Reflective Writing - some initial guidance for students.
Jenny Moon, University of Exeter
Introduction - reflection and reflective writing
Reflection lies somewhere
around the notion of learning and thinking. We reflect in order
to learn something, or we learn as a result of reflecting.
Reflective writing is the
expression on paper/screen of some of the mental processes of
reflection. Other forms of expressing reflection are in speech,
in film, in graphic portrayal, music etc. The expression of
reflection is not, however, a direct mirror of what happens in
the head. It is a representation of that process within the
chosen medium and reflection represented in writing, for
example, will be different to that encompassed in a drawing. In
other words, in making a representation of reflection, we shape
and model the content of our reflection according to many
influences. Factors that could shape your reflection into
reflective writing might include:
- the reason why you
are writing reflectively (personal reasons – e.g. in a diary
or for academic purposes etc)
- whether others are
going to see what you have written and who they are (e.g.
no-one else; a tutor who will mark it; a tutor who will not
mark it, friends etc.);
- your emotional state
at the time of writing, and emotional reaction to what you
are writing (e.g. - a disturbing event that you do not want
to think about or something you did well and want to enjoy
in the rethinking process);
- related to the above,
how safe you feel about the material and anyone seeing it;
- what you know about
reflective writing and how able you are to engage in it (see
– and so on. It is also
worth noting that you will learn not only from the ‘in the head’
reflection but from the process of representing the reflection
itself. Also, you will learn different things according to the
manner in which you represent your reflection. For example, what
you would learn from drawing a picture to represent reflections
will differ from what you will learn in writing about the same
content. It is a part of the process of writing reflectively to
be as aware as possible of the influences that are shaping the
writing that you actually do.
start from what reflective writing is not. It is not:
- conveyance of
information, instruction or argument in a report, essay or
description, though there may be descriptive elements;
- a straight-forward
decision e.g. about whether something is right or wrong,
good or bad etc.
- simple problem
solving like recalling how to get to the nearest station.
In the context of your
higher education programme, reflective writing will usually have
a purpose (e.g. you will be writing reflectively about something
that you have to do or have done). It will usually involve the
sorting out of bits of knowledge, ideas, feelings, awareness of
how you are behaving and so on. It could be seen as a melting
pot into which you put a number of thoughts, feelings, other
forms of awareness, and perhaps new information. In the process
of sorting it out in your head, and representing the sortings
out on paper, you may either recognise that you have learnt
something new or that you need to reflect more with, perhaps
further input. Your reflections need to come to some sort of end
point, even if that is a statement of what you need to consider
It is also worth
recognising that reflective writing may be a means of becoming
clearer about something. For example, you might use reflective
writing to consider the kind of career direction that you might
take. Into the ‘melting pot’ you might then ‘put’ ideas,
information, feelings, other people’s perspectives and advice. A
metaphor for reflection or its expression in reflective writing
in this context is ‘cognitive housekeeping’ to imply its nature
as a sorting out, clarifying process.
From what has been said
above, it will be obvious that reflection is not a
straight-forward and ‘tidy’ process itself. When you have to
represent the process for someone else to read, you will
inevitably tidy it up – but if a tutor is expecting reflective
writing, s/he will not be looking for a dry ‘single-track’
account, or just a conclusion. It is also all right to use the
first person – ‘I’ - in reflective writing.
Let us assume that you are
reflecting on a presentation that you have just done in class.
We said, above, that reflective writing is not a
‘straight-forward’ description. You will probably have to
describe what you are about to reflect on and perhaps relate it
to the purpose for which you are reflecting. But reflection is
more than that. You might want to evaluate your performance in
the presentation, for example. This may be represented by you
questioning yourself, perhaps challenging yourself. You may
consider your reactions, and even the manner in which you have
initially viewed the situation and written about it. Your
writing may recognise that others may have different views of
the same event. So with regard to the presentation, you might
think about the performances of others – and so on.
subject matter for reflective writing
writing may apply to anything that is remotely complex. You
might reflect on:
- how to go about your
- how well you wrote an
- experiences gained in
your part time work;
- what your essay title
means and how to go about writing it;
- how to present some
- how you want to
behave differently in some context;
- the way in which your
non-work activities relate to the programme that you are on;
- the quality of a
relationship with someone (to do with your programme or home
- how well you got on
in your programme last semester;
- your process in
solving a difficult problem (eg in academic work);
- what you need to do
to improve your study processes –
and anything and everything...
You will often find there
to be unexpected rewards in working in this manner. You will
find out things that you had not considered, you even find that
your academic writing becomes more fluent; you may find that you
can solve problems more easily when you have reflected on your
processing of similar problems.
quality of reflective writing
It is worth thinking of
the quality of reflective writing as being on a continuum from
rather superficial writings that are largely descriptive, to
much deeper writings in which the questioning is more profound.
Neither is necessarily right or wrong – they are just different.
Reflective writing will need be ‘pitched’ according to the
purpose for which the task is done. Those who are learning to
become counsellors and need to question their motives for the
way they work will require to take a much more profound
approach, for example, than most others in higher education
programmes. The challenge is at least to ‘go beyond’ descriptive
writing. The questions below help to give a picture of the
difference between descriptive and more profound reflection.
questions for prompting reflective writing
These questions are
‘prompts’ that may help you to start writing reflectively. There
is no sense in which they are all to be addressed. They are
there to help if you need them. Beyond going from fairly
superficial and descriptive issues towards those that will
encourage a more profound approach, there is no significance in
their sequence. You pick what is helpful to you at the time. You
may find that these questions are useful to you at the start of
writing reflectively and then later you will not need them.
We start with pure
description that is not reflective at all – but sets the scene
for the reflective writing.
What is the issue / event
/ topic / plan /project / task / period of time etc that is to
be the subject matter of the reflection?
Questions to facilitate reflection
- Out of the
description, what is the issue / are the issues that could
be addressed in reflective writing? These issues can be
raised within the description or separately. They are like
bits of Velcro to which you can attach the reflective
- Is there anything
else you need to consider at the moment in terms of the
- What is the nature of
the significance of this issue to you (?and why)?
- How do you feel about
- How do your feelings
relate to any action?
- Was it good / bad –
and what are the implications?
- What do you need to
- What other
information do you need (ideas, knowledge, opinion etc)?
- Are there previous
instances of this event, issue arising that will help you to
think more/ differently about it?
- Are there others, or
the views of others who are relevant to this matter – and in
Questions that are likely to be helpful in prompting more
- Has the nature of
your description of the issue / event (etc) influenced the
manner in which you have gone about the reflective writing?
- Is there relevant
- How do motives for
and context of the reflective writing affect the manner in
which you have gone about the task?
- In what way might
have you tackled the task differently if the context was not
one of formal education (perhaps with assessment)?
- Is there another
point of view that you could explore – are there alternative
interpretations to consider?
- Are others seeing
this issue from different points of view that may be helpful
to you to explore?
- Does this issue
relate to other contexts – reflection on which may be
- If you ‘step back’
from this issue, does it look different?
- How do you judge your
ability to reflect on this matter?
- Do you notice that
your feelings about it have changed over time – or in the
course of writing this – suggesting that your own frame of
reference has changed?
- Are there ethical /
moral / wider social issues that you would want to explore?
There are, of course, many
other questions that could be of help. You may find it helpful
to try working with a peer on a piece of reflective writing,
taking turns to ask prompting questions such as those above, and
then revising the pieces. Even if you only do it once, it will
probably help you with other reflective writing.
‘Reflection’ is a word in
every-day language but that in some contexts it is a subject of
academic study, with many books and papers devoted to it. The
material in this paper is derived from three books Moon, J
(1999, 1999a and 2001), which provide an introduction to the
literature for those who are interested in taking this further.
Moon, J (1999)
Reflection in Learning and
Professional Development, Kogan Page, London
Moon, J (1999a)
Learning Journals: a Handbook
for Academics, Students and Professional Development,
Kogan Page, London
Moon, J (2001)
Short Courses and Workshops:
Improving the Impact of Learning and Professional
Development, Kogan Page, London
further help contact: Dr Jenny Moon,
J.Moon@exeter.ac.uk or 01392-264505