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Critical Reflection: Journals, Opinions, and Reactions

Reflective writing looks back at something seen, heard, experienced, or learned and tries to understand it better through writing. Reflections, which are often journals, field or lab notes, or writing that occurs over time, can express beliefs, ideas, ruminations, opinions, or reactions. If you’re asked to “write a reflection” about something, you’re being asked not only to describe the topic, but also to provide a thoughtful analysis of it.

Establish the Topic

What happened? One way to begin is by explaining what you saw, heard, experienced, or learned. Describe objects, summarize readings, or narrate events. Don’t assume your reader knows what you do. Provide background that sets the stage for your reflection.

Develop the Topic

So what? Once you have explained your topic, add your opinions or perspective. In other words, make a point or develop a thesis about the topic. Using one or more of the following prompts can help you generate ideas and organize your thoughts.

  • Define: Explain a complex term’s meaning. Select words with disputed definitions or words that lend themselves to extended, thoughtful definition, such as “honor” or “intelligence.”
  • Classify: Explain a topic by categorizing it with like items. Athletes can be placed in the same category as dancers because of their training; plagiarism can be categorized as fraud.
  • Compare/Contrast: Illustrate the similarities or differences between set topics or introduce an outside idea to illuminate a difficult concept. Metaphors can be a powerful tool for exploring or explaining. The circulatory system can be compared to a geographical structure: it is like a river but unlike a lake.
  • Cause: Consider the cause or root of something. Was a car accident due simply to driver error? Or was it caused by fatigue? What about our society causes so many people to fall asleep behind the wheel—do we live in a culture that promotes exhaustion?
  • Effect: Discuss the effects of something. If obesity leads to disease, what does this suggest about policy, laws, or education? How can we avoid bad effects and replicate good ones?
  • Evaluate: Determine whether a topic is good or bad, desirable or undesirable, ethical or unethical, effective or ineffective, etc. Or is the topic somewhere in between?
  • Propose: Suggest a necessary action to take or propose a solution to a problem.

Provide logical reasons and evidence to support your main points. The more rigorous you are in challenging your assumptions, the more likely you are to gain useful insight into your topic. If you’re discussing something you’ve read, use evidence from the text to support your interpretation. If giving a general opinion or argument, base it on facts, common knowledge, current events, or evidence from researchers. If research is not an option, use evidence from lecture notes, textbooks, lab reports, or other class readings.

Come to a Conclusion

Now what? Think about the relationship between your main point and your class’s themes. What topics are on the syllabus? What has been the focus of class lectures and discussions? What do you think motivates your instructor’s interest in the topic? Why is the topic important to you or to your readers?

A strong conclusion will discuss the implications and significance of your ideas. If you point out a problem, propose a solution or suggest what might happen if the problem is ignored. If more research needs to be done, stress the benefits of finding an answer. If you are discussing a theory, show how it can be applied. And if you are giving an opinion, make sure your readers believe that your opinion matters.

Style

What style should you use? Reflections tend to be informal, but the most appropriate style for a piece of reflective writing varies depending on the circumstances. If you’re writing in an academic context, it’s fine to adopt a more conversational tone than you would use in writing a research paper or journal article. It’s also acceptable to use first person (I, we, my, etc.), since you’re writing about your own observations. You should, however, still observe most of the other conventions of academic writing, such as providing support for your ideas and organizing information in a logical sequence.

If your assignment allows for greater informality, or if your reflection is written for yourself, you can explore your topic more freely and write more loosely. Even so, your reflection should still have a main point. Of course, in this exploratory style, you may not discover that point until writing your conclusion, which is why it’s important to revise. In particular, you need to include an introduction that orients the reader to the topic and organizes your material to show the progression of your thoughts. When you’re finished writing, take time to proofread for errors.

Special Effects

Especially if you are writing your reflections in a journal, you may want to use other modes of thought or expression to supplement your writing. You can make sketches, paste in photographs or interesting bits of material such as ticket stubs or fabric samples. Whatever you add, always provide at least a few sentences or a brief caption to help your read understand its relevance to your thoughts.

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