Guidance on the value of and models for reflective thinking and writing.
Throughout your time at university, you will be asked to think and write reflectively. Sometimes what we've learned from an activity or piece of work isn’t always obvious, which is why we need to reflect on our experiences.
Being able to recall what happened, and apply your insights to future behaviour isn’t always easy and this online resource will take you through that process step-by-step.
Reflective thinking involves the following:
- Evaluating your first-hand experience of an event, process or activity, then;
- Analysing the the experience to understand what has gone well and less well, then;
- Drawing on the experience to improve or refine your performance if a similar situation arises again.
Reflective writing is evidence of reflective thinking in which your personal experience forms a case study or data set for exploration. Reflective writing is a method for transforming this powerful subjective experience into a form of academic evidence by putting it into a broader context and drawing out its implications.
Reflecting can help you to:
- Apply experiences from one situation to another
- Deal with new challenges confidently
- Identify ways to improve your performance
- Demonstrate that you are an independent and critical learner
When is reflective thinking and writing needed?
Reflective thinking and writing could be needed for the following:
- On your course: reflecting on group work, practical work and coursework, including reflective assessments.
- Dissertation or research: understanding what went well or badly, where your approach was limited and what would you do differently if you were to continue with the research.
- Job applications or interviews: competency-based questions will encourage you to demonstrate your ability to reflect on experience, for example: 'Tell me about a time when you worked collaboratively and what challenges you had to overcome'.
- Professional development: engaging in continuous professional development and accreditation in the workplace will usually involve elements of reflection on performance to evidence your
Reflective thinking – how?
When thinking reflectively, you should aim to:
- Be objective, honest and be critical of your own actions.
- Discuss your experiences with others (peers, lecturers, personal tutor) to gain perspective.
- Compare your experience with that of others, or explore relevant theory – does it match up? Can you learn from, or challenge the theory?
Types of reflective writing
There are various types of reflective writing, for example:
- Stories or narratives: Analysis of an event with a beginning, middle and end and a set of characters
- Learning journals and logs: Reflect on various events at different times
- Learning diaries: Reflect on events frequently, eg daily or weekly. An entry might be on something as specific as a particular lab method or data analysis technique
- Personal Development Planning (PDP): eg Doctoral Development Programme (DDP) that all PhD students must demonstrate engagement with. The DDP helps students determine their training needs (action plan) given their past experiences and aspirations
- Blogs, Twitter, video diaries: Good ways of selling yourself to potential employers and collaborators as a reflective, self-sufficient learner
You may be asked to use different reflective models within your assignments, or you may wish to choose a reflective model of your own. This guide introduces you to some of the most common models of reflection used within academic writing.
Gibbs Reflective Learning Cycle
The Gibbs Reflective Learning Cycle [google doc] is one of the most commonly-used reflective models in academic writing. It is especially useful if you would like a highly structured way to reflect on an experience, e.g. if you are new to reflective writing.
The stages of the Gibbs model are as follows. Try reading them with an experience in mind, for example, a recent job interview:
- Describe an experience: What happened and when? This will be important later on to help keep track of your experiences and look back on them.
- How did it make you feel? This is your raw data that needs to be immediate and authentic. If you think back later on it is unlikely that you will be able to remember your emotional response.
- Evaluate the experience: What went well? What went less well? Why do you think that may have been the case?
- Analyse the experience: Can you put your experience in a wider context? Have you had similar experiences before and how did they compare? Is there literature that can help you to understand your experience?
- What conclusions can you draw? What were the alternatives? What have you learned from the experience?
- What will you do differently next time? Looking ahead, what can you take away from this experience that you can learn from and improve on in the future?
See G. Gibbs (1988), Learning by Doing: A guide to teaching and learning methods. Further Education Unit. Oxford Polytechnic: Oxford. Check out our video on the Gibbs Reflective Cycle to get some ideas of how to use it in your work.
What? So What? Now What?
The What? So What? Now What? model [google doc] is one of the simplest models for reflective writing. While it was originally designed for reflecting on medical practice, it can be used for any kind of reflective writing. It is memorable and thus useful for reflecting on-the-go in practice-based disciplines.
The stages of the model are as follows:
- What? What happened, how did you react, and what did you do in response? If relevant to explaining your response, how did others who were involved respond? For an accurate record of the event, try to write this as soon as you can afterwards.
- So what? How did you feel, and were these feelings similar/different to others who were involved? This is your raw data that needs to be immediate and authentic. If you think back later on it is unlikely that you will be able to remember your emotional response. Did you benefit from any observations or feedback from others involved in the event?
- Now what? What are the implications of the event for you and others involved - what have you learned, and what conclusions do you draw from the event? Is there literature that can help you to understand your experience? Looking forward, how could you change your approach if you faced a similar situation in the future?
See J. Driscoll (1994), ‘Reflective practice for practise’, Senior Nurse, 14(1), pp.47-50 and (2007), Practising Clinical Supervision. 2nd edn. Amsterdam: Elsevier.
Kolb's Experiential Learning Cycle
Kolb's Experiential Learning Cycle [google doc] describes the key stages that are involved in having an experience and learning from it. The cycle provides a model for explaining an experience you have had, how you have reflected on it, then what you have learned, and how you have implemented what you have learned.
This is cyclical because these experiments with implementing the learning lead to new experiences; we are constantly involved in this process of learning and putting what we have learned into practice. As such, this model is especially helpful in capturing continuous processes of learning, especially where you want to put focus on practically and actively implementing the learning as a result.
The stages of the model are as follows:
- Concrete experience: Describe a situation you have experienced. What happened and when? How did you feel/what did you think? How did you act in response? For an accurate record of the event, try to write this as soon as you can afterwards. Your feelings are raw data and should be immediate and authentic.
- Reflective observation: Now, taking a step back from the immediate experience, reflect on it. How did the situation happen? Why did you and any other relevant participants react and act the way you did? What went well, what went less well, and why do you think this was?
- Abstract conceptualisation: This stage is about analysing your reflections from a broader perspective than your own. How do you know that the experience was successful/unsuccessful? This might involve reflecting on any feedback you have received from other participants in the interaction. At this stage, you should also read relevant literature in order to reflect on how your experience fits into a wider context. As a result of these reflections, how could you change your approach if you faced a similar situation in the future?
- Active experimentation: Now, you can make a plan to put this learning into practice. To make sure it is realistic to act upon, formulate this as a SMART goal. At this stage, you can test out the different ideas you have come up with for improvement within similar situations. This will generate new concrete experiences and thus continue the cycle.
See D. Kolb (1984), Experiential Learning: experience as the source of learning and development. Hoboken: Prentice Hall.
The Schön Reflective Model
The Schön Reflective Model [google doc] is helpful for practice-based disciplines, as it adds a distinction between the reflection we do during our practice (reflection-in-action) and the reflection we do after the fact (reflection-on-action). However, it is not very structured within these areas and so offers the scope to adapt it to your own needs.
The stages of the model are as follows:
- Reflection-in-action: The reflection that takes place immediately while you are thinking on your feet. What is currently happening? What immediate feedback can I gather about how the experience is going? Is the event surprising? What should I do next in order to act and react to the situation?
- Reflection-on-action: The reflection you undertake after the event has taken place. What went well? What went less well? Why do you think that may have been the case? Is there literature/theory that can help you to understand your experience? What have you learned from the experience? Looking ahead, what can you take away from this experience that you can learn from and improve on in the future?
See D.A. Schön (1991), The Reflective Practicioner: How professionals think in action. Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing Ltd.
Try using the following phrases to get you started:
- I learnt or I discovered…
- I was surprised or I was excited by…
- I was moved by or I felt…
- I wonder about…
- I need to know more about…
- I was reminded that…
- I’m challenged by… or challenged to…
- I need to remember… or remember to…
Ask yourself the following questions:
- What? When? Who? Why? Where?
- How? What if? So what? What next?
Remember the following:
- Insights – What I've learnt
- Applications – How I'll use what I've learnt
- Questions – What I need to learn or explore further
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