If you don't use reflection, you should take a long hard look at yourself…

A letter from Christopher Jones.

It is viewed as a tick box exercise and even a time waster. But contrary to popular belief, the process of reflection can be a beneficial activity as it helps to alter perspectives and deepen understanding of complex situations (Mann, Gordon, & Macleod, 2009). But what is reflection? Quite simply, it’s learning through insight to promote personal development. However, people can misunderstand its true meaning and may also perceive the process unfavourably. Therefore, finding common ground between its various definitions and shifting people’s attitudes towards it may be avenues to help individuals get the most out of reflective writing.

With no accepted definition, reflective descriptions vary from ‘purposeful mental processing’ to ‘a meta-cognitive understanding of the self’ (Nguyen, Fernandez, Karsenti, & Charlin, 2014). This variability is a problem because it can sidetrack people from understanding the main essence of reflection. However, descriptions do agree on one point: reflection transitions you from a passive observer to an active agent. What matters is the insight gained from an event, not the event itself. One can then use this deeper awareness to their advantage, to better handle similar events if they surface in the future.

But what counts as an ‘event’? Reflective models indicate that you can reflect on anything, from learning how to reference to performing medical assessments – there is no limit. Achieving insight is where the models differ, although most suggest examining the processes before, within and after the event. What were you thinking or feeling? What was going on around you? Could these factors have influenced the event? These questions are useful in making sense of the situation. Post-event reflection is equally as important. What has the event taught you? Would you act any differently in the future? These questions can encourage personal development in your acquisition of skills and experiences.

Nevertheless, people can view reflective writing negatively. It’s often depicted as ‘fluff’ in comparison to other activities for a student or professional and forcing reflective pieces can result in made-up stories just to get it done (Hargreaves, 2004). This hardy facilitates honest discussion of one’s insights! Clearly then, an outlook change is required. One strategy might be to view reflection as a tool for personal growth rather than a piece of work for someone else to mark. The reflection is for you, and no right or wrong ‘answer’ can justify your experiences. One shouldn’t shy away from discussing mistakes either. They are a normal part of learning and they can be used as a reference point to note how you’ve developed.

One final point may help bridge together these ideas – despite what your submission inbox says, there is no real deadline to reflective writing. Improving and gaining clearer insight into your experiences is a life-long process, regardless of skill or age. Therefore, if you understand reflection to be like a continuous cycle, you may perceive the assignments more favourably, for as long as you reflect, you develop. In that regard then, reflective writing never really ends.

- Christopher Jones

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