Reflective writing

Reflective writing is one of the few assessment tasks where relating a personal experience is not only allowed, but required. These tasks are designed to get you to think deeply about what happened in a particular situation in which you were involved, and why.

The act of analysing your experience retrospectively helps you to gain a deeper understanding of what you did and why. Your experience, when placed alongside key theories in your field and the course materials, provides you with a lens through which to observe, describe, and improve your professional practice.

Like any style of writing, writing reflectively takes practise. It will get easier with time.

What is a reflective journal?

A reflective journal is a record of an experience you have had, or are undergoing. It may be written over a specific period of time. It often relates to a specific, arranged experience, such as teaching rounds or nursing placements, or to weekly studio practice.

Your entries detail and discuss the experience in relation to relevant theory and practice. The language needs to be clear and professional, but it generally is less formal than that required for an essay or report. Your own thoughts and opinions are an intrinsic part of the writing.

Academics talk about reflective journals

The style and structure of reflective writing tasks can differ widely depending on the discipline. For a model specific to your area of study, refer to your lecturer or tutor.

How to reflect (Gibbs)

A structured reflection process helps us to discover more about ourselves so that we can improve. Gibbs’ Cycle of Reflection is designed for workplace reflection. Through it, we analyse our actions so that we can identify strengths and weaknesses, and seek to improve performance.

Gibbs’ Cycle of Reflection

Gibbs cycle of reflection



  • Describe the context and what happened
  • Include what you initially observed, including sensory details (seeing, hearing, smelling, touching, tasting) and interactions


  • Describe what you were thinking and feeling
  • Name your personal reactions, e.g. shocked, afraid, frustrated
  • Consider the range of your feelings, and what beliefs may be responsible for those feelings (i.e. personal, cultural, ideological?)


  • Explain what worked well/what was good, and what could have been better/what wasn’t good
  • Use your description and feelings sections to explain why and how the situation was troublesome, challenging or difficult
  • Give details about ‘sticking points’ for you or for others, relating to actions, beliefs, knowledge, or power dynamics, for example.


  • Extend your thinking. Relate the incident or situation to your studies.
  • What other perspectives can you use to analyse your scenario or incident?


  • What could you have done differently, and what have you learned?
  • What new knowledge do you have that will influence future choices and actions?

Action plan

  • What actions do you intend to take now, and will you try these actions in similar or different situations?
  • What steps will you take to improve your technique and adapt your practice?
  • Outline how you might prove these changes, and set a time limit to complete these steps before you reflect again on your development.
  • This material is adapted from: Gibbs, G. (1988). Learning by doing: A guide to teaching and learning methods. Further Education Unit. Oxford Polytechnic: Oxford

Ask yourself this

Often, our opinions come easily. But it can take effort to determine why you hold particular views or opinions on a topic, and this is something that reflective writing tasks seek to find. Being able to uncover what your personal influences are and where they originate is part of developing as a professional – the process helps you to learn, and potentially overcome obstacles that impact your daily life.

To get you thinking more deeply about the topic, consider these questions.

  •  Have your personal beliefs been challenged or confirmed by your course materials?
  • What are the ‘sticking points’ for you or others relating to actions, beliefs, knowledge, or power dynamics? For example, what is challenging your beliefs system?
  • What perspectives/theories from your course material are relevant to the experience you are asked to reflect on? Could they explain the issue?
  • What other scenarios or perspectives can you use to analyse the scenario or incident?
  • Have your initial feelings, assumptions and knowledge been reinforced or changed?
  • What new knowledge do you have that will influence future choices and actions?

Download the full helpsheet, Reflective Writing: Prompts.

Helpful phrases

Here are some suggestions for phrases to use in a reflective writing task. Think of it as a choose-your-own-adventure story: select words or phrases to describe or analyse the event or experience. Always check your marking guide for any advice from your lecturer.

Describing & interpreting

Specific events or experiences are nearly always best described using the past tense. However, when describing an idea (e.g., a theory or model), use the present tense, e.g., ‘Social interdependence theory recognises…’ (not ‘recognised’).

Try to define what the most important or relevant part of your experience was. How can your experience, object, event or ideas be explained in the context of the theory? Consider how similar to, and different from, others’ perspectives your experience was.

Here a few examples of describing and interpreting:

  • For me, the most meaningful aspect of the experience…
  • I felt the most significant issue happened when…
  • At first, I felt that…
  • At the time, I thought that…
  • Later, I realised that…
  • Alternatively, this may be explained by…
  • This is similar to… because of the way…
  • Unlike… this demonstrates…
  • Read more about Tense in academic writing.

Summarising & projecting

This includes the outcomes: what you have learned from the experience, and how that will impact on your future responses.

  • Having analysed… , I now think that…
  • Having read… , I now question…
  • Furthermore, I have learned that…
  • Significantly, I have realised…
  • I have slightly improved my ability to…
  • This makes me feel…
  • This understanding will be essential to me as a learner because…
  • Because I have not yet… , I will now need to…
  • As a next step, I need to…
  • Adapted from: University of Portsmouth (2015). Reflective writing: A basic introduction. Retrieved from
    /contacts-and-departments/student-support-services/ask/downloads/ Reflective-writing—a-basic-intro.pdf

MORE phrases can be found in our helpsheet on the topic.