Reflective writing in IT

Reflective practice

Reflective writing is increasingly common in university assessment tasks. Reflection is also an important employability skill. Reflective practice assists employees in thinking about what went well in a work task and how they might improve it next time. 

This applies to university assessment tasks as well. At university, students are expected to develop not just knowledge about their discipline, but also the skills that will make them effective colleagues and team members, such as interpersonal skills, the ability to contribute to and lead a team, and the ability to think about how their work is progressing and how to improve it in future.

However, many students find reflective writing difficult. In IT as well as other faculties, students often write descriptions of their experiences, rather than reflections on how the experiences were, how they felt, what they learnt, and how they might do better next time or in the workplace. Genuine reflection requires you to analyse your descriptions of experiences or observations. Analysis communicates what you have learned from your reflections.

This resource explains what reflective writing is, what aspects a written reflection should cover, the kind of language commonly used when reflecting, and some tips on how to complete reflective assignments effectively. Several examples of written reflections are provided to demonstrate the above.

A video introduction to reflective writing

Watch this three minute video to learn what reflective writing is, some of the essential elements it should include, and how you might be assessed on your ability to do it well.

Gibbs's Reflective Cycle

Below you will see a model (Gibbs, 1988) to help you think and write reflectively. Models for reflective practice are designed to help you go deeper into the experience or situation that triggers the reflection, in order to create new understandings and ultimately gain greater awareness of self and others.

At a basic level, a reflective approach involves you asking yourself the following three questions:

  • What happened?
  • So what? (Why is it important or interesting? Why do I need to reflect on it?)
  • Now what? (What action do I take to improve the situation or make a positive situation even better?)

Activity

Click to see what questions you should ask yourself at each step of the cycle.

While a reflection cannot be considered ‘wrong’, the quality of a reflection depends on how deep and thought-provoking the exploration of the event that triggered the reflection has been. Well-written reflections are honest and deal with the problems encountered in learning or in practice and try to propose how a task might be done better in future. Hence, your reflection should focus on the process you’ve taken to learn something, or realise something, not the outcome. For instance, when reflecting on completing a difficult assignment, the conflicts and difficulties, the successes and how to do better with the wisdom of hindsight should be the main foci, not the description of the grade and how (dis)satisfying it was.

Student sample reflection

Read the student reflection sample below. Click the comment icons next to show the tutor’s comments. Click on the icon again to hide the comment.

Show/hide lecturer's comment 1 Show/hide lecturer's comment 2 Show/hide lecturer's comment 3

We had a period of five weeks to develop and deliver a researched group presentation on a topic of our choice related to issues in IT. We had several problems agreeing on the topic, who should do what task and how to work together effectively. Describes what happened
This made me feel impatient and stressed. Describes the emotions felt
In the end we wasted quite a lot of time disagreeing and negotiating solutions, and ended up rushing to complete the task on time. However, the topic and the work we did was of high quality after we all managed to agree on what to do and how to do it.Evaluates what was positive or negative about the experience

Show/hide lecturer's comment 4 Show/hide lecturer's comment 5

Ultimately this was a positive experience as it indicated what working on a company-based project in my future career might be like, especially with regard to satisfying all the team members and stakeholders. Analyses why the experience was positive or negative
The group assignment has let me understand that different personalities can have very different approaches to work. While not all are effective, each member of a team needs to feel validated and in some cases reminded that the team relies on their input. I think more effective meetings and a written agreement on how we should proceed might work better in future when working with diverse people. Reveals what was learnt from the experience, and what could work better next time

Show/hide lecturer's comment 6

Next time I might use one of the Library resources on effective team work - a contract template - to ensure that we have something to refer back to if members stray from an effective task completion path. Perhaps that will assist in avoiding or responding to conflict if tensions rise due to uneven input from the team’s members.Suggests an action plan or a way forward

Language for reflective writing

Writing for reflection is usually not as formal nor academic as writing an essay or report. Nevertheless, it should still follow the rules of good writing, including structural elements (such as introduction, body paragraphs and conclusion) and some academic conventions, such as citing and referencing any source material you may draw from.

You may find that the key difference you experience as a reflective writer is the space to write more subjectively than you’re used to in your academic work. That means you can use the pronoun ‘I’ or ‘we’, and, most importantly, you are encouraged to articulate and engage with your feelings! This is useful if you are trying to deal with conflicting emotions that you may encounter in your learning or in your professional development (for example, when you’re describing the ‘storming’ stage (Tuckman, 1965) in your group’s collaboration, where roles aren't fully established and conflicts arise related to working styles).


Vocabulary

Below are some words you may find useful when writing for reflection. Click the icon next to the words to reveal lists of alternative words and phrases and then click again to hide. Please do not limit yourself to this vocabulary list. You should add items to this list of useful words as you develop your reflective writing skills.

How to write about your experiences

Read the student's reflections below. Click the information icons to see how language is used in reflective writing.

Tips for developing reflective writing

The best reflective learners and practitioners are constantly engaged in the processes described above. The act of becoming reflective is a daily practice and involves making time to think about the experiences one has had. Of course, you may need to revisit a single experience many times to "figure it out" or gain a deeper understanding of it.

Writing about your experiences should help you achieve this. A journal, diary or notebook might help establish the habit and provide you with valuable information when it comes to writing down these insights for a future assignment.

Below are some questions suggested by Holm and Stephenson (1994) designed to prompt deeper reflection:

  • What was my role in the situation?
  • Did I feel comfortable or uncomfortable? Why?
  • What actions did I take, if any?
  • How did I and others act?
  • Was it appropriate? Why/ why not?
  • How could the situation be improved in the future?
  • Have I learnt anything new about myself?
  • How has it changed my way of thinking?
  • What theory or knowledge can I apply to the situation?
  • What bigger issues arise from the event or experience?
  • What do I think about the broader issues?

References

Gibbs, G. (1988). Learning by doing: A guide to teaching and learning methods. Oxford: Further Educational Unit, Oxford Polytechnic.

Holm, D. & Stephenson, S. (1994). Reflection: A Student’s Perspective. In A. M. Palmer, S. Burns & C. Bulman (Eds.). Reflective practice in nursing: The growth of the professional practitioner (pp. 53-62). Oxford: Blackwell Scientific Publication.

Tuckman, B. (1965). Developmental sequence in small groups. Psychological Bulletin, 63(6),  384-399.