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How to write reflective research

A journal requires you to write weekly entries throughout a semester. May require you to base your reflection on course content.

A learning diary is similar to a journal, but may require group participation. The diary then becomes a place for you to communicate in writing with other group members.

A logbook is often used in disciplines based on experimental work, such as science. You note down or ‘log’ what you have done. A log gives you an accurate record of a process and helps you reflect on past actions and make better decisions for future actions.

A reflective note is often used in law. A reflective note encourages you to think about your personal reaction to a legal issue raised in a course.

An essay diary can take the form of an annotated bibliography (where you examine sources of evidence you might include in your essay) and a critique (where you reflect on your own writing and research processes).

a peer review usually involves students showing their work to their peers for feedback.

A self-assessment task requires you to comment on your own work.

Some examples of reflective writing

Social Science fieldwork report (methods section)

The field notes were written by hand on lined paper. They consisted of jotted notes and mental triggers (personal notes that would remind me of specific things when it came to writing the notes up). I took some direct observational notes recording what I saw where this was relevant to the research questions and, as I was aiming to get a sense of the culture and working environment, I also made researcher inference notes [1] [2] .

[3] I found the note-taking process itself helpful, as it ensured that I listened carefully and decoded information. Not all the information I recorded was relevant but noting what I found informative contributed to my ability to form an overview on re-reading. However, the reliability of jotted notes alone can be questionable. For example, the notes were not a direct transcription of what the subjects said but consisted of pertinent or interesting information.

Rarely did I have time to transcribe a direct quotation, so relied on my own fairly rapid paraphrasing, which risks changing the meaning. Some technical information was difficult to note down accurately [3] . A tape recorder would have been a better, more accurate method. However, one student brought a tape recorder and was asked to switch it off by a participant who was uneasy about her comments being directly recorded. It seems that subjects feel differently about being recorded or photographed (as opposed to observers taking notes), so specific consent should be sought before using these technologies [4] .

1. Description/ explanation of method.

2. Includes discipline-specific language

3. Critical evaluation of method

4. Conclusion and recommendation based on the writer’s experience

Engineering Design Report

Question: Discuss at least two things you learnt or discovered – for example about design or working in groups or the physical world – through participating in the Impromptu Design activities.

Firstly, the most obvious thing that I discovered was the advantage of working as part of a group [1] . I learned that good teamwork is the key to success in design activities when time and resources are limited. As everyone had their own point of view, many different ideas could be produced, and I found the energy of group participation made me feel more energetic about contributing something [2] .

Secondly I discovered that even the simplest things on earth could be turned into something amazing if we put enough creativity and effort into working on them [1] . With the Impromptu Design activities [3] we used some simple materials such as straws, string, and balloons, but were still able to create some ‘cool stuff’ [4] . I learned that every design has its weaknesses and strengths and working with a group can help discover what they are. We challenged each other’s preconceptions about what would and would not work. We could also see the reality of the way changing a design actually affected its performance.

1. Addresses the assignment question

2. Reflects on direct experiences

3. Direct reference to the course activity

4. The style is relatively informal, yet still uses full sentences.

5. Relating what was learnt.

Learning Journal (weekly reflection)

Last week’s lecture presented the idea that science is the most powerful form of evidence [1] . My position as a student studying both physics and law makes this an important issue for me [2] and one I was thinking about while watching the ‘The New Inventors’ television program last Tuesday [3] . The two ‘inventors’ (an odd name considering that, as Smith (2002) says, nobody thinks of things in a vacuum) were accompanied by their marketing people. The conversations were quite contrived, but also funny and enlightening. I realised that the marketing people used a certain form of evidence to persuade the viewers (us?) of the value of the inventions [4] . To them, this value was determined solely by whether something could be bought or sold—in other words, whether something was ‘marketable’. In contrast, the inventors seemed quite shy and reluctant to use anything more than technical language, almost as if this was the only evidence required – as if no further explanation was needed.

This difference forced me to reflect on the aims of this course—how communication skills are not generic but differ according to time and place. Like in the ‘Research Methodology’ textbook discussed in the first lecture, these communication skills are the result of a form of triangulation, [5] which I have made into the following diagram:

1. Description of topic encountered in the course

2. The author’s voice is clear

3. Introduces ‘everyday’ life experience

4. The style is relatively informal, yet still uses full sentences

5. Makes an explicit link between ‘everyday’ life and the topic

References

Brookfield, S 1987, Developing critical thinkers: challenging adults to explore alternative ways of thinking and acting, Open University Press, Milton Keynes.

Mezirow, J 1990, Fostering critical reflection in adulthood: a guide to transformative and emancipatory learning, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco.

Schön, DA 1987, Educating the reflective practitioner, Jossey-Bass. San Francisco.

We thank the students who permitted us to feature examples of their writing.

Prepared by Academic Skills, UNSW. This guide may be distributed or adapted for educational purposes. Full and proper acknowledgement is required.

Reflective assignments are different to standard essays. Here we’ll cover some key elements for you to consider when writing reflectively.

There are many models of reflection you can use in an assignment. Here we discuss some basic guidance for reflective writing but you should follow any additional guidelines you’ve been given on your course or module to meet your course requirements.

What is reflective writing?

  • looks back at past experience to perform better in the future
  • analyses, explores and explains what happened and why
  • usually incorporates models or theory
  • uses academic language
  • considers strengths, weaknesses, anxieties and errors — you can use personal language such as ‘I’ and ‘we’ to talk about observations, emotions and feelings
  • is constructively criticising yourself, an event and others
  • requires evidence to support what you are saying such as things that have been said or done, their causes and their effects — so you need clear records of the events and your thoughts

Thinking reflectively

Thinking reflectively involves:

  • Thinking about what was done. Analyse the event by thinking in depth from different perspectives. Use subject theory, reflective models and personal insight. The critical evaluation you make of your and others’ actions should be applied to future events.
  • Thinking about what happened, what did and didn’t work, and what you think about it.
  • Critically evaluating what you would do differently in the future and explain why.

Reflective writing structure

Non-academic reflective writing is usually unstructured – such as writing in a personal diary, learning journal, or narrative for design development. You should structure your reflective assignments. There are lots of ways to structure your reflective writing, but we explore one example here.

Reflection usually has the following major components:

  1. Introduction: the event, incident or topic
  2. Description and problematisation of the event
  3. Cause and effect of the critical event — don’t write too much description at this stage
  4. Explain and critique what happened, what are you trying to resolve here, what you have learnt and how you would move forwards

Reflective writing example

This example of basic reflective writing can be split into three parts: description, interpretation and outcome. See how the example paragraph is broken into these three sections below the text. Full example text:

Specific tasks were shared out amongst members of my team. However, the tasks were not seen as equally difficult by all team members. Consequently, the perception of unfairness impacted on our interactions. Social interdependence theory recognises a type of group interaction called “positive interdependence” (Johnson & Johnson, 2008, cited by Maughan & Webb, 2010) and many studies demonstrate that learning can be improved through cooperation (Maughan & Webb, 2010). We did not experience these with the initial task allocation. Nonetheless, we achieved a successful outcome through further negotiation. Therefore, we found that “cooperative learning experiences encourage higher achievement.” (Maughan & Webb, 2010). To improve the process in future, perhaps we could elect a chairperson to help encourage cooperation when tasks are being allocated.

Description

Descriptions tend to be short – they explain what happened and what is being examined. For example:

Specific tasks were shared out amongst members of my team. However, the tasks were not seen as equally difficult by all team members.

Interpretation

Intrepretation can include what is most important, interesting, useful or relevant about the object, event or idea. It could include how it can be explained, such as with theory. For example:

Consequently, the perception of unfairness impacted on our interactions. Social interdependence theory recognises a type of group interaction called “positive interdependence” (Johnson & Johnson, 2008, cited by Maughan & Webb, 2010) and many studies demonstrate that learning can be improved through cooperation (Maughan & Webb, 2010). We did not experience these with the initial task allocation.

Outcome

The outcome should cover what you’ve learnt from your experience and what it means for your future. For example:

Nonetheless, we achieved a successful outcome through further negotiation. Therefore, we found that “cooperative learning experiences encourage higher achievement.” (Maughan & Webb, 2010). To improve the process in future, perhaps we could elect a chairperson to help encourage cooperation when tasks are being allocated.

Useful reflective vocabulary

Below are are some words and phrases to help improve your reflective writing.

Description

You may need to talk about events, ideas or objects in your reflective writing. You can use a range of vocabulary to describe these items so there isn’t any specific vocabulary for this section.

You should use the present tense to describe your idea, theory or model.

Interpretation

You can open personal statements with phrases like: ‘For me’, ‘I found that’, ‘I felt that’, or ‘I believe. ‘. You also need to give your reasoning or evidence.

What is reflective writing in the context of Education?

Reflection is something that professional educators do several times a day. By doing so, the educator enhances their teaching practice by reflecting on what part of their teaching went well, what could have gone better, and how to improve next time.

Reflective writing generally contains elements of description, analysis and outcomes or action. If you include each of these components in your reflective writing, you will see connections between your experiences, learning, and theories more clearly. Reflective writing in the Education faculty therefore effectively allows you to bridge what you study, what you observe, what you do when teaching and what you learn from your experiences in order to become a better educator over time.

5 things you need to know about reflective writing in Education View

1. Make it personal

It’s generally OK to be subjective, and use words like ‘I’ and ‘me’ in reflective writing. Reflective tasks are asking about your feelings, thoughts and observations. For that reason it’s fine to make those elements personal.

2. Plan your writing

Reflective essays require careful planning and strategic structure to achieve their aims. Make sure you have a carefully thought out plan to achieve the essay’s goals as outlined in the instructions. Start with an introductory section orienting your reader to the topic, your purpose for writing and outlining the structure you’ll use to achieve that stated purpose. Follow this with body paragraphs that clearly state their topics/purposes, and a concluding section that sums up how the essay has achieved its stated purpose, and any final observations or ‘big picture’ comments.

3. Analyse your experiences

Reflective writing encourages you to make observations about your experiences and beliefs – e.g. your own past experiences as a learner, or your observations from teaching rounds – and link these with the theoretical learning in your subject. The person grading your work is looking for proof of learning from you, so it is very important that you don’t just describe what happened, but also provide analysis of how your observations or experience relate to the theory and learning from the unit.

4. Demonstrate your analysis

Reflective writing requires you to show that you can evaluate what you read, think, and do, by acknowledging a range of viewpoints and possibilities from the research and reading you have done.

5. Reference your sources

When you discuss how theories and concepts you’ve learned about in the unit apply to the thing you’re reflecting on, you will need to cite and reference those key concepts. This is general good practice at uni, but also in your life and career as well. Always acknowledge the original source of information whenever possible. It credits the originator and ensures that your work is ethical, and based on research and is therefore stronger than mere opinion or conjecture.

Unless otherwise stated, this work is licenced under a CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0 licence by Cambridge University Libraries.

Introduction

Many people worry that they will be unable to write reflectively but chances are that you do it more than you think! It's a common task during both work and study from appraisal and planning documents to recording observations at the end of a module. The following pages will guide you through some simple techniques for reflective writing as well as how to avoid some of the most common pitfalls.

What is reflective writing?

Writing reflectively involves critically analysing an experience, recording how it has impacted you and what you plan to do with your new knowledge. It can help you to reflect on a deeper level as the act of getting something down on paper often helps people to think an experience through.

The key to reflective writing is to be analytical rather than descriptive. Always ask why rather than just describing what happened during an experience.

Reflective writing is.

  • Written in the first person
  • Analytical
  • Free flowing
  • Subjective
  • A tool to challenge assumptions
  • A time investment

Reflective writing isn't.

  • Written in the third person
  • Descriptive
  • What you think you should write
  • Objective
  • A tool to ignore assumptions
  • A waste of time

Adapted from The Reflective Practice Guide: an Interdisciplinary Approach / Barbara Bassot.

You can learn more about reflective writing in this handy video from Hull University:

Where might you use reflective writing?

You can use reflective writing in many aspects of your work, study and even everyday life. The activities below all contain some aspect of reflective writing and are common to many people:

1. Job applications

Many students will be asked to include some form of reflection in an academic assignment, for example when relating a topic to their real life circumstances. They are also often asked to think about their opinion on or reactions to texts and other research and write about this in their own work.

2. Appraisals

In a similar way, undertaking an appraisal is a good time to reflect back on a certain period of time in post. You might be asked to record what went well and why as well as identifying areas for improvement.

3. Written feedback

If you have made a purchase recently you are likely to have received a request for feedback. When you leave a review of a product or service online then you need to think about the pros and cons. You may also have gone into detail about why the product was so good or the service was so bad so other people know how to judge it in the future.

4. Blogging

Blogs are a place to offer your own opinion and can be a really good place to do some reflective writing. Blogger often take a view on something and use their site as a way to share it with the world. They will often talk about the reasons why they like/dislike something – classic reflective writing.

5. During the research process

When researchers are working on a project they will often think about they way they are working and how it could be improved as well as considering different approaches to achieve their research goal. They will often record this in some way such as in a lab book and this questioning approach is a form of reflective writing.

6. In academic writing

Many students will be asked to include some form of reflection in an academic assignment, for example when relating a topic to their real life circumstances. They are also often asked to think about their opinion on or reactions to texts and other research and write about this in their own work.

Think about . When you reflect

Think about all of the activities you do on a daily basis. Do any of these contain elements of reflective writing? Make a list of all the times you have written something reflective over the last month – it will be longer than you think!

Reflective terminology

A common mistake people make when writing reflectively is to focus too much on describing their experience. Think about some of the phrases below and try to use them when writing reflectively to help you avoid this problem:

  • The most important thing was.
  • At the time I felt.
  • This was likely due to.
  • After thinking about it.
  • I learned that.
  • I need to know more about.
  • Later I realised.
  • This was because.
  • This was like.
  • I wonder what would happen if.
  • I'm still unsure about.
  • My next steps are.

Always try and write in the first person when writing reflectively. This will help you to focus on your thoughts/feelings/experiences rather than just a description of the experience.

Using reflective writing in your academic work

Even if it is not immediately obvious from the description, many of the academic assignments you will need to complete contain some form of reflection. You might be asked to write an essay where you respond to a piece of text or an image, relate a topic to your own experiences or discuss whether a certain model fits with your own views. Reflection can also be useful when constructing an academic argument as you will have to think about how all the evidence fits with your own understanding of a topic. Being able to reflect on something is also an important part of critical thinking and writing as it allows you to question arguments made in the literature, be open minded about different approaches and move towards being constructive in your criticism. With any of these assignments it's important to remember not to include too much description and focus on what you are being asked to do. The assessor will understand what the object you are looking at is and they don't need it described to them. They want to know what you think about it, how it relates to your experiences and how this advances your knowledge of a topic.

Many courses will also expect you to reflect on your own learning as you progress through a particular programme. You may be asked to keep some type of reflective journal or diary. Depending on the needs of your course this may or may not be assessed but if you are using one it's important to write reflectively. This can help you to look back and see how your thinking has evolved over time – something useful for job applications in the future. Students at all levels may also be asked to reflect on the work of others, either as part of a group project or through peer review of their work. This requires a slightly different approach to reflection as you are not focused on your own work but again this is a useful skill to develop for the workplace.

You can see some useful examples of reflective writing in academia from Monash University, UNSW (the University of New South Wales) and Sage. Several of these examples also include feedback from tutors which you can use to inform your own work.

In reflective writing, it’s common to connect personal experience to specific content from your paper/course. Your lecturer may give you assignments that involve showing:

  • Your understanding of theories connected to personal experiences
  • How you have changed as a result of reflecting on your learning or practice
  • What your future plans are

Connecting personal experience to specific content from your paper/course involves:

  • Identifying theories or parts of theories from research
  • Matching theory to concrete experiences, such as examples of what people do, say, think, feel, etc.
  • Using language to make clear links from theory to experience (and vice versa)

These features may be specific to one part of your assignment, or spread throughout, depending on your assignment instructions.

Your ability to relate and match experiences to theory shows deep understanding of content. The concrete details of personal experiences may be your own or experiences recorded in research (depending on your assignment question).

Connecting example 1: Theory to experience

Connecting example 2: Experience to theory

Connecting example 3: Theory to experience to theory

One advantage of example 3 is that you can connect different theories (or different parts of the same theory) to one experience/example. In all three examples, there is a balance of theory and experience, and language is used to make clear links.