TLDRoff
Students often don't realise that one of the most important subjects they will study at university is themselves. Being able to "reflect" honestly on our own abilities is an important skill.

Reflections are funny things. When we look into a mirror we can either be encouraged by our dazzling good-looks, or plunged into self-doubt by what we may regard as a less than flattering reflection. Physically we are drawn to reflective surfaces; catching sight of ourselves in shop windows, TV screens, mirrors in lifts and even pools of water, often causes us to stop for a moment and take a second look. The images we see in these reflective surfaces are compelling to us because it is the closest we are likely to get to seeing what others see when they look at us. Our public image is very important to us, we want people to view us in the best possible way, so we are often found, at key moments in the day, before we "go public", stood in front of the mirror adjusting our clothing, fiddling with our hair, fine tuning our makeup and checking our teeth for stray bits of food.

Of course our physical appearance is only the tip of the iceberg, there are many other attributes that contribute to our personality as well as the image we wish to present to the world. Being able to "reflect" on the non-visual parts of ourselves is just as important a skill as being able to see what we physically look like. Knowing that we can be clearly understood when we speak and write, that we are capable of making sense of the issues that are likely to confront us in our daily lives, both professionally and socially, and being confident that we know where to find the information we need to survive in the world and that we are capable of evaluating its relevance and credibility - these are not things that can readily be checked by a quick glance at the mirror on the way out.

Increasingly university courses are trying to provide students with new ways to "reflect" on themselves and how they do things, to look at themselves carefully and assess whether their skill-set and abilities "fit properly" "look right" and "make them look attractive" to the outside world. One approach that is being used more and more is reflective writing and to be honest students often find it confusing to start with.

Guide

What is reflective writing?

Reflective writing is part of a much larger reflective process which involves us in not simply doing things, but standing back and looking at what we have done, how we have done it and asking questions such as:

  • Why did I do it this way?
  • Is this the only way I could have done this?
  • Did this work?
  • Did this work well?
  • Would I do it this way in the future?

In many ways the reflective questions we might ask of an academic or professional exercise are exactly the same as those we would ask of our physical reflection in a mirror: 

  • Why am I wearing this?
  • Is there anything else I could have worn?
  • Does this outfit work?
  • Do I look cool?
  • Would I go out looking like this again?

Seen this way, reflective writing is simply another sort of mirror, a way of being able to examine ourselves and our work to see if we have presented ourselves in the best possible light and used the best possible resources. Unlike a mirror that uses a shiny surface to reflect our appearance back at us, reflective writing uses words to create a picture of what our skills, abilities and feelings about them might be. For example, imagine that you have just completed a piece of writing about cats. An academic essay would contain evidence of research, critical analysis and evidence based argument, for instance:

'According to the Animal Planet web site Cats are unable to detect sweetness in anything they taste. (Animal Planet) This claim is backed up by a 2007 article in Scientific American which also maintains that "Sugar and spice and everything nice hold no interest for a cat" (Scientific American 2007)'

To reflect on what has been written here, we need to change the focus from the subject of the essay (cats), to the the way it was written (the writer). A reflection on this piece of writing might look like this:

'Writing this essay was really difficult as I have no interest in cats, but this has helped me stay focused on a topic I am not really engaged in - something that will no doubt be useful in the future. Finding accurate information about cats was not very difficult as they are hugely popular as a pet and there is a great deal written about them on the net. I am not entirely sure I found the most useful web sites but Scientific American appears to be quite authoritative, next time I think I'll stick to proper journals. I am still finding it difficult to judge what is a reliable source and what is not.'

As you can see these are two very different kinds of writing. 

  • The first is formal, objective, topic focused - in this case the topic is cats - and referenced.
  • The second in more informal, subjective and personally focused - you are the subject here. There is very little, if any, referencing evident in reflective writing. As you and your work are the subject there is unlikely to be a great deal of secondary research to be done - unless you happen to have had books and articles written about you, which is always possible.

At the end of the first piece of essay writing I would expect to learn something about cats, by the end of the second reflective piece I would expect to learn more about the writer and why they did what they did.

There are many useful tools available to help with reflective writing. Some people find it useful to conduct some sort of SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats) analysis of their skills, abilities and performance in a task as a starting point. Others draw on the two most familiar reflective theorists, Kolb and Gibbs, to provide them with insights into the process. Whichever route, or combination of routes, you take the end result ought to be a better understanding of your abilities and their scope for development.

Final Comments

The truth is we reflect on our thoughts and activities all of the time. For one thing, it's how we learn from our mistakes. Anyone who has ever said "well, that's the last time I'm doing that!" has had to engage in self-reflection to arrive at that judgement. Taking time to think about how and why we do things the way we do is really the only way to improve our performance. If we do a job and it goes really well we need to be able to identify all the things that contributed to that success, otherwise it is simply a happy accident that we will never be able to repeat. Throwing a disastrous party is not an experience we would ever wish to repeat, reflecting on why it went wrong will help us plan a more enjoyable event next time and avoid us getting stuck with the reputation of being "that naff party person".  It has been suggested that one definition of insanity is "doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results", reflecting on what you do can help prevent this.

Further Information

The University's Educational Development Unit have produced some very useful materials to help support reflective writing:

Reflective Writing Support