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Reflective writing

Learn more about the genre of reflective writing to help you with those critical journal assignments.
Published by Julia Lane
This explanation of reflective writing starts from Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein's (2012) statement that such writing "require[s] that you demonstrate that you have thought about what it is you think" (p. 222). Graff and Birkenstein are focused on writing in the social sciences, but the idea that you have to think about what you think is broadly applicable to any reflective writing task. 
Let's take the example of a critical journal assignment and break it down into its component parts: 
  • JOURNAL –- asks you to engage with and reflect upon your personal lived experience;
  • CRITICAL –- asks you to relate those experiences to the course readings and course concepts in an analytical way.
To do an effective critical journal response (or piece of reflective writing more broadly), you will need to reflect on your own experiences and the way those experiences overlap with course concepts in detail. You are being asked to make connections between course concepts/materials and your own personal experiences. The good news is that you are the expert on your own experiences. The core of the task, then, is to reflect on how your own experiences /your own position in the world relate to the concepts that you are engaging with in class.
One of the issues that can arise with reflective writing is that you remain vague about either the course content or your own experiences. Without details, even the most interesting potential connections read as flat and unsubstantiated.
To get into detail, you can begin by free writing about your own experience: note what you’ve seen and heard (potentially even smelled and tasted) and how you felt about those experiences.
Here are some potential brainstorming prompts to support that free writing: 
  • Why is my favourite childhood memory so special to me?
  • What have I always taken for granted about the world? What do I assume to be "normal" and why?
  • What am I most proud of about myself and why? 
  • Have I learned anything about myself from the course readings? If so, what and how? 
  • What current news story is most annoying/challenging for me? 
  • How do I self-identify and why?
  • What do I usually not tell people about myself and why? (note, you don’t even necessarily have to disclose anything to reflect on this question)
 (Questions adapted from In Conversation, a Writer’s Guidebook, p. 40)
Note: You will need to revise this free writing before handing it in, but this exercise is intended to help you dig into the details that can support a robust analysis.
Comparing and contrasting your reflections on your own lived experiences with specific concepts from the course is a helpful step in this process. 

“Writing to reflect is one of the most common activities writers undertake. At the beginning of almost every writing project, writers – who adopt the role of observer […] – spend time exploring and deepening their understanding of their subject [….] writers use reflection to share their thoughts in ways that benefit others

-- In Conversation, a Writer’s Guidebook (p. 39)

This quotation from In Conversation asks you to consider both WHAT you want to observe (and why/how) and HOW you are going to ensure that your thoughts are of benefit to others. That last criteria is one of the most important thing that marks academic reflective writing out from simple journaling: if you are reflecting on your own experiences in a personal journal, your writing does not need to serve anyone but you. But, your reflective writing for class should demonstrate to your instructor that you have thought deeply about your course contents and found interesting ways to connect them with your own lived experiences. 

So, in summary, reflective writing is not

  • Just a journal entry; 
  • Just an academic essay about a course concept; 
  • Just a judgment about a course text (i.e., not assessment of whether it is "good/bad," or "right/wrong") 
  • Just a description or story about a personal event 

Reflective writing is

  • A response to your life experience, thoughts, and feelings as they relate to the course; 
  • A connection between learning and life experiences; 
  • A critical analysis that explores how course theories/terms have influenced your understanding of your own lived experiences (or your thinking about what it is you think); 
  • Personal - it is okay to use "I/myself/we/us" pronouns (might actually be strange if you don't!) "
"Every good story has a point. Every good joke has a punch line. Every good reflective essay leaves its readers with something to think about. Consider why your subject is meaningful to you, and think about how you can make it meaningful to your readers" (In Conversation, a Writer’s Guidebook, p. 42)

Happy reflecting! 

- Julia Lane, SLC Writing Services Associate 


Image credit: Self Reflection by Aenne Brielmann from the Noun Project

Works cited 

Graff, G. and Cathy Birkenstein. ( 2014). They say/I say: The moves the matter in academic writing, third edition. New York and London: W.W. Norton & Company. 

Palmquist, Mike and Barbara Wallrarr. (2018). In conversation: A writer's guidebook. Boston and New York: Bedford/St. Martin's, Macmillan Learning. 


Thank you to Gabrielle Flores-Santiago, M.A., Learning Centre Supervisor and Testing Coordinator at Columbia College for inspiring and generating some of the content included in this post. 

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