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Reflective writing: What does reflection involve?

“Being reflective involves being: open... curious... patient... honest... rigorous”

Williams et al, Reflective writing

What does reflection involve?

1) Critical Thinking

At the heart of reflection is critical thinking. In short, this means you must 'question' everything about your experiences, about what you are felt and with what you read. For an assignment, you need to use evidence-based research or theories by academic writers alongside your personal experience. If you wish to succeed at university, you have to start thinking and writing in an academic manner. The core themes you must consider are:

  • objectivity (stand back, be factual and do not take sides)
  • detachment (avoid emotional responses)
  • theories / models / concepts (abstract ideas)
  • compare and contrast (relative thinking)
  • judge evidence based upon reliable research (facts, not feelings)
  • methodologies (quantitative v. qualitative)
  • experimental approaches (empirical approach).

This is where and why your reflective writing comes into its own. The more your reflective writing includes critical and analytical questioning, the more beneficial it will be for your academic achievements and future prospects. In order to take an objective, balanced stance, you need to reflect carefully upon the evidence you have reviewed in the academic literature and adopt an analytical approach to experimental results. That is, question everything. Critical thinking and reflective writing go hand-in-hand. If you do not develop your critical thinking skills it can bring your grades down so it is an important aspect of reflection to develop.

2) Self-discovery

Student looking scared considering their first few reflections

Reflective thinking and writing involve a large element of self-discovery. Cottrell (2010) pointed out that the reflective process is challenging. This is because we do not always like to discover the truth about ourselves and the things we most need to know can be the hardest to hear. It takes time and practice for anyone to develop good reflective skills. You should not be discouraged if the process of reflection does not come naturally or quickly. If you do face up to difficult aspects of our approach to learning (e.g. not being organised) then there will be great benefits.


Three processes for reflective thinking

Reflective thinking essentially involves three processes: experiencing something, thinking (reflecting) on the experience, and learning from the experience.  Here is an example: a student receives a low mark in an assignment and reflects upon the experience.

An experience/event:

You receive a low mark in an assignment

Self-awareness: How you think and feel about the experience

Thinking about the experience:

You read the feedback from your tutor and think about what you can do to improve your marks

Self-improvement: Learning from experience and wanting to improve on past performance

Learning from the experience:

You act on the feedback

Empowerment: You take control of making changes in order to achieve a better outcome

The three processes above outline the most simplistic model for reflective practice:

  1. Experience
  2. Think
  3. Learn

There are models that are more complicated and frameworks that you can use for reflection and this section will later consider models by Kolb, Gibbs and Schön.


A lot of students struggle with reflective thinking as it seems a very alien skill to those used in the majority of academic reports and essays. This is not the case. Reflection can almost be seen as an extension of critical thinking, applying that criticality to yourself, your practice and your actions.

Self-reflection is an important academic skill as it informs future practice for academics, researchers and students alike!