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Reflective writing in Arts

Reflective writing


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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.


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

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 glace at the mirror on the way out. 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.

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Reflective thinking and writing

Reflection – reflective thinking and writing – is an important part of university life and work. As Plato said, ‘The life without examination is no life.’ The ability to reflect on your experience and knowledge, and use that to make improvements, is a key part of your university-level thinking and your subsequent working life.

Site: Solent Online Learning
Course:[email protected]
Book:Reflective thinking and writing
Printed by:Guest user
Date:Tuesday, 9 October 2018, 12:09 PM

Table of contents

  • Reflective thinking and writing
  • What is reflective thinking?
  • How to think reflectively
    • Kolb’s Learning Cycle
    • Schön’s model
  • How to write reflectively
    • How to structure your writing
    • What to include
    • How to identify good reflective writing
    • Getting started
  • Reflective writing tools
  • More help
  • Extra resources
    • Downloadables

Reflective thinking and writing

Reflective thinkingReflective thinking and writing is an important part of university life and work.

The ability to reflect on your experience and knowledge, and use that to make improvements, is a key part of university-level thinking and work.

To reflect, and write reflectively, you need to know:

  • how to think reflectively
  • how to write reflectively, including the difference between reflective and bookacademic writing ; how to structure your writing; what to include and how to identify good reflective writing
  • what reflective writing tools are available

What is reflective thinking?

To think and write reflectively you have to:

  • Experience something
  • Think about what happened
  • Learn from the experience

You think reflectively all the time, you probably just don’t realise you’re doing it.

Have you ever missed the bus and then thought next time I’ll leave the house 5 minutes earlier’?

This is an example of you being reflective: you thought about an experience and decided to learn from it and do something different the next time.

As a student, and in the workplace, you will be asked to be reflective. Thinking or reflecting on the world around you, your experiences and actions will help you to develop and improve your skills.

Reflection is:

  • Self awareness: thinking of yourself, your experiences and your view of the world
  • Self improvement: learning from experiences and wanting to improve some area of your life
  • Empowerment : putting you in control of making changes and behaving in a different way

How to think reflectively

There are several models of reflective practice which you can use to help you structure your reflective thinking and reflective writing.

Two commonly used models are:

Kolb’s Learning Cycle (1984) and Schön (1991).

You can put these models into practice through your reflective writing.

Kolb’s Learning Cycle

Kolb’s Learning Cycle (1984) has four elements of a loop which you can start at any point, though normally you start with an experience:

Kolbs Learning Cycle

Figure 1: Kolb’s Learning Cycle

The four elements of Kolb’s Learning Cycle

  • Experience -doing it
  • Observations and reflections- reviewing and reflecting on the experience
  • Development of ideas- learning from the experience
  • Testing ideas in practice- planning, trying out what you have learned

Example of using Kolb’s Learning Cycle

  • Experience
    You give a 5 minute presentation in class and received low marks for presentation style.
  • Observations and reflections
    You over ran the 5 minutes and kept forgetting what you wanted to say.
  • Development of ideas
    You spoke to your lecturer and the Learning Skills tutor to get some advice on presentation techniques. You noted down some ideas on how to prepare differently next time.
  • Testing ideas in practice
    You prepared your presentation in advance. You had some notes to refer to. You practiced delivering your presentation within 5 minutes.

Schön’s model

Schön (1991) presented the concept of ‘reflection in action’ and ‘reflection on action’:

Reflection in actionReflection on action
  • Experiencing
  • Thinking on your feet
  • Thinking about what to do next
  • Acting straight away
  • Thinking about something that has happened
  • Thinking what you would do differently next time
  • Taking your time

Schön’s theory is that there are two types of reflection, one during and one after an activity or event.

Example of using Schön’s model

Reflection in action

  • You are in a lecture and keep being distracted by thinking about what to have for lunch!
  • You want to get the most from the lecture so need to find a way to help you focus.
  • You decide to start making some notes of the key points.

Reflection on action

  • You notice that sometimes after a lecture you can’t remember what was covered.
  • You find out about the lecture topic in advance and write down some questions you want answered.
  • You make notes during the lecture to help you focus.
  • You arrange to go for a coffee after the lecture and talk with your peers about what was presented, to help you understand and form your own opinions.
  • You file your lecture notes and any handouts.

You can put these models into practice through your reflective writing.

How to write reflectively

Creating a piece of reflective writing is different from other bookacademic writing as it is more personal and you are writing about your experiences.

The table below lists the differences between reflective and bookacademic writing .

Reflective writing bookAcademic writing
Personal account Impersonal account
Consider your personal viewsConsider the views of others
First person Third person
Contemplate s Argue s and justifies
Finds solutions to problems Compare s and contrast s

Watch this video for a student’s perspective:

How to structure your writing

When you write reflectively, use the three W’s:

  • What? (description)
What happened?
Who was involved?
  • So what? (interpretation)
What is most important/interesting/relevant/ useful aspect of the event/idea/situation?
How can it be explained?
How is it similar to/different from others?
  • What next? (outcome)
What have I learned?
How can it be applied in the future?

The three W's

Figure 2: Reflective writing structure – the three W’s

What to include

Here are some tips on what to include in your reflective writing:

  • Don’t just describe – explore and explain what happened.
  • Be honest – it’s ok to admit to making mistakes as well as success. But you should also show how you understand why things happen and what you are going to do to improve.
  • Be selective – you don’t have to write about everything that happened, just key events or ideas.
  • Look to the future – reflect on what happened in the past and how it will have an impact on future ideas or activities.

How to identify good reflective writing

If you’re not sure what reflective writing looks like, take the quiz (see below) to identify good examples of reflective writing.

This will help you recognise the difference between purely descriptive writing  and critically reflective writing.

Download examples of different kinds descriptive writing through to critically reflective writing in order to help you recognise the difference.

Examples of reflective writing (Word doc)

Identifying good reflective writing quiz (Opens in new window)

Getting started

If you’re not sure where to start with your reflective writing, download two useful documents:

Questions to help you write reflectively (Word
Using reflective vocabulary (Word doc)

Finally, check how your lecturer wants you to structure your reflective writing, as they may want you to write it in a particular way.

You can record your reflections in various formats – find out about available reflective writing tools on the next page.

Watch this video for a student’s useful tips:

Reflective writing tools

There are many different tools you can use to record reflective thought. Probably the most commonly used is Word. However, you can capture reflective thinking in different ways, from blogging through to video journals. When choosing a reflective writing tool for academic work that needs to be assessed, check with your course lecturer which format(s) you are allowed to use.


Word doesn’t really need any introduction. However, if you’re new to using Word and would like some guidance, visit Microsoft Office’s support pages for Word which contain online tutorials, or visit one of the university’s Learning Resource Centres and speak to a member of the Helpdesk Team.

Support pages for Word (Weblink opens in new window)
Learning Resource Centres (Weblink opens in new window)

When you’re faced with your first blank page and you’re not sure where to start, download ‘Questions to help reflection’ which will give you some useful prompts:

Questions to help reflection (Word doc)


This great tool has been developed here at Solent University by Dr Carolyn Mair. The structured spreadsheet gives you a simplified approach to recording reflections by encouraging you to answer some prompts. You can also use the spreadsheet to sort similar entries. For example, you can look at how you reflected on a particular topic such as essay writing.

If you download and save the spreadsheet below you can enter comments in the cells. Students at Solent who have used this spreadsheet have found it enhances their performance.

If you have any questions regarding the spreadsheet please contact Carolyn at [email protected] .

Reflection spreadsheet (PDF)

Online journals: blogging

Online journals can be recorded in text, video or audio. The benefit of having your reflections online is that you can share it with other people and get their feedback. Students, academics, business people and even celebrities keep blogs where you’ll often find they’re writing reflectively.

There are many free blogging websites, the most common are WordPress, LiveJournal and Blogger. If you’re feeling creative you could also record your reflections using video or audio and then share them with the world via sites such as YouTube, Vimeo or AudioBoo.

The downside is that sharing reflections online might actually restrict what you write, as it is writing in a public rather than personal space.

WordPress (Weblink opens in new window)
LiveJournal (Weblink opens in new window)
Blogger (Weblink opens in new window)
YouTube (Weblink opens in new window)
Vimeo (Weblink opens in new window)
AudioBoo (Weblink opens in new window)


myPortfolio is an online space available to Southampton Solent University students and staff. You can use it to help with Personal Development Planning, creation of CVs and portfolios and as a space to reflect. Within myPortfolio you have your own journal/blog tool. Read the journal tutorial for further guidance and there’s a step by step activity on setting up a work placement journal. With myPortfolio you can also choose who can view your journal.

For an example of how to use myPortfolio with your reflective writing, visit Daisy Doolittle’s presentation reflection. It’s a good example of how you can structure your reflection and include elements such as documents and videos.

myPortfolio (Weblink opens in new window)
Journal tutorial (Weblink opens in new window)
Setting up a work placement journal (Weblink opens in new window)
Daisy Doolittle’s presentation reflection (Weblink opens in new window)


The above list is by no means complete. Recording reflective thoughts can take many forms, such as photo journals, fictional stories, poetry or paintings.

It may also be that you use one tool for critical reflective incidents (an annotated image), another for a course (journal in myPortfolio) and another for a reflective writing assignment (spreadsheet). Select your tool depending on the situation. Check with your course lecturer for academic work that needs to be assessed.

More help

If you’d like some more help with reflective thinking and writing you can:

  • Ask your lecturer for guidance.
  • If you are a disabled student you can also contact Access Solent for guidance and support.
  • View the glossary to help you understand the words used.
  • Read a book or ebook from the reading list found in Extra resources .
  • Visit recommended websites in Extra resources for further guidance on reflective writing and some useful tools for capturing your reflective thoughts.

If you have any feedback about this book or additional material you’d like to see in the course, please email us at [email protected] .

Thank you to all staff and students at Southampton Solent University who contributed to this course.

Extra resources

Reading List

Read a book or ebook from the reflective writing reading list.

The following titles are available from the library:

Recommended websites

Click on these recommended websites below for further guidance on reflective writing and some useful tools for capturing your reflective thoughts.

Reflective journal – Learning Lab from RMIT University (Weblink opens in new window)
Reflective Writing from UNSW (Weblink opens in new window)


Documents used in this resource

Examples of reflective writing (Word doc)
Questions to help reflection (Word doc)
Using reflective vocabulary (Word doc)
Reflection spreadsheet (Excel doc)