Reflective Writing

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It is often essential to also consider the values of others that may impinge on your learning. For example, when we critically analyse a piece of text, we have to consider the perspective from which it has been written and assess its objectivity. Similarly, if you are writing a reflective account of your contribution to a presentation or your activities at a work placement, you will need to reflect on the role of others. The following activity has been designed to encourage you to empathise with three very different people and reflect on their values and motivations.

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Introduction to Writing Reflectively

At University, reflective writing may appear to be more overtly encouraged on some units within some courses compared with others. For example, students who are required to maintain a ‘reflective’ journal or submit a ‘reflective assignment’ will, from necessity, be more familiar with this particular style of learning and writing.

Nonetheless, because reflective writing is associated with higher levels of learning, it is expected that all university students should develop skills that help them to learn from the process of reflection. In particular, reflection is a very important component of PDP.

Developing reflective skills will help you gain a more honest perspective of yourself which, in turn, means clearer identification of your academic strengths and of those areas that require a little more work.

  • Analysis of experiences enables further learning
  • Critical thinking is encouraged so academic writing is improved
  • Independent learning is facilitated
  • Recognition of mistakes enhances professional competence

More importantly, you will be able to recognise what affects your learning and performance and thus how to progress. This involves two main processes:

Reflection in Action = recognising when something new is happening which may cause a ‘surprise’. Components of this reflection may comprise:

  • Recognition of the ‘surprise’
  • Review of a problem
  • Seeking extra information from tutor/literature/colleagues
  • Re-appraisal of previous solutions

Reflection on Action = thinking about something that has happened in the past and reviewing the way in which you dealt with it. This could lead to

Self–Promotion

  • Reflective writing often involves appraising our current skills and attributes in order to effect progression. However, some people find it difficult to promote their finer points to others. For example, consider how you felt when writing your personal statement for your UCAS documentation; or how long it took you to complete your application for a placement or a job. Depending on culture or personality, the idea of selling oneself can be contrary to usual values.

Activity

  • If you are in your first semester, construct a list of skills and attributes that you think you will need to maintain a successful university career

Or

  • If you are considering a specific type of job, devise a list of traits and abilities that a successful applicant will need to develop
  • Next give an explanation of why EACH of these skills and traits are essential
  • Now write down all of your existing abilities and attributes that already match those on your first list and explain HOW you know you possess them i.e. what EVIDENCE do you have?

The thought of appearing vain or bigheaded is unattractive. Writing reflectively about your talents and abilities is different however. When writing an academic essay, you are expected to refer to theories, concepts and recognized authors to substantiate the views you express.

Similarly, a reflective piece of work about you should include evidence to justify the statements that you make.

Reflective writing vs essay writing

Reflective writing vs essay writing

Coming soon!

Reflecting on the views of others

Ronnie is only 18 but a broken family life, care in a succession of foster homes and subsequent alcohol and drug abuse has left physical and psychological imprints which means that he is often assumed to be much older. Currently, he attends a rehabilitation programme and sells copies of The Big Issue outside a local supermarket; much to the irritation of John, the security attendant.

One day, Betty, a lady in her sixties, left the supermarket with her shopping and made her way across the car park. She totally ignored Ronnie, refusing as ever to engage in conversation or buy a copy of his magazine. As she began to unload her trolley, a small child seemingly appeared from nowhere, dashed past Betty and knocked her to the ground.

Ronnie, having seen everything, rushed over to help Betty up. However, when she saw Ronnie, she became hysterical, screaming and pushing him away. The noise alerted John who, seeing Betty on the floor surrounded by her shopping, with The Big Issue vendor leaning over, attacked Ronnie and beat him so severely that he required attention at the local hospital. John has been threatened with prosecution.

Activity

1) Ensuring that you justify the perspective taken, and using the first person singular (I), write this story from:

a) Ronnie’s perspective

b) Betty’s perspective

c) John’s perspective

Imagine you are the local newspaper reporter. You have interviewed all three participants. Whose story has had the greatest influence? Why? How will you write the story?

Models of reflection

Models of Reflection

The work of Platzer et al 1997 identified that learning through reflection is more potent if there is an understanding of frameworks that encourage a structural process to guide the act of reflection. Several models to help you engage in the process of reflection are now discussed. There is no right one. It is important you choose the framework that feels most comfortable for you and best assists you in learning from your experiences. The most important aspect of engaging in reflective writing for work-based learning is that your writing is able to demonstrate a changed conceptual perspective. The process of reflective writing leads to more than just a gain in your knowledge it should also challenge the concepts and theories by which you make sense of knowledge. When you reflect on a situation you do not simply see more, you see differently. This different way of viewing a situation is reflected in statements about a commitment to action. Action is the final stage of reflection (Atkins and Murphy 1994). Sharing your reflective writing with your mentor / academic advisor will assist you in the process of revealing new perspectives.

Gibbs Reflective Cycle

Gibbs (1988) reflective cycle is fairly straightforward and encourages a clear description of the situation, analysis of feelings, evaluation of the experience, analysis to make sense of the experience, conclusion where other options are considered and reflection upon experience to examine what you would do if the situation arose again. This cycle can be used for your reflective writing, but if you are using it at level 3 or 4 you need to adjust the cycle so that analysis permeates through each stage.


In some cases, reflection may help us gain more control over our thoughts, emotions, responses and behaviour and help us achieve a wider perspective on situations. In the next activity, you are asked to consider a situation you have been involved in directly or indirectly. This doesn’t have to have taken place within an educational context: it could be in the supermarket, at a club, in the sports centre….anywhere:

1. Focus

Recall an event/incident/encounter that you witnessed or were involved in and which has left you feeling worried, confused, upset or unsettled. This could be major or minor.

2. Awareness

Accurately describe the context, sequence of events and outcome. Describe negative feelings that you experienced in relation to the incident.

3. Critical Analysis

Examine both your positive & negative feelings especially those that you know are stopping you thinking in a rational and clear way. What happened and why did it happen? Should you have challenged /intervened and what difference might this have made? How did the situation affect you and how did you affect the situation? Was there an exercise of power relations?

4. Interpretation

Develop a new perspective on the situation. This may involve new values/attitudes or a different way of thinking about something.

5. Innovation

Devise other options to deal with similar future incidents.

6. Commitment

Take action to change something

Reflective Practice

Although it is essential to describe something before you can discuss or analyse it, a reflection is not an account of factual information. Rather, it comprises your perceptions and expectations based on your experience of the evidence. Hopefully, it illustrates your personal and academic growth. Consider the following text:

I woke up late because my alarm didn’t ring. My own fault, but there you are. By the time I had finished my breakfast (my usual bowl of cornflakes and a cup of black coffee with three sugars), I had missed the bus (that’s the number 9, picked up at the bus stop outside Halfords), which had left on time (just for a change). So I got to university and by the time I’d found the right room, I was over thirty minutes late for the theory exam. Unfortunately, the jobsworth invigilator wouldn’t let me take the exam because it was ‘against university regulations’. Didn’t he realize how important it was for me to pass that exam? My overall grade depends on it and now I have to re-sit in September when I wanted to have my holiday in Ibiza.

Reflection can involve three learning domains. Put yourself in the position of the student who wrote this account and reconsider the information by employing the 3R format of reflection:

  • Reaction (affective domain, to feel). As you re-examine the evidence, how do you feel about the account? Could there be other perspectives?
  • Relevance (cognitive domain, to think). How is the evidence meaningful to your understanding of what really happened? What have you learned from this experience? What changes might you make based on this experience?
  • Responsibility (psychomotor domain, to do). How will the knowledge gained from this experience be used in the future? Give examples of possible applications in other areas of your learning .

Now consider the following revised text which could be the result of applying reflective skills:

I was over thirty minutes late for my exam which meant I was not allowed to sit it. This will have repercussions on my degree mark and on my holiday plans. This is the first time I have actually missed an exam but not the first time I’ve been late to exams and important interviews.

I have learned that:

  • I need to improve my time-keeping
  • The university has strict rules governing late exam arrivals
  • I need to be better prepared

The reasons I arrived late were:

  • My alarm clock didn’t ring because I forgot to set it
  • I totally rely on the alarm clock; I have no back-up
  • I rely on the bus
  • If I had known which room the exam was, I might have been a few minutes late but could still have sat the exam

In order to improve the situation next year, I plan to:

  • Have a process to check all the clocks in the house
  • Make sure I have a back up such as the alarm on my mobile phone
  • Catch an earlier bus on exam days
  • Ensure I know the correct room well in advance
  • Reflect further on my priorities

Reflective Journals

Plans

Reflective writing is often related to change. At university, these changes are often recorded in a portfolio. For example, Peer Assisted Learning (PAL) Leaders who seek accreditation compile a portfolio that reflects their development throughout their tenure. This incorporates an action plan which might look like the one below.

Plans

This is a very basic plan that includes a notion of progression (change) and a degree of reflection on the development of skills. It would usually be accompanied by explanatory text.

At  University, some schools ask for a more detailed action plan as part of the reflective work that accompanies a placement. In particular, some lecturers expect students to be able to reflect on the objectives that they set themselves throughout the length of a placement. Generally, these are referred to as SMART objectives.

SMART is an acronym:

S = Specific Objective
M= Measurable
A= Achievement
R= Relevance
T= Timescale

A goal setting action plan using SMART objectives might look like the one below which is used in the School of Services Management.

more plans

Reflective Journals

The reflective diary or journal is for you to write about what YOU want

  • Your feelings about learning experiences
  • Lecturers, other students, employers, mentors
  • Ambitions and progress
  • Challenges to your learning
  • Challenges at work
  • Your decision making
  • The decision making of others
  • Situations where you learn the most
  • Situations where you learn the least
  • Linking theory to practice
  • Worries and hopes

Reflective Assignments

Read the assignment briefing carefully and ensure that you know how and where marks will be allocated. In general, you should follow the same rules that you normally do to produce an academic essay. For example, structurally, there should still be an introduction, the main body and a conclusion. However, there are some other pointers that you need to be aware of:

  • You will be used to writing in the third person but in reflective writing,
  • Generally the first person is preferred.
  • Practice writing in the first person but do not allow your work to become ‘chatty’.
  • Express your feelings in a clear, well thought out way.
  • Learn to write the analysis of your experiences in an articulate way that relates, where appropriate, to theory.

Reflective Style

Useful sources for reflective writing