How to write a reflection

“Oh dear” you might be thinking. “What’s all this about me writing reflections?”. “I have enough trouble writing a shopping list – and then I go and leave it at home, and can’t remember half the things that were on it when I get to the shop”. “And what’s all this stuff about us all being expected to be reflective practitioners, then?”. “What does one of these look like, and which planet do they come from?”.

Well, actually, writing a reflection about an event or happening is a bit like writing a shopping list. What do you want from the event? What do you really need from the event?

And then back to the idea of a shopping list, when we’re actually at the shop, when we actually remember to take the list with us, don’t we get our pencils out again and cross things off until we’ve got all that we wanted and needed? And while we’re in the shop, don’t we sometimes see things on the shelves that we didn’t have on our list, and put them in the trolley anyway, especially when they’re ‘buy one and get one free only this week’? And sometimes we didn’t need them, and didn’t even want them until we saw them.

Well, now, what you’re reading now is actually just a reflection – it’s me reflecting on shopping lists, so far. It’s not stuffy academic writing – neither are shopping lists. Shopping lists have a purpose – so can reflections.

If you’re going to an event, for example a conference presentation or a workshop, you can think of a way to capture our reflections as follows. Sometimes you’ll sit and listen. Sometimes you’ll talk to other people. Sometimes you’ll laugh. Sometimes you’ll think “what on earth are they on about now?”. Sometimes you’ll think “I wish I could be more like her”. Sometimes you’ll think “who does he think he is?”. Sometimes you’ll think “that’s something I can do myself”. Sometimes you’ll think “I can use that”. Sometimes you’ll be really bored, and wander off into thoughts entirely of your own, and have a brilliant idea which will change your whole life. That’s life.

That’s where lists come in. If we don’t jot down a few words about an idea we’ve got, or one we can adapt to our own purposes, the ideas just tend to evaporate away. A day later, it’s all gone. We can’t remember what we laughed at, what we agreed with, what we argued with, what annoyed us, and what we thought of everyone else around us. That’s why it’s worth writing reflections, there and then, all the way through the Staff Development Festival – and indeed all the way through life in general. It saves us forgetting things. It saves us from losing good ideas. It saves us from just sitting there getting bored sometimes. We can jot down words. Some people are good at drawing pictures. In Australia, one participant in one of my four-hour workshops gave me a lovely sketch drawing of me that she’d done during the session, with one word written on it ‘thanks’. She said she’d got a lot out of the session, and that drawing this while listening to me had helped her to think about what she would change in her own practice. The picture is framed on my wall now.

Jotting down reflections is actually quite close to making shopping lists. It’s about putting down just enough in words (or pictures) to remind us of what we were thinking at the time, not least what we were learning at the time. Included in the agenda for reflections are questions such as ‘what do I want from this session?’ and ‘what might I need from this session?’.

In other words, a good way into writing reflections is to jot down some questions – and then our answers to our questions. I’ve mentioned two possible ones already. You can think of your own questions, but let me start you off with a few to get you going. But first, you can reflect at any time – the choice is entirely yours.

Some reflections you can write before even going to the session. Many reflections you can write during the session – so make sure you have a pen or pencil with you, and something to write on – for example this diary. Other reflections you can write after the session – even weeks later, using your earlier thoughts as triggers for your thinking.

Here are twenty questions just for a kick-off.

1. What do I want from this session?

2. What might I need from this session?

3. Do I agree with what’s being said?

4. What do I agree with most?

5. What can I use myself from what I’m thinking now?

6. What do I disagree with?

7. Why do I disagree with it?

8. What do I think of the people running the session?

9. Would I buy a second-hand fridge from them?

10. What’s the best thing so far about this session?

11. What do I hate about this session so far?

12. How relevant is this session to my life?

13. Am I being inspired in this session?

14. What new thoughts have come into my head so far in this session?

15. What on earth does he mean by (constructive alignment)? (You put in the jargon bit that is getting your goat).

16. What’s that joke I’d like to remember and try out on other folk?

17. “Ahaaa” – now I see what such-and-such is about.

18. Is this session as good as the last one was?

19. What was the best thing altogether about the session I enjoyed most?

20. What must I remember to put on my shopping list?

But those were just my questions – yours will be even better – more relevant to you.

By now, I hope you’ll agree that there’s nothing magic about writing reflections. It’s not about academic writing. Grammar doesn’t matter. Spelling doesn’t matter. The legibility of your writing doesn’t matter, as long as you can make head or tail of it later. Reflections are private to you – at least at first. You can of course start off with your private reflections, and string some of them together into a piece of writing you’re happy to let other people read. But only if you want to.

The important things are:

1. A week or month later, when you look at your jottings, you’ll be able to recall useful things about your thoughts during the sessions.

2. You minimise the risk of a really bright idea of yours just evaporating away.

3. It gives you something interesting to do during the sessions – helps you stay awake sometimes!

Sometimes, exercising one’s pencil is a way of exercising one’s brain. And there’s no point exercising your brain then losing it all again. That’s where your reflections come in. ‘Reflecting’ is about thinking. Jotting down your reflections is about capturing your thoughts – the brilliant ones alongside the silly ones (which are often, of course, fun).

Only you can do this. No-one can do it for you. You wouldn’t want it any other way. Over to you….

(Professor Phil Race Visiting Professor: Assessment, Learning and Teaching; National Teaching Fellow:2007)