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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 and r eflective writing

Reflection andreflective writing

Chris Doye

Institute for Academic Development

University of Edinburgh

November 2012

What is reflection
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)

Borton s 1970 cue questions
Borton’s (1970) cue questions:

(Cited in Jasper, 2003, p.99)

What does that mean
What does that mean?

Describing event or process

Future goals and actions

Thinking and analysis

Drawing conclusions

Contexts and purposes
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Graduate attributes

Edinburgh award
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
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
Websites for further information

The University of Edinburgh’s Edinburgh Award:

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