Reflective writing

How to write reflectively

Reflective writing may be an occasional requirement on your course or it could be key feature of many assignments. Here are some ideas but you should always follow the guidelines given by your course.

This brief guide is based on material created by Martin Hampton for the University of Portsmouth.

1 - What is reflective writing?

Reflective writing is evidence of reflective thinking. At university, reflective thinking usually involves:

  1. Looking back at something (often an event, i.e. something that happened, but it could also be an idea or object).
  2. Analysing the event or idea (thinking in depth and from different perspectives, and trying to explain, often with reference to a model or theory from your subject).
  3. Thinking carefully about what the event or idea means for you and your ongoing progress as a learner.

Reflective writing is thus more personal than other kinds of academic writing. It is usually acceptable to use the pronon 'I' when writing.

2 - Example of basic reflective writing

Specific tasks were shared out amongst members of my team. Initially, however, the tasks were not seen as equally difficult by all team members. Cooperation between group members was at risk because of this perception of unfairness. Social interdependence theory recognises a type of group interaction called ‘positive interdependence’, meaning cooperation (Johnson & Johnson, 1993, cited by Maughan & Webb, 2001), and many studies have demonstrated that 'cooperative learning experiences encourage higher achievement' (Maughan & Webb, 2001). Ultimately, our group achieved a successful outcome, but to improve the process, we perhaps needed a leader to help encourage cooperation when tasks were being shared out. In future group work, I would probably suggest this.

Reference: Maughan, C., & Webb, J. (2001). Small group learning and assessment.

3 - A possible structure for reflective writing

In assignments that require reflective writing, tutors expect to see carefully structured writing - not just a story of 'this happened, then this...'

The example of basic reflective writing above can be broken down into three parts: description, interpretation and outcome.

3a - Description (keep this bit short!)

What happened?

What is being examined?

Specific tasks were shared out amongst members of my team. Initially, however, the tasks were not seen as equally difficult by all team members

3b - Interpretation

What is most important / interesting / useful / relevant about the object, event or idea?

How can it be explained e.g. with theory?

How is it similar to and different from others?

Cooperation between group members was at risk because of this perception of unfairness. Social interdependence theory recognises a type of group interaction called ‘positive interdependence’, meaning cooperation (Johnson & Johnson, 1993, cited by Maughan & Webb, 2001), and many studies have demonstrated that 'cooperative learning experiences encourage higher achievement' (Maughan & Webb, 2001).

 

3c - Outcome

What have I learned from this?

What does this mean for my future?

Ultimately, our group achieved a successful outcome, but to improve our achievement, we perhaps needed a leader to help encourage cooperation when tasks were being shared out. In future group work, I would probably suggest this.

 

4 - General principles

This is just one way of structuring reflective writing. There are others - whatever structure you use, remember:

  • Reflection is an exploration and an explanation of events – not just a description of them.
  • Genuinely reflective writing often involves ‘revealing’ anxieties, errors and weaknesses, as well as strengths and successes. You should show some understanding of possible causes, and explain how you plan to move on.
  • You should select just the most significant parts of the event or idea on which you’re reflecting. Don't try to ‘tell the whole story'.
  • It is useful to ‘think ahead' to the future as well as ‘reflecting back’ on the past.

5 - Vocabulary aid

Here is a great guide to useful words and phrases for reflective writing (University of Portsmouth)

 

Adapted from "Reflective writing: a basic introduction" Martin Hampton, University of Portsmouth, Department for Curriculum and Quality Enhancement