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Reflective Writing

This online study guide covers the key features of reflective writing, how to use reflective models (including Kolb and Gibbs), and how to introduce critical analysis and evaluation into your reflective writing.

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What is reflective writing?

Reflective writing is a way of exploring, explaining and learning from experience. For many students at university however, reflective writing will be a new practice that may cause frustration as it differs from traditional academic wiring in that it requires individuals to stand back from their experiences and identify anxieties and errors, as well as their successes.

This is complicated further when you consider that despite discussing experience and feelings, reflective writing must still be approached with the same academic rigour as any other assignment. As such there is still an expectation that your assignment will be written in a formal academic style and integrate theory to demonstrate your criticality and nuanced understanding.


Why reflect?

There are a number of benefits associated with reflection:

  • Developing a questioning mind
  • Identifying areas for change
  • Formulating effective plans for responding to new challenges

Employers are increasingly looking for employees that are able to identify and utilise learning outcomes from their experiences. This makes reflection an essential part of professional practice, as it allows us to identify our strengths, as well as areas for further development.
 

Encouraging the reflective process

Beginning the reflective process isn't always easy; here are some tips to help get you started:

  • Try to think about events as objectively as possible - take a step back and be prepared to be critical of your actions
  • Consider events from the perspective of another individual
  • Recall how you were feeling at the time of the event -how did this influence your behaviour at the time or your subsequent interpretation of the event?
  • Would changing my behaviour have changed the outcome of the situation? If so, why? Or why not?
  • Would anything be different if you were faced with a similar situation?
  • Has the experience changed your understanding? (it is important to note that excellent reflective writing will frequently acknowledge that your understanding/views will change and adapt over time)

Key features of reflective writing

Before we look at two reflective models, it is worth understanding the key features of all good reflective writing

1. Account of the event/object/idea:

Write a concise account of the key points about what happened; remember the majority of your marks will come from your reflections and their integration and comparison with academic theory.

It may be useful for you to write a longer, more detailed account to help your understanding and reflection about the event but what you include in your assignment should represent a summary of the essential key points (similar to how you would summarise an academic article!)

2. Interpretation:

This is where you reflect: consider interesting, unexpected or challenging aspects and begin to explore how your understanding has changed and what you have learned.

It is crucial that you integrate academic theories into your writing and this can be done in a combination of ways:

  • Can theory help you to interpret/better understand your feelings/experiences?

  • Are your experiences consistent with theory/the experiences of others in related disciplines/fields? If not, why not?

  • Can your experiences be used to challenge/evaluate theory?

  • Can established theory be adapted in some way to account for your experience?

  • Good reflective writing will consistently explore the relationship between experience and theory and utilise key similarities and differences to inform any conclusions and outcomes.

  • Hatton and Smith (1995) identified critical reflection as that which shows an awareness of how actions/events interact with other knowledge (such as academic theory) to develop a sophisticated understanding. It is important for you to keep this in mind as you write your reflective assignments to ensure that your work is analytical and evaluative rather than descriptive and superficial.

3.Outcomes:

You should include what you have identified as the primary learning outcomes from your experience. This might include:

  • Plans for how you would implement changes to improve similar/related experiences in the future.
  • These may be suggested changes to your behaviour/attitudes
  • Likewise, changes could also be process driven (for example, suggesting changing the time of a future event to enable more people to attend).
  • You should also highlight unexpected conclusions/outcomes and explore why these are significant.

However you choose to structure your reflective response, your writing must include all of the aforementioned features to ensure that you go beyond just outlining an event, to explaining why it happened, how your actions impacted upon the outcome, and how changes could be made (informed by your reflexive response) to improve outcomes in similar/related situations in the future.

 

Getting the language and structure right

There are a number of key differences between academic and reflective writing summarised in the table below:

Objective and likely written in 3rd person. Relatively subjective and written in 1st person.
The content is unlikely to be personal. The content will likely be personal and may contain accounts of relevant subjective experiences/feelings.
Based on academic literature Based on your personal experiences and academic literature
There is likely to be a very clear structure. Structure is less prescriptive and will be largely determined by what reflective models you use to support your writing.
This purpose of this writing is likely to be well defined and given within the title/topic. There may be a purpose, but this likely to be less well defined and may be more of a general indication of purpose, rather than something very specific.
There is likely to be a clear conclusion. Whilst you will include a conclusion, there is likely to be an acknowledgement that reflection is part of an ongoing, continual process. 

Adapted from Moon, 2004.

Reflective writing example

One of my objectives for the lesson was to try and deconstruct the inherently hierarchical structure of the classroom environment. This can be advantageous in teaching as it helps students to feel like valued members of a shared learning community (Hope, 2016) To try and achieve this I followed guidelines outlined by Rudd and Lily (2018) who suggested that...

I felt that at points in the session I lost confidence in my students and began to return to the role of "gatekeeping the learning" (Douglas, 2010, p.13). Reflecting on this, I am frustrated that I was unwilling to surrender more control within the classroom, although I do recognise that I may feel more able to do this as my experience increases.

Formal academic style and tone
Integration with relevant academic literature
Use of 1st person (personal pronouns 'I' and 'my'
Considering outcomes and recognition of areas for development

Reflective writing models

Key models for reflective writing

Detailed below are a number of resources about reflective writing that you can use to support your work:

Note - You should always check to see if your course suggests a preferred reflective model, otherwise you are free to choose yourself. Each model approaches the reflective process slightly differently and you should spend some time finding that one that supports your writing in the best way.

These models should guide your writing, but don't fel as though you have to stick rigidly to the formats they outline. Following the steps of the reflective model provides a good starting point, but the more you can bring in creative and personalised details when reflecting on your experience, and connect it to other events, the stronger your reflection will be.

Top tips for reflection

Our five top tips for reflective writing:

  1. Reflection is a really important skill - it's an effective way of understanding and learning from our experiences, providing us with opportunities for growth and development.
     
  2. Reflective writing is still academic writing - even though reflective writing is inherently subjective (and will be written in 1st person), it is still a piece of academic writing. Usual standards still apply: avoid colloquialisms and maintain a consistent formal style and tone throughout.
     
  3. Question, question, question!
     
  4. Integrate academic theory - remember to explore the relationship between your experiences and academic theory; this is the foundation for excellent reflective writing. 
     
  5. It's an ongoing process - unlike your typical academic assignment, reflection is an ongoing, lifelong process. You might find that your reflective writing is a bit more fluid than some of your previous assignments and goes through many more iterations; don't worry, it's all just part of the reflective process ;)