Increase the impact of learning activities: Write prompts that set expectations for a substantive reflection on the activity

November 10, 2015

Do students fully understand the relation between the learning activities we create and course content? Many instructors ask students to write a reflection on a learning activity to focus attention on the connection between experience and course content. However, the prompt for the reflective essay can transform an activity that students enjoy into an activity that engages students in a meaningful way and promotes student learning.

Students often treat reflective essays and discussion threads as “busy work.” When we ask them to reflect on an experience, they believe we only expect them to describe what they did or felt during the activity, state their personal opinions, or express their satisfaction with the activity (or vent their dissatisfaction). Reflective essays written to these expectations seldom produce deep discussions or improve learning.

Patti Clayton describes a model for writing prompts for critical reflection that structure the essays to set expectations for substantive engagement with course ideas and promote deep learning. The DEAL model identifies three major components of an in-depth reflective essay: Description, Examination/Evaluation, and Articulation of one’s Learning.

Without direction, most students write shallow reflective essays that address only the first component of the DEAL model. If we want students to reflect on an experience and connect it to significant learning goals, they must address all three components in their reflective essays. Clayton argues that faculty can reclaim reflective essays as substantive, critical analyses of class learning activities by creating question prompts that include the following elements:

  • Describe the experience in detail and without making judgments. Present the “facts” of the experience: where it happened, when it happened, who participated, what was done, what was learned.
  • Examine the experience and evaluate the behaviors and outcomes experienced. Support the evaluations with evidence based on course content (readings, lecture). Make judgments about choices and decisions made during the activity. Describe the consequences of decision made and actions taken. Students must provide discipline-specific evidence for the judgments and evaluations they make about the activity. Personal opinions and personal preferences are not acceptable as evidence or as justification of evaluations about the value of the learning activity.
  • Articulate the Learning that occurred as a result of the experience. Require a closing section in which students describe specific aspects of the experience that enabled them to learn specific things, explain why what they learned from the experience is important, or describe specific consequences of their learning (changes in attitude, behavior, etc.).


Clayton, P. H., (2015, June). Critical reflection in high impact practices. Workshop presented for the College of Professional Studies Emerge Program, University of West Florida, Pensacola, FL.  

 11/3/15 ecr