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Reflective Writing Icon Reflective Writing
Prepared by Wilfrid Laurier University

Section D: Writing a Reflection

In Section C, you learned about things to keep in mind as you start your reflective writing. In this section, we will guide you from a pre-writing activity to your first draft, keeping in mind both content and language expectations for reflective writing.

What will I learn?

By the end of this section, you will be able to

  • learn how to move from thinking reflectively to writing reflectively,
  • practice a pre-writing strategy called free-writing,
  • develop your ideas into a first draft of reflective writing, and
  • review verb tenses and other language features that are specific to reflective writing.

Free-writing is a strategy to help you think and write about your topic in a low-risk (or low-stakes) way.

The purpose of free-writing is to put your pencil (or pen) to paper for a set period of time (e.g., 3-6 minutes) and let your thoughts flow freely. You write without interruption. You do not worry about spelling and grammar during a free-writing exercise. Instead, you can let your thoughts come through your pencil onto the paper. You should strive to write openly and honestly about your experience(s). Your free-writing may become one of your initial drafts.

When you are doing a free-writing exercise, the following questions can guide you:

  • What experience (personal or shared) has had an impact on you either currently or in the past?
  • How has the experience influenced you in terms of what you are learning in your course? Consider class discussion topics and theories.
  • What was the most successful part of the experience?
  • What was the most challenging part of the experience?

Free-writing Activity

  1. Set a timer for 3 minutes (or longer if you prefer).
  2. Write freely and honestly about your experience (and course assignment). Try to integrate theories and content that you remember from the course.
  3. When the timer buzzes, take some time to review what you have written.
  4. Highlight or underline key words or ideas that you think might require further exploration and thinking.
  5. Think about how you might use the highlighted/underlined words or ideas in your next draft. Could any of these ideas serve as the foundation for paragraphs in a later draft?
  6. Did you make any connections between your personal experiences and the course material? If so, highlight these connections.
  7. Your reflections and course material should intertwine, so try to make connections between the two rather than keep them separate.
  8. Disregard extraneous or off-topic information from your free-writing in your next draft.

One model for reflective writing is known as DEAL, which was developed by Dr. Patti Clayton (Ash, Clayton, & Atkinson, 2005). This acronym represents three phases in writing a reflection:

  • Describe the event/situation/experience in specific terms. You could focus on one specific event or provide an overview of a situation. You should be as precise as possible in your description.
  • Examine the event/situation/experience from the perspective of academic learning, personal growth, or civic responsibility.
  • Articulate Learning by sharing what you have learned and why this is important for you (academically, personally, or for your civic responsibility). You could articulate what you might do differently in the future.

If you look back to your free-writing draft, are you able to locate instances of DEAL? Have you described the event, examined it thoroughly, and articulated the learning? If you have, great! If you haven’t, now is the time to expand on your free-writing draft.

Toole and Toole’s (1995) three-stage model of reflective writing expands on Borton’s (1970) What – So What – Now What approach that was outlined in Section B: How Can I Reflect?. Here, we provide you with details about this three-stage model that can help you gather and organize your thoughts, so that you can write an effective reflection.

Stage 1: What?

Stage 1 starts the reflection process through descriptive questions (see below) that you can answer in your reflective journals. You should normally complete this stage as you plan and prepare for an experience (e.g., teaching practicum, community service placement, other learning opportunity). This is the “before” stage.

  • What do I expect to get out of this experience (goals, outcomes, purpose, ideas)?
  • What were my initial observations (e.g., of the placement location, interactions between people, my reactions)?
  • What are the goals of agency, group, organization?
  • What do I already know about the specific context?
  • What roles am I taking on?
  • What happened to me today?

Stage 2: So what?

Stage 2 requires you to share meaningful experiences and provide an observation or analysis of these experiences. In this stage, you write about the day’s actions and what significance or consequences are attached to these actions. You are challenged to interpret the meaning of your experiences. You can answer the following questions in your reflective writing piece. This is the “during” stage.

  • What did this experience mean to me?
  • What did I do that was effective? Why was it effective?
  • What am I learning about others and myself?
  • What did I do that seems to be ineffective? How could I have done it differently?
  • What values, opinions, and/or decisions have been made through this experience?

Stage 3: Now What?

In stage 3, you will apply the lessons you have learned during one (or more) placements (or situations) to other situations and contexts. You will explore new understandings about yourself and community issues. Questions to guide you are listed below. This is the “after” stage.

  • Is it important for me to stay involved in the community?
  • What will the final results of my efforts be?
  • How will my efforts working with these community and service agencies contribute to social change?
  • How can I use what I learned in my future placements or career?
  • What changes would I make in this experience if it were repeated?
  • Will I continue to be of service? Why or why not?
  • How does this experience exemplify or contradict module materials?

If you look back to your free-writing draft, are you able to locate instances of Toole and Toole’s (1995) What – So What – Now What model? If you have addressed some of the questions, great! If you haven’t, now is the time to expand on your free-writing draft.

The third model that you can use to write your reflection is called the ORID model (Colorado State University as cited in Higher Education Quality Committee, 2006). ORID stands for Objective, Reflective, Interpretive, and Decisional (see below). This model encourages you to progress through a series of questions in order to move you from writing and reflecting about the concrete experience to analyzing it. This model reflects Kolb’s (1984) learning cycle that you learned about in Section B: How Can I Reflect. You could complete the progression within one assignment and/or over a longer period of time (e.g., over a semester).

Objective: Begin by answering questions related to the concrete experience.

  • What did you do?
  • What did you observe?
  • What did you read?
  • What did you hear?
  • Who was involved?
  • What was said?
  • What happened as a result of your work?

Reflective: Next, answer questions that address the affective experience.

  • How did the experience feel?
  • What did it remind you of?
  • How did your apprehension change or your confidence grow?
  • Did you feel successful, effective, and knowledgeable?

Interpretive: Then, answer questions that guide your exploration of your cognitive experience.

  • What did the experience make you think?
  • How did it change your thinking about…?
  • What did you learn?
  • What worked?

Decisional: Finally, think about how you will prepare yourself to incorporate your experience into a new situation.

  • What will you do differently next time?
  • What decisions or opinions have you formed?
  • How will the experience affect your career path, your personal life choices, or your use of information, skills, or technology?

If you look back to your free-writing draft, are you able to locate instances of the ORID model? If you have used elements of ORID in your reflection, great! If you haven’t, now is the time to expand on your free-writing draft.

An outline can help you to organize your reflective writing. Use the key ideas and words that you identified in your free-writing draft to formulate an outline that will achieve the purposes of your assignment. Depending on the purpose and expectations of your assignment, you may explore several themes in your reflective writing. Your outline may look something like this:

Introduction

  • main claim or purpose for this reflective piece of writing
  • main lessons learned from experience
  • changes in your views
  • review of past, present, and future views, thoughts, or approaches
  • introduction to the main themes that you will address in the body of the paper

Key Theme #1

  • identification of theme
  • personal experience(s) to support theme
  • connection(s) to course material or other personal experiences to support theme

Key Theme #2

  • identification of theme
  • personal experience(s) to support theme
  • connection(s) to course material or other personal experiences to support theme

Final thoughts

  • What would you like to highlight for the reader about your experiences, what you learned, and how you will move forward?

Follow the suggested guideline above to draft an outline for your reflection essay. Be sure to tie your personal experiences and course material to support your thematic exploration. Remember that your reflections and course material should intertwine, so try to make connections between the two rather than keep them separate.

If you have done a free-writing exercise, and drafted an outline, you should now be ready to pull your ideas together into a first draft. The following questions can guide you as you write your first draft, or they can serve as checkpoint questions when you are ready to review and revise your first draft:

  • Do I have an introduction that provides the reader with an overview of my experience, my goals, and the themes that I will explore in the remainder of the paper
  • Have I developed each theme thoroughly?
  • Have I tried to follow a model of reflective writing (e.g., DEAL, ORID, what-so-what-now-what)?
  • Have I thought critically about my personal experiences and how I make sense of them?
  • What evidence from course readings or research have I integrated into my reflective writing?

Constructing Effective Paragraphs

Each link you develop between your personal experiences and course readings could be explored in separate paragraphs. You can use your outline to help you determine where logical paragraph breaks should occur.

Example: Annotated Reflective Writing

Learn more about writing strategies for Reflective Writing.

Interactive Activity

Download PDF

The following set of guiding questions may help you assess the quality and impact of your reflection.

  1. Have I provided sufficient analysis, reasoning and supporting commentary on the situation?
  2. Have I effectively integrated my observations with research?
  3. Have I described the situation well and taken into account the multiple factors that underlie the event?
  4. Am I able to analyse differences (good or bad) in my practice (e.g., placement) and logically provide the reasoning that explains the differences?
  5. Have I clearly outlined the influences of various factors on my experience?
  6. Have I explored the situation from multiple perspectives?
  7. Have I considered the impact of my experience beyond the isolated situation?

As you write your first draft, you should decide if you are reflecting on the past, present, future (or all three). Use correct verb tenses to describe your experiences during each of these moments in time. These prompts may help you:

Recount events or experiences that have occurred in the past:

  • When I was…
  • I didn’t want to…
  • I found….
  • I was able to…
  • I felt…
  • I noticed…
  • I discovered…

Used for things that are true now – current thoughts or feelings or present reflections arising from past experiences:

  • I can see now why…
  • I like…
  • I do not think…
  • I find that…
  • I feel…
  • I tend to…
  • I like to consider…

Looking ahead:

  • I hope to be able to…
  • I would like to…
  • I hope…

* Adapted from Williams, [...]

  1. The use of first person (I) is common practice in reflective writing. By doing this, you “claim personal authority” in your writing and processing of ideas (English & Gillen, 2001, p. 91).
  2. A conversational style for certain forms of reflective writing is acceptable. Journal entries, for example, are written in every day language and use abbreviations and contractions.
  3. Using acronyms and colloquial (informal) language is common. Acronyms should be defined.

References

Ash, S. L., Clayton, P. H., & Atkinson, M. P. (2005). Reflection and assessment to capture and improve student learning. Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, 11(2), 49-60.

English, L. M., & Gillen, M. A. (2001). Journal writing in practice: From vision to reality. In Promoting journal writing in adult education (pp. 87-94). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Higher Education Quality Committee. (2006). Service-learning in the curriculum: A resource for higher education institutions. Available at http://www.communityservicelearning.ca/en/documents/Service-LearningintheCurriculum.pdf

Moon, J. (1999). Learning journals: A handbook for academics, students, and professional development. London, UK: Kogan Page.

Toole, J., & Toole, P. (1995). Reflection as a tool for turning service experiences into learning experiences. In C. Kinsley & K. McPherson (Eds.), Enriching the curriculum through service-learning (pp. 99-114). Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision Curriculum and Development.

Williams, K., Woolliams, M., & Spiro, J. (2012). Reflective writing. London, UK: Palgrave Macmillan

Next Section Overview

In Section E: Writing a Reflection, we will explore ways in which you can revise and edit efficiently and effectively.

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