5 Tips to Write a Good Reflective Essay

The Reflective Essay

At some point in your academic journey, you will be asked to write a reflective essay. This task, as we have realized throughout the years, often perplexes students. On the face of things, going about writing a reflective essay may seem easy. You are being asked, in some way, to integrate your life experiences into the paper as it pertains to the topic set out by your tutor. But in reality, writing reflectively and incorporating the kind of theories and ideas your tutor wants from you is much harder to do. Here we take the opportunity to share a few tips that may help you to execute the task the next time your tutor gives such an assignment.

Number 1: Understand What You are Being Asked

Understand what is being asked of you. I do not think I can stress this point enough. Reflective essays are assigned for various reasons. You may be asked to complete a reflective essay of what you have learned after completing your dissertation, for instance. In this case, what the tutor is looking for is whether, as a student, you are becoming aware of the processes that relate to actually doing fieldwork. Whether you are aware of the logistical issues in creating the appropriate instruments and how they work, and whether, as a researcher, you can recognize the potential of other instruments for future research practice. These are specific criteria tutors are looking for about reflective essays for dissertations, but there are some general rules you should know, too.

Other things tutors are generally looking for is to determine whether you understand where you made mistakes and whether you can engage in the appropriate corrective measures to address whatever issues you may have encountered. Think of a reflection as “self-analysis and action planning” (Yard, 2003). So in reflective essays what tutors want to see is that you understand the material but more importantly that you can reflect on your actions appropriately, the strengths and weaknesses you demonstrated, and the actions of which you will engage in to improve yourself in the future.

In short, one may argue that the point of reflections is to provide a “window into the students’ thoughts” (Hosein & Rao, 2017, p. 120) your thinking and reasoning. Tutors want, more generally, students “to interrogate, and evaluate” how they approached their work, how they think, how they reason for all types of reflective writing tasks and what they will do in the future to improve it.

Number 2: Understand Why You Are Being Asked to Do This

Some students may be able to understand the task but cannot get over why they are being assigned a seemingly ‘trivial’ and time-consuming task like reflecting. But tutors do not give you these assignments to stress you (really!). What they are trying to do is to empower you as a student to find your voice and engage in a “journey to self-authorship” (Hosein & Rao, 2017, p. 120). Reflective essays are also assigned because it is thought to improve students’ self-confidence, levels of self-efficacy. Moreover, as Maclellan (2004) argues, reflective writing is potentially a “powerful mechanism for knowledge transformation and therefore for learning” (Maclellan, 2004, p. 75). Reflective essays are a part of what is called ‘student-centered pedagogy,’ as opposed to the more common approach that is used, what is known as the ‘teacher-centered pedagogy.’

Number 3: Getting Down to it

Okay, so now I have a better idea of what I am being asked to do and why, but where do I start? That is a good question. If you know ahead of time (which you should (!) you need to familiarize yourself with the module and syllabus) that you are going to be assigned a reflective essay, you might want to start keeping a learning journal or a diary of some sort where you record your thoughts and ideas on the writing/research process.

Number 4: So I got my journal. Now what?

What should you write down for your journal? There are a lot of different ways you may approach this. Let me tell you a story from personal experience. First, I remember I started to keep a journal when I was writing my first dissertation as a student (which was regarding consumption and globalization and coffee).  And I had a spiral notebook filled with notes from the hundred plus journal articles I read (and some book chapters and books, too).

While I was sitting down one night going through everything I wrote I felt overwhelmed. My mind began racing. How was I going to get all of this together? How should I start structuring my literature review?  Should I start with the history of the coffee trade, and how can I weave in all of these critical sociological theories? I took out a new notebook and stared at the blank page. I could not think of a thing.

So rather than try to tackle the outline, I just started to write about how I felt. This was entirely unplanned. In fact, I just wanted to get my thoughts on paper. If I get just these emotions out, perhaps it will help me to organize my thoughts and move on. Then I wrote down my thoughts and emotions freely. I felt that although I went through the research process without a hitch (I was pleased to find so much on my topic), perhaps I had too much information? Maybe I should think about what to include, what to discard. And then I felt anxiety over that, as well, because to me everything was necessary. But I knew at the same time had to manage the information, and that meant going through an analytical process.

Later on, when I was writing my reflection, I realized I could translate these thoughts and feeling into strengths and weaknesses. For instance, I saw that I was able to manage my time and plan well, and research thoroughly, too, but there were clear weaknesses in being able to determine what should be relevant and what not, and how to move on from there.  In fact, right after jotting down my feelings, I immediately became conscious of the problem I was experiencing and went to my tutor to ask for help.  They guided me in the steps I may use to create a structured outline. So know that reflective works are genuinely meant to help you because you can become aware of what you need to do to improve yourself as a student. That will ultimately help in your academic journey.

So, back to the question, what do you write in your journals? I hope my personal experience helps to show you what you can do, but in general, you should be writing about the following:

You write your feelings, your frustrations, your thoughts, your experiences; tutors want to see whether you have, or whether you need to acquire reflective skills like the ability to understand, to question, and to do this requires both self-discipline and self-criticism,

Number 5: Do not Get Off Track

As you are writing your reflective piece, remember to not get off track. Keep in mind the requirements (the ‘what’ and the ‘why’), and consistently tie in your experiences, difficulties, successes with whatever topic/issue the tutor has set out for you. And to engage in this process properly requires good time management so you can create an outline, draft and then go over everything before handing in your reflective paper.

In conclusion

I hope these suggestions are useful to students looking to improve their reflective writing skills! If you have questions or need assistance, please click on the live help button, give us a call, or head on over to the order page, today!