'We do not learn from experience...we learn from reflecting on experience.'
Reflective writing differs from other kinds of university writing that you may be more familiar with. Reflective writing is meant to encourage you to reveal your personal thoughts about your life experiences in relation to the content you are learning about in your units. Many assessment tasks at university ask for reflection. You may see instructions like:
- Write a reflective report on....
- Keep a reflective journal around.....
- Write a reflective essay on....
- Compile weekly reflective notes about...
Reflection means taking some time to examine your own thoughts, beliefs, values, attitudes and assumptions about your understanding of a topic, a situation or a problem. When you reflect, think about your own experiences and knowledge and how you arrived at that understanding. Often our thinking has been shaped by the values of our family and culture, an embarrassing or uncomfortable situation, our religion, past teachers, newspapers, TV shows and so on. There is no absolute right or wrong way with reflective thinking. But the key questions in reflective thinking are how? and why? rather than what?
Reflective writing varies across disciplines which have particular ways of thinking about the world, and how to interpret the meanings of actions and things. In some disciplines, for example nursing and education, reflection is used to create knowledge and improve professional practice.
Lecturers may ask you to write reflectively for a range of reasons:
- To become an active learner by asking questions and thinking critically about your own ideas.
- To examine what you have learned and how you have learned it.
- To make connections, for example between what you already know and what you are learning, between theory and practice or between course content and personal experience.
- To indicate your understanding by identifying any questions you have, and what you have yet to learn.
- To learn from mistakes by identifying how you would do it differently next time and also to identify and accept what you could not change at the time.
- To encourage you to become a reflective practitioner in your future career. This is the key to life-long learning, growth and meaningful change.
It is important that you write reflectively according to your unit and discipline. Read your assessment carefully, and ask your lecturer for further guidance if you are not sure.
Writing reflectively can be assisted with some guiding questions:
- What happened during that event or experience? And why did it happen?
- What was my role in the event? And why did I adopt that particular role?
- What were my feelings during that experience? And why did I feel that way?
- What were my thoughts during that experience? And why did I think that way?
- How do I interpret what I experienced or observed?
- What might this experience mean in the context of my course?
- What other perspectives, theories or concepts could be applied to interpret the situation?
- How can I learn from this experience?
There are a number of reflection models you can use to help construct your writing - the "What? So what? Now what?" model was outlined in the video. Another useful Reflection model is "The 4 Rs" which is outlined below. The 4Rs process is based on "Reflection-On-Action" - this means actions are analysed and re-framed after an event or observation, and potential solutions are developed. The process is designed to encourage you to address your ongoing learning from a number of standpoints, such as practical, cognitive and emotional, and from your own values, ethics and beliefs.
In the Report stage you describe, report or retell the key elements of what you have learnt, seen or experienced.
In the Relate stage you draw a relationship between your current personal or theoretical understandings and identify aspects of the observation that have a personal meaning or that connect with your experience.
In the Reason stage you explore the relationship between theory and practice and seek a deep understanding of why something has happened.
In the Reconstruct stage you discuss improvements that could be made or identify something you need or plan to do or change. You should be able to generalise and/or apply your learning to other contexts and your future professional practice. This might involve developing general principles, formulating personal theories of teaching or taking a stand or position on an issue.
When you write a reflection the reader will expect to learn about your personal experience, feelings, ideas and opinions. Use the first person (I, my, me).
Phrases below can be incorporated with your ideas to express:
- your experience of a situation
- personal reaction to an idea, opinion or person
- evaluation of an argument
- comparison with another idea
- comment on the worth of an idea
- identification of key issues
- how well you understood something
Try using these phrases:
- My experience of this leads me to believe/think/question…
- I think/feel/believe/hope/am convinced...
- I remember/recall...
- This was difficult/easy/frightening/exciting etc.
- I find this worrying/amusing/convenient etc.
- For me, this assertion is very difficult to agree with...
- I agree/do not agree with Smith (2013) when she argues that...
- Based on my personal beliefs and experiences…
- In my mind the key question/issue is…
- It had not occurred to me that …
Bain, JD, Ballantyne, R, Mills, C & Lester, NC 2002, Reflecting on practice: student teachers' perspectives, Post Pressed, Flaxton Qld.
Williams K, Woolliams, M, & Spiro, J 2012, Reflective writing, Palgrave Macmillan, New York.
Other useful resources
University of N.S.W. - Reflective writing
University of Canberra - What is reflective writing?
Australian Catholic University - Reflective writing and the language of reflection.