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Academic Writing: Reflective Writing

Academic Skills

Reflective Writing



"Life teaches you how to live it - if you live long enough to learn."   So says Tony Bennett, reflecting on Amy Winehouse.  Learning theorist Graham Gibbs goes further :  "It is not sufficient simply to have  an experience in order to learn.  Without reflecting upon this experience it may be quickly forgotten, or its learning potential lost..."   If we take the time to step back and genuinely consider not just what  happened but also so what  and  why - and how we felt as a consequence - then we can begin to generalise from our experience and develop new understanding which can be applied in future.  Learning can take place, in short.

Many HE courses now, particularly vocational courses or those with a placement of some kind, will include an element of reflective (also known as experiential )  learning.  This may for example take the form of a reflective journal or portfolio detailing what you have observed in an occupational or professional setting such as a nursery, day centre or hospital.  It may, alternatively, be in the form of a reflective essay where you are required to consider carefully and draw out the implications of your own practice or your own experiences in a particular setting and explain what you have learned. It is a very particular kind of writing, and students are not always clear about what is being asked for. 

Essentially it is about your own responses to particular situations, experiences or incidents, and what you have learned from them.  As such, it requires a certain amount of description or scene-setting.  Simply telling the story is not sufficient on its own, however. Your writing needs to be both personal and at the same time academic.  In other words, you need to make connections between your own observations and related theory, areas of controversy or dispute, research, policy and so on.  As with any other kind of academic writing, these need to be carefully researched and referenced. 

Reflective or experiential learning has several important benefits and applications.  Perhaps most importantly, it  enables you to assess your own strengths and weaknesses, to develop the critical thinking skills which you will need in all your assessed work and to improve your future performance by analysing past experience. This process of reflection can at  the very least enable you to understand (and avoid repeating)  past mistakes or oversights.  At best  it can facilitate a shift from surface to deep learning - it can lead you to make new connections of your own and arrive at new, enhanced understanding.  The  development of these reflective skills and habits is something that is increasingly used by employers in Continuing Professional Development programmes (CPD)  because of its recognised effectiveness in bringing about positive change.  Insights that are your own rather than somebody else's are more likely to be remembered and acted upon!


The precise questions that you ask yourself will depend to a large extent on the nature of the task you have been given and the experience, placement or practical activity that you are reflecting on.  Nevertheless, there are certain common or generic questions that may help you to get started.    You could divide these into  before, during   and after  the experience concerned - this will help you to structure your reflective writing.    For example -


*   What preconceptions did I have?    What did I already know (or think I knew)  ?        Before

*   Did I have any prejudices or assumptions?     Was I completely open- minded ?       Before

*   Did I have any anxieties or concerns at the outset ?                                                   Before

*   How did I behave or react at first ?

*   Did this change over time, or stay the same ?

*   Who and what helped me the most/least in the situation I was in?

*   What did I find particularly challenging or tricky ?

*   Was there anything I found relatively easy or straightforward ?

*   What did I find particularly surprising/shocking/stimulating/thought-provoking ?  

*   What would I do differently in future?

*   What connections can I now make between my own experience and my previous reading and study (ie between theory and practice?)

*   What have I learnt, and how can I apply it?

*   What new questions arise from my experience?

*   How can I best move forward?


Don't forget  -  with most of these questions it is important that you go on to explain  why?  or why not?

Try to use a variety of adjectives to give a full and expressive description of your experience.  For example -

Positive       Rewarding, encouraging, stimulating, pleasant,  beneficial, supportive, considerate, constructive, helpful, inclusive, thorough, detailed, ethical, methodical...

Negative     Inadequate, unsatisfactory, careless, arbitrary, repetitive, unclear, lax, disorganised, disappointing, wasteful, hazardous, harmful, damaging, demotivating...


Try also to use a variety of phrases and constructions to introduce your points.   (Remember  also that, unlike in most academic writing, it is perfectly acceptable to use the personal pronoun "I"  - indeed, you can't avoid it).        The following are some phrases that you may find useful.

*     This experience has made me aware of/highlighted the need for/given me an insight into/made me reconsider...

*     One of the most significant issues/conflicts/concerns that arose was...

*     At the time/at the outset/subsequently I felt that...

*     My initial reaction/response/instinct was...

*     Having considered/explored/reflected on this incident further...  I now realise that...  it is clear to me that...

*     Were I to be in this situation again I would...



Bolton, G. (2014)  Reflective Practice  4th. edn    Sage.

Giminez, J. (2007)  Writing for Nursing and Midwifery Students   Palgrave  ch.4

Williams, K, Woolliams, M. and Spiro, J. (2012)  Reflective Writing   Palgrave Pocket Study Skills

There are several different reflective models in general use. You may be directed to make use of a specific one or, alternatively  to choose the one that is most appropriate to your task. In this case, you may be asked to justify your choice - what was it that made it a particularly useful framework for your reflection?  These models do share common features/stages, as you will see.   Gibbs' reflective cycle is one of the most widely used, and certainly in nursing and midwifery.   It consists of the following sequential stages:  

*  Description  :  what exactly happened?

*  Feelings :  what were your initial thoughts/feelings?

*  Evaluation  :  what was good and bad about the situation? 

*  Analysis :  what sense are you able to make of the experience?

*  Conclusion :  what else could you have done?  What should you perhaps not have done? 

*  Action :  what would you do if the situation arose again? 


Another commonly used model is the framework for reflexive practice  (Rolfe et al, 2001)  This is based on three questions, each intended to stimulate reflection, namely  "What?"  "So what?"  and "Now what?"    Again, this moves from factual description to personal evaluation to consequences and future actions.  A final example is Johns' (2004) model of structured reflection.  This entails five stages :  Description of the experience;  Reflection upon its purpose and consequences; Influencing factors  (ie upon your decision making at the time); Possible alternative courses of action and Learning   ie what will change as a result?   This model can be particularly useful for more complex processes such as critical incidents. 


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