Reflective writing is often perceived as easy. You do not need to locate and reference dozens of sources or discuss complex theories in this kind of assignment like you do in traditional essays. However, many students get low marks for a reflective portfolio essay or report just because they do not follow the main principles of reflective writing. These principles are not always explained in the assignment guidelines; professors may assume that you already know them. We have created this guide to answer any questions you may have on how to write a reflective assignment.
What are markers looking for in your reflective paper?
A reflective assignment is given to see how you can learn from your experiences. The experience itself is not actually as important as the lessons you extract from it. Show your tutor that you can evaluate your actions critically – what you did right and what you did wrong, why it was successful or not.
When the reflective report is about your learning experiences on the module, be as specific as possible. Simply stating that you learned a lot throughout the course is not enough. Name one or two of the most important things that you learned and how you are going to use them in the future. For example, in learning about the five conflict resolution styles, you may become willing to apply the collaborating style in your future workplace to get on better with your colleagues.
Where do I start?
Like with any other essay, you need to grab the reader’s attention from the start. To remain focused and relevant, read the assignment guidelines carefully. They are likely to outline the most important of your tutor’s expectations. You may even be given a particular experience to write about.
Although the concept of reflective writing has been around for over a century, it is still understood by different people in different ways. Do not expect the structure and style you used in one course to do just as well for another instructor. Reading the guidelines is the key to understanding their specific expectations and demands.
The next step is choosing the experience to write about. Generally (if the guidelines do not state otherwise), you will need one experience for an essay and three for a report.
Write down what kind of experience it was and the main thing you learned from it. For example:
Watching the video from Two Sisters
Even large and reputable companies can have gross safety violations. As a manager, I will always insist on learning as much about our suppliers as possible.
This is the starting point for your reflective assignment.
Which experiences should you write about?
It is best to select experiences that affected you strongly. In this case, you will find it easier to explain why it was important. However, there is a danger of getting too emotional or carried away when describing it.
A good technique to get over this problem is to write ‘as it is’, whatever you want to say about this experience, then lay the paper aside for a few days, then proofread carefully, removing the unnecessary details. A break may be needed for any emotions to cool down a bit, and for you to be able to look at your paper through the reader’s eyes. With this in mind, it is best not to leave reflective writing for the last day before your deadline. Allow yourself several days in order to edit and proofread the paper with fresh eyes.
The experience you write about does not have to be a victory or success. You may also reflect on a failure that taught you an important lesson. However, avoid any experiences that show you in a negative light.
Remember that your paper will probably be read by different people. It may even get published on your university website or elsewhere. Although your name will be removed, the people who know you personally may still be able to identify you as the author – by any particular details or situations you describe. Thus, it is in your best interest not to disclose any aspects that may harm you or other people involved in the situation.
Minimising the possible damage to yourself and other people is an important consideration when deciding which experiences and details to include in your account. Ask yourself a question: Will I be fine if the whole world knows about that? Go ahead only when the answer is a confident ‘yes’.
How do I write a reflective essay?
A student reflection essay follows the conventional essay structure. In short, it must have an introduction, a body, and a conclusion. Do not use sub-headings unless specifically requested by the guidelines.
In the introduction, you explain what kind of experience it was and why it was important. Do not go in too much detail; keep it to one or two most important features.
In the body, describe how the experience unfolded and how you felt during and after it. Focus on your own actions rather than those of other people.
Be analytical: explain why you received this outcome and how you could have done better.
Mention relevant academic theories and concepts where appropriate. Explain how they helped you make sense of the situation and choose the right course of action.
In the conclusion section, state one or two things that you have learned from this experience and why they are important to you. Outline your plan for handling or preventing similar situations in the future.
The introduction is often the most difficult part to write. You may find it easier, to start with the body of the writing and write the introduction last.
How do I write a reflective report?
Reflective reports are more structured than essays. Generally, you will include more than one experience and use section headings and sub-headings. If a specific structure is prescribed by the assignment guidelines, always follow it.
- In this part, you explain your purpose for writing this report and substantiate your choice of experiences. For example, when the purpose is to reflect on your group project work experience, you may want to write about the main conflicts and challenges you faced as a group.
- Write about each experience in a separate section with an appropriate heading. If no specific requirements for the structure are set, treat each section as a small essay. However, reports are more practical than essays. Focus on the lessons you learned for practice. The description of the situation and your feelings need to be concise – just enough for your reader to get the point.
- State the main lessons you have learned and how you are going to apply this knowledge in your future professional and academic life. There needs to be at least one lesson learned from each experience you included.
What Are Reflection Models and Why I Need Them?
Even if your assignment does not give a specific reflection model to follow, you may still want to use one. A reflection model is a sequence of steps to follow, or a sequence of questions to answer when writing down your account of an experience. When you are new to reflective writing, reflection models can provide a much-needed step-by-step guide.
One of the most popular and handy models is Gibbs reflection cycle (presented in the figure below).
A learning experience reported using Gibbs cycle can look like this:
I failed to get the interview I absolutely needed for my dissertation.
What were you thinking and feeling?
For a moment, I felt helpless and frustrated. But then I started thinking who else could give me that information. Fortunately, two of my senior colleagues had it and responded gladly to my request.
What was good and bad about the experience?
The good thing was that I managed to get information despite the obstacle that seemed overwhelming at the first moment. However, this incident highlighted the gaps in my preparation. I had no Plan B in case if my department manager refused to be interviewed.
What sense can you make of the situation?
I should have made a list of several interviewees representing each functional area. If one of them refused to participate, I could talk to the next one on my list. That would have increased my chances of collecting comprehensive data about the department performance.
What else could you have done?
Besides, I could have worded my invitation better and choose the time to approach the manager more carefully. In this case, I could have obtained the manager’s agreement and interview.
If it arose again, what would you do?
Facing a similar problem again, I would not be that stressed. I would accept the refusal calmly and immediately approach the next potential interviewee on my list.
Following a reflection model, you can produce a piece of writing that is coherent, persuasive and has a strong internal structure, like in the example above. To put it short, a reflection model maximises your chances of achieving a high mark.
What constitutes a good writing style in reflective assignments?
Although reflective assignments are less scholarly in their content and style than most other papers, they are still academic assignments. Thus, you must stick to conventional English. Use contractions, colloquial expressions, or slang only when directly citing a person’s words.
If your mastery of English is far from perfect, do not try to produce ‘fine’ or ‘literary’ writing. Instead, keep it short and clear.
Reflective essays and reports are written in the first person (‘I’) unless the opposite is explicitly stated in your assignment guidelines.
When describing your feelings, name them without getting overly dramatic. “I was anxious when starting on the test” is appropriate. “My heart pounded, and I was shaking all over” is better saved for a personal diary.
Keep your paragraphs within reasonable length (3 to 8 sentences). Shorter paragraphs are better for reflective reports and longer ones for essays.
When describing a setting or event, add in some details to help your readers imagine it. The details can be about visual appearance, sounds, smells, or general ambiance. However, do not try to convey the whole picture with words. One or two features that struck you most about the place will do the job.
Do not overload your reader with the information that does not add to your core argument. Keep your main purpose – talk about the lesson you learned from this situation – in focus.
Best Books on Reflective Writing
You may want to read these to get a better idea of what is expected of you in reflective writing.
- Research Methods for Business Students by Saunders, Lewis, and Thornhill. Look for the 2016 edition. Sections 1.5 and 14.8 provide handy instructions on how to craft reflective diary entries. These can be used for reflective report sections as well.
- Reflective Writing by Williams, Woolliams, and Spiro. This book was written by professors who found reflective assignments to be extremely confusing to many of their students. The book is packed with actionable tips; relevant concepts are explained very simply. Chapter 2 highlights the differences between common types of reflective assignments, including diaries, learning logs, and portfolios.
- Writing at University: A Guide for Students by Creme and Lea. Reflective writing is covered in Chapter 13. Section 13.1 contains plenty of ideas on how you can benefit from reflective writing. Use these to answer the question about how reflective writing assisted your learning.
In short, a recipe for a good reflective piece can be written down as follows:
- Study the assignment guidelines and marking scheme thoroughly to understand what is expected of you. Do not assume the requirements of reflective writing to be the same across courses and schools.
- If still unsure where to start, consult the books on reflective writing.
- Select an experience that taught you something important.
- Start with a description, proceed with analysis and evaluation, and conclude with an action plan for the future.
- Follow the introduction-body-conclusion structure.
- Include only relevant information.
- Be honest about your feelings.
- Use details to make your description vivid, but not too many.
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