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Library Guides

Written Assignments: Reflective Writing

This guide provides information on how to write effective essays, reflections and reports

Overview

Reflection has been defined as "consciously looking at and thinking about our experiences, actions, feelings and responses and then interpreting them, in order to learn from them" (Boud et al., 1994). Reflection is therefore an important element in your studies, work and life. It may also be a subject for your assignments in the form of reflective essays, portfolios and blogs. 

Boud, D., Keogh, R. and Walker, D. (1994). Reflection: Turning Experience into Learning. London: Kogan Page. 

Gibbs' reflection model

Models of reflection are frameworks that can be used to help your reflection. They provide a set of questions to ask yourself about an experience to help you to learn as you reflect. One of the most popular reflection models is Gibbs's (1988) cycle. With Gibbs' cycle you start off considering an observation or experience, including your reactions and feelings about it. You should then go on to analyse and make sense of your experience. Finally, you should conclude what you have learnt and consider if your thoughts or actions will change as a result of the reflection. 

Gibbs reflection model image

Description: What happened?

Feelings: What are your reactions and feelings?

Evaluation: What was good and bad about the experience?

Analysis: What sense can you make of the situation? Bring in ideas from outside the experience, e.g., theory, to help you

Conclusions: What can be concluded about the experience?

Action plan: What steps are you going to take on the basis of what you have learnt? What are you going to do differently in this type of situation next time?

Gibbs, G. (1988). Learning by Doing: A guide to teaching and learning methods. Oxford: Oxford Polytechnic.

Reflective Writing

Reflective writing is...

Personal

Reflective writing is more personal than other kinds of academic writing. You could draw on your initial feelings and reactions, weaknesses and strengths, and errors and successes. It is also often acceptable to refer to yourself in the first person, e.g. "I felt..." or "I observed..."

Formal

Similar to your other assignments, your reflection should be clearly structured into paragraphs with accurate sentences and using the correct referencing style.

Analytical and Critical 

Whilst you are drawing on personal observations, feelings or experiences, the assignment should not merely be descriptive. You will need to use evidence and examples to support your reflections and you will need to undertake analysis and evaluation.

Concerning theory as well as practice

It is common to draw on (and make reference to) academic theories/arguments to make sense of what happened, to consider how approaches may differ or to consider recommendations for future actions.

Reflective Writing image

Comparisons Between Academic Essays and Reflective Essays

Similarities  Differences 

Just like essay writing, reflective writing requires…

  • research 
  • focus on a question or title 
  • critical thinking and analysis 
  • organisation of the text into paragraphs
  • accurate sentence structure
  • formal style
  • clear and coherent discussion 

Unlike core academic writing, reflective writing…

  • connects with personal feelings and behaviour
  • includes observation and evaluation
  • may be quite descriptive, using 1st person
  • used in specific ‘genres’, e.g. critical incidents, journals

Selecting the event(s)

Keep in mind that your reflective essay will be stronger if you are selective with the supporting evidence and the significant aspects of your experience - pinpoint specific moments in the experience in which challenging or successful events occurred and reflect deeply on these significant aspects and their relation to the learning outcomes and theories. 

It is better to analyse and draw lessons from a few events than to merely describe many events. 

Selecting the event image

Connecting Reflection to Theory

Usually you will be expected in your reflective assignment to draw links between theory and practice

What does it mean?

When analysing the event, consider the theories or academic evidence you have come across in your modules

Why do we link theory and practice?

  • we need to question and analyse the events, so the relevant theory in our fields are a good starting point for that;
  • we want to improve our practice. How about using suggestions and tools coming from the theories? After all, that's why you are studying for your degree!
  • we want to improve - or discard - theories that do not work in practice.

How do we link theory and practice?

Think of the following questions: 

  • Can you see any connections between what you experienced and the theories, concepts or models learnt?
  • Are your observations consistent with what those theories, concepts, or models suggest?
  • How does your experience in practice help you to understand the theories, concepts or models?
  • Does your experience support or in fact negate those theories?
  • If your experience is quite different, use this for critical analysis and try to identify why it is different to the theories and what this therefore means in a practical setting.

Describe - Interpret - Outcome

You can try this structure to effectively incorporate theory into your reflection: 

Describe: what happened?

Interpret: analyse why this happened, also using theory 

Outcome: what is the conclusion that can be drawn from this event? What will you do in the future if a similar event occurs? 

Example

Go to the Critical Thinking and Writing Libguide for advice on how to be an active reader and effectively incorporate supporting evidence into your assignments. 

The Language of Reflection

Within reflective assignments, you will often need to evaluate activities/events. Here are some useful phrases that may prompt your reflection:

After observation…

The significance of this activity… 
 

This comment suggests…

It is important to realize… 
 

In this situation I could have…

This is significant because… 
 

Because of this activity I was prompted to…

I acknowledge that… 
 

This is an indication of…

I focused on…because…

To promote continued thinking I…

I realised that…

The intent of my question…

In the future…

In retrospect…

I have since concluded…

After this activity I found…to be significant because…

 

Perhaps it would have been

On reflection it is clear that / I feel that…

 

Reflective writing, also, tends to use  –

Modal verbs such as ‘could have’, ‘might have’, ‘would have’

Conditional phrases (if…)

Language of caution – possibility (e.g. it is possible/perhaps); probability (e.g. it is likely/probable), frequency (e.g. often/rare/usual)

Useful Resources

  • Williams. K. (2012) Reflective Writing (Pocket Study Skills), New York: Palgrave Macmillan