• 3-minute read
  • 6th May 2019

Academic Writing: The Reflective Essay

If you’re at university, you may need to write a reflective essay at some point. This is particularly common on courses with a work-based learning focus. But what exactly is a reflective essay?

What Are Reflective Essays?

In a reflective essay, you write about your own experiences. The idea is to help you think about something that happened in your life. In particular, the aim is to connect real-life experience to your theoretical studies.

For example, a student nurse might be asked to write a reflective essay on a work placement. They would then discuss what happened and what they learned from the experience.

The Reflective Cycle

To see what a reflective essay should include, we can look to Professor Graham Gibbs’ reflective cycle. This uses a series of steps to help people learn from experience, typically set out as follows:

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  • Description – A detailed description of what happened (i.e. the thing that prompted the reflection), including where and when it happened, who you were with and what you did.
  • Feelings – How you felt before, during and after the experience.
  • Evaluation and Analysis – A look at the positives and negatives of the experience (e.g. what went right or wrong), as well as how you understand your experience in relation to ideas or practices learned in class.
  • Conclusions – Any final thoughts, including what you have learned.
  • Action – A plan for what you will do next, what you need to study or what you would do differently in the same situation if it were to arise again.

The key is to include all these ‘steps’ somewhere in your essay.

Structuring a Reflective Essay

While there are no hard rules about how to structure a reflective essay, it helps to keep things simple. The basic structure should be:

  • Introduction – A short passage setting out what you are writing about.
  • Main Body – This is where you write about your experiences, including describing what happened and how it made you feel. You will also need to evaluate and analyse what you have experienced, either as you describe it or separately after the description.
  • Conclusion What you learned from the experience, including what you will do next and/or what you would do differently next time.

If you cite any sources in your essay, you will also need a reference list at the end. Cover all this in your work and you should have a good reflective essay! And if you need feedback on the clarity and structure of your reflective essay, you can always have it proofread.

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