Many students, irrespectively of what discipline they study, usually get thoroughly confused the first time they have to write a reflection paper, for it is, in many respects, fundamentally different from your usual academic paper. ‘How come I have always been taught to be objective in my writing but now I have to focus on my personal perception? What kind of language am I supposed to be using? Why shouldn’t I rely on information sources?’ These are just some of the questions they ask themselves, and only rarely get meaningful help from their professors.
However, writing a reflection paper is not very difficult – just different. It is exactly what it says on the tin – you have to write down your reflections, perceptions, ideas about the subject matter, be it a book, a personal experience, an event, a concept or something else. In relation to public administration, you are likely to write about your work placement, participation in research or theories and ideas related to the discipline.
We have prepared this guide to make this job go smoother – follow the steps laid out here, and you will complete the task quickly and without problems.
Reflective writing is not homogenous, and some types of reflection paper may be quite different from the others. It can take many different forms and, e.g., a peer review requires a completely different approach from a learning diary or a reflection journal. Before you start out, carefully read the guidelines and make sure you understand them fully, without any ambiguities. If you have any questions, ask your tutor right away. Pay special attention to what form your assignment should take – you may have to submit it in a printed form in a folder or as a book, with formatting requirements differing from case to case. Clarify if there are any online parts involved. Check if you have to include any additional materials (graphs, diagrams, media clippings, etc.).
Unless your tutor gave you a topic, you have to choose what to write about. Be attentive – the success of your paper largely depends on your choice of the subject matter. Freedom of choice can be nice, but some students also find it paralyzing – there are too many opportunities to make a meaningful decision. In this case, first try to define a broader theme of your paper, and then narrow it down to a topic you will find interesting and rewarding to write about. Start with trying to find inspiration in:
Eventually, you should come up with something like this:
Now that you have decided on the subject of your paper and written down everything you can about it, it is time to reflect on it. To direct your reflection in the right direction, use the following questions or their variants:
A reflection paper may be based on your individual thought process, but it is still an academic assignment, and you cannot just write a stream of consciousness. The paper should still have logical structure, and to ensure it you have to prepare an outline where you jot down all the significant aspects of your future paper. This way you can be sure you do not omit anything or repeat yourself. The structure of a reflection paper is typical for an academic paper:
Feel free to be as detailed or as general as you need – the only important thing is that the arrangement should work for you.
Professors in Public Administration are usually sticklers for procedure; this means that providing a proper thesis statement is of paramount importance. The nature of this part is the same as in any other paper or essay – it is a short (usually a single middle-length sentence, about 25-40 words) statement of the main idea expressed in your paper. Do not mix it up with the paper’s topic or research question. The topic delineates the general area covered by the paper (e.g., ‘Civil Services and Their Use of Human Resources’). The research question is the question you try to answer in your paper (‘Do civil services use human resources efficiently?’). The thesis statement is the statement of the main idea (‘Judging by my personal experience during the work placement, civil services are woefully inadequate in their use of the human resources they have’).
One of the most notable differences of a reflection paper from other types of academic writing is its tone or style. It may be somewhat hard to grasp: on the one hand, it is less formal than is usually found in academic texts; on the other hand, you still have to retain some degree of detachment.
Use first person singular unless directly instructed otherwise by your professor/teacher, but avoid overly emotional language, colloquial expressions and sentence structures (e.g., contractions and words like ‘yeah’, ‘kid’, ‘stuff’), slang and jargon (i.e., words commonly used by the members of certain professional groups that may be unclear to outsiders). In addition, do not forget that, as a discipline, public administration prefers a rather formal and dry tone, so do not stray too much from it.
You should build your reflection paper primarily on your personal thoughts, ideas and experiences. However, it does not mean that you can simply say what you think and be content with it. If you say something, you have to back it up. The difference from other types of writing is that you shouldn’t be overly reliant on citing other people’s opinions. Refer to your experiences, to your conversations with specialists, make inferences from facts and statistics, but avoid simply saying something like ‘As N says in his book’.
However, a reflection paper is not an editorial – you do not have to explore the topic from multiple viewpoints or refute potential counterarguments. Your job is to express your opinions and give a good explanation of why you think this way.
The purpose of a reflection paper is not just to force you to give a simple two-dimensional report of what you think on a subject – it is not a middle school book review or movie report. You have to dig deeper, get in touch with your inner self, sort out your thoughts and feelings, analyze them to discover unobvious insights and decide what you really think. Do not be satisfied with the most obvious answer – look for something interesting and original to say.
A reflection paper is not a descriptive or expository essay. Your job is not to tell about the topic, but to show it in its interaction with you: how the experience (work placement, reading of a text, exposure to a fact, etc.) changed your outlook, how it influenced your opinions on the subject. Most of your body paragraphs will be dedicated to different ways in which the experience influenced you, accompanied by examples and evidence.
There are two basic ways to write a conclusion for a reflection paper: you may look either forward or backward. The former means summing up how it influenced you and what you are going to do differently in future. The latter means pointing out notable differences between your current views and the way you used to think before the experience, with explanations why you altered your opinions.
Formatting styles are numerous, and the differences between them are not always immediately obvious. This means that making a mistake is easy, especially if you regularly work with several different styles. Bibliography lists are probably their most difficult aspect, because the requirements for entries related to different types of sources have minute yet significant differences. You can make your task easier by using an online bibliography generator, but many other things can go wrong as well. Keep an eye out for:
When writing a paper, it is easy to start jotting down ideas and joining them together. In the beginning it may look that they fit each other perfectly, and in the process of writing you do not see the bigger picture. In a reflection paper, it is particularly easy to steer away from the main topic and start going off on a tangent.
Once you are finished, reread the entire paper and look out for logical errors, inconsistencies and simply the ideas that fit each other poorly. Do all the details promote your idea? Is your evidence relevant for your topic? Do you contradict yourself?
Whatever paper type you write, it is always better to keep your language crisp and clean. Remove everything you do not need and make sure your text is easy to read:
Some students rely on spellcheckers to do their proofreading for them. It is not a very wise practice. While some of these tools are pretty good at finding simpler mistakes, they are still very limited. They do not recognize homonyms and do not understand the meaning behind your word selection, they simply check if your writing is grammatically correct. And even with this task they will run into trouble if the grammar structure is complex enough. Check your writing yourself or hire a professional proofreader, paying special attention to the commonest mistakes in English language:
We hope that these tips will give you a good start to writing a perfect reflection paper on a topic you are truly passionate about!