Reflective writing in Arts

What is reflective or reflexive writing?

Reflective writing is examining the knowledge acquired through reading or through an experience and making connections with other concepts that you have encountered in your learning.

Reflexive writing is a deeper, self-critical practice, that examines your underlying assumptions and attitudes and how they have been impacted by your learning. It is more personal than reflective writing.

Both are descriptive but also analytical, drawing on your knowledge base and experiences.

  • Descriptive: A factual account of a concept, experience or observed behaviour
  • Analytical: A discussion of the ‘how and why’ of a concept, experience or observed behaviour, possibly comparing theory with reality and considering the reasons behind discrepancies

Why do lecturers set reflective or reflexive essay tasks?

Lecturers have a number of reasons for setting reflective/reflexive writing tasks. They can be used to:

  • check your understanding of the course content and how your thinking has developed
  • encourage you to make connections between topics, theories or practices
  • develop your skills as an active learner who thinks critically and asks questions.

How is this different to other academic writing?

Academic writing in argumentative or research essays does not usually involve a personal, first-person voice and is much more analytical than descriptive in its tone. These forms of academic writing attempt to make an authoritative analysis of an issue through a defined method that is recognised by peers in the same subject area.

When writing an argumentative or research essay, students are required to adopt an objective, impersonal style of expression. In contrast, reflective/reflexive writing urges students to explore subjective thoughts and feelings, while drawing on their personal experience.

Correct citation method is essential in all academic writing, including reflective/reflexive writing. The difference is that reflective/reflexive writing draws primarily on the experiences and knowledge base of the author.

Activity

Read each of the following six sentences and consider whether they are reflective, reflexive or academic (argumentative or research).

You can be asked to reflect on a variety of learning activities, including:

  • readings and texts - for example, you may be required to reflect on how an article changed the way you think about an issue
  • an experience or observation - for example, you may be required to attend an ANZAC day service and reflect on your observations of the event
  • a theory in practice - for example, you may be asked to reflect on how a theory studied in class applies to an experience, observation or text
  • a learning process - for example, after working collaboratively on a group project, you may be asked to reflect on the group work process.

Each of these reflection types requires a different way of thinking. For example, reflecting on theory in practice requires you to critique and break down the established understanding while reflecting on how it was taught (learning process) and can lead to recommendations for future study. Being able to identify the type of reflection enables you to provide the appropriate discussion.

Activity

Identifying learning activities can be difficult. In order to reflect quickly, you need to recognise the appropriate type of reflection. Look at the following learning activities and drag and drop each one onto the appropriate example from above (Experience or Observation; Learning Process; or Reading or Text).
Note: Some elements will appear in multiple sections.

A note on notes

To be able to look back and reflect, it is important to take extensive notes during the process of reading or observing. Referring back to your notes will jog your memory so that you can reflect in an insightful way.

One tip for note taking is to use different colors for ideas from the text and your own thoughts. For example, use blue for descriptions of an event, and red for your own thoughts about it.

Activity

Click on the icons for more information about writing notes.

Approaching a reflective or reflexive writing task


Slow down

Reflection is a process that cannot be done in a rush. It needs time and thought.

To do this well, you cannot just describe what you have learned, you need to take a stance on how and why you have learned it.

Try thinking about:

  • what people have said
  • what you have read
  • what you yourself are thinking
  • how your thinking has changed.

The key point - thinking.

Take notes on the themes of your readings.

Consider:

  • what you knew about them before (or thought you knew)
  • what you learned in the course
  • things of note from your point of view.

When completing your reflection, keep the subject of the unit in mind. Reflective and reflexive writing should link to the larger themes and topics of the unit and your reflections should be relevant to the course.

Here is an example:

I knew (or thought I knew): Witchcraft involved the burning of thousands of women, and that it was a terrible thing. Likewise there were trials to try and prove witchcraft, ridiculous things like weighing them down and I thought that it was to do with a lot of burning of poor and defenceless women at the mercy of the Catholic Church, who were either pursuing their own belief practices or were caught being outspoken. I had some idea that there were different approaches to the 'persecution' of the witches, but not the depth of the judicial response and sometimes the caution.

I learned: That I had assumed a lot of knowledge from popular culture about a) gender in the early modern period; b) the relationship of church and state; c) what witchcraft was. The gendered element of witchcraft then is complex in its own right. History is not static and there were continuing reforms and debates going on the whole time and so everything was in transition.

I want to keep learning: What witchcraft as 'inversion' meant for understandings of gender, and how these bigger concerns in society translated into a fixed judicial system.

A quality piece of reflective writing will have the following attributes:

Self-assessment and self-understanding:

  • evidence of awareness of personal learning processes
  • consideration of how and why learning changed
  • evidence of appropriate and honest appraisal
  • articulation of personal learning and limits.

Making connections:

  • articulation of connections between prior and current knowledge
  • evidence of capacity to form connections across the unit’s themes and topics
  • integrating prior knowledge with new knowledge
  • providing relevant examples to prove knowledge.

Your reflective writing will be based on the notes you made. Look at the example below, which is based on the notes we made above.

Click the icons next to each paragraph to see the lecturer's feedback on this reflective journal entry. Click again to hide the comment.

Legend:

Good Problem Suggestion Question
Assignment: Reflective Journal
Each week, identify what seemed to you the most important, interesting or challenging theme from your tutorials, readings or lectures. Reflect on what you learnt about Renaissance Europe and its relevance to you. Be self-reflective: What did you learn about the topic? What did you learn about yourself? Did anything presented challenge your thinking?

Show/hide lecturer's comment 1 This week I struggled with the fact that everything I knew about witchcraft was based on caricatures of feminism and gender studies. Lecturer's comment 1:
This is a good example of reflexive writing, where the author acknowledged their own biases or gaps in knowledge, understanding, or sympathy toward a particular issue.
Show/hide lecturer's comment 2 By presuming that accusations of witchcraft were just about oppressing women, I missed the way that new ideas around witchcraft had fed into an existing tradition around women (‘the scold’) but also related to larger concerns around unrest and instability in society, making it a much wider issue as well.
Lecturer's comment 2:
This sentence puts the issue in the larger social context, which is helpful for the reader.
Show/hide lecturer's comment 3 The complexity of the situation was illustrated in 1592 by Thomas Marshall who attacked a woman called Maude who had ‘bewitched’ him, and then assaulted two other women, calling them “witch and prostitute”. Maude was arraigned for witchcraft, and was tried under the new statute criminalising witchcraft as treason. She was found guilty and was to be hung, but was eventually exiled instead, whereas Thomas was never charged for any crime.
Lecturer's comment 3:
This section only gives background information and does not offer any reflection; it is simply descriptive. It would be more useful to directly link the given example of Thomas Marshall to the overall analysis, as an illustration of the topic.
Show/hide lecturer's comment 4 I found fascinating the clear concerns of the justices when meting out judgement under a new set of statutory laws, and the legal connection of witchcraft to treason against the Queen. My mistaking the period as ‘barbaric’ according to my own preconceptions hid connections between contemporary gender constructs, social change, and how justice was decided at a judicial level. Lecturer's comment 4:
This is also reflexive writing, as the author explains the new level of understanding of the topic they have achieved. More complex and sophisticated connections are made, but could it be illustrated with specific details of the Thomas Marshall example to show how the paragraphs are connected to each other?
Show/hide lecturer's comment 5 This is something I would be interested in researching more. Lecturer's comment 5:
This sentence leads the reader to the next steps - suggesting ideas for further research and queries is a useful way to conclude an academic discussion.


Reflection is not...

One last thing to remember about reflecting in an academic context is that this isn't the same as the kind of feedback on the unit that you might do for SETU (Student Evaluation of Teaching and Units) - you're not judging the content and quality of what you've experienced.

It is also not:

  • a diary
  • a description of the reading or experience
  • a list
  • everything you think and feel put together
  • private free writing
  • a series of complaints or criticisms.

Taking this on board as you prepare your reflections will also help you avoid the trap of talking about your personal opinions or biases instead of truly reflecting.


Check instructions

Remember to read the instructions carefully to ensure you are answering the question correctly. You can also use any marking guidelines or rubrics provided to determine how best to approach the task.

Activity

Reflective and reflexive writing language and structure

The style of writing associated with a reflective essay is similar to that of a blog post, although sometimes it needs to be more formal. Most blogs will take one small topic – whether it is a piece of evidence, a personal experience, a challenge to the author’s assumptions or values – and use it to reflect on the theme of their blog.

Although reflective writing features the first person voice, the phrases ‘I think’ and ‘I believe’ should be used sparingly and carefully. Any claims that you make need to be supported by evidence (the reading, learning process or experience) and clear reasoning.

In a piece of reflective writing, depending on the type of assignment you are writing, you may use past, present and future tense at various stages of your reflection; for example, when describing personal experiences that have already occurred, when articulating your current thoughts, and when describing what you plan to do differently in the future.

Ensure your tone is balanced and measured, even when writing about your thoughts and feelings. You need to be introspective, acknowledge biases, and avoid being judgemental without providing insight.

Click the icons next to each paragraph to show the lecturer’s comments. Click again to hide the comment.

Legend:

Good Problem Suggestion Question
Assignment: Team work
Peer reflection: Once the task is completed, reflect on your experience of team work. In your response, draw on the theories of social interaction covered in the unit.

Show/hide lecturer's comment 6 Specific tasks were shared out amongst members of my team. Initially, however, the tasks were not seen as equally difficult by all team members. Lecturer's comment 1:
This is a very brief description. Could the reflection have been improved if more detail of the context had been provided?
Show/hide lecturer's comment 7 Cooperation between group members was at risk because of this perception of unfairness. Lecturer's comment 2:
The student has identified the reason - inequity of tasks, as the problem for potential lack of cooperation. This demonstrates that they have given the situation some thought - they have analysed what happened to reach a conclusion.
Show/hide lecturer's comment 8 Social interdependence theory recognises a type of group interaction called ‘positive interdependence’, meaning cooperation (Johnson & Johnson, 1993, cited by Maughan & Webb, 2001), and many studies have demonstrated that “cooperative learning experiences encourage higher achievement” (Maughan & Webb, 2001). Lecturer's comment 3:
Although the writer has attempted to bring the theory they have studied into their reflection, they haven't made a clear, explicit connection between the theory and their experience.
Show/hide lecturer's comment 9 Ultimately, our group achieved a successful outcome, but to improve the process, we perhaps needed a chairperson to help encourage cooperation when tasks were being shared out. Lecturer's comment 4:
Although the student has identified the problem and suggested a solution, the reflection does not indicate what they learned personally. There is none of the depth that would be necessary for a reflexion either. An evaluation and consideration of personal development are needed.
Show/hide lecturer's comment 10 In future group work, on the course and at work, I would probably suggest this. Lecturer's comment 5:
While the student has indicated how their future practice has changed as a result of the experience, the language is weak - "I would probably suggest this." The reflection as a whole would work better if they were more definite in this change - "I will suggest this."

Activity

Instructions

It is important to check your work against the marking criteria for your assignment, especially for reflective writing. The marking criteria is what you are measured against so understanding how it works is important. One of the best ways to do so is to use the marking criteria to grade an example of assessment. In the following activity, we are asking you to take the role of the marker. By doing this, you will gain a better understanding of how the marking criteria relates to any reflection you write.

We will give you three opportunities to mark three different types of reflection. For each one, you will be asked to select a statement about the example in relation to the provided marking criteria. This statement places the reflection within the grade scale. Once you have finished, the grade (High Distinction, Distinction, Credit, Pass or Fail) will be calculated. If you don't agree with the calculated grade, consider what statement you would change to better reflect the quality of the task.

(Note: There are no right or wrong answers in this activity.)

Reflection 1

At the time, the way she spoke to the group annoyed me because I think I resented the way she seemed to tell us what to do. Looking back, I realise I did not have any clear ideas myself at the time, and her confidence made me feel less certain about my own ideas.



Reflection 2

I really didn’t know what to expect when I started reading Death in Venice. The copy of the book was really old, and the pages were quite tattered. The illustrations in the short novel were very old-fashioned, so I thought the book would probably seem irrelevant to my life today. How wrong I was! This book really satisfied my thirst for an interesting read, and I liked the themes included in the book, including travel, classical beauty and love. Some say it is one of the earliest novels in the genre of gay literature, which is an interesting point.

I have always loved reading, and this book was great because it takes place in Venice, a city I have always wanted to visit. I can imagine myself floating in a gondola, taking in all the sites and sounds of such an important historical city. Thomas Mann really highlighted a lot of the details of what a holiday in Venice might feel like in his novella Death in Venice. Now I can’t wait to see the movie!



Reflection 3

In describing homo-erotic lust in terms of Greek mythology, Thomas Mann utilizes classical references in the context of a modern short story. Mann’s descriptions of Tadzio, an attractive, but pre-pubescent young boy, as a classical Greek god casts the relationship between the boy and his admirer, Aschenbach, in epic, mythical terms. This literary device is Aschenbach’s “means of extenuating, of ennobling, even, an obsession that would otherwise seem sordid and perverse. Myth becomes rationalization.” (Beauchamp, p. 387) In this essay, I will examine a sample of Death in Venice’s references to love in Greek mythological terms, and consider their use as a modern way of exploring romantic lust in an otherwise illicit context. In line with other progressive German movements at the turn of the century, homosexuality was addressed by Mann through the façade of a mythical tale couched in classical ideals.

You’ve now got some ideas about how to approach reflective/reflexive writing. If you have further questions, speak to your unit coordinator or tutor. Good luck with your assignment!

References

Gaskill, M. (2000). The social meaning of witchcraft, 1560-1680. In M. Gaskill (Eds.), Crime and mentalities in early modern England (pp. 33-78). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Maughan, C., & Webb, J. (2001). Small group learning and assessment. This example was cited in: http://www.port.ac.uk/media/contacts-and-departments/student-support-services/ask/downloads/Reflective-writing---a-basic-introduction.pdf

Tamm, M. (2013). How to justify a crusade? The conquest of Livonia and new crusade rhetoric in the early thirteenth century. Journal of Medieval History39(4), 431-455.