In high school and college settings, teachers sometimes assign essays asking for personal responses to an academic exercise, reading assignment, experiment, lecture, etc. By assigning multiple reflective writing assignments over the course of a semester, the instructor allows students to observe their own progress in the subject area. These assignments also help the professor evaluate the ways a student’s personal experiences color his or her understanding of a topic. It’s possible to write a reflective paper about any subject, but typically you’ll write these essays in response to a prompt. All papers written in this style share one thing in common: a personal point of view. Unlike most other academic essays, reflection papers include first person pronouns such as I, we, me, us, my, mine, our, and ours.
When it comes to length, the expectations for these assignments range from 250 words to several thousand words. Some reflective writing assignments only require an informal short answer. If the professor asks for an “essay,” “paper,” or “report,” he or she probably expects to see a formal essay with an introduction and thesis statement, body paragraphs, and a conclusion. If the assignment doesn’t seem clear, ask your professor for guidelines. Your professor should be able to suggest a word count and preferred style guide (MLA, APA, Chicago, etc.).
Outside the world of academic writing, a reflection paper has a different name; it’s called a personal essay. Whether you write in response to an academic prompt or a real-life event, use the recommendations in this article to compose a strong reflective essay.
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Begin by brainstorming some of the preconceptions and expectations you had before being exposed to the new material. For example, you might think about how your own experiences from the past influenced your first impressions of the coursework. Write a brief summary (or a list) of the ideas you held about the subject before learning more. Be sure to write out any personal opinions that guided your thinking in the past, even if you no longer hold those opinions now.
Remember that you brought unique experiences into the classroom, so your answer won’t be the same as anyone else’s. There’s no wrong answer. Since the teacher wants you to identify areas of growth, you don’t need to feel embarrassed about any incomplete ideas you had in the past. Instead, you should try to list all the ways you thought about the subject in the past and—if possible—jot down some of the life experiences that made you feel secure in your previous viewpoint.
Engage in Critical Reflection
Next, pair your old ways of thinking with some of the new ideas you’ve developed as a result of your coursework. If you have trouble formulating a new idea, try to write reflective questions next to your notes. For example, if you’ve written down that you used to think that chickens were mammals, you might write next to that, “I found out chickens are technically reptiles,” or “What is the classification for chickens?” Insightful questions will allow you to further identify areas of weakness.
Looking at your notes, you can begin to create an outline for your essay. Many effective reflection papers have a chronological structure. This will allow you to explain the growth you have achieved over time. Other essay writers successfully organize their essay by theme, citing different areas of improvement. Another option involves structuring your essay around particular assignments that you found helpful. For instance, you might devote each body paragraph to the information that you acquired from a particular text. Your introduction and conclusion should explicitly refer to the source material that prompted the reflection essay.
Provide Supporting Material
Writing reflection papers would be simple if you only had to write about yourself, but there’s more to it than that. Once you’ve identified the main themes for your essay, it’s time to begin pulling quotations and evidence, using the same writing process you would for a research paper. You’ll need to explain which supporting evidence caused you to question your long-held beliefs and engage with critical thinking.
Expanding on the chicken example above, you may have entered the classroom believing that chickens were mammals. Now you believe something different. In order to craft a formal academic paper, you must identify the learning tools that caused you to think critically about your own opinion:
You learned about the characteristics of mammals from a lecture
Thinking about omelets, you remembered that chickens lay eggs
Since you know that mammals don’t lay eggs, you looked up chickens in the encyclopedia
In your reflection paper, you would share a quotation from the encyclopedia entry and cite the lecture. By including this supporting material, you reinforce an academic tone within your essay. This elevates the reflection paper, giving it more intellectual rigor. It’s not just a narrative account of your own thoughts; instead, you’re engaging deeply with the subject and identifying the main points of inquiry that led you to develop a deeper understanding.
You Don’t Have to Agree
In truth, not every article you read will knock you over the head with exciting new insights. For that reason, you may have to explain a negative or neutral reaction within a reflection paper. Let’s say you read an article and disagree with the argument the author makes. In that case, you should try to identify several main areas of disagreement and expound on them in your reflection paper.
As long as your point of view is well-researched, you do not need to agree with all the materials presented in class. That said, you should try to showcase the overall lessons that you have drawn from your coursework. By encountering new materials, your understanding has probably matured. Try to write in the same style as the experts, and present your ideas with compelling arguments. If you disagree with the current discourse on a topic or find it incomplete, support contrary theories with evidence. In a reflection essay, you have the ability to bring your unique life experiences to the discussion, so don’t be shy about questioning the status quo.
I’m an award-winning playwright with a penchant for wordplay. After earning a perfect score on the Writing SAT, I worked my way through Brown University by moonlighting as a Kaplan Test Prep tutor. I received a BA with honors in Literary Arts (Playwriting)—which gave me the opportunity to study under Pulitzer Prize-winner Paula Vogel. In my previous roles as new media producer with Rosetta Stone, director of marketing for global ventures with The Juilliard School, and vice president of digital strategy with Up & Coming Media, I helped develop the voice for international brands. From my home office in Maui, Hawaii, I currently work on freelance and ghostwriting projects.