Complete Guide to Writing a Reflective Essay

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06/05/20 Reference this

This article, written by the nursing professionals at NursingAnswers.net will show you how to write a reflective essay, and will guide you through the process of writing this specific type of paper. If you have been given a reflective essay assignment for the first time, you might have a lot of questions, such as: ‘What is the point of this assignment?’, ‘How do I write a reflective essay?’, or ‘What am I supposed to learn from this?’ The good news is that these are all valid questions, and you should be asking them. In fact, it is exactly these kinds of questions that provide the very foundation of reflective thinking—so if you’re already asking yourself such questions, then congratulations, you are well on your way to becoming a skilled reflective thinker. We will therefore address each of these questions in turn, and more, as we discuss the ins and outs of writing a reflective essay.

Reflective Essay Comparison Table

What to Do When Writing a Reflective EssayWhat Not to Do When Writing a Reflective Essay
Write in the first-personWrite in the third-person
Include a description of the experience or event from your own unique point of viewGather data from various participants, and create an objective account of the event from various subjective perspectives
Include some considerable analysis and reflections of the experience or the eventOnly include an extensive description of the experience or the event
Have a clear structure in place, with: an Introduction, Main Body, and Conclusion, or a variation of thisWrite it like a diary entry, containing thoughts and emotions, but without any real structure to it
Use a formal tone throughout the pieceUse an informal, conversational tone
Draw from established reflective cycle frameworks, such as Kolb (1984) or Gibb (1988)Do not consider any reflective cycle frameworks

What is the Point of a ‘Reflective Essay’?

To begin with then, your first question might be that of deriving the point of a reflective essay. The first thing you should know then, is that very essence of a reflective essay, at its most fundamental level, is that it should reflect on an experience that you have had—hence the name. This reflection will obviously vary depending upon your field of study, but the principle is the same: you will have had a particular experience in the field, or in life in general, and you will then write about it, and reflect upon it will various analyses. More specifically, you will do this by first briefly describing what happened, from your own unique point of view, before reflecting upon this, and trying to learn something from the experience by putting this in the context of any perspectives or theories that you have studied, or simply by analysing the experience after the event in a little more depth, and trying to understand what happened.

If you know in advance that you are going to write a reflective essay about a particular experience, then it can be useful to keep a journal as you go along, so that you’re not relying exclusively on your memories (as memories can be malleable, and are not as accurate as most people believe), and this journal might also include some reflections as you go along too, so that you have an immediate record of how you felt or viewed the events at the moment they unfolded. Indeed, on this subject, there can be said to be two main types of reflection, in: (1) reflections made during an event, and (2) reflections made after an event. So, you may need to decide which type of reflections you are going to focus on—but you will only be able to choose if you first know that you will be writing a reflective essay, before an event occurs. The bottom line is though, that the underlying point of writing a reflective essay is so that you can learn something about yourself, and about your field of study, by drawing on a practical experience.

Nurse conducting a patient interview

How Do I Write a Reflective Essay?

Thinking About Tenses

As a result of talking about your personal experience, unlike traditional essays, which almost always use the third-person, a reflective essay will typically use the first-person style of writing (which means using the pronoun ‘I’ a lot, and talking from your own individual point of view). To clarify then, if you are not completely familiar with the third and first-person viewpoints, an example of a third-person and first-person account, is as follows:

THIRD PERSON: “Observations were made of the research participants, and notes were kept via a secure, password-protected, laptop computer”.

FIRST PERSON: “I made observations of the research participants, and I kept notes via a secure, password-protected, laptop computer”.  

This change in tense then, is the first clear distinction to be made between a traditional academic essay, and a reflective essay—so in order to write a reflective essay, you need to become adept at this first-person style of writing. Fortunately, though, most people find this first-person approach to writing much easier and more natural than the third-person viewpoint, so this should not be a major problem.

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Thinking About the Structure of Your Paper

Next, you need to think about the structure of your paper. A good reflective essay should describe an event or an experience, while it should also analyse what the experience means, and what you have learned from it. Simply by discussing and then analysing a past event, this in itself makes the piece reflective, by definition. However, there are various ways that you might go about this, from a structural point of view. For example, you might have a section that first briefly describes the experience or event, from your own point of view, before going on to an analysis section; or, you might decide to insert reflections and analyses as you go along, so that the reflective element is also contained within the description part—it’s up to you. In the end, there is no right or wrong answer, but the important thing is that you do include some significant reflective elements, and some analyses of the experience; otherwise, it is simply a descriptive piece, and not a reflective one. Therefore, the basic format of a reflective essay will be a standard: Introduction, Main Body, and Conclusion. However, as noted, you might split the main body into a distinct descriptive section and an analysis section, or you could merge the two.

  • Essay Structure 1: Introduction, Main Body, Conclusion
  • Essay Structure 2: Introduction, Description of Event, Analysis, Conclusion

Thus, if you choose to go with Essay Structure 1, then you will need to merge your description and reflective analysis, and you can do this by having a topic sentence (detailing this particular part of your experience), followed by some analysis and supporting details, and then by adding a paragraph-ending mini conclusion—and then you can follow this micro-structure within each proceeding paragraph in your Main Body. As such, in Essay Structure 1, each paragraph of your Main Body might look something like this:

  • Topic Sentence: Describe this part of your experience and what happened
  • Analysis and Supporting Details: Reflect upon this particular part of the experience (and try to explain it with the use of various theories, perspectives, or supporting evidence)
  • Paragraph-Ending Mini Conclusion: Round off the paragraph by making some conclusions based upon the reflections

However, for many people, Essay Structure 2 might be easier to handle, as by taking this approach, you can simply write a description of your experience in full, and then analyse everything, in more general terms, and pick out particular parts that you find especially interesting. In the end, the approach you take is very much a personal preference, and you should not be marked down by taking either approach—unless, of course, your assignment has specifically requested a particular structure from the outset.

You can find hundreds of example reflective essays at NursingAnswers.net

Thinking About the Tone of Your Reflective Essay

The tone of your reflective essay is also important, and should be formal in nature, without being overly academic, as you will be including your personal thoughts and feelings, which are subjective in nature. Thus, you can include academic elements, and the piece should be referenced like any other academic piece of work if you include in-text citations in the piece, but this should also be balanced by a more subjective and reflective approach, which should naturally come across if you are writing in the first-person. Just remember that this, ultimately, is an essay, and treat it as such. Moreover, it is also important to get this tone right from the outset, as first impressions matter. This can be refined with each proceeding draft though; so don’t worry too much if you’re not able to nail this down right from the start. Therefore, as you progress, you should start to get a feel for what is required, and you can then fine-tune this with further drafts.

What Are You Supposed to Learn From Writing a Reflective Essay?

By going through the process of writing a reflective essay, it is hoped that you will come to some deeper understanding of yourself, of your experience, and that you will develop some insights into what you might do better next time to achieve different results. Therefore, by reflecting upon your experience, and analysing it, you might begin to view the event through a different lens, and this might shape your future experience and thinking. As such, depending upon your field of study, such shifts in your thinking could be extremely important.

For example, if you are working in the field of social work, you might have had an experience with a difficult client, who has physically abused you, and this might have left you confused and questioning your career choice if you do not fully understand why they became violent. However, by reflecting more deeply upon the event, you may come to the conclusion that the client was not involved enough in their own care, and were removed from the decision-making process, making them feel impotent—which in turn led to them lashing out at what they perceived to be someone contributing to that impotence. Thus, in this particular situation, you may come to the conclusion that, if they have the capacity to do so, the client should have more involvement in the decision-making process in respect of their care in the future. As such, these kinds of reflective practices can lead to profound changes in the way that you conduct your work, and in how you think about certain situations.

In addition, by becoming more proficient at reflective writing, you will also become more adept at analysing what you have read, observed, or listened to, and this a skill that will come in useful in other areas of your work, as critical analysis is an important part of most academic writing. Moreover, you will also become more skilled at making connections between academic texts and theories, and your own experiences, which is useful in joining the dots between theory and practice. Thus, if you can make such connections, then you are more likely to be enthusiastic about studying such theories, as you will be more convinced about their application in the real world. Furthermore, you will also become more skilled at subjective writing too, which can come in useful from time to time, even in your academic writing. As an example, on a very simple level, a reflective piece could look something like this:

Title: “ A Reflective Account of Working in a Psychiatric Hospital”

Description: I worked at a psychiatric hospital for a period of six weeks, on a voluntary basis.

Reflection: I was surprised at the severity of some of the patients’ conditions and the level of burnout I experienced as a result of working with them.

As such, based upon this particular reflection, it might be concluded that the writer reflecting on this experience might no longer wish to pursue a career in mental health. Or, they might decide that they would be better suited towards low-level counselling work (such as in a school), rather than working with people with chronic and severe mental health conditions.

Of course, reflective essays are likely to be much more in-depth than this, with your assignment perhaps specifying a particular number of words for the piece, such as 1,500 words, or 3000 words, for example. If this is the case, then you are going to need to go into some considerable depth, and this will likely lead to further revelations as your analysis of your experience becomes more extensive, and as you add theories and different perspectives into the equation.

In the end though, the overall purpose of a reflective essay is for the writer of it to reflect upon their experience, and to ultimately learn something from it. What writing a reflective essay does then, is to help the writer to make sense of their experience, through some in-depth analysis of it, so that some valuable lessons can be learned, moving forwards. In order to achieve this, a number of frameworks have been created over the years, to help guide the writing process of a reflective essay, and so some of these should be considered before you start.

Reflective Frameworks That Can Be Drawn From

There are a number of theoretical frameworks that can be drawn from to construct your reflective essay, and two of the most well known are those of Kolb (1984) and Gibb (1988).

Kolb’s (1984) ‘Learning Cycle’        

Kolb (1984) reflective framework is known as the ‘Learning Cycle’, and there are four stages to this, in: (1) the concrete experience (a description of the event or experience), (2) a reflective observation (a reflection of the experience, including what was done, and why), (3) an abstract conceptualisation (making conclusions from the experience), and (4) active experimentation (trying out whatever it is you have learned from the process). Thus, the key difference here is that you should not only learn from a reflective experience, but you should also put what you have learned into action. You should note that this framework closely resembles Essay Structure 1, which we discussed above, with the addition of a more practical element for the final step. Thus, you could try out what you have learned in a practical setting, and then add the result of this into your conclusion section.

Gibb’s (1988) ‘Reflection Cycle’

In addition, Gibb (1988) also offers a ‘Reflection Cycle’, which represents an extension of the ideas of Kolb (1984), and provides two more stages to the four already proposed. This is perhaps currently the most well known and popular model used in reflective essays. Thus, this time, the six stages are: (1) description, (2) feelings, (3) evaluation, (4) analysis, (5) conclusions, and (6) action plan. Therefore, the description is fairly self-explanatory, and involves, again, a description of the events. Next, you are to document your feelings about the events, both during the event, and after it; and this should be followed by an evaluation of the experience, and what the pros and cons were, including the reactions by those present, and whether the situation changed in any way. The analysis section can then include pertinent literature, which has relevance with the event, and this will be followed by a conclusion, showing what was learned, and what could have been done differently. The action plan then details what you would do if the situation unfolded again, and what preparations you might go through prior to it. As such, these frameworks provide a useful structure to work from, and this could also be incorporated into the structure of your essay if you prefer, if you work better with a more formulaic approach. This then, more closely resembles Essay Structure 2, detailed previously, with the analysis section being split into sections on feelings, evaluating these feelings, and then analysing the events, in addition to the action plan suggested by Kolb (1984). Furthermore, the idea with both of these ‘cycles’ is to then also reflect further upon the action plan that has been derived from the initial reflection, so that this process can become finely tuned over time, with further reflections, and can lead to some significant development in the individual (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. Gibbs’ ‘Reflective Cycle’
(Source: UKEssays.com)

Final Thoughts…

The reflective essay has become a staple of assessment in educational institutions around the world, and is particularly commonplace on university undergraduate or postgraduate courses—and so it is important to understand the ins and outs of such assessments, so that you are better prepared when you get handed such an assignment. If you can become familiar with the reflective cycles of Kolb (1984) and Gibb (1988), then you will have a good idea of what is expected of you when you receive one of these assignments, and you should be adept at writing in the first person, and in an formal tone, so that you can hit the mark with the kind of style you should be aiming for. There are a number of things that you should and shouldn’t be doing with this kind of essay, and you can refer back to this article, as a reminder, when you begin such an assignment. However, the main thing to remember, when doing such an assignment (in addition to striving to get a good grade!), is that you should be learning something about yourself from the process, and about your field of study. In the end, what your teacher wants to see is that you are reflecting upon your personal experiences, rather than just letting them pass you by, and that you are linking theory with practice, and gaining a deeper understanding of your experiences. If you can do this, and your writing is solid, written in the correct tense, and with the right tone, then you are almost certain to get the grade that you want.

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