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Scholarly Reflective Essays

A great deal of your time at university will be spent thinking; thinking about what people have said, what you have read, what you yourself are thinking and how your thinking has changed. It is generally believed that the thinking process involves two aspects: reflective thinking and critical thinking. They are not separate processes; rather, they are closely connected (Brookfield 1987).

Figure 1: The Thinking Process (adapted from Mezirow 1990, Schon 1987, Brookfield 1987)

Reflective thinking

Reflection is: 

  • a form of personal response to experiences, situations, events or new information.
  • a 'processing' phase where thinking and learning take place.

There is neither a right nor a wrong way of reflective thinking, there are just questions to explore.

Figure 1 shows that the reflective thinking process starts with you. Before you can begin to assess the words and ideas of others, you need to pause and identify and examine your own thoughts.

Doing this involves revisiting your prior experience and knowledge of the topic you are exploring. It also involves considering how and why you think the way you do. The examination of your beliefs, values, attitudes and assumptions forms the foundation of your understanding. 

Reflective thinking demands that you recognise that you bring valuable knowledge to every experience. It helps you therefore to recognise and clarify the important connections between what you already know and what you are learning. It is a way of helping you to become an active, aware and critical learner.

Reflective writing is:

  • your response to experiences, opinions, events or new information
  • your response to thoughts and feelings
  • a way of thinking to explore your learning
  • an opportunity to gain self-knowledge
  • a way to achieve clarity and better understanding of what you are learning
  • a chance to develop and reinforce writing skills
  • a way of making meaning out of what you study

Reflective writing is not:

  • just conveying information, instruction or argument
  • pure description, though there may be descriptive elements
  • straightforward decision or judgement (e.g. about whether something is right or wrong, good or bad)
  • simple problem-solving
  • a summary of course notes
  • a standard university essay

See next: How do I write reflectively?

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Take your notes and use those to write your final draft. Here are some tips:

Introduction: Either start with a vivid description of the place, your experience, or a summary of what you are reflecting about. End with your thesis idea. Sometimes you may want to put a question first and then the answer

Example Thesis: Why was I feeling so peaceful while walking down this beach? I realized it was because the beach had always been a place of rest to me.

Body: Each of the questions you've answered can be a paragraph in the body of your essay. Take your notes and expand them. Add more details and examples from your experience and your life story.

Conclusion: Explain and expand on your thesis idea. Tell how this experience taught you something new or how it helped you to understand something. Another way to conclude is to suggest where you might like to go from this point in thinking about your thesis idea.

Example Conclusion: I sent my photo of "For Rhonda" to my friend along with a text letting her know how much I appreciate her help in letting me know that we can always find places to relax and renew in the midst of our busy lives. Now, I want to find a way to help Rhonda have a day off of her own, and I'm hoping someday we can take a trip to the beach together.

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