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Reflective Writing Icon Reflective Writing
Prepared by Wilfrid Laurier University

Section A: Overview

If this is your first encounter with reflective writing, it may be useful for you to first explore reflection. What does it mean to reflect? How do you reflect? What are some models of reflection that can guide you? In this section, you will be exposed to some background information about reflection and the part in can play in your academic and service work.

What will I learn?

You can follow this guide in sequential order from Section A through to the end of Section F, or you may prefer to select the section which best fits your needs.

By the end of this section, you should be able to:

  • define reflection,
  • practice reflective writing,
  • incorporate reflection in your academic work, and
  • analyze tone in your reflective writing.


Generally speaking, reflection can be described as a way of thinking about an event or experience (Bruce, 2013). In the introductory video you were asked to recall a time in your life that positively or negatively impacted you. Did you notice how the enhanced awareness affected your thoughts and feelings? Chances are that you became more aware of thoughts, feelings, conflicts, dilemmas, and memories. As previously noted, reflection, or reflective capacity, refers to the enhancement of this ability. Consider the following reflective models as potential aids for both your understanding and practice.

What Is Reflective Writing?

Video: A brief video to help you understand what reflective writing is.

© Wilfred Laurier University

Welcome to the Reflective Writing Module! This module will help you understand reflective writing. But to understand what reflective writing is, we must first understand what reflection itself is, and the significance of writing your reflections down in an academic environment. The good news is that to begin to understand what reflection is, you need look no further than your own life.

Take a moment and think of a time in your life that was impactful, either positive or negative. It could be anything – your first car, your first A, a pet passing away, break up. Chances are that any or all of these instances jolted you into a state of awareness unlike your level of awareness in daily life. That moment of heightened awareness is, in essence, reflection. In fact, several of the major contributors to the theory of reflection in contemporary Western society have noted that reflection often occurs in this accidental way.

The purpose of reflective exercises, including reflective practice, and reflective writing, is in part to make this accidental process more intentional. In other words, scholars have repeatedly pointed out how reflection is more a skill than anything else. Some call this skill reflective capacity. You’ll see this term come a bit in this module.

Simply speaking, it refers to your ability to reflect, which you need to develop a little, at least, in order to write a good reflection paper. Because reflection and its related components are an integral part of an increasing number of academic disciplines and classes, including placements, as well as integral to the roles of many professions, including social workers, nurses, and doctors, it’ll be important for you to stick around!

The Three Masters

Presented here are three reflective models. Bruce (2013) refers to the authors of these three as “masters” in order to draw attention to their importance in the field and pioneering nature of their work in the Western academy’s approach to reflection. While the three are similar to each other, there are important differences that you will notice along the way, and each improves on a weakness of the preceding model, according to Bruce (2013). For our purposes here, you do not need to concern yourself with the specifics (although you are welcome to) so much as the general picture of each model. Together, these three should give you a bird’s eye view of the history of reflection.

John Dewey

John Dewey was active around the beginning of the 1900s as a psychologist and educational philosopher (Bruce, 2013). He emphasized the importance of experience in learning and believed that reflection was:

The continual re-evaluation of personal beliefs, assumptions, and ideas in the light of experience…and the generation of alternative interpretations of those experiences

(Dewey as cited in Bruce, 2013, p. 33).

In other words, our experiences should always be evaluated for things we might learn from them. If we work toward exercising and developing our reflective capacity, we will become better at what we do. For instance, if you’re going to be working in social services, serving clients with particular needs, you will likely have gone through some formal academic training to learn about how to function in such a role. According to Dewey’s experiential learning approach, one’s learning only begins there. Instead of classmates, you have colleagues and clients; instead of a classroom, you have your work setting; and instead of a professor, you have your own reflective capacity.

Donald Schon

Fifty years after Dewey came Donald Schon who sought to build upon Dewey’s insights and went on to be an influential educational philosopher. To understand his contribution to reflective theory, we must first understand his notion of “knowing-in-action.” This refers to the practical, almost implicit, knowledge that most people have about a variety of life situations. His focus was on working professionals and their “knowing-in-action” about their work (Bruce, 2013, p. 37). You likely have some of this “knowing-in-action” already about your role at a job or placement. Chances are that you’ve come across situations where formal or technical knowledge – perhaps even what you’ve learned in class – came up short. What did you do? It’s likely you found a way to respond to the situation and developed this type of practical knowledge.

But Schon did see a problem, specifically that “knowing-in-action” could be hard to describe when required and/or overly ritualized, which would result in stagnation in practice. To remedy, Schon looked to integrate reflective capacity into professional practice. He did this by recasting reflection into two separate forms – reflection-on-action and reflection-in-action. Reflection-on-action is similar to what Dewey referred to – that once a given situation is passed, we reflect on the situation, including our conduct, to determine how we could improve our conduct, how we felt about it, and what went wrong/right. Reflection-in-action is Schon’s attempt to canonize the old adage “thinking on your feet” and to integrate it as a component of professional practice. In Shon’s view, reflection-in-action is the belief that people have the ability to “think about doing whilst doing” (Shon as cited in Bruce, 2013, p. 39).

David Boud

Finally, David Boud, who is our contemporary, is a Professor of Education who has over 30 years of experience in education (UTS, 2015).

Boud and his colleagues considered the role that emotions play in our ability to think critically, or rather at all, in a given situation.

This was their contribution to reflective theory. Chances are that you can recall a situation in which you were overcome with emotion—positive or negative—and couldn’t think normally. This happens to all of us, but the implications of our emotions running interference with our thoughts are markedly different in the realms of everyday life compared with professional life. Bruce (2013), for instance, describes a situation in which personal experiences with prejudice (e.g., racism) cause emotions that interfere with a professional’s ability to think, and thus, to reflect. Can you think of a time when this might have happened? Overall, this is Boud’s major contribution to the reflective process, which is illustrated in Section B: How Can I Reflect?.



UTS. (2015). Emeritus Professor David Boud. Available at

Bruce, L. (2013). Reflective practice for social workers: A handbook for developing professional confidence. Maidenhead, England: Open University Press/McGraw-Hill.

Video (Including Assets Used)

Wilfrid Laurier University. (2015). What is Reflective Writing? [WriteOnline_WLUIntro.mp4].

g-stockstudio. (n.d.). In search of inspiration [Photograph]. Retrieved from

Ammentorp Photography. University students working together [Photograph]. Retrieved from

Sean Nel. (n.d.). Legal books #25 [Photograph]. Retrieved from

BartekSzewczyk. (n.d.). Man signing contract [Photograph]. Retrieved from

Creatas Images. (n.d.). Businessman with laptop looking out window [Photograph]. Retrieved from

Purestock. (n.d.). Side profile of a man writing in a notebook [Photograph]. Retrieved from

Fuse. (n.d.). Student working on homework in library [Photograph]. Retrieved from

Ingram Publishing. (n.d.). Man writing in a notepad [Photograph]. Retrieved from

Fuse. (n.d.). Student thinking while working on homework [Photograph]. Retrieved from

diego_cervo. (n.d.). Young man doing homework and studying [Photograph]. Retrieved from

Wilfrid Laurier University. (2015). External campus shot [Photograph]. Used with permission.

Wilfrid Laurier University. (2015). Students at a desk [Photograph]. Used with permission.

Wilfrid Laurier University. (2015). Female student in class [Photograph]. Used with permission.

Next Section Overview

In Section B: How Can I Reflect?, we will explore six models of reflection.

Images © Thinkstock