Reflective essays may seem simple on the surface, but they can be a real stumbling block if you’re not quite sure how to go about them. In simple terms, reflective essays constitute a critical examination of a life experience and, with the right guidance, they’re not too challenging to put together. A reflective essay is similar to other essays in that it needs to be easily understood and well structured, but the content is more akin to something personal like a diary entry.
In a reflective essay, a writer primarily examines his or her life experiences, hence the term ‘reflective’. The purpose of writing a reflective essay is to provide a platform for the author to not only recount a particular life experience but also explore how he or she has changed or learned from those experiences. Reflective writing can be presented in various formats, but you’ll most often see it in a learning log format or diary entry. Diary entries in particular are used to convey how the author’s thoughts have developed and evolved over the course of a particular period.
The format of a reflective essay may change depending on the target audience. Reflective essays can be academic or may feature more broadly as a part of a general piece of writing for a magazine, for instance. For class assignments, while the presentation format can vary, the purpose generally remains the same: tutors aim to inspire students to think deeply and critically about a particular learning experience or set of experiences.
You’re most likely to be asked to write reflectively about an incident which has happened during your placement. You might also have to write reflectively about the process you went through in order to carry out a project or to produce another assignment. This kind of assignment feels strange at first to many students, and you might be wondering where to start with your essay. Before you start, check the following:
- What have you been asked to write about?
For example, if you have to reflect on an incident which occurred during your placement, can you think of a suitable incident? Have you been given guidelines about what kind of incident to use? It doesn’t necessarily have to be something negative, and you could choose to write about something which went really well.
- Have you been told to use a certain ‘model of reflection’? There are many different models which help to guide you through the process of reflecting, and while they all help you to reach the same end result, they may have different headings and sections. Make sure you know which model you have to use. The most commonly used model is by Gibbs (1988), which is the model we will look at in most detail here. If you are asked to use another model such as Johns (1995) or ‘What? So What? Now What?’ (Borton, 1970, updated by Driscoll, 1994), you will structure the assignment slightly differently but the purpose and content will still be the same.
- Have you been given any instructions about how to present your assignment? You may have been asked to use headings to separate the different sections of your assignment, so make sure that you check the requirements so that you set out your assignment correctly.