Using Reflective Writing in Teaching


Written reflection is defined as a meta-cognitive process or thinking about thinking. There are several ways to approach the written reflection process. One way is to use a writer’s log. This is a quick-write focusing on general information over a week’s time. Another type of written reflection is a draft focusing on a single piece of work. Still another is a polished piece of writing that discusses a body of work. In each reflection the students revisit information they have learned. The reflection can describe struggles, strengths, or weaknesses encountered. In each case the reflection moves past superficial thinking and into the realm of a true cerebral process or thinking about thinking (Swartzendruber-Putnam, 2000).

A team of researchers devised a scheme for scoring reflective journals. They wanted to meet their needs and the needs of future researchers/educators. The scoring techniques were field tested and found to be reliable. The researchers asserted that the scheme that was developed can be used in practical application for scoring reflective thinking, whether it is in an academic study or incorporated into a grading system for students’ work (Kember, Jones, Loke, McKay, Sinclair, Tse, Webb, Wong, Wong, & Yeung, 1999).

Another researcher/educator instructed students to write reflective journal entries using three different methods: structural, holistic, and post-structural. After analyzing each method the researcher noted that structural entries were limiting and depersonalized the reflection process. The other two avenues were more open ended and allowed for reflective thinking. The open ended reflection formats helped the writers review what they had learned and how they were changed, or not, by the learning experience (Mannion, 2001).

Many school systems in America teach to a very ethnically diverse population. To meet their educational needs researchers and teachers are developing curriculums with student input that encourage engagement through individual and collaborative activities. Students write reflections about their personal ethnicity and share in co-operative learning groups. It has been found that students who are invited to be part of the curriculum process from their cultural background think more profoundly about the material presented and engage in the comprehension process more fully (Nelson-Barber & Harrison, 1996).

Critical reflection is a skill. Educators who require reflective journals from their students realized that they must teach and model reflection skills to observe the desired outcome in the journals. Reflective thinking and writing are skills that must be taught through deliberate instruction and modeling. Devoting time to teach these skills produces quality, in-depth reflective thinking (Spalding & Wilson, 2002).

It is not sufficient simply to have an experience in order to learn. Without reflecting upon this experience it may quickly be forgotten, or its learning potential lost. It is from the feelings and thoughts emerging from this reflection that generalisations or concepts can be generated. And it is generalisations that allow new situations to be tackled effectively. (Gibbs, 1988, p. 9)

The reflective cycle (Gibbs 1988)


Writing assignments that require students to engage in critical and reflective thinking can be used in a variety of learning situations and across many disciplines. Reflective writing can include the use of readings, observation and experience related to the learning situation in question. Reflective writing assignments can be highly structured as in a take-home exam or unstructured as in stream-of-consciousness writing. Reflective writing may also be inwardly or outwardly focused depending on the degree to which reflection is directed towards self-awareness or development of domain content (Varner & Peck, 2003).

Types of reflective writing assignments taken from Varner & Peck (2003, p. 4)

The following may be used as an end of the term take home essay exam for the student and instructor to examine the learning that has taken place in the course.

Prewriting Exercise to Prepare for the Reflective Essay Name _________________________

Choose a few questions from each group to respond to, questions that allow you to explain and demonstrate your most important learning in the course. Also, choose experiences to discuss and passages to cite that illustrate more than one kind of knowledge.

Self-Knowledge — your understanding of how you are developing as a writer. Think about the writer you were, are, or hope to be. You can also contemplate how the subjects you have chosen to write about relate to you personally beyond the scope of your papers.

o What knowledge of myself as a writer have I gained from the writing I did in this course?

o What changes have occurred in my writing process or practices?

o What changes have occurred in my sense of myself as a writer?

o What patterns can I identify between the way I approached one writing project versus another?

o How can I best illustrate and explain the self-knowledge I have gained through reference to specific essays or parts of specific essays?

Content Knowledge — what you have learned by writing about various subjects. It also includes the thinking that has gone into the writing and the insights gained from considering multiple points of view and from grappling with your own conflicting ideas. Perhaps you have grasped ideas about your subjects that you have not shown in your papers. These questions about content knowledge can prod your thinking.

o What kinds of content complexities did I grapple with this semester?

o What insights did I arrive at through confronting opposing viewpoints?

o What new perspectives did I gain that may not be evident in the essays themselves?

o What passages from various essays best illustrate the critical thinking I did in my writing projects for this course?

Rhetorical Knowledge –your awareness of your rhetorical decisions—how your contemplation of purpose, audience, and approach or genre affected your choices about content, structure, and style. The following questions about rhetorical choices can help you assess this area of your knowledge:

o What important rhetorical choices did I make in various essays to accomplish my purpose or to appeal to my audience?

o What passages from my various essays best illustrate these choices? Which of these choices are particularly effective and why?

o About which choices am I uncertain and why?

o What have I learned about the rhetorical effects of audience, purpose, and genre on the choices I make as I write?

o How do I expect to use this learning in the future?

Critical Knowledge or Judgment — your awareness of significant strengths and weaknesses in your writing. This area also encompasses your ability to identify what you like or value in various pieces of writing and to explain why.

o Of the papers I have written this semester, which is the best and why? Which is the weakest paper and why?

o How has my ability to identify strengths and weaknesses changed during this course?

o What role has peer, instructor, or other reader feedback had on my assessments of my work?

o What improvements would I make in my essays if I had more time?

o How has my writing changed over the semester? What new abilities will I take away from this course?

o What are the most important things I still have to work on as a writer?

o What is the most important thing I have learned in this course?

o How do I expect to use what I’ve learned from this course in the future?



Gibbs G (1988) Learning by Doing: A guide to teaching and learning methods. Further Education Unit. Oxford Polytechnic: Oxford.

Kember, D., Jones, A., Loke, A., McKay, J., Sinclair, K., Tse, H., Webb, C., Wong, F., Wong, M., & Yeung, E. (1999). Determining the level of reflective thinking from students’ written journals using a code scheme based on the work of Mezirow. International Journal of Lifelong Education, 18(1), 18-30.

Mannion, G. (2001). Journal writing and learning: Reading between the structural, holistic and post-structural lines. Studies in Continuing Education, 23(1), 95-115.

Nelson-Barber, S. & Harrison, M. (1996). Bridging the politics of identity in a multicultural classroom. Theory into Practice. 35, 256-263.

Ramage, John D. , Bean, John C., and June Johnson. The Allyn and Bacon Guide to Writing. 3rd ed. New York: Longman, 2003.

Spalding, E. & Wilson, A. (2002). Demystifying reflection: A study of pedagogical strategies that encourage reflective journal writing. Teachers College Record, 104(7), 1393-1421.

Swartzendruber-Putnam, D. (2000). Written reflection: Creating better thinkers, better writers. English Journal, 90(1), 88-93.

Varner, D., Peck, S. (2003). Learning From Learning Journals: The Benefits And Challenges Of Using Learning Journal. Journal of Management Education [6

“Reflective writing is a “combination of calm, quiet thinking with a retrospective focus–looking back over a period of time and considering its meaning and significance in connection with your experience. Reflective writing is a route to self-knowledge…” (Dr. Alice L. Trupe, August 29, 2001)

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