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Reflective techniques

What sort of reflective writing will I be expected to produce?

In teaching and learning contexts such as university, students are sometimes asked to reflect on the submission of a piece of researched work, their reflection forming part of summative assessment.

In this case, the student has little chance to apply any insights going forward. However, reflective writing at this level more often forms part of formative assessment, e.g. the student reflects on a draft before final submission, enabling them to build on reflective insights.

A third kind of reflection, reflecting in an event, is associated with professional practice, e.g. a nurse might reflect on their actions while treating a patient and write up the experience afterwards. Most students are unlikely to be required to reflect in this way.

Getting started

Beginning a first piece of reflective writing can seem daunting and it's easy to procrastinate. Where to start?

Here are some suggestions:

  1. Adopt a framework. Use one of the models, such as Gibbs (1988) to provide section headings for your work. The stages in Gibbs's cycle are description, feelings, evaluation, analysis, conclusion, action plan.
  2. Invite others to critique your work. Being open to criticism may result in difficult feelings. You don't have to agree with all the comments. They provide material for your discussion.
  3. Consider alternative courses of action. In your reflection, acknowledge what you didn't do. Recognise what you could have done. How could you have improved what you did do? How could you make better choices next time?
  4. Draw up a timetable and resources for change. End your reflection with a plan. When will you practise the new technique you would like to try? What materials do you need for the exercise? Where can you find the materials?
Reflection doesn't have to take a written form. Some alternatives are:

Reflective summaries

Diagrammatic representation

Creative representation


Perspective taking


  • Peer- or group discussion
  • Problem-based learning

Reflective writing genres

  • Journal entries
  • Personal narratives
  • Portfolio entries
  • Blogs
  • Critical incident reports
  • Narratives
  • Video essays
  • Prompted reasoning

More tips

  • Include the positives
  • Remember to reflect on things that went well. How did they arise? What can you learn from them?


Why can some reflective writing seem unconvincing? 

Some writers approach a piece of reflective writing as a mechanical exercise to be completed at the last minute. They describe the object of reflection - the written report or oral presentation, the background, the mistakes they made, and an error-free future. The reflective writing that results can seem like close ups of a shadowy landscape.

Instead, the reader needs to see the landscape through human eyes, preferably from a high vantage point. To make relationships clear in this way takes time, and the development of reflective techniques is likely to be a gradual cognitive process.

Some people may be predisposed to reflection. To find out if you are likely to be one of them, take the learning styles quiz. If your preferred learning style is different, you can develop a reflective approach through practice.

Reflection vs review

When you review a piece of work, you measure it against objective conventions, e.g.


  • Have I included a thesis statement in the introduction?
  • Does the literature review synthesise rather than list published sources?
  • Is the reference list in alphabetical order?


When you reflect on a piece of work, you are open to many alternative possibilities in its construction, argument, expression and presentation. It's hard to generate these alternative perspectives yourself. Sometimes, it's helpful to invite them from other people. Their comments can stimulate the necessary reflection.

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