Guidance and information on using reflective essays.
The reflective essay is one of the most common reflective assignments and is very frequently used for both formative and especially summative assessments. Reflective essays are about presenting reflections to an audience in a systematic and formal way.
Generally, all good academic practice for assignments applies when posing reflective essays.
Typical reflective essay questions
Reflective essays tend to deal with a reflective prompt that the essay needs to address. This also often means that the essay will have to draw on a range of experiences and theories to fully and satisfactorily answer the question.
The questions/prompts should not be too vague, for example ‘reflect on your learning’, but should define an area or an aspect relevant to your learning outcomes. This is most easily ensured with thorough guidelines, highlighting elements expected in the essay.
Questions could be something like (not exhaustive):
- reflect on learning in the course with regards to [choose an aspect]
- reflect on personal development across an experience with regards to certain skills
- reflect on development towards subject benchmarks statements and the extent to which these are achieved
- reflect on the progression towards the course’s defined learning outcomes or the school’s or the University’s Graduate Attributes
- reflect on some theory relevant to the course. (Remember that for this to be a reflective essay and not an academic/critical essay, the student must use that theory to explain/inform their own experiences, and use their own experiences to criticise and put the theory into context – that is, how theory and experience inform one another.)
Typical structure and language
Reflective essays will often require theoretical literature, but this is not always essential. Reflective essays can be built around a single individual experience, but will often draw on a series of individual experiences – or one long experience, for example an internship, that is broken into individual experiences.
The typical language and structure is formal – for thorough descriptions on this, see ‘Academic reflections: tips, language and structure’ in the Reflectors’ Toolkit, which can be valuable to highlight to students.
Academic reflections: tips, language and structure (within the Reflectors’ Toolkit)
Length and assignment weight if assessed
There is no one length that a reflective essay must take. As with all written assignments, the main consideration is that the length is appropriate for evidencing learning, answering the question and meeting the criteria.
Similarly, there is no clear answer for what percentage of the overall mark is attached to the assignment. However, the choice should mirror the required workload for the reflector to complete it, how that fits into your initiative, and the amount of preparation the reflector has had.
For instance, if the student has received formative feedback on multiple pieces of work, a larger proportion of the course mark may be appropriate, compared to if the student had not had a chance to practice. It is important to keep in mind that many students will not have had many chances to practice reflective essays before university.