Reflection and r eflective writing
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Reflection and r eflective writing. Chris Doye Institute for Academic Development University of Edinburgh November 2012. What is reflection?. Exploration / examination of ourselves and our actions (often written but also spoken) considered rational, unemotional*

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Reflection andreflective writing

Chris Doye

Institute for Academic Development

University of Edinburgh

November 2012

What is reflection?

Exploration / examination of ourselves and our actions (often written but also spoken)

  • considered

  • rational, unemotional*

  • in relation to theory / wider context / other perspectives

    Why do it?

  • to develop understanding / learning / skills

  • and give us a path by which to move forward

    *(even though it often deals with feelings, reactions and emotions)

The basics:

Borton’s (1970) cue questions:

(Cited in Jasper, 2003, p.99)

What does that mean?

Describing event or process

Future goals and actions

Thinking and analysis

Drawing conclusions

Contexts and purposes

  • Episode / experience/ process

    • Short/specific e.g. lesson we have taught, procedure we have carried out

    • Longer process e.g. project work, group work, course, client-practitioner relationship

  • Critical incident

    • Positive or negative

  • Our own development, e.g. skills, strengths, challenges (may also be required for education or work)

What is a critical incident?

  • Something that happened that is, in some way, significant

    • For you personally,

    • Or in a wider context

  • and that you can learn from by considering it more deeply

  • It does not have to be earth-shattering

  • It can be either positive or negative

Skills involved

  • Self-awareness

  • Description / factual reporting

  • Critical analysis

  • Synthesis

  • Evaluation

    (Atkins and Schutz, 2008, p.26)

    Self-awareness is the main skill that is not usual in other academic writing.

Preparing: Focused free write

This technique can help you to start thinking freely about something.

  • Start from the incident, experience, process you want to reflect on

  • Write for 5 -15 minutes without stopping, just following your train of thought as if you are talking to yourself on paper

  • Don’t worry about grammar, spelling, punctuation or anything else

  • If you wander off the topic, don’t worry, just bring yourself gently back

  • When the time is up, skim through for any interesting/useful words, phrases, ideas or thoughts

    The idea of free writing, from which focused free writing is adapted, was popularised by Peter Elbow(1973)

Exploring experience and perspective

  • Look at the hand-outs

  • Try one of the techniques (you will not be asked to share what you have actually produced)

  • Share with the group

    • Which activity did you choose?

    • What are your reactions to doing it?

Reflective journal

At the time

  • Write a description as you see things now

  • Include your feelings

  • Note down anything you might want to refer to as ‘evidence’

  • Note questions or things you might want to explore if they occur to you

Later reflection

  • Look back objectively at what you wrote

  • Compare you now with then: changes?

  • Ask & answer critical questions

    • Relate to wider context

    • Justify what you say

  • Learning & moving forward

Reflective writing assignments

  • May use specific model and follow that structure

  • Usually follows basic phases

    • Descriptive (who? what? where? when?)

    • Analytical & interpretive (why? how? so?)

    • Looking forward (where/what now?)

  • cfBorton (earlier)

  • Or, more complex, e.g. Gibbs

More structured e.g. Gibbs (1988)

(Cited in Jasper, 2003 .p.77 but, N.B. she puts description instead of analysis!)


Ability to give effective account > others understand what happened as you saw it:

  • Pick relevant, significant detail: right amount

  • Writing = clear, concise, well structured

  • Objective rather than emotional: thoughts & feelings are recorded rather than colouring account

Critical analysis/ evaluation

Aims for deeper understanding

  • Breaking down into constituent parts

  • Identifying positives / negatives/ issues

  • Identifying and challenging assumptions (self & other)

  • Making connections (other experience, learning)

  • Relating to external sources, e.g.

    • Theory, research, case studies, wider social/political/economic context

Levels of reflection: 1

Hatton and Smith's (1995) four levels of reflection, summarised by Gillett et al. as:

  • descriptive writing (a straightforward account of events)

  • descriptive reflection (an account with reasons, justifications and explanation for the events)

  • dialogic reflection (the writer begins to stand back from the account and analyse it)

  • critical reflection (the writer puts their account into a broader perspective).

    (Gillett et al., 2009, p.165)

Levels of reflection: 2

Goodman’s 3 levels (1984) often referred to – roughly equate to:

Largely descriptive; looking at practical things in terms of responsibility, accountability, efficiency ..

Moving out from your particular experiences – relationship between theory and practice; broader implications, issues, values..

Broadening out to consider implications in context of ethical / social / political influences

(Goodman, 1984, cited in Jasper, 2003, pp.72-75)

Graduate attributes

Edinburgh Award

Employers want graduates:

  • who are self-aware,

  • who capitalise on their strengths,

  • who will have impact wherever they work,

  • who are committed to personal development and life-long learning, and

  • who can confidently provide evidence for these claims.

  • And that’s where the Edinburgh Award comes in…

Edinburgh Award: CARL

  • For reflecting on the skills/abilities you wanted to develop during the Award:

  • Context – What is the context, e.g. what was your role and what was the skill you wanted to develop (and why)?

  • Action – In that context, what did you do to work towards developing the skill?

  • Result & Learning – What were the outcomes of your actions? What went well? What stretched you? What didn’t work? What did you learn as a result? Why does it matter to you? How does it influence how you would approach something similar in the future?

  • For reflecting on the impact you had during the Award:

  • Context – What is the context, e.g. what was your role, its purpose and in what areas you were trying to develop personally?

  • Action – In that context, what did you do to try to have an impact?

  • Result & Learning – What were the outcomes of your actions? What impact did you have on the people and/or organisation(s) around you?


Atkins, S. and Schutz, S. (2008) 'Developing the skills for reflective practice', in Bulman, C. and Schutz, S. (eds.) Reflective practice in nursing. 4thedn. Chichester: Blackwell Publishing, pp. 25-54

Elbow, P. (1973) Writing Without Teachers. New York: Oxford University Press

Gillett, A., Hammond, A. and Martala, M. (2009) Successful academic writing. Harlow: Pearson Education Limited.

Jasper, M. (2003) Beginning reflective practice. Cheltenham: Nelson ThornesLtd

Moon, J.(2006) Learning Journals: A Handbook for Reflective Practice and Development. (2ndedn.) London: Routledge

Websites for further information

The University of Edinburgh’s Edinburgh Award:

Reflective writing, university of Portsmouth:,73259,en.pdf

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