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Experience and Reflection: The Two Halves of Outdoor Education

Updated: Jan 29, 2021

An instructional activity is educational only when students understand its meaning and apply their understanding to future situations. Outdoor educators seek to improve teaching and learning through direct experience, but, if such experiences are to be meaningful and applied to life situations, teachers must help students learn from carefully planned and guided reflection sessions (Clifford, 1992).

"Experience and effective reflection form two halves of any meaningful educational experience."

Reflection of everyday experiences is common and is expected in most areas of our lives. For instance, professional sports teams review video footage of recent games to identify problems in strategy and technique in order to correct them. A driving instructor provides tips and guidance on parking close to the curb and the student asks for clarification before attempting it again. A software company allows top customers and tech influencers to test new product features and find out what they think of them before launching them to market. Each of these examples involves forms of reflecting on experiences and most people would agree there's significant value in reflecting on everyday events in life.

Why Is Reflection Important?

The ability to critically reflect on experiences in life is a trademark of successful people who embrace the idea that we're all lifelong learners.

"Effective debriefing skills form an essential tool in any outdoor educator's toolkit. Skilled questioning with careful analysis is needed to ensure meaningful learning is taking place which can then be applied to life situations."

In order to learn from experience, we must take the time to sort the relevant from the irrelevant and the useful from the useless. After an experience, a careful debrief can help to identify the important elements (by asking questions, such as "What worked well/didn't work well for you?") and then analyze these elements in greater depth, considering the perspectives of both thinking and feeling (by asking questions including "Why was this helpful/not helpful?" and "What did you feel when this happened?" Finally, we can generalize our thoughts and feelings in order to plan for the future. For instance, we can ask "How will this be useful later?" or "When can this be applied to solve a similar problem?"

Children reflecting in outdoor education
Experience and effective reflection form two halves of any meaningful educational experience.

Experience and effective reflection form two halves of any meaningful educational experience. Learning-by-doing without critical reflection would be like completing an essay assignment in school and not receiving any teacher feedback. Essential learning opportunities would simply be missed.

Six Factors of Effective Debriefing

But as an outdoor educator and somebody who's committed to learning-by-doing, how do you lead an effective reflection session? I've pulled together some tips and key insights to help outdoor educators develop their debriefing skills.

Pearson and Smith (1988) focused on the process of reflecting (or "debriefing") on experiences in the context of outdoor learning. They emphasize that "the only way to learn to debrief is by doing it, and by watching others doing it" and deliberately and critically reflecting on the debriefing process as a learning facilitator.

More specifically, they provide six factors that contribute to effective debriefing:

(1) committing to its importance and central role in experience-based learning;

(2) deliberately planning for an adequate opportunity to reflect;

(3) realizing that a high level of facilitating skill is needed;

(4) establishing clear intentions, objectives, and purposes for all activities;

(5) identifying ways of knowing and types of knowledge that the experience represents and establishing appropriate structures and relationships in which the process will take place; and

(6) establishing an environment based upon trust, acceptance, risk-taking, and mutual respect of individuals' feelings, perceptions, and theories.

How to Lead a Reflection Session

In outdoor education, there are four levels through which learning passes: (1) the experience itself, (2) what we identify as significant in that experience, (3) our analysis, based on reason, of why it is significant, and (4) our generalization about the future value of the experience. These elements can be remembered by asking the questions, "What?", "Why?", and "How?"

Children rock climbing
Effective debriefing skills form an essential tool in any outdoor educator's toolkit.

Question-Answer Model

Experienced learning facilitators are skilled at guiding students in debriefing sessions via carefully targeted questions which lead through this process. For example:

After the experience, we can ask:

- What happened?

- What did you see?

- What are you feeling?

- What was the most important thing?

Then we can help students analyze why aspects of the event were important by asking:

- Why was that significant to you?

- Why do you think it happened?

And finally, we can help them find a principle that may be useful in similar situations by asking:

- How can you use this information in the future?

- How can you do it differently next time for different results?

Whatever the reflection strategy and questions posed, teachers should remember the importance of having students publicly verbalize their responses to experiences. Although students can usually reflect upon experiences alone, during or shortly after having them, expressing their thoughts and feelings to the whole group provides benefits that solitary reflection cannot. Learners, for instance, model ways of sharing information with each other.

Try Alternative Reflection Activities

It's also possible to use alternative activities in place of, or in conjunction with, structured reflection sessions based on dialogue and questioning. These activities can serve as replacements for the question-answer model or as lead-up preparation for the whole group arrangement.

Outlined below are three examples of alternative reflection activities described in Lasting Lessons: A Teacher's Guide to Reflecting on Experience by Clifford, 1992:

1. Role Taking

Role taking is one of my favorite approaches to debriefing. Students can assume different roles during the reflection session and look back on the experience through different eyes.

For example, students can describe what happened through the imagined perception of one of their classmates or even the teacher. They can even take the role of different animals, plants or aliens from another planet. They can assume the roles of the city mayor, bank manager, wildlife conservation officer, their mother or father, or any other community member. The point of this exercise is to help students view the experience from a new perspective, in the expectation that new meanings will emerge.

2. Peer Leadership

Before conducting the outdoor experience, ask for volunteers from among the students to observe the activity and then lead the reflection session. You can structure their observations (e.g. "Look for examples of who in the group leads and who follows," or "Look for ways in which the group members work well as a team and ways in which they don't.").

Alternatively, you can ask student leaders merely to identify the key issues and topics to reflect upon afterward. Provide volunteers with some planning time to organize their reflection strategy before asking them to lead the session. You might also ask the whole group to provide constructive feedback to the leaders when the reflection session is over.

3. Positive/Negative

In order to gain two different perspectives on an activity, the teacher stops the group and asks someone to describe the activity from a positive point of view. Then after the activity continues for several minutes, the teacher stops the group and asks someone else to describe what happened from a negative perspective. The teacher then allows the group to continue, periodically stopping them and asking for positive and negative comments about how the group is functioning.

The positive and negative alternation can bring out aspects of the group that would otherwise have remained hidden. Aspects to evaluate can include participation levels, decision-making, completion of tasks, group climate, cooperation, attention to guidelines, or group norms.


Effective debriefing skills form an essential tool in any outdoor educator's toolkit. Skilled questioning with careful analysis is needed to ensure meaningful learning which can then be applied to real-life situations.

This isn't easy and it takes lots of practice. As educators, every one of us could benefit from reflecting upon our own debriefing skills from time to time and making sure that:

Experiences + Reflection = Meaningful + Applied Learning


Knapp, C. (1992). Lasting lessons: A teacher's guide to reflecting on experience. Charleston, WV: ERIC Clearinghouse on Rural Education and Small Schools.

Pearson, M., & Smith, D. (1988). Debriefing in experience-based learning. In D. Boud, et al. (Eds.). Reflection: turning experience into learning (pp. 69-84). New York: Nichols Publishing Company.


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1 comentario

Hi, just wondering if the climbing photo is at Nam Pha Pa Yai Climbing Camp in Thailand? If so how did you get the photo?

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