Reflection Toolkit

General tips for academic reflections

An overview of key things to keep in mind for academic reflections.

Term How it is being used
Academic/professional reflection Any kind of reflection that is expected to be presented for assessment in an academic, professional, or skill development context. Academic reflection will be used primarily, but refer to all three areas.
Private reflection Reflection you do where you are the only intended audience.


Make sure you know what the assessor is asking for

Your main consideration when producing written or any kind of academic reflection is to know exactly what is expected of you. Therefore, you should ask your assessor what kind of language and structure they are expecting. With that in mind, the characteristics described here and in the sections on language and structure for academic reflections are what is often sought after.

Language of academic reflections

Structure of academic reflections


Using private reflections as foundations for academic reflections

Academic reflective writing is often used to evidence that you have done reflection. Therefore, it is often beneficial to first do a private reflection where you can be as informal and unstructured as you want, and then readapt that into a piece of academic writing.

By using a private reflection initially, you can ensure that you get the full learning opportunity without censoring yourself or being conscious of language, before deciding how best to present your reflections to your assessor. This is similar to figuring out what your argument is and taking notes before writing an essay, or to all the background work you do to solve a technical/mathematical problem that you do not include in your hand-in.

Just as developing your argument and working through each step of a problem can be essential for the final essay or hand-in, for some people doing a private reflection can be very helpful in writing an effective academic reflection. For others, writing their reflection in a formal and structured way from the outset helps them structure their thoughts.


The core elements of academic reflective writing

Academic reflective writing is a genre and just like an essay has characteristics, so does academic reflective writing.

Academic reflective writing requires critical and analytic thought, a clear line of argument, and the use of evidence through examples of personal experiences and thoughts and often also theoretical literature.

You should aim for a balance between personal experience, tone, and academic practice and rigor.

Academic reflective writing should:

  • develop a perspective or line of reasoning
  • develop a link between your experience or practice and existing knowledge (theoretical or personal)
  • show understanding and appreciation of different perspectives to your own
  • show recognition that your own understanding is likely incomplete and situations are rarely clear-cut and simplistic
  • show learning resulting from the reflection (either by discovering something new or confirming existing knowledge) and how you plan to use it
  • be written in an appropriate style with language relevant to your academic discipline
  • sometimes, but not always, use theoretical literature to inform your understanding. 


People can have misconceptions about academic reflective writing – some of the common ones are described below.

Academic reflective writing is NOT… Instead…
Just descriptions of what has happened Descriptions should be used as foundations for learning.
A personal diary where you can say anything and use any language Academic reflective writing require structure and formal language.
A place where you get marks for self-disclosure – while reflection is personal, you will not get a good mark by merely sharing challenging experiences or personal trauma The experiences you share must be used actively to promote learning AND be appropriate for the audience. An assessor will probably not be comfortable reading your darkest secrets. Private reflections may include such content, but for academic refection it is unlikely to be appropriate. Reflections should be appropriate both for your boundaries and the boundaries of the person reading them.
A place where you get marks for complementing the course or teacher assessing you Include the course and the teacher if they have affected you, but be sure to uncover what about them worked or did not work for you, and how you can use this knowledge in other contexts.
A place where you reference learning uncritically You should evidence how you have learned something, what it means for you, and how it will be used in the future.
A nuisance or waste of time Done correctly, formalising and structuring reflection can help you surface and evidence your personal learning and development, which in turn can help you to communicate your abilities and experiences effectively.

Developed from:

Ryan, M., 2011. Improving reflective writing in higher education: a social semiotic perspective. Teaching in Higher Education, 16(1), 99-111.

University of Portsmouth, Department for Curriculum and Quality Enhancement (date unavailable). Reflective Writing: a basic introduction [online].  Portsmouth: University of Portsmouth.

Queen Margaret University, Effective Learning Service (date unavailable).  Reflection. [online].  Edinburgh: Queen Margaret University.