Active Learning and Lasting Impacts: Reflective Writing in a Field-Based Geobotany Course for Teachers

This page authored by Amy Ellwein, with contributions from SEIS members, especially Dr. Matthew Nyman.
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Initial Publication Date: May 2, 2007


In this Geobotany course, pre- and in-service teachers learn basic botany and how landforms, rock types, and soils affect the distribution of plants using an earth system science approach. Participants make observations and interpretations in both the field and lab every day. At the end of each day, participants write about their experiences, self-confidence, and perceived competence as amateur scientists during a reflective writing exercise, for which instructors provide feedback each evening. On the last day of the course, participants are taken to a location with different geobotanical relationships than they've previously studied and work in groups to discuss and interpret the relationships they observe. At the end of the course, teachers write a 10-page paper that outlines what they've learned about geology, botany, and the nature of science, as well as how they plan to use the new content and skills with their students in the context of the New Mexico State Science Standards. A detailed description of the reflective writing exercise and how it fits into the course goals is provided.

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Learning Goals

The reflective writing exercise was initially designed to help participants synthesize content and foster improved communication with course instructors in a fast-paced, content-rich field course. However, it has proven to be quite useful in multiple ways. Through reflective writing, participants 1) become familiar with the idea and utility of being a "reflective practitioner" (they are asked to explicitly monitor their current level of mastery and understanding of the content and question what they still need to learn), 2) they learn to make meaningful field and laboratory observations, and 3) gain an understanding of how field-based science is conducted with the intent of doing field-based science with their students.

This activity also attends to participants attitudes in that reflective writing combined with instructor feedback tends to 1) help increase participants' self-confidence and competence as "amateur scientists," especially with field-based science, 2) generate enthusiasm for teaching multidisciplinary science at lower grade levels, and 3) foster an improved "comfort level" for teaching geology in non-geology high school science courses (geology is not offered in NM high schools, starting in 2006, all NM high school science teachers must teach some geology in their courses).

Context for Use

This is an upper-division, week-long, residential field course for K-12 in-service and pre-service teachers that has no prerequisites. The course integrates field and laboratory investigations with daily reflective writing.

Reflective writing is a difficult activity to implement but has proven invaluable for good communication between science novices and instructors in fast-paced, content-rich, field courses. For participants, reflective writing is initially unfamiliar, quite time consuming, and many teachers find that sharing personal information, essentially sharing their diaries, with instructors makes them uncomfortable. For the instructors, reading each journal every night and providing constructive feedback is very time intensive. Despite the difficulties, this exercise has been vital in a week-long field course as it 1) provides instructors with very useful feedback that can be used to make mid-course corrections or address common misconceptions and 2) improves the teachers' self-confidence and competence in conducting field-based scientific investigations. Sample participant comments on the activity are provided.

Description and Teaching Materials

The assignment handout (Acrobat (PDF) 66kB Apr27 07) describes the activity.

Anonymous teacher comments (Acrobat (PDF) 49kB Apr27 07) are provided as evidence of the success of the activity in this course.

Teaching Notes and Tips



The reflective writing exercise is evaluated on a daily basis for this course. Field notes are also examined, but less thoroughly, because students are asked to summarize the content learned in their reflective writing. Reflective writing is used largely as a formative assessment in that it helps guide course content and presentation of materials. Assessment:
  • read participants' field notes and make suggestions (e.g. field sketching) or corrections
  • use their misconceptions and answer their questions in the following days' instruction
  • assess answers to questions that attend to the learning environment and the affective domain.

References and Resources

Moon, J.A., 1999, Reflection in Learning and Professional Development: Theory and Practice, RoutledgeFalmer, London and New York, 229 p.