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Reflective writing

This resource defines what reflective writing is, what value it offers you and strategies on how to do it.

What is reflective writing?

Reflective writing differs from other kinds of university writing that you may be more familiar with. It involves “consciously thinking about and analysing what one has done (or is doing)” and uses the first person (Bolton 2005). A reflective piece of writing requires you to map the progress and changes in your thinking about a subject, topic, or a learning journey and make sense of it. However, reflective writing is more than a description of your observations or thoughts. More than merely summarising what happened, it involves critically evaluating such experiences, thinking about the connection between theory and practice, and linking these ideas with what you have learned from your coursework. Reflection involves thinking about why we do things and whether they have gone as we thought they would, why we think they may have worked well, and how we might do them differently next time (Grellier and Goerke 2006).

Example

Note how the following example goes beyond merely describing the events. Also notice how the student is using the ‘first person’ (e.g. ‘I’, 'me').

It is now week 4 and it is obvious to me that although the people in this group got along well, we aren’t moving along with the assignment. I suggested that we might need a leader- someone to keep the group on task. I suggested that I would be willing to be a leader if everyone was in agreement. John was fairly resistant to this idea as he felt that we all should be able to work together in a democratic way. I argued that this was the way we had been working and there was only little progress made on the assignment. Davidson et al (2009, p.350-1) defines leadership as a “non-coercive influence to shape the group’s or organisation’s goals, motivate behavior towards achievement of those goals and help define group or organizational culture”. Thinking about this in regard to the way I approached the group when I realized that we needed to be performing, I can see I was trying to use coercive strategies to get them to do the assignment the way I wanted it done. Upon reflection, it would have been better if I remembered the stages of group formation (Davidson et al 2009, p.444-5) and considered that we needed to be storming and forming into a cohesive group first before we could attempt the assignment. I should’ve asked for their input into how we could move forward and then subtly made some suggestions about how to manage this task. In future group work I will now...
 
 In the example above, we can see that the student is following the simple process outlined below.
Introduction > Development > Development > Conclusion
Concept/Theme/Topic > Incident - What happened? > Literature - Textbooks, articles, etc. > Insight/Outcome

 

What a reflection isn’t

  • a diary entry, emotional dump, a rant or a place to vent
  • straightforward decision or judgement (e.g. about whether something is right or wrong, good or bad)
  • a summary of course notes
  • a standard university essay
  • just conveying information, instruction or argument
  • pure description, though there may be some descriptive elements.
Example

In contrast to the previous example, the excerpt below demonstrates a poor example of reflection. The student is venting rather than reflecting. The student does not offer any insight into what has happened by drawing on the literature to explain the ‘why’. You would expect this in a personal diary - but not in an academic setting.

I am so over this group assignment. The others are just soooo annoying! We’re supposed to do this presentation together & nobody is doing anything! I tried to get them to consider me as a leader and John started complaining about how we live in a democratic system and we shouldn’t hassle each other (like what, who says that!?). He thinks things will happen spontaneously. I was only trying to help get this stupid assignment done & they don’t even appreciate the seriousness of this. I can’t afford to fail. I’ve always been a good student and I don’t want my WAM to fall because of these frustrating and lazy people. I have to think of my future!

What value does reflective writing offer me?

You may be asking yourself ‘why do I have to do this?’ or thinking ‘I am not going to learn anything from this task - what a waste of time’. However, you may be surprised to know that most successful people, such as Richard Branson, reflect on a daily basis. They reflect upon what worked and what didn’t; they then use this to learn and to improve themselves. Reflective writing allows you to stand back and assess your work in a more detached light especially if you go that step further and read scholarly papers that help you to think through some of the themes that affect the task you’re working on. Examining both your positive and negative experiences can help you understand why you tend to approach things in certain ways and avoid others. Reflecting is a valuable skill to possess not only during university, but in your professional and personal life as well.

Reflective writing can:

  • improve critical and lateral thinking
  • challenge current thinking and bring to light alternative solutions
  • be an opportunity to gain self-knowledge and to learn from failures and past mistakes
  • achieve clarity, a deeper understanding of what you are learning and make meaning out of what you study
  • demonstrate to your lecturers your understanding so they can guide and assist you more effectively
  • reveal how you have changed when you look back on it at a later date
  • give you confidence in dealing with the uncertainties of professional life
  • bring about a greater awareness of personal values, relationships, ethics, prejudices, assumptions, decision-making processes that can influence how you work
  • offer an analysis of your fears and knowledge/skills gaps.

Reflective practice and learning styles

We are all different and none of us learns in any one way. Some of us (convergent learners) like to answer the ‘what?’ and ‘how?’ questions whereas others (divergent learners) like to answer the ‘why?’ and ‘how?’ questions. This is why not everyone will find reflective writing easy, but it is a highly valued skill that you must develop.
 

What will I be asked to reflect on?

  • A practical learning experience within a course (e.g. clinical placement in nursing)
  • A response to a text (e.g. what you agree or disagree with)
  • A past experience (e.g. going on exchange)
  • A review of your learning in a subject or on a topic (e.g. comparisons between new and prior knowledge)

Types of reflections

The type of reflection you will be asked to do will depend on your field of study and your lecturer’s preference. You may be asked to keep a learning journal or logbook, to engage in peer review or self-assessment, or simply asked to write a reflective essay. Lecturers can ask you to organise reflective writing in a structured or unstructured way. A structured way could involve the use of guiding questions or topics that you must answer. An unstructured way involves the lecturer asking you to ‘write a reflection’ on a given activity or experience.

You may also use a reflective framework, which can be a useful tool to guide and structure your reflection; however, if you are planning to use a reflective framework that has not been provided by the subject lecturer, it would be best to check with the lecturer’s first. Have a look through the frameworks below to consider how you might be able to use them in future reflective tasks.

EXAMPLES OF REFLECTIVE FRAMEWORKS
  • Rolfe’s minimal model: a basic starting point to get you thinking reflectively
  • DIEP: a useful guide to write a critical or academic reflection, such as an essay, by putting each topic into four paragraphs
  • Kolb’s reflective cycle: a useful guide for practical experiences, such as internships or placements
  • Gibb’s reflective cycle or video: a useful guide for learning journals and practical experiences, such as group work
  • The 5Rs framework: a useful framework for reflecting on coursework or practical experiences, such as projects
     

Further resources

References

  • Bolton, G 2005, Reflective practice: writing and professional development, SAGE, London.
  • Grellier, J and Goerke, V 2006, Communication Skills Toolkit: Unlocking the Secrets of Tertiary Success, Thomson, Melbourne.
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