A reflection paper or essay is an academic assignment that deals with your personal perception of a course-related topic, article, book, lecture or experience. You have to recount what getting to know this piece of content means for you, how it shapes your understanding of the material, how it influences you. A reflection paper is, by definition, a highly subjective and personal work; nevertheless, you should not treat it as a familiar essay. You are free to express your thoughts, but have to maintain academic tone and organize the text in a cohesive manner characteristic of academic essays.
Writing a reflection paper on education presents its own set of challenges. In a sense, you write from inside an experience, as your thoughts on the subject cannot be separated from your being a student. This means that your writing should be perceived as even more subjective than normally, and you will have to make extra effort to persuade the reader in the legitimacy of your ideas.
In this guide, we will cover the most important aspects of writing a successful and coherent reflective paper, from the preparatory phase to making the final touches to it.
When writing a reflective paper, it is extremely important to select a topic that you have something to say about. It is generally a good idea to write about something you are genuinely interested in whenever you have an opportunity, but in this case, you should give it special attention. After all, a reflective essay is less concerned with objective reality than with your own perception of the subject matter. If you do not have a strong opinion about it, anything you say on the subject will not ring true and, therefore, is unlikely to make an impression on the reader.
Therefore, try looking for a topic allowing for some argument, like these:
Start with formulating your primary ideas on the subject matter. If your paper is a reaction to some specific material, summarize your impressions about it. Divide your thoughts on the subject matter into a few (no less than three) distinct ideas and jot down two or three sentences about each of them. Ask yourself why these points were the first to come to your mind: were there any strong associations, visual or auditory impressions? If you are writing about a text, write down a couple of quotes that sank into your memory.
Whatever the subject of your reflective paper is, you write about your own experience. It may be a book or an article on education, a practice you encountered in high school or in college, a trend that plays an important role in the organization of modern schools – it does not matter what. You perceive it, process it and write about what you think as a result. This means that you can successfully stimulate your thinking and steer it in the right direction by asking yourself questions. For example, if you write about your interactions with a particular educational practice (like home schooling) you may ask yourself if it affected you personally. What is your most vivid experience connected to it? How did it change your outlook on life? What do you see as its most important advantages and drawbacks? The list of questions may go on and on.
Now is the time to start building a more elaborate structure based on what you already prepared. A good way to organize your thoughts is to use one of many visual techniques aimed at that purpose, such as mind mapping or fishbone diagrams. These approaches help you better see your impressions as a cohesive whole rather than a set of independent and unconnected thoughts.
An outline is a plan of your paper, and it may be as detailed or as concise as you need. Some students prefer to write highly elaborate outlines that are just a step short of becoming papers in their own right. Others find it easier to work when they simply jot down a couple of words about each point to avoid forgetting about them while writing.
The structure of the outline repeats the structure of the future paper, and it is usually like this:
Reflective papers may be highly subjective and are aimed at showing your opinions, but they still belong to academic writing. This means that you should pay attention to the logic of your presentation, connections between ideas and general flow of the text. The fact that you are expected to tell what you think does not allow you to ramble and go off on a tangent. Follow your plan and maintain internal logic of your writing.
In any kind of academic writing, it is a good form to express your thoughts in as few words as possible. Your job is not to fill in all the allotted word count, but to get your message across. If you can do it in 500 words, do not stretch your paper to 800, even if it is what is set as a limit. Your instructor has to read dozens of similar papers every day, and he/she will appreciate dealing with a shorter essay for a change. Just make sure your text is short because you pack your thoughts efficiently, not because you have nothing to say.
The introduction should lead the reader up to the main idea of your paper and start with a “hook” – a sentence whose aim is to attract the audience’s attention and motivate them to read on. It can attract attention in different ways: give an interesting fact, start with a seemingly self-contradicting statement, express a shocking and outrageous idea that forces the audience to reread it to make sure they understand it correctly, and so on.
A thesis statement is a relatively short (no more than two mid-sized sentences) recounting of the main idea or central message of your essay. It is different from the topic or research question. The former delineates the general area under scrutiny (e.g., “My Experience with Standardized Testing in High School”) while the latter, obviously, asks a direct or implied question (e.g., “Is standardized testing beneficial for the effectiveness of education?”). A thesis statement states the main idea: “Based on my personal experience, I believe that standardized testing is detrimental for one’s academic success”.
Make sure your thesis statement is short, to the point and lacks any ambiguous language of phrasing. Ideally, the reader should be able to glean the entire meaning of your paper simply by reading the thesis statement – the rest of the essay is here simply to prove your point.
This is the main part of your paper. Here you share your thoughts and emotions based on your experience. Focus on the most vivid details and remember that a reflection paper is highly subjective. You should not be afraid to express your own opinion, even if you expect it to be unusual and different from what may be expected of you. Divide this part into paragraphs, dedicating a single paragraph to each idea – it is an important matter to maintain the readability of your paper.
A body paragraph starts with a topic sentence, introducing the current idea, which is followed by supporting arguments. Here you recount your experience, thoughts and emotions, supporting them with more concrete12 evidence: e.g., quotations from the book you discuss, accounts of other people relevant for the subject matter and so on.
If a paragraph is sufficiently long, you may end it with a short summary, saying how it all fits together.
Transitions are words and structures like ‘Therefore’, ‘Meanwhile’, ‘Despite this’, ‘Nevertheless’, ‘Consequently’, ‘However’ and so on. You should use them to connect paragraphs and sections of the paper with each other. Otherwise, you risk submitting a disjointed essay that will be harrowing to read. And vice versa – even if logical connections between the parts of your paper are not perfect, using the right transitions can mask this fact from all but the most attentive readers.
Although a reflection paper is a highly personal and subjective piece of writing, it is still an academic assignment. It is not a personal letter or an entry in your diary. Make sure you stick to a particular tone and mode of language. Do not use slang and colloquial words and expressions, contractions, abbreviations and jargon. You are expected to express your thoughts and emotions, so there is nothing wrong about using the pronouns ‘I’ and ‘we’ and emotional language.
Your paper should be crisp and clear at all levels, including that of individual sentencesindividual sentences. Make sure each sentence is complete, concise and logically sound. A good way to do it is to read your essay backwards, from the end to the beginning, sentence by sentence. This way you will be less inclined to perceive segments of the text as a whole and will be able to focus on separate sentences. Keep them focused and avoid cramming multiple ideas into a single sentence. Avoid fragmenting them – make sure each sentence has the subject and the predicate. Use sentences of varying length, interspersing longer ones with multiple clauses with shorter and more laconic ones.
Few things spoil the impression more than poor grammar and incorrect spelling in an otherwise well-written essay. If you want to be taken seriously, make sure both your grammatical structures and orthography are flawless. Online grammar and spelling checkers like Grammarly can be of some help, but they are only marginally useful. Even the best automatic checker cannot replace a human proofreader – it will miss obvious blunders and flag completely innocuous phrases as mistakes. In other words, you can use it to see if you missed anything but avoid relying on it too much
Amateur writers often prefer to use long and complex words whenever possible, thinking that it makes their writing look more sophisticated. In reality, usually it makes you look a little bit silly. If you write “utilize” instead of “use” or “commence” instead of “start”, it is obvious that you are trying too hard. This does not mean that you should avoid long words altogether. This rule concerns only those cases where a shorter and simpler synonym is obvious.
As students usually have to meet a certain word count, it is natural that they gradually develop a habit of padding their writing with fluff words and structures. These are mostly qualitative words (adverbs and adjectives). The simplest way to cut the flab off your essay is to try omitting them and checking if the text loses anything as a result.
We hope that this guide will help you the next time you have a challenging job of writing a reflective paper.