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Reflective writing

Reflective writing is one of the most common methods used to assess work-based learning. An increasing number of students across all disciplines are assessed on the quality of their reflective writing.

You may be asked to write a reflective essay, learning log or portfolio to reflect upon your experiences and assess what you have learned.

Reflective writing has a different style to the academic writing you would use in other essays at university.

  • You can write about your personal experiences, framing them in relation to your module learning outcome
  • It is written in the first person and may use more informal language
  • It tracks how you have developed over a period of time
  • It can be more emotive and less objective
  • It is less prescriptive about form and structure
  • It requires less academic literature as evidence, although you may still use some to help explain why and how things happened.

Reflective writing is an opportunity to express what you know and how it relates to your experience. It helps you to think about the process of learning and make it more useful to you.

It is important to be critical and not just descriptive. You should make links between actions and performance and suggest ways in which you will do things differently in the future.

Reflective writing is not a jumble of ideas and thoughts. Most assessed reflective writing assignments expect you to summarise your learning log or diaries based on the learning outcomes, and present your thoughts in an organised and structured way.

How reflective writing is assessed

Reflective writing is often assessed through learning logs or portfolios, which act as a diary or record of your experience.

You may be asked to:

  • write an individual reflective commentary or essay
  • use a group wiki page to make reflective comments about collaborative learning
  • create an online blog that can be shared with other students or your tutor.

Here is an example of a learning log task.

The assessment criteria for your module should make it clear what learning outcomes you should be able to demonstrate and how your tutor will judge your achievement of those outcomes.

Different levels of reflective writing

There are many models that describe different levels or stages of reflective writing. You may be asked to structure your reflection according to a theoretical model. You should check your assignment brief and marking criteria carefully to find out if this is required.

This model, devised by Hatton and Smith (1995), identifies three levels of reflective writing:

  • descriptive writing about events
  • dialogic reflection
  • critical reflection.

Descriptive writing will describe events in ordinary language.

For example: “My team leader often got annoyed because the rota system was poorly thought out. It didn’t work very well and so Team 2 could never get back from their shift on time.”

Dialogic reflection steps back from events to explore your own role in events and actions.

For example: “The team leader complained about the rota system, which didn’t work very well. I suggested that they reversed the schedule so Team 2 could get back on time.”

Critical reflection is more analytical and shows an awareness of the connections between actions and events and other knowledge. You should aim for this level of reflection in your writing.

For example: “I realised the problem with the rota system was that it had been introduced before a change in shift times. At a weekly team meeting I suggested that they reversed the schedule, which allowed Team 2 to return five minutes earlier. By making this simple but effective change to the rota system I helped increase team productivity by 10%.”

Hatton, N. and Smith, D. 1995. Reflection in teacher education: towards definition and implementation. Teaching and Teacher Education. [Online]. 11(1), pp.33-49. [Accessed 2 May 2017]. Available from: