The Writing Center

Reflection Papers

Professors assign reflection papers so they can see how much you move from point A to point B.  Here are some scenarios:

  • your class readings challenged you to think (or feel) a different way
  • your training asked you to perform a task in a particular manner
  • you watched a film and were asked to reflect on it.

A reflection paper, from a writing standpoint, can be a challenge. In this handout, I’d like to show you some of the ways to do well on it.

Balance Story and Judgments
A famous writer, Russell Baker, once wrote that great narratives move between the story and evaluation:  that means that a writer tells something and then judges.  Often students will just tell the story without putting in a judgment.  The book There Are No Shortcuts by Rafe Esquith is an excellent example.  He tells his story as an inner-city teacher and judges his own actions constantly—he shines a light on his own errors.  For instance, in one chapter, he writes about several honors students he had who treated him badly:  one kind student filled him in on their real character, and from that moment on, he realized that intelligence alone would never matter to him again.  That is an example of balancing the story and the judgment.

Discerning What to Reveal about Yourself
Rebecca McClanahan, a creative non-fiction teacher and writer, said that if you were uncomfortable yourself about some issue, then it was not wise to reveal it to others.  Some cultures don’t favor revealing anything, which can make writing a reflection paper difficult.  You do have the choice not to reveal things about yourself.  In that case, write about the issue itself and the concern you have professionally for the people or implications for workplace effectiveness. 

Gender Issues
In American culture, men are trained not to reveal their emotions because it is a way of being vulnerable.  Many male students can lose points on this assignment because they don’t write enough.  If length is an issue, pull back and consider the larger societal issues or an academic issue.  For instance, if in a physical therapy class you learn how to treat patients with disabilities and then spend the day in a wheelchair and have to reflect on it, you could speculate what it would be like to be there all the time—in other words, give compassion toward others instead of worrying about writing about yourself.  You could also reflect on the difference between your readings for the class and the experience you had—whether the readings need to be modified. 

Time to Reflect
Many students work several jobs, have families, and a variety of classes, which means reflection time can be fragmented or slight.  A faster way to approach this task is to go toward what is uncomfortable (both positive and negative) and make quick notes.  That discomfort might reveal something positive (a new idea, some ability you didn’t know you had), or it might reveal that you were not good at something or had an idea that was harmful to yourself or someone else. 

Suggested Planning Activities
The text box below shows you a fast way to plan your paper.  As you read something in class, watch a film, or participate in professional training experiences, you can keep notes on these three things.  Remember that college-level work seeks to challenge your thinking. 

The Reading, Film, or Professional Experience that I Encountered in My Class:  What Was Challenging—Positively or Negatively

My Own Personal Response and Values

What I Choose to Share and What Is a Professional Response

To structure your paper, consider some of the ideas below:

  • Begin with the most important facet of the challenging reading/activity/film and how you moved from point A to point B
  • Make a focus or thesis of this movement (for example, “From this film, I learned how important it is for instructors to. . . .”)
  • Explain that movement using stories with examples
  • Weave in the readings or professional materials from your class (don’t leave these out)
  • Respond in a professional manner—respectful of others in the readings, the experience, the film
  • Talk to the professor or a Writing Center tutor if you experience a huge conflict in what you are writing about