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Reflective thinking and writing

Reflection - reflective thinking and writing - is an important part of university life and work. As Plato said, 'The life without examination is no life.' The ability to reflect on your experience and knowledge, and use that to make improvements, is a key part of your university-level thinking and your subsequent working life.

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Book: Reflective thinking and writing
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Date: Wednesday, 26 July 2017, 1:34 PM

Reflective thinking and writing

Reflective thinkingReflective thinking and writing is an important part of university life and work.

The ability to reflect on your experience and knowledge, and use that to make improvements, is a key part of university-level thinking and work.

To reflect, and write reflectively, you need to know:

  • how to think reflectively
  • how to write reflectively, including the difference between reflective and academic writing; how to structure your writing; what to include and how to identify good reflective writing
  • what reflective writing tools are available

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What is reflective thinking?

To think and write reflectively you have to:

  • Experience something
  • Think about what happened
  • Learn from the experience

You think reflectively all the time, you probably just don't realise you're doing it.

Have you ever missed the bus and then thought next time I’ll leave the house 5 minutes earlier'?

This is an example of you being reflective: you thought about an experience and decided to learn from it and do something different the next time.

As a student, and in the workplace, you will be asked to be reflective. Thinking or reflecting on the world around you, your experiences and actions will help you to develop and improve your skills.

Reflection is:
  • Self awareness: thinking of yourself, your experiences and your view of the world
  • Self improvement: learning from experiences and wanting to improve some area of your life
  • Empowerment: putting you in control of making changes and behaving in a different way

How to think reflectively

There are several models of reflective practice which you can use to help you structure your reflective thinking and reflective writing.

Two commonly used models are:

Kolb's Learning Cycle (1984) and Schön (1991).

You can put these models into practice through your reflective writing.

Kolb's Learning Cycle

Kolb's Learning Cycle (1984) has four elements of a loop which you can start at any point, though normally you start with an experience:

Kolbs Learning Cycle
Figure 1: Kolb's Learning Cycle


The four elements of Kolb's Learning Cycle

  • Experience -doing it
  • Observations and reflections- reviewing and reflecting on the experience
  • Development of ideas- learning from the experience
  • Testing ideas in practice- planning, trying out what you have learned

Example of using Kolb's Learning Cycle

  • Experience
    You give a 5 minute presentation in class and received low marks for presentation style.
  • Observations and reflections
    You over ran the 5 minutes and kept forgetting what you wanted to say.
  • Development of ideas
    You spoke to your lecturer and the Learning Skills tutor to get some advice on presentation techniques. You noted down some ideas on how to prepare differently next time.
  • Testing ideas in practice
    You prepared your presentation in advance. You had some notes to refer to. You practiced delivering your presentation within 5 minutes.

Schön's model

Schön (1991) presented the concept of 'reflection in action' and 'reflection on action':

Reflection in action Reflection on action
  • Experiencing
  • Thinking on your feet
  • Thinking about what to do next
  • Acting straight away
  • Thinking about something that has happened
  • Thinking what you would do differently next time
  • Taking your time

Schön's theory is that there are two types of reflection, one during and one after an activity or event.

Example of using Schön's model

Reflection in action

  • You are in a lecture and keep being distracted by thinking about what to have for lunch!
  • You want to get the most from the lecture so need to find a way to help you focus.
  • You decide to start making some notes of the key points.

Reflection on action

  • You notice that sometimes after a lecture you can’t remember what was covered.
  • You find out about the lecture topic in advance and write down some questions you want answered.
  • You make notes during the lecture to help you focus.
  • You arrange to go for a coffee after the lecture and talk with your peers about what was presented, to help you understand and form your own opinions.
  • You file your lecture notes and any handouts.

You can put these models into practice through your reflective writing.

How to write reflectively

Creating a piece of reflective writing is different from other academic writing as it is more personal and you are writing about your experiences.

The table below lists the differences between reflective and academic writing.

Reflective writing Academic writing
Personal account Impersonal account
Consider your personal views Consider the views of others
First person Third person
Contemplates Argues and justifies
Finds solutions to problems Compares and contrasts

Watch this video for a student's perspective:

How to structure your writing

When you write reflectively, use the three W's:

  • What? (description)
What happened?
Who was involved?
  • So what? (interpretation)
What is most important/interesting/relevant/ useful aspect of the event/idea/situation?
How can it be explained?
How is it similar to/different from others?
  • What next? (outcome)
What have I learned?
How can it be applied in the future?

The three W's

Figure 2: Reflective writing structure - the three W's


What to include

Here are some tips on what to include in your reflective writing:

  • Don't just describe – explore and explain what happened.
  • Be honest – it's ok to admit to making mistakes as well as success. But you should also show how you understand why things happen and what you are going to do to improve.
  • Be selective – you don’t have to write about everything that happened, just key events or ideas.
  • Look to the future – reflect on what happened in the past and how it will have an impact on future ideas or activities.

How to identify good reflective writing

If you're not sure what reflective writing looks like, take the quiz (see below) to identify good examples of reflective writing.

This will help you recognise the difference between purely descriptive writing  and critically reflective writing.

Download examples of different kinds descriptive writing through to critically reflective writing in order to help you recognise the difference.

Examples of reflective writing (Word doc)


Getting started

If you're not sure where to start with your reflective writing, download two useful documents:

Questions to help you write reflectively (Word doc)
Using reflective vocabulary (Word doc)

Finally, check how your lecturer wants you to structure your reflective writing, as they may want you to write it in a particular way.

You can record your reflections in various formats - find out about available reflective writing tools on the next page.

Watch this video for a student's useful tips:

Reflective writing tools

There are many different tools you can use to record reflective thought. Probably the most commonly used is Word. However, you can capture reflective thinking in different ways, from blogging through to video journals. When choosing a reflective writing tool for academic work that needs to be assessed, check with your course lecturer which format(s) you are allowed to use.

Word

Word doesn’t really need any introduction. However, if you’re new to using Word and would like some guidance, visit Microsoft Office’s support pages for Word which contain online tutorials, or visit one of the university’s Learning Resource Centres and speak to a member of the Helpdesk Team.

Support pages for Word (Weblink opens in new window)
Learning Resource Centres (Weblink opens in new window)

When you’re faced with your first blank page and you’re not sure where to start, download 'Questions to help reflection' which will give you some useful prompts:

Questions to help reflection (Word doc)

Excel

This great tool has been developed here at Solent University by Dr Carolyn Mair. The structured spreadsheet gives you a simplified approach to recording reflections by encouraging you to answer some prompts. You can also use the spreadsheet to sort similar entries. For example, you can look at how you reflected on a particular topic such as essay writing.

If you download and save the spreadsheet below you can enter comments in the cells. Students at Solent who have used this spreadsheet have found it enhances their performance.

If you have any questions regarding the spreadsheet please contact Carolyn at carolyn.mair@solent.ac.uk.

Reflection spreadsheet (PDF)

Online journals: blogging

Online journals can be recorded in text, video or audio. The benefit of having your reflections online is that you can share it with other people and get their feedback. Students, academics, business people and even celebrities keep blogs where you’ll often find they’re writing reflectively.

There are many free blogging websites, the most common are Wordpress, LiveJournal and Blogger. If you’re feeling creative you could also record your reflections using video or audio and then share them with the world via sites such as YouTube, Vimeo or AudioBoo.

The downside is that sharing reflections online might actually restrict what you write, as it is writing in a public rather than personal space.

Wordpress (Weblink opens in new window)
LiveJournal (Weblink opens in new window)
Blogger (Weblink opens in new window)
YouTube (Weblink opens in new window)
Vimeo (Weblink opens in new window)
AudioBoo (Weblink opens in new window)

myPortfolio

myPortfolio is an online space available to Southampton Solent University students and staff. You can use it to help with Personal Development Planning, creation of CVs and portfolios and as a space to reflect. Within myPortfolio you have your own journal/blog tool. Read the journal tutorial for further guidance and there’s a step by step activity on setting up a work placement journal. With myPortfolio you can also choose who can view your journal.

For an example of how to use myPortfolio with your reflective writing, visit Daisy Doolittle’s presentation reflection. It’s a good example of how you can structure your reflection and include elements such as documents and videos.

myPortfolio (Weblink opens in new window)
Journal tutorial (Weblink opens in new window)
Setting up a work placement journal (Weblink opens in new window)
Daisy Doolittle’s presentation reflection (Weblink opens in new window)

Other

The above list is by no means complete. Recording reflective thoughts can take many forms, such as photo journals, fictional stories, poetry or paintings.

It may also be that you use one tool for critical reflective incidents (an annotated image), another for a course (journal in myPortfolio) and another for a reflective writing assignment (spreadsheet). Select your tool depending on the situation. Check with your course lecturer for academic work that needs to be assessed.

More help

If you'd like some more help with reflective thinking and writing you can:

  • Ask your lecturer for guidance.
  • If you are a disabled student you can also contact Access Solent for guidance and support.
  • View the glossary to help you understand the words used.
  • Read a book or ebook from the reading list found in Extra resources.
  • Visit recommended websites in Extra resources for further guidance on reflective writing and some useful tools for capturing your reflective thoughts.

If you have any feedback about this book or additional material you'd like to see in the course, please email us at succeed@solent.ac.uk.

Thank you to all staff and students at Southampton Solent University who contributed to this course.

Extra resources

Reading List

Read a book or ebook from the reflective writing reading list.

The following titles are available from the library:

Recommended websites

Click on these recommended websites below for further guidance on reflective writing and some useful tools for capturing your reflective thoughts.

Reflective journal - Learning Lab from RMIT University (Weblink opens in new window)
Reflective Writing from UNSW (Weblink opens in new window)

Downloadables

Documents used in this resource

Examples of reflective writing (Word doc)
Questions to help reflection (Word doc)
Using reflective vocabulary (Word doc)
Reflection spreadsheet (Excel doc)