Reflections are funny things. When we look into a mirror we can either be encouraged by our dazzling good-looks, or plunged into self-doubt by what we may regard as a less than flattering reflection. Physically we are drawn to reflective surfaces; catching sight of ourselves in shop windows, TV screens, mirrors in lifts and even pools of water, often causes us to stop for a moment and take a second look. The images we see in these reflective surfaces are compelling to us because it is the closest we are likely to get to seeing what others see when they look at us. Our public image is very important to us, we want people to view us in the best possible way, so we are often found, at key moments in the day, before we "go public", stood in front of the mirror adjusting our clothing, fiddling with our hair, fine tuning our makeup and checking our teeth for stray bits of food.
Of course our physical appearance is only the tip of the iceberg, there are many other attributes that contribute to our personality as well as the image we wish to present to the world. Being able to "reflect" on the non-visual parts of ourselves is just as important a skill as being able to see what we physically look like. Knowing that we can be clearly understood when we speak and write, that we are capable of making sense of the issues that are likely to confront us in our daily lives, both professionally and socially, and being confident that we know where to find the information we need to survive in the world and that we are capable of evaluating its relevance and credibility - these are not things that can readily be checked by a quick glance at the mirror on the way out.
Increasingly university courses are trying to provide students with new ways to "reflect" on themselves and how they do things, to look at themselves carefully and assess whether their skill-set and abilities "fit properly" "look right" and "make them look attractive" to the outside world. One approach that is being used more and more is reflective writing and to be honest students often find it confusing to start with.
What is reflective writing?
Reflective writing is part of a much larger reflective process which involves us in not simply doing things, but standing back and looking at what we have done, how we have done it and asking questions such as:
- Why did I do it this way?
- Is this the only way I could have done this?
- Did this work?
- Did this work well?
- Would I do it this way in the future?
In many ways the reflective questions we might ask of an academic or professional exercise are exactly the same as those we would ask of our physical reflection in a mirror:
- Why am I wearing this?
- Is there anything else I could have worn?
- Does this outfit work?
- Do I look cool?
- Would I go out looking like this again?
Seen this way, reflective writing is simply another sort of mirror, a way of being able to examine ourselves and our work to see if we have presented ourselves in the best possible light and used the best possible resources. Unlike a mirror that uses a shiny surface to reflect our appearance back at us, reflective writing uses words to create a picture of what our skills, abilities and feelings about them might be. For example, imagine that you have just completed a piece of writing about cats. An academic essay would contain evidence of research, critical analysis and evidence based argument, for instance:
'According to the Animal Planet web site Cats are unable to detect sweetness in anything they taste. (Animal Planet) This claim is backed up by a 2007 article in Scientific American which also maintains that "Sugar and spice and everything nice hold no interest for a cat" (Scientific American 2007)'
To reflect on what has been written here, we need to change the focus from the subject of the essay (cats), to the the way it was written (the writer). A reflection on this piece of writing might look like this:
'Writing this essay was really difficult as I have no interest in cats, but this has helped me stay focused on a topic I am not really engaged in - something that will no doubt be useful in the future. Finding accurate information about cats was not very difficult as they are hugely popular as a pet and there is a great deal written about them on the net. I am not entirely sure I found the most useful web sites but Scientific American appears to be quite authoritative, next time I think I'll stick to proper journals. I am still finding it difficult to judge what is a reliable source and what is not.'
As you can see these are two very different kinds of writing.
- The first is formal, objective, topic focused - in this case the topic is cats - and referenced.
- The second in more informal, subjective and personally focused - you are the subject here. There is very little, if any, referencing evident in reflective writing. As you and your work are the subject there is unlikely to be a great deal of secondary research to be done - unless you happen to have had books and articles written about you, which is always possible.
At the end of the first piece of essay writing I would expect to learn something about cats, by the end of the second reflective piece I would expect to learn more about the writer and why they did what they did.
There are many useful tools available to help with reflective writing. Some people find it useful to conduct some sort of SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats) analysis of their skills, abilities and performance in a task as a starting point. Others draw on the two most familiar reflective theorists, Kolb and Gibbs, to provide them with insights into the process. Whichever route, or combination of routes, you take the end result ought to be a better understanding of your abilities and their scope for development.
The truth is we reflect on our thoughts and activities all of the time. For one thing, it's how we learn from our mistakes. Anyone who has ever said "well, that's the last time I'm doing that!" has had to engage in self-reflection to arrive at that judgement. Taking time to think about how and why we do things the way we do is really the only way to improve our performance. If we do a job and it goes really well we need to be able to identify all the things that contributed to that success, otherwise it is simply a happy accident that we will never be able to repeat. Throwing a disastrous party is not an experience we would ever wish to repeat, reflecting on why it went wrong will help us plan a more enjoyable event next time and avoid us getting stuck with the reputation of being "that naff party person". It has been suggested that one definition of insanity is "doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results", reflecting on what you do can help prevent this.
The University's Educational Development Unit have produced some very useful materials to help support reflective writing:
Reflective Writing Support
Below we offer an example of a thoughtful reflective essay that effectively and substantively capture the author's growth over time at California State University Channel Islands (CI). We suggest that you write your own essay before reading either of these models-then, having completed your first draft, read these over to consider areas in your own background that you have not yet addressed and which may be relevant to your growth as a reader, writer, or thinker.
Any reference to either of these essays must be correctly cited and attributed; failure to do so constitutes plagiarism and will result in a failing grade on the portfolio and possible other serious consequences as stated in the CI Code of Conduct.
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Sample Reflective Essay #2
Author: Nekisa Mahzad
I have been a student at California State University Channel Islands (CI) for 5 semesters, and over the course of my stay I have grown and learned more that I thought possible. I came to this school from Moorpark Community College already knowing that I wanted to be an English teacher; I had taken numerous English courses and though I knew exactly what I was headed for-was I ever wrong. Going through the English program has taught me so much more than stuff about literature and language, it has taught me how to be me. I have learned here how to write and express myself, how to think for myself, and how to find the answers to the things that I don't know. Most importantly I have learned how important literature and language are.
When I started at CI, I thought I was going to spend the next 3 years reading classics, discussing them and then writing about them. That was what I did in community college English courses, so I didn't think it would be much different here. On the surface, to an outsider, I am sure that this is what it appears that C.I. English majors do. In most all my classes I did read, discuss, and write papers; however, I quickly found out that that there was so much more to it. One specific experience I had while at C.I. really shows how integrated this learning is. Instead of writing a paper for my final project in Perspectives of Multicultural Literature (ENGL 449), I decided with a friend to venture to an Indian reservation and compare it to a book we read by Sherman Alexie. We had a great time and we learned so much more that we ever could have done from writing a paper. The opportunity to do that showed me that there are so many ways that one can learn that are both fun and educational.
The English courses also taught me how powerful the written word and language can be. Words tell so much more than a story. Stories tell about life and the human condition, they bring up the past and people and cultures that are long gone. Literature teaches about the self and the world surrounding the self. From these classes I learned about the world, its people and its history; through literature I learned how we as humans are all related. By writing about what we learn and/or what we believe, we are learning how to express ourselves.
I know that my ability to write and express my ideas, thoughts and knowledge has grown stronger each semester. I have always struggled to put my thoughts on paper in a manner that is coherent and correct according to assignments. I can remember being told numerous times in community college to "organize your thoughts" or "provide more support and examples". These are the things that I have worked on and improved over the past couple of years and I feel that my work shows this. The papers I wrote when I first started here at C.I. were bland and short. In these early papers, I would just restate what we learned in class and what I had found in my research. I did not formulate my own ideas and support them with the works of others. The classes I have taken the past couple semesters have really help me shed that bad habit and write better papers with better ideas. I have learned how to write various styles of papers in different forms and different fields. I feel confident that I could write a paper about most anything and know how to cite and format it properly.
There are a couple of things that I do feel I lack the confidence and skill to perform, and that is what I hope to gain from participating in Capstone. I am scared to teach because I don't know how to share my knowledge with others-students who may have no idea what I am talking about. I hope to learn more about how teachers share their knowledge as part of my Capstone project.
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