "inclusion" or "universal design" in pedagogy—that is, the idea that what is good for people with disabilities is good for all students—may already be familiar with teaching strategies that foster inclusion and multisensory approaches to learning. For example: Landmark School Outreach Program: Use Multisensory Approaches. Multisensory teaching research is often directed toward younger children, but it is equally applicable in a college classroom. Vaike Fors and Sarah Pink offer some useful tips in their article "Multisensory Emplaced Learning: Resituating Situated Learning in a Moving World." Some sensory disabilities (e.g. the inability to feel pain, or anosmia, the inability to smell) may not be apparent to an instructor. Instructors may wish to have students read optional background materials on sensory history or different sensory abilities before or after the students complete their initial sensory log. John Lee Clark, a deaf-blind writer, offers a useful perspective to think about how people navigate through engineered architectural systems based upon their different sensory abilities in DeafBlind House. Stanford University's Watkins Professor of Anthropology, Tanya Luhrmann, explains how sensory perception is directly tied to cultural experience and language in How Culture Shapes Our Senses, published in the New York Times.

Print resource citations:

Classen, Constance. "The Witch's Senses: Sensory Ideologies and Transgressive Femininities from the Renaissance to Modernity." Empire of the Senses. Ed. David Howes. Oxford: Berg, 2005. Print.

Fors, Vaike, and Sarah Pink. "Multisensory Emplaced Learning: Resituating Situated Learning in a Moving World." Mind, Culture and Activity (2013): 170183. Print.

Roberts, Lissa. "The Death of the Sensuous Chemist: The 'New' Chemistry and the Transformation of Sensuous Technology." Empire of the Senses. Ed. David Howes. Oxford: Berg, 2005. Print.

Introduce Sensory Log Assignment, prior class session (5 min)

Explain to students that they will need to maintain an individual log of their immediate sensory experiences, which they are to record once each hour for any ten-hour period before the next class session meets. The log should include sights, scents, sounds, tastes, and how the environment feels (temperature, texture, etc.). The logs should be in a format that can be shared with peers in the classroom.

Exchange of Logs (15-20 min)

At the next class meeting, students are asked swap logs with a peer and to jot down some reflections about the peer's log based on the following question set:

  • What is the most detailed sensory observation you read in your peer's log?
  • What are the most significant moments you notice in your peer's log, and is there a pattern?
  • What question would you most like to have answered after reading your peer's log?
  • What is the most curious, or questionable, assertion you noticed in your peer's log?
  • Of all the experiences you note in your peer's log, which is the most obscure or ambiguous to you?
  • To what extent does the log seem sensorially, culturally, or disciplinarily biased?
  • What experiences are omitted from the log that strike you as important?
  • What can you deduce about your peer's environment (social, biological, geophysical) by reading the log?
  • The most crucial point in our readings so far that relates to this sensory log is . . .
  • The part of the log I found most confusing was . . .
  • The part of the log I found most clear is . . . because it . . .

Students should choose a few prompts and take 5–10 minutes to write down their responses to their peer's log. Students are then asked to give the logs and responses back to their peers. Give students the time to read each others' responses.

Small group discussion (10-15 min)

Next, in small group settings (4–6), students report-out to peers about their logged experiences and their peer's response to it, looking for patterns and dissensus in their experiences, their recording methods, and their reflexive responses. Students will be asked to distinguish between qualitative and quantitative observations and to work toward consensus for future sensory data collection protocols. Groups should develop consensus on two to four key findings about data collection and reporting based on their experiences with the sensory logs. One or two students should be note-takers for the group.

Small groups join and discuss, class summarizes (10-15 min)

After approximately ten minutes, the small group should combine with one other group and compare patterns in both the logs and their responses to them based upon the note-takers' observations. The combined group will need to identify and write down overarching themes and report those to the whole class once it has reassembled. The instructor will summarize the findings on the board/screen at the front of the room and seek further input/clarification as necessary. The instructor will also ask students to reflect on how these sensory data are different from and similar to some of the geoscience data sets they examined in Unit 1 (i.e. Phoenix water data).

  • What is similar about the nature of the data, the way the data were collected, the time frame and spatial scale for the information conveyed? What is different?
  • How do these sensory data reflect "scientific" data that might be collect about the environment? (For example, the smell of exhaust may be an indicator of air pollution and the sound of running water may be an indicator of a nearby stream.)
  • How do these sensory data observations relate to one another and to the source of the experience?
    • Are there delays between output of sound or smell and perception? (You might notice a lag occurred before a smell reached you or that a smell lingers after the source is removed. For example, you might be reading upstairs while your parents are cooking downstairs. It will likely take some time—a lag, or delay—for the smell to travel to you and make your stomach start grumbling. And if the tomato sauce has lots of garlic, you might notice that the odor of it lingers for a while, that is, it has a long residence time.)
    • What did you notice about how smells move around space? (Think about how your house smells when someone is cooking, say a garlic-y tomato sauce. You may notice that smells tend to congregate in a particular space—we call that a reservoir. )
  • How did the sensory experience impact you, the recipient? Did you observe any of these things in your sensory log? (You might move toward a pleasant smell or it might make you hungry or thirsty. On the other hand, an unpleasant odor might cause you to move away from the perceived source or it might make you nauseous.)
  • What does this mean for understanding how humans experience the complex system around them? How does the propagation of smells, sounds, and sights through an environment relate to the physical conditions of that environment? What are the impacts of air currents, natural and artificial barriers, temperature, moisture, and other features? Did you record any physical conditions? If so, which ones? If not, what do you wish you had recorded?

This is a good opportunity to introduce the idea of environmental justice and reinforcing feedback. Reinforcing feedback intensifies outcomes, creating instability. These are sometimes called positive feedback loops, but the "positive" terminology can be confusing for students who sometimes misconstrue these as a process leading to a "good" outcome. Explain to the students that environmental hazards (e.g. toxic waste facilities, industrial plants) are disproportionately located in low-income communities and communities of color. These areas gradually become what some scholars have called sacrifice zones. An industrial facility may choose to locate in a low-income community and/or community of color for a number of reasons, including the following: the decision-makers perceive the community to have little political or economic power, land is inexpensive and it is near a shipping route, the residents do not have a "seat at the table" to express concerns when decisions are made. There is reinforcing feedback here, too: as more industrial facilities locate in an area, land costs decrease and political acceptability (at least to those in decision-making positions) increases. From a sensory standpoint, the unpleasant odors, sounds, and sights (and even tastes!) change the environment in a way that makes additional impacts appear less burdensome. This leads more industrial facilities to locate in the area, often contributing adversely to residents' sensory experiences. Students might be asked to consider whether they would avoid a location where they had a negative sensory experience.

Reflection paper assignment (5 min)

The last five minutes of class the instructor will provide students with an assignment sheet for a graded reflection. The reflection paper is a one-page response to the activity, their sensory log experience, and the reflexive discussions they had with their classmates and teacher. In the paper, students are asked to analyze the distinctions between qualitative and quantitative data and their interpretations of sensory data collection. The collective goal is to identify patterns in both their experiential perceptions and in their methods and interpretations of data collection and expression. In short, how well did their data log convey their experience to other students? This is a graded assignment. Summative Assessment #1: Sensory Log Reflection & Rubric (Microsoft Word 46kB May16 16)

Teaching Notes and Tips

The goal is to help the students understand their senses more consciously and systemically. Taking time to pay careful attention to what their senses can tell them about their environment is important, and it is just as important to note how sensory perceptions can vary from person to person and from setting to setting based on emotional responses to any given scenario and time frame. It is important that students create the sensory log before coming to class. During subsequent class discussion, the instructor should ensure that students discuss both the utility and the fallibility of the senses with the goal of helping students develop a more nuanced awareness of the ways in which qualitative and quantitative data overlap and enmesh in our perceptual system. This will allow students to more effectively evaluate the merits and patterns of their logging activities.

When students exchange logs and responses, the instructor can foster metacognitive learning by encouraging the students to come up with their own ideas rather than trying to provide "instructor-approved" answers. The students should be encouraged to make connections between their individual contexts and those of their peers in ways that raise their awareness of the ambiguity that resides in seemingly "objective" truths and intersubjective realities. For example, the instructor can prompt the students to consider how the log(s) they reviewed related to the log they created. What would they change in their log after reading the logs of others? How would they explain their logs to someone else?

An individual's environment consists of social, biological, and geophysical components, all of which contribute to the sensory experiences they log. The record of sensory experiences becomes a record of their environmental setting. The social environment includes people and their activities such as cooking, mowing grass, and watching television. The biological environment includes plants and animals and other living things. The geophysical environment includes the soil, wind, rain, and streams.


The sensory log is a formative assessment as are the peer response activities. The sensory log and attendant activities are designed to have students analyze each other's work and evaluate patterns and areas of synthesis before establishing a data collection protocol (Unit 3 of this module). Key assessment points are: 1) when peers question and respond to each others' experiential data; 2) when small groups look for both consensus and dissensus in qualitative and quantitative data; 3) when larger groups report their points of overlap. While students are working and sharing, the teacher will need to check the groups to ensure that student discussions are substantive and respectful.

The reflection paper is a summative assessment with threefold intent: 1) the instructor will look for a student's nuanced distinction between qualitative and quantitative data collection methods; 2) depth of reporting sensory observation (ie. something smells "bad" vs something smells "like a dead animal that had been lying in the sun for several days", and; 3) the student's reflexivity in a collaborative learning setting.

Assignment & Assessment rubric: Summative Assessment #1: Sensory Log Reflection & Rubric (Microsoft Word 46kB May16 16)

References and Resources

Barkley, Elizabeth F. "Snowball Activity." Student Engagement Techniques: A Handbook for College Faculty. San Francisco: John Wiley, 2010. P. 145. Print.

Classen, Constance, David Howes, and Anthony Synnott. Aroma: The Cultural History of Smell. London: Routledge, 1994. Print.

Goralnik, Lissy, et. al. "An Environmental Pedagogy of Care: Emotion, Relationships, and Experience in Higher Education Ethics." Journal of Experiential Education 35.3 (2012): 412-428. Print.

Howes, David, ed. Empire of the Senses. Oxford: Berg, 2005. Print.

Luhrmann, Tanya. "Can't Place that Smell? You Must be American." New York Times Sunday Review. 25 Sept. 2014. Web.

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These materials are part of a collection of classroom-tested modules and courses developed by InTeGrate. The materials engage students in understanding the earth system as it intertwines with key societal issues. The collection is freely available and ready to be adapted by undergraduate educators across a range of courses including: general education or majors courses in Earth-focused disciplines such as geoscience or environmental science, social science, engineering, and other sciences, as well as courses for interdisciplinary programs.
Explore the Collection »