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Some Thoughts on "Reflection" and How to Use It

Oct 23, 2015

Throughout your education, you've probably been asked to "reflect" on your academic work. Typically, this has involved creating a "written reflection" that you've attached to a final essay or research report. Perhaps, by now, you are so used to writing these short pieces that you already see a metacognitive view of your work as you create it. That's great! Maybe, in some instances, you've seen "reflection" as an annoying epilogue to the work you’ve already completed. If this is the case, you are missing the true benefit of the reflective practice, so I am here to help you understand why it's important and how it works.

In Honors, we're interested in making the idea of "reflection" more sophisticated and insightful. You've outgrown structures like the old, creaky five-paragraph essay or the rudimentary lab report, so we want to ramp things up. Reflection, here, is a way to escalate the connections you are making between ideas, discoveries, inquiries and the world in which you live.

How, for example, might you use your current work to launch a large-scale research project? How does one of your research projects or essays contribute to a disciplinary field? Are there connections you can make across disciplines, unexpected methods or findings that belong to more than one field? What does it say about you as a writer and researcher? How could the project help you make other academic and personal choices?

A reflective practice makes learning visible. Constructing an articulation about a project asks you to consider the choices you made as you developed it. What critical junctures did you come to? How did you decide upon the route you chose, both in content and in the method of expression? How can you link your ideas with other ideas, creating a larger web of associations and methods of thinking?

This, by the way, is the true meaning of "critical thinking."

Writing is one method to see evidence of this. Having a great conversation is another. In Honors, we embrace both strategies by developing Communities of Practice. Both Honors 100 and Honors 496, the final portfolio course, turn the work of reflection over to students and we ask you to work with each other to figure things out. This opens space for you to have agency over your own learning trajectory. Because we are all colleagues who are drafting, revising, generating, extending and polishing our work, we can learn a lot from each other.

As Kathleen Blake Yancey, an expert on metacognitive processes, notes in her studies of reflective practices in writing: "we see writers anew, as multi-selved experts of the own knowledge and their own texts." She also notes that this "agency {is} made possible only through textual diversity and multiple communities."[1]

Such agency also embraces different methods of gaining expertise about one's own work. This subverts the problem of writers creating manufactured, inauthentic epiphanies. Out of a desire to perform the task well, students might create reflections that overstate personal transformations. Because, in some instances, reflection is part of the assessment in a course, students might overdo it. "This paper changed my life" sounds fairly melodramatic. Perhaps the process of writing the paper has changed something about the way you think or feel, and that's what you should be discovering. Be specific and authentic in your reflections, or they are most certainly a waste of your own time.

Writers, scientists, engineers, painters, composers, historians, technologists, artists and technologists all engage in creative, reflective practices. As they draft materials and review them, experts in all fields become incredibly adept at seeing the effects of the decisions that they've made and applying these in their work. That's really what marks the difference between a novice and a master practitioner in any field: how each makes decisions and then acts on them to move the work forward. Accomplished scientists follow hunches based on past knowledge and experience; painters make decisions about medium and composition based on complex conditions. Over time, a student becomes more adept in making powerful decisions based on past experience, study and the vigorous conversations with others in and outside the field.

So, let's think about how you, as an engaged scholar can move into a space of "Reflection in Action" space in which you can practice and reflect upon your studies.  

I’ve made a little model:


Reflective Writing Is

Reflective Writing Shouldn’t Be

  • A practice of connecting ideas through inquiry
  • Asking powerful questions
  • Seeing the mind's encounters with specific subject matter
  • Pro-active thinking through of problems.


  • Telling a story that follows a predictable, shallow trajectory. For example, "I came into this class thinking that I wouldn’t like it and then…."
  • Manufactured epiphany for assessment purposes


[1]Yancey, Kathleen Blake. P.150 Reflection in the Writing Classroom, Utah State University Press 1998 [1]

Some Prompts for Reflective Writing

Choose an Artifact

  • What, exactly, is this artifact? What is the context? Give big picture along with fine details.
  • What techniques did you use to create it?
  • What argument does it pose or answer?
  • What process does it describe? How does it employ different strategies?
  • Where have I seen this before?

Small writing prompts to provoke large insights:

1)   Circle the verbs in a long paper. Write a reflection about the paper that uses the verbs from the paper. What do they tell you about the content and style of the piece?

2)   Take five projects you've done in different courses. Pull two sentences from each. Then, do a freewrite that connects these. Ask: do I see a pattern in my five projects?

3)   Is there a process I can describe?

Think About Your Community. How did you employ a community of practice in your work at UW?

  • How did you conduct conversations to develop some aspect of your work?
  • How would you do that in the future?
  • Show how you did, or might in the future, re-word your findings for different audiences. [2]
  • What knowledge is relevant and transferable to other contexts?

[2] As Grant Wiggins, Educational Theorist, notes: "Require students to constantly re-word/re-phrase/re-present what they learn: Whether in just taking notes or creatively placing a complete text in a new genre, time, and place: making learners re-cast what they have learned in their own terms is a significant aid to long-term memory and flexible use of knowledge, according to the research on learning and transfer."[2]