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How to Write a Reflection Paper in History: a Detailed Guide for Troubled Students

A reflection paper is an academic work that is primarily concerned with your thoughts and emotions associated with something. It can be roughly subdivided into two types: experiential reflection and reading reflection. The former deals with your personal experience. You do not have to recount the experience in too much detail, like in a narrative essay, but rather concentrate on how it affected you: how it changed your opinions and viewpoints, what it made you think about, what emotions it caused and so on. The latter expresses your thoughts, impressions and ideas on reading a particular text or learning something. It can be based on lectures from your current course, reading suggested to you by your professor, something you read on your own. In a broader sense, you can write it about any kind of content, not just text – just make sure it is in some way relevant for your course.

This guide will primarily cover reading reflections, because this is what you will mostly deal when studying history. Your professor may give an experiential reflection paper to write, (e.g., covering your experiences in placement), but it is more of an exception than a rule.

How to Write a Reflection Paper in History: Preparations and Preliminaries

1. Choosing a Topic

Usually, your professor will pick an article, a book or another subject for you to write about. However, sometimes you are free to choose whatever you like, and even if you have the subject matter chosen for you, you normally have some wiggle room: you can alter the general approach and what you intend to emphasize in your paper. When you can choose the subject matter by yourself, follow these principles:

  • Choose something you are familiar with. The less time you have to spend studying and researching the subject matter, the more attention you will be able to pay to writing per se;
  • Choose something interesting. It is much easier and more rewarding to write about something that invokes some kind of feeling in you;
  • Choose something related to the course you study. You should be able to connect the subject matter of your paper to what you have studied in class.

Here are some examples so that you understand what you should aim for;

  • What I Learned This Semester and How It Influenced My Views on American History;
  • The Role of Napoleon Bonaparte in the World History;
  • History of Rome by Titus Livy: What It Teaches Us about Causes and Effects;
  • How the Second World War by Winston Churchill Changed My Views;
  • How What I Learned in This Course Is Relevant to the Current Events in the World.

2. Ask Questions

A reflective paper should not retell the reading or review it. It is not an analysis in the pure sense of the word as well. It would be more precise to say that you have to pass it through the prism of your perception and tell what you think as a result. A good way to give your writing a more analytical tinge and direct it in the right direction is to ask yourself questions like these:

Tired of all the guides and never-ending instructions?
  • Why did the author write this text?
  • What did he/she try to prove and why?
  • Do I agree with it?
  • How can I comment on the text?
  • How would the author respond to these comments?
  • What are the most important issues covered in the text?
  • How is the text relevant to the course material/discussion?

3. Gather Your Sources

Supporting your point of view with reliable sources of information may not be as important in reflection papers as it is in most other types of academic writing, but you still cannot do without it. If you use a source, you have to make sure it is trustworthy.

The most reliable sources are peer-reviewed papers from well-reputed academic journals, preferably by high-authority writers. Modern academia has an easy way to determine this characteristic in h-index. H-index is a single number based on the number of peer-reviewed articles by the author that have been referred to at least the same number of times. I.e., an h-index of 10 means that the author has 10 articles that have been referred to by other scholars at least 10 times each. Thus, this rating allows you to immediately see both the authority and productivity of the author.
You can find references to the sources you need in online academic databases (like EBSCO or Google Scholar). Also, pay attention to their CRAAP characteristics (currency, relevance, authority, accuracy, purpose).

4. Prepare a Thesis Statement to Guide the Reader

A thesis statement is a brief (1 or 2 sentence long) statement of where your paper will go and what it is going to explore, usually appearing at the end of the introduction. Always precede the rest of your writing with it, as it gives the reader a better understanding of what were your intentions when you wrote the paper and the direction you wanted your argument to go. Quite often, a well-worded thesis statement is worth as much as the rest of your paper combined. If it is absent, the reader will have trouble understanding what you wanted to say or, what is more important, whether you thought ahead to that at all. It is also a good idea to think beforehand what you will tell in the conclusion, as it is based on thesis statement.

How to Write a Reflection Paper in History: General Suggestions

1. Do not Summarize the Reading

Do not do this at all if you received your topic from the professor – you can assume that he/she read it. If you chose the subject matter for your paper yourself, you can dedicate a couple of sentences to sketching out the contents, but no more. Reflection papers tend to have a relatively low word limit, and you do not want to waste space on retelling, even if it may be an easy way to start the paper and deal with your writer’s block. Instead, start with your critique or analysis right away.

2. Answer Some of the Questions. Not All of Them

Choose some of the questions you asked yourself when preparing to write and answer them directly in your paper. Alternatively (or additionally), look for questions or issues posed by the author in his/her text. Sometimes answering them is the best way to engage critically with the text and reflect on its contents and importance.

3. Stay Focused

The most common mistake students make when writing a reflection paper is failing to commit themselves to anything in particular and instead simply talking about the text in general. Remember that you do not write a summary nor try to provide an in-depth analysis of the text as a whole. It is impossible to carry out in a relatively restrictive word limit of a reflection paper anyway. Instead, grab at something small that you consider to be interesting: it may be a single paragraph or even a sentence. This will both help you avoid the summary trap and force you to analytically engage with the subject matter on a deeper level.

4. Use First Person Singular

Unlike virtually all other types of academic writing, reflection papers not just allow but presuppose the use of first person singular. After all, you are talking about your personal perceptions and opinions.

However, you should be careful to avoid some other pronouns, primarily second person and first person plural. It is almost impossible to talk about other people without generalizing too much, which immediately harms your credibility.

5. Support Your Opinions with Evidence

While reflection papers investigate your personal opinions and ideas on the subject, you should consider them to be only the starting point, not the end in themselves. It is just as important to show that they are backed up with intellectual analysis and relevant argumentation. Your goal is not limited to expressing your views – you should also explain why you hold them and juxtapose them against those expressed in the text. Such thoughtful analysis will always be better received than a paper that simply describes how much you liked or disliked the text.

6. Do not Be Afraid of Looking Stupid

If you fail to understand the text or find it confusing, do not be afraid to tell it directly, especially if you received the topic from your instructor – there is always a possibility that he/she intentionally gave you a text greatly exceeding your current understanding of history. Instead, make your confusion the basis of your paper. Ask yourself why you did not understand, what confused you most of all, how it influenced your overall views on the subject. Explore what you did to understand the text and why you believe to have failed – was it your fault or the author’s? An in-depth, thoughtful research of one’s own confusion can make for a better reflection paper material than trying to save face.

How to Write a Reflection Paper in History: Before You Submit Your Work

Submitting your paper immediately after you finish writing it is usually a bad idea. In most cases, it will benefit from a few iterations of editing and proofreading.

1. Check if Your Formatting and References Are Right

Individual schools and even specific professors have their own preferred referencing and formatting styles. Find out which one is used by your college. If it is not mentioned in your instructions, clarify it with your instructor. Find guides and other materials to your referencing style. Consult your librarian if you are not sure of something. Consider using referencing software to make the job of collecting and storing references easier.

2. Check for Signposting and Transitions

Transitions or links are words and expressions that ensure logical connection between sections and individual paragraphs. Usually it is done with words like ‘therefore’, ‘as a result’, ‘likewise’, ‘consequently’, ‘thus’ and so on. They may not add specific meaning to the paper, but without them your writing will look choppy and disjointed.

Signposting means referring to what you intend to write about in the next section of the paper, e.g., ‘This is a primary argument in support of this idea. It is supported by two other ideas’. You usually do not need it in short assignments, but if your work consists of multiple sections, it can make it easier for the reader to navigate it and connect individual parts with each other.

3. Check for Consistency

Although logical consistency is important as well, what we talk about here is primarily being consistent in terms of grammar and structure. The longer your paper is, the more likely you are to make mistakes of this kind, so make sure you check for consistency of:

  • The use of a single tense throughout the paper, unless you have a good reason to switch to another one;
  • The reference style;
  • The use of the first person singular;
  • The arrangement of headings and subheadings;
  • The length of paragraphs and sections (they should be more or less balanced although not necessarily equal).

4. Proofread or Hire a Proofreader

One may think that in college grammar and spelling are less important than they used to be in high school, but it is true only in the sense that your instructor is not going to check your paper specifically for them. However, few things make a worse impression on the audience than an otherwise serious and in-depth paper that contains silly spelling and grammar mistakes. This means that you have to make a special effort to get rid of them.

Do not rely on spellchecking and grammar checking software like GrammarCheck or Grammarly. They can be somewhat useful if you are extremely bad at these things and do not trust yourself to see even the most obvious mistakes. However, they make blunders of their own, often not noticing problems and seeing them where everything is all right. You will do better by hiring a human proofreader or at least asking somebody to go through your paper and look for mistakes.

5. Do not Hurry

Try to complete your paper at least a few days before the submission date. This way you will be able to take a break from it and start proofreading with a fresh perspective on your writing. The same applies to the process of proofreading itself. Do not simply reread your paper looking for any mistakes you happen to stumble upon. Single out the areas to pay attention to (such as grammar, punctuation, word choice, spelling, etc.), and go through the text multiple times, paying attention to a particular area on each reread. If you know yourself to be prone to a particular type of mistakes, dedicate a separate reread to it alone.