Reflection in online learning – designing alternatives to free writing activities

Posted on

Keeping learners motivated in digital learning can be challenging. But with the help of carefully designed reflection activities, you can boost your learner’s mental engagement no matter the size of your budget, your project timeline, or LMS capability.

As much as you want to make each learning experience irresistibly immersive and fun, tech challenges alongside time and budget, often stand in the way.

This leads to a large proportion of elearning experiences triggering a ‘Click Next’ mindset in learners.

Build reflection activities for meaningful elearning

Building short reflection activities into an elearning module can be a meaningful, highly effective way of breaking the flow of an experience that may otherwise become quite passive for the learner.

By prompting learners to shift their attention inward, now and then, you can help them get more in sync with their motivations and take useful mental steps toward implementing the learning material in real life.

Reflection in online education can also play a key role in:

  • contextualising the learning material and establishing its personal relevance
  • identifying gaps of knowledge
  • providing comparative references in learning
  • helping learners build structural connections in knowledge
  • building social connections among learners.

So what’s the best way to incorporate reflection into your online learning experiences?

Animation of words typing on screen

Free writing activities? What else? Well, usually something else…

A popular way of including reflection in an elearning module is adding free writing activities, prompting learners to type their reflective thoughts in a text box. These activities can work fantastically.

There are learners who take the time to write out their thoughts and there are digital learning contexts and learning cultures where such activities are a great fit. This can be the case when at least one of the below holds true:

  • Learners have very high intrinsic or internalised motivation
  • There is a social aspect to the reflection activity, or at least the broader learning journey (for example, individual reflection is followed by group reflection)
  • There is someone on the other end reading the reflections (ideally not for surveillance purposes but to engage in a productive conversation or to coach the learner)

However, when none of the above is true, and especially when we’re talking about a fully asynchronous learning experience, activities that are less demanding to complete will usually be more fruitful.

Alongside this, many online learning systems don’t even have the capacity to process free text writing responses. So as a learning designer, you are forced to take a different route to reflection.

Moving beyond free writing activities

Definitions of what counts as a reflection activity in online learning vary quite a lot.

At Insitu, we class any exercise where a learner is thinking about their own mental and emotional states or processes, as well as experiences, as reflective activities.

Survey-type multiple choice questions, polls, sliders or pretty much any other interaction type can accomplish this with a bit of creativity.

The key is to:

  • be very clear on the purpose of the reflective activity
  • understand your learners’ pain points, misconceptions and motivations
  • place reflective activities strategically

Let’s see what this might look like through an example.

Establishing relevance through reflection

Let’s suppose that we are working on a mandatory health and safety elearning module for machine operators at an industrial plant. We know that there have been a series of on-site injuries – this is why the training has to be developed.

The purpose of this example activity is to serve as a hook that establishes the relevance of the learning experience. Let’s suppose that incident analysis by the Safety Group at the plant has found that most operators react to an alarm signal in a way that can trigger the machine to malfunction and cause an injury in the worst case, and that is inefficient in the best case. Despite being dangerously wrong, operators report a high level of confidence about their response to the alarm signal. Reflection can help them realise the truth.

Let’s see how we can use this information to establish relevance through reflection.

Asking learners to think about which step worked best for them out of three options is a quick and easy reflection exercise to complete.

We have reason to believe that finding out that the steps they have been taking may lead to injury would surprise them, and surprise is a powerful emotion that can boost motivation and learning.

By receiving an unexpected piece of information in response to specifically the step they chose, we draw in learners and stimulate engagement on a deeper level than when the same information is simply presented to them, without an activity setting up the scene first.

Note that surprise doesn’t always lead to enhanced learning, so striking the right tone in your feedback is also key.

A hotspot activity is good for this example because seeing the machine that the activity is about, and being able to click on the appropriate parts, puts the reflection activity in a familiar, relevant context for operators. However, a live poll, a multiple choice question or even a sorting activity asking learners to sort steps into different buckets could also work.

Note that this is a typical situation, where the machine user interface  has not been refined from the operator’s point of view. While an elearning module can help learners reflect and understand the problem better, in this case asking Safety Group to fix a protective guard over the wrong button will make sure machine operators can’t make the mistake in the first place. As a learning designer, you are in a unique position for your work to make an impact on business performance in more ways than one.

When you have reliable, relevant data, this activity is a powerful way of engaging learners and establishing relevance. To adapt this activity to different learning contexts, follow these steps:

  • Gather data on your learner’s pain points, misconceptions and motivations
  • Ask them to reflect on their habits/thought processes and offer the most common responses as options to choose from
  • Reveal a surprising fact, tailored to each response


As we discussed in our first post on the subject, reflection is a key component of effective learning and one that we at Insitu believe should be an integral part of every elearning module.

Fostering a learning culture that puts a high value on learning from mistakes, being honest, and trusting one another, will make reflective activities of all kinds infinitely more valuable for both the learner and the organisation itself.

While learners may not be open to typing out their thoughts in every context, if you know your audience and have a clear purpose for the reflection activity, there are definitely creative alternatives to free writing.

The Power of Reflection – a free ebook from Insitu

Reflection is a key component of effective learning.

Inside our free ebook we share:

Why reflection matters

Tips, tools, and examples

How to integrate reflective practice into your business

If you want to understand how to build a company culture where reflection is a valued part of daily operations – this ebook is written for you.

At Insitu we’re on a mission to help people be better at what they do. We build smarter learning experiences to reach your learners and transform your organisation, driving performance in any language. Contact us to find out more.

Eszter Mészáros is a Learning Designer at Insitu. Martyn Bull is Head of Learning at Insitu.