While reflection has certain characteristics, structure is not necessarily one of them. Sometimes you just want to let your thoughts go where they want to, or put pen to paper and start writing.
Free-form reflection refers to reflecting without a predefined structure or set of questions to answer. It is all about exploration of different elements of your experiences and thoughts as they appear to you.
Every approach and ordering of content is valid as long as what you are doing falls within the definition of reflection.
While the process of reflection is defined, there is not one right way to implement the process in practice. Some people may prefer or indeed find it easier to just let their thoughts run free to reflect.
Doing free-form reflection you can start with your learning and takeaways or your feelings that prompted you to reflect, or something completely different.
It can easily look like a stream of consciousness, and you may find yourself jumping back to points you made earlier.
The main benefits from free-form reflection are:
- You can follow the direction of your reflections freely and fully without having to restrict yourself to fit into a model or a particular model question
- You can approach your reflection in any way you want
- You can ask yourself questions that do not fit into any models
- To some people it might feel like more of an outlet compared to structured reflection
Free-form reflection can be done in many ways – it can happen in writing, when speaking something through with yourself or with a friend.
Use free-form reflection as an approach or as information for later reflections
There are two ways in which free-form reflection can be valuable for the reflective process
- Using free-form reflection as you would any other type of reflective approach (for example reflective models) and use it to improve practice and increase knowledge of yourself.
- Using free-form reflection as a way of getting your immediate unfiltered thoughts and feelings documented and then use these as a foundation for further reflective exploration. The further exploration can either be a new free-form reflection with more information or using a more structured approach or model.
- This is particularly valuable when the first free-form reflection is captured immediately after the experience (see Revisiting reflections).
Revisiting reflections (within Reflectors’ toolkit)
Use free-form within structured reflection/reflective models
You can use free-form reflection on a series of levels. You can use it as your only reflective approach, but you can also apply it different places when using a structured approach such as a model. You can use free-form reflection to engage with the individual stages – for example description, evaluation, planning, or analysis.
Moreover, you can use it for an individual question highlighted within any of these stages, for example ‘What actions did you make?’ – some models would want you only to describe and not explain here, where you might in your answer find it helpful to think of everything, and then revisit the next questions as appropriate.
Use the ERA model for minimal structure
The easiest way to use free-form reflection within a structure is to adapt your reflection to the ERA model (Experience-Reflection-Action) and use your first free-form reflection to work through the experience, then what that meant and your learning, and then finish off with what actions you want to take in the future based on the reflection. Approaching free-form reflection this way will likely ensure that you touch on a series of relevant elements of reflection.
ERA model within ‘Goals, objectives and reflective habits’ (within Reflectors’ Toolkit)
There is a lot of value that comes from free-form reflection as it allows you move and explore freely. There are however some considerations.
The main aspect is that it is easy to switch in and out of reflection. That is not a problem in itself, the problem arises if you think you are reflecting when you are not. The main way to ensure this does not happen is to check your reflections against the definition provided on the homepage of the Reflection Toolkit; have you made sure that you are challenging your assumptions and taken-for-granted way of doing things?
Another consideration is that it can be easy to lead yourself down a line of thought that you are not able to escape because you do not have the structure to tell you where to go to next. You will often discover these, but sometimes you might not.
Lastly, if for a long time you do not get external feedback or use new questions, you may miss entire areas that are helpful for reflection.
A framework for free-form reflection – timed free reflection
To help yourself to reflect using free-form reflection, it is a common exercise to write uninterruptedly for a set period of time. For instance you want to reflect on an experience, you put a timer for 5 minutes and must write for the full 5 minutes.
You can challenge yourself to write continuously. If ever you don’t know what to write, you can write ‘I don’t know what to write right now’ again and again until a new thought appears. This approach will force you to explore and draw connections, while not thinking about whether or not something is relevant. If you stopped writing your mind would likely drift off topic, whereas continuous writing will force you to think about what you are reflecting on.
If you choose this approach do not worry about grammar, spelling, or going back to fix something. It is meant to be imperfect and to free your mind from censoring itself.
Once the timer goes off you can reread what you wrote and possibly rewrite aspects of it and dispose of others. This is the point, and the real value comes from this process.
Components of timed free reflections:
- Choose an experience, a topic, or a question you want to answer or reflect on.
- Set a timer for a period of time (for example 5 or 10 minutes)
- Write uninterruptedly without distractions until the timer goes off
- Reread and select important aspects for future reflections
- Potentially rewrite the selected aspects
- Write continuously – if you don’t know what to write either write nonsense or ‘I don’t know what to write’ until a new thought appears.
While often used in writing, this method can be adapted to other ways of reflection. For instance, you can set a time and talk through the experience with a friend listening – they can then write down relevant questions to ask after the timer goes off.