Critical reflective writing
Planning and structuring more assignments
Reflective writing has become popular in many disciplines, from architecture and engineering to medicine and media studies. It involves documenting a personal view, focusing on recent experience. It usually entails moving beyond mere description, to explaining and justifying what has taken place. Often, particularly if the work is to be assessed, it involves critical reflection, in which the individual seeks to learn from their experience. Such critical reflection commonly refers to theory referred to and practice developed during a course. It is this latter type of reflective writing - critical reflective writing - that is considered here.
Reflective thinking and writing as a way of improving practice within a discipline has a well- documented tradition dating back to Dewey (1938), Lewin (1946) and, more recently, Schon (1983, 1987) and Boud et al. (1985). The University of New South Wales (2016) in its guidelines highlights the value of critical reflective thinking and writing. Paraphrasing the guidelines, reflecting critically helps you by:
Building on previous knowledge, both formal and informal, to make connections:
✵between what you knew and what is new
✵between your practice and the theory that lies behind it
✵between what you are doing now and what you may wish to do differently in the future.
Examining how you learn by writing reflectively about your learning experiences, and what and how you have learnt from them.
•Integrating and extending what you are learning by:
✵combining new knowledge with old
✵identifying questions you have yet to answer
✵and so revealing what you have yet to learn.
Reflecting on both successes and failures so as to:
✵gain a more balanced awareness of your practice
✵learn from your mistakes
✵support you in building on your successful practice.
In summary, critical reflective writing should help you become a more ’active, aware and critical learner’ (University of New South Wales, 2016). It also helps embed reflective thinking in your practice as a student, and later as a professional in your discipline.
Reflective writing in action
Notes taken at or around the time of an experience, perhaps recorded in a learning (reflective) journal or logbook, can be highly subjective, with descriptions of what happened and perhaps what the writer thought or felt at the time. Depending on the course and context, such material may be highly personal and for the writer’s eyes only. Or it may be evidence that can be shown to an assessor. Such writing may include emotive (emotional) language, exclamations, casual expressions - the very things that are not encouraged in academic writing. Such writing, however, is material for more considered reflection later, which informs a critically reflective account that can justly be called academic writing.
Here are two samples of written work, the first from the experience of a trainee teacher writing a learning journal about what had just happened in a classroom when working with three students. The second draws upon that experience in the student’s critical account of how they improved their practice after reflection.
Today, tutorial time, I tried out the action planning exercise with three students. Disastrous! Students hadn’t thought about it beforehand. They weren’t used to doing this kind of thing. And I wasn’t too sure either. By the third student it had dawned on me that the students and I needed to prepare for the meeting and be very clear about what we were seeking to achieve. If the students had known that they had choices, and it wasn’t simply a box-ticking or rubber-stamping exercise, that would have helped too! Back to the drawing board. I’ll be better prepared next time. This one-to-one stuff can be harder than working with the whole class.
Action planning, as part of making a personal learning plan (PLP), can help empower students. At its best action planning promotes students’ ’learning, self-awareness and self-confidence, opportunity awareness and the development of planning skills’ (Bullock and Wikeley, 1999, p. 19). As is evident from my experience with class 11, PLP sessions need to be well planned so that both tutor and tutee are clear about aims, process and potential benefits. Both need to prepare before the session. The PLP process dramatically improved when I...
The challenges of critical reflective writing
Many students find critical reflective writing difficult, because it combines documenting personal experience and its interpretation with standing back and taking a critical view. Despite writing about personal matters, and using ’I’ or ’we’, the writing still needs to be well structured, develop an argument, and be written in an appropriate academic style.
Exactly how critical reflective writing is organised in a document will depend on the nature of the assignment. In degree courses in health, social work or education, students are required to reflect on critical incidents - dramatic events that they have observed or been directly involved in, which raise important questions from which they can learn. At the same time, they may also be writing reflective accounts about how their practice has improved, looking back over weeks or months. However the account is structured, the account of learning can benefit from drawing upon Kolb’s (1984) experiential learning cycle (Figure 6.1). The stages in this cycle can be reflected in the narrative of your writing.
In your account, you will set the context for the experience you wish to analyse and learn from (and explain to an assessor). You cannot critically reflect on everything you experience, so you need to be selective in order to maximise your opportunities to learn, and you will often be guided in this by your supervisor. Setting the context and describing the experience involves setting down just the right amount of background information so that the reader appreciates the context, but doesn’t get distracted by unnecessary detail. Your skill lies in knowing your reader and what she or he recognises about your situation. For example, here is what a trainee physiotherapist might write about a particular incident with a patient (step 2 in Figure 6.1):
I accompanied a local physiotherapist, Mr Smith, who was treating a 35 year old man with a severe ankle sprain. The clinic’s conventional treatment regime was followed which involved, in the short term, a self-management programme of compression bandaging, limb elevation, ice packs, antiinflammatory drugs and resting the joint. Longer term treatment included strengthening exercises. At a review appointment three weeks later, the patient ’s ankle was still weak, lacking strength and joint movement, with resultant poor mobility.
The next step involves reflecting upon and interpreting the incident (step 3). For example:
In the light of this outcome, and reflecting on advice from my tutor, I approached Mr Smith. I suggested I might review with him recent research literature and case studies for this type ofproblem and consider what alternative treatment options were available. He agreed, seeing this as an opportunity to improve the clinical outcome for his service when dealing with this common condition.
Figure 6.1 An interpretation of Kolb’s (1984) experiential learning cycle
This analysis might draw upon background theory from a taught course, so that you are interpreting the specific incident in terms of general principles, or it might prompt a review of relevant literature. For example:
Prompted by the guidance notes from Unit 3.4 of the university course, I reviewed the recent literature on best practice for the management of acute ankle sprains 1,2,3,4. In the light of new research and approaches to treatment documented in the literature, I discussed my findings with Mr Smith, who suggested I prepare a short presentation for the next practice meeting. Drawing upon my review, I proposed that joint manipulation, orthotic joint strapping with non-elastic tape, together with acupuncture, would probably improve the therapeutic outcome for this type of severe ankle injury.
Finally, critical reflection normally involves applying what has been learnt (step 4), to inform the planning of future actions (step 1). For example:
Discussion at the practice meeting resulted in an agreement that Mr Smith, and his physiotherapist colleague Mr Kline, would implement two of the suggested treatment alternatives, namely joint manipulation and strapping. This would be on a trial basis with suitable patients followed by clinical audit to assess any change in outcome. The use of acupuncture (which would involve further staff training and/or bringing in a qualified acupuncturist) would be considered once the results of the initial trial were clear.
These different stages in the experiential learning cycle need not be neatly separated in your account. But in formal critically reflective accounts, which are assessed, the four steps are normally represented.
In critical reflective writing, tenses commonly shift swiftly from past, to present, to future, as the writer reflects on what has happened, generalises about how this informs their practice, and then considers how it will shape their future practice. For example, here some of the verbs are shown in bold to make the changes in tense easier to follow:
On several occasions over the ten weeks, one student or another missed our 2-hour weekly session. The impact of this was quite disruptive on the class as a whole, and especially for any sub-group the student joined. I consider this disruption came about because:
✵The student had to be brought up to date by other students in the class.
✵The student was not skilled in contributing to the practical exercises that built on the previous week,.
In the future, I shall make three changes in response:
✵Stress the importance for students to attend all sessions.
Post descriptions of that week’’s activities online, immediately after the session.
✵If need be, spend time one-to-one with a student on their return, while other students are carrying out group exercises.
In critical reflective writing, the style should not be too casual or judgemental:
The choice of employer for my 6-month placement wasn’t great, because he wasn ’t bothered about teaching me new skills. He just wanted me to do the boring ’dogsbody ’ work.
In retrospect, I might have influenced my employer ’s choice of tasks for me if I had reminded him regularly of his obligations within the scheme.
As the account is about drawing upon personal experience, the use of ’I’ is appropriate for at least some of the time. For example:
My work placement was enjoyable and instructive, but it has confirmedfor me that I would prefer to specialise in data management, rather than be employed in the more general design aspects of mechanical engineering.
And when you then reflect upon practice and refer to professional guidance or the literature to support your argument, you need to adopt the conventions of reflective academic writing:
During my second session counselling client D, I found it extremely difficult to disassociate from her remembered experience of having a panic attack. However, I recalled the advice offered by Dr Alec Curruthers, citing Chang and Ho (2012, p. 12), and ...
Putting the ’I’ in reflective
Consider the text below as part of a critical reflective account by a trainee teacher who has taught three consecutive sessions with a Biology class, and later interviewed four of the students about the experience. The account is written in the impersonal. How would you personalise it?
When working with the Year 11 Biology Class, and interviewing four students afterwards, it was apparent that three of the weaknesses found previously still applied:
✵Failing to adjust teaching content and process to the students ’ starting levels.
✵Not always setting out clearly the aims for each session.
•Not providing enough opportunities to accommodate the range of ability within the class.
These three items will form the major focus of the next review with the university course tutor. ...
One solution is given at the end of the chapter. How does yours compare?
The two examples of writing style considered so far in this chapter - business-style report writing and critical reflective writing - reveal that the two approaches, both forms of academic writing, have rather different conventions. And each style of writing must be considered within its specific context. A business-style report might even include an element of critical reflective writing if, for example, the report concerned a general medical practice and drew upon the reflective accounts of staff or patients.