How to Write a Reflection Paper: Introspection Done Right

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Many students find writing a reflection paper particularly challenging. True, an average college reflection paper involves so much time, effort, introspection, and purposeful thinking that it gives even the most laborious argumentative essay examples a run for their money. The good news is that once you’ve made all the thinking, the actual writing isn’t that hard. A typical reflection paper is on the shorter side of academic texts and cannot compete in length with, say, a research write-up.

However, do not make an erroneous assumption that you can write a good reflection paper in one night. Since reflective essays are not as structured and straightforward as other types, the pre-writing stage and organization of your thoughts will take quite a while. Hopefully, our guide will make it more transparent and manageable.

What Is a Reflection Paper?

Author Video: Academic Skills, The University of Melbourne

As a college student, you will be asked to write a reflection paper on many occasions. The goal is to understand how new knowledge you acquired during a particular course changed your perspective and enhanced your learning approaches. As the name implies, a reflection paper requires you to look inside yourself and contemplate the relationship between the course content and your experiences as a learner. It is a first-person narrative about skills you’ve acquired through particular course elements, such as assigned readings, films, group discussions, etc.

In a good reflection, you confront your assumptions, biases, and attitudes and analyze how the material taught in class changed it. Reflection writing gives you a deep understanding of yourself as a learner and, through the analysis of your thinking patterns and acceptance of new ideas, gives you control over your learning process.

Step 1: Writing a Reflection Paper Outline

The process of writing a reflection paper starts with pre-reflection. It’s helpful to think about your learning experience, organize your thoughts, and outline what you want to include in your essay.

  1. Identify the key moments that show your growth as a learner. Use your assignment prompt as a guide and note what stood out to you during the course, activity, or a particular piece of material you reflect upon. To pinpoint a specific moment, ask yourself: What happened? What was my reaction? What did I expect? Was there a discrepancy between the expectation and response? What did I learn from that?
  2. Think critically about your experiences. To develop a more profound understanding of why these moments were meaningful, reflect upon them from academic and personal perspectives. Academically, think about how this experience deepened your knowledge of a concept, theory, or idea or improved your skills. On a personal level, contemplate why this experience matters to you. Were you surprised, disturbed, confused, irritated, or pleased?
  3. Project how your experiences with this course will influence your future learning. Although reflection implies looking back, it’s vital to consider how the transformation of your opinions, beliefs, and feelings will shape your actions in the future: both as a learner and as a professional.

When you’ve identified the key moments, organize them chronologically to illustrate the way you’ve come as a learner. A detailed analysis of each experience will constitute the body of your reflective paper.

Step 2: How to Start a Reflection Paper

As an introduction for reflection paper, give a short description of the course, activity, or a particular piece of educational content you reflect upon: the name of the course/activity, duration, key characteristics, and conditions.

Before you begin a detailed reflecting analysis, present your key findings in a concise thesis statement. To come up with it, interpret your way throughout the course: try to summarize your experience in one or two sentences that demonstrate your growth and key changes you went through.

Step 3: Fleshing Out the Reflection Paper Format

There are no strict academic rules to writing a reflection paper. Since such assignments have a place in any class, requirements vary widely depending on the discipline: social, behavioral sciences, arts, etc. Reflective methods and structural organization of your paper should follow the criteria provided by your instructor in the assignment details. However, some good practices can be recommended for writing a good reflection paper in any subject area:

  1. Ensure that each example you analyze in detail links back to your thesis statement and illustrates your main point.
  2. Organize your examples in linear order to demonstrate the changes you went through.
  3. Reflect on each example in a separate paragraph.
  4. Organize information within each section in a similar fashion, for example: 1) introduction of a meaningful moment/experience, 2) expectations you came in with, 3) explanation of how your beliefs/assumptions were challenged or altered, 4) the current state of your opinions or feelings about the course/experience.
  5. Always put the specific examples in the context of your thoughts, opinions, feelings, and beliefs. That is the point of reflection. Without it, your reader will not be able to understand your relationship with the learning experience and how it helped you progress as a learner.

Step 4. Writing Reflection Paper Conclusion

The conclusion for reflection papers should provide a summary of what you learned about yourself as a result of interacting with the course material. You can organize the conclusion in a variety of ways, for example:

  • listing your most significant insights during the course and how these realizations influenced your goals and motivations as a student
  • explaining how your learning experiences and insights about yourself will impact your actions in the future
  • contrasting your expectations about the course with the actual experiences and realizations you’ve drawn from the discrepancy
  • explaining how your experiences changed your approach to professional practice or reframed your career aspirations
  • presenting realizations you’ve received from the reflection process itself and how it changed your way of thinking (metacognition)

These are very general rules for writing a reflection paper. Please note that you don’t have to follow them if they contradict the requirements provided by your instructor. Also, if your discipline allows it and you find it helpful, use other ways of expression, such as illustrations, graphs, or even material objects, as a part of your presentation. I hope you find these tips helpful. Wish you insightful reflections and happy learning!

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