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Reflective Writing: A short guide

A Short Guide to Reflective Writing

Reflection in academia

Reflection is a useful process even if you have not been set a specific reflective assignment. It helps you to make sense of and learn from your experiences. Many degrees involve assessed reflective writing. This is to allow you to demonstrate that you think you can write critically about you own skills or practice, in order to improve and learn. It is important to analyse rather than just describe the things you are reflecting on, and to emphasise how you will apply what you have learned. 

This may involve:

  • Reflecting on your own professional or academic practice
  • Scrutinising an experience and the way you deal with it
  • Evaluating a project or experiment and considering how to do it better next time
  • Reflecting on things you have read and linking theory with practice/reality

'It is not sufficient to have an experience in order to learn. Without reflecting on this experience it may quickly be forgotten, or its learning potential lost' (Gibbs, 1988, p. 9).

Reflective writing for an assignment

Writing reflectively for the purposes of an assignment should not involve merely describing something that happened. Nor does it mean pouring out everything you think and feel in a total unstructured way. Reflective writing requires a clear link of thought, use of evidence or examples to illustrate you reflections, and analytical approach. 

You are aiming to strike a balance between your personal perspective, and the requirements of good academic practice and rigorous thinking. This means: 

  • developing a perspective, or line of reasoning
  • demonstrating that you are well informed have read relevant literature and reflected on its relevance to your own development
  • showing that you recognise that situations are rarely simple and clear-cut
  • writing about the link between your experiences/practice and your reading
  • writing in an appropriate style

As an example, consider the extract below, which is from a nursing student's reflective essay. Consider how the writer develops a line of reasoning based on their own thoughts and experiences, and then links it to wider reading. 

Please remember: different disciplines have different requirements and styles. This is an example of just one approach.

Example Extract

During term one I found myself inwardly questioning the reliability and validity of scientific journals, as I came across conflicting studies and contradictory data in our weekly research and feedback sessions. I was surprised at how other members of the group appeared to automatically trust the content of peer-reviewed journals and I sometimes felt that what was presented to the group was accepted as factual as long as there was a reference attached. 

This prompted me to read into what I now realise is referred to as publication bias and has been widely documented in recent years. For example, Dawes (2005) argues that, although reputable journals adopt a robust peer review process, articles still get published with significant flaws:

'Journals have to publish to survive and they want to publish articles that deal with topical important issues of the day. Sometimes this imperative overrides the critical review process.' (Dawes 2005, p. 6)

Furthermore, Brooks (1997, p. 46) highlights the fact that statistical significance increases the likelihood of a researcher's work being published, which might tempt some researchers to tamper with the data. 

I did not want to appear cynical to the rest of the group and kept these concerns to myself, which on reflection I perhaps could have volunteered for discussion. Instead I felt that in order to construct an accurate care plan at the end of each scenario I had to adopt a more robust approach in selecting appropriate journal texts. 

After these realisations, I found it more help to employ the use of meta-analyses and systematic reviews for assessing research. I found that using systematic reviews saved time searching through numerous journals, and I found the Cochrane Library a useful electronic information source. 

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