Critical and Reflective Writing

Library for Educators
10 min readMar 28, 2024

R23–1129; R23–1130


Trainers to introduce themselves, the Library, and the ongoing support offered during the duration of their studies. The content covered in future sessions will be driven by learner needs — ask learners to think about this and mention we’ll return to this idea at the end of the session.

What does it mean to be ‘critical’ in academia?

We talk about ‘critical’ and ‘criticism’ in our work and everyday lives. We might be critical of a government decision, or read a restaurant critic’s review. But what does it mean to be critical in the context of your academic work?

Activity — add a one/two sentence statement on what you think it means to be ‘critical’ in your academic work. Posts are anonymous and we’ll pick up on some points for discussion.

Trainer to pick up on the Jamboard comments — asking ‘why’ questions (why is this important? etc.)

What being critical might look like

Unless you are set the unlikely task of writing a purely descriptive piece of work, you will be expected to demonstrate criticality, whether you are building an argument reflecting on your practice.

Before we look at those examples let’s consider ‘what critical doesn’t look like’ — and how easy it can be to fall into being overly descriptive without adding your own voice.

Example of what it doesn’t look like — descriptive writing:

“It is easy to produce a furniture sale catalogue, to collect facts and to describe what is, but not so easy to produce this ‘critical’ review. It involves questioning assumptions, querying claims made for which no evidence has been provided, considering the findings of one researcher versus those of others and evaluating.”

Bell, J. and Waters, S. Doing Your Research Project : A Guide For First-Time Researchers, London: McGraw-Hill Education, 2014. ​

From the assignment guidance:​

Overall conclusion summing up the critical and reflective elements of the assignment:​

“A conclusion about the relationship between leadership and the quality of patient care and any recommendations linked back to findings in the analysis of observation.”

Applied to an analysis of an idea or the literature:

  • What does the evidence mean?​
  • How does the evidence relate to your argument?​
  • How does the evidence relate to other research?​
  • What are its strengths and weaknesses?

Applied to personal reflection:

  • Going beyond what happened​
  • Why did it happen and why does it matter?​
  • How did it affect what happened next?​
  • What? So what? What now?
  • How does what happened relate to your reflective model?​
  • How does what happened relate to theory and scholarly evidence?​

Preparing to write

Bringing together large amounts of notes and linking these effectively to principles may seem like a daunting task. Taking time to plan your writing will help you to ensure that your thoughts are outlined in a logical order and supported by evidence. This will also help your reader to follow your argument.

You may want to use a mindmap or software such as MindView to help you organise your observations and notes from your reading.


There are 3 elements to the basic structure of critical writing: Introduction, Main body, Conclusion. Each of these serves a particular function for you as a writer and your reader.

The introduction outlines the area you have chosen to study and why it was selected. You should outline how you structured the observation undertaken.

The main body is where analysis of observations takes place. This is also where you bring in relevant literature to support your analysis

The conclusion is where you make recommendations based on your observations and analysis.


An effective introduction should:

  • Identify​ the area that you will observe and analyse
  • Contextualise​ by explaining the approach you have taken and why you have taken it
  • Engage​ your reader by highlighting the significance of this area of study

Main body

You can start each paragraph with a topic sentence which encapsulates the point you are to cover in that paragraph.

Present your observations, using relevant literature as evidence to inform and support your analysis.

To move smoothly from one point to the next, you can use transition sentences.

Academic phrasebank

The Academic Phrasebank is a useful resource that will help you to improve the flow of your writing, making it easier for your reader to follow. This can also help if you find yourself repeating the same words or phrases!


Your conclusion should make clear recommendations based on your observation and analysis. This is not the place to bring in any new evidence or theories but you can highlight where further information or research is needed.


Facilitators to introduce themselves and outline the session. Session will focus on discussing critically reflective writing and reflective strategies to help students with their upcoming assignment.

Facilitators to introduce definitions of what reflection is (slide 4)

I’m sure we are all familiar with what the general idea of reflection is. It is something that we can often over-complicate for ourselves — this definition makes it seems a bit complex! A simpler definition of reflective writing is provided by our previous Royal Literary Fund Fellow, Lizzie Nunnery.

“…reflective writing is a way of ensuring that you’re looking at your work objectively and that you’re always moving forward as a thinker or a writer, always developing your skills” (Nunnery, 2020)​

Many of your assignments contain two parts, usually a critical discussion piece and a reflective piece.

For the reflective part you will need to demonstrate clear evidence that you are able to produce a piece of well evidenced reflective writing. You will also need to demonstrate evidence of critical thinking relating to the supporting literature which you choose to include. This will require you to employ the skills of critical reading and thinking.

My Learning Essentials provides some very helpful resources which will help you to develop and refine these skills.

Reflective writing involves a slightly different approach to writing than in other assignments you may have completed so far. You will need to communicate your own thoughts, experiences, feelings and opinions around a particular topic. While you will be expected to write in the first person (I, me, myself), you do still need to show evidence of critical engagement with the literature, and include evidence which can corroborate, or contrast with, your own reflections.

Activity 1 — What is critically reflective writing

Ask students to discuss and list what they believe are the key elements / characteristics of reflective writing. What would you expect to see in a strong piece of critically reflective writing. (Slide 5)

Share their thoughts in the Padlet

Facilitators to discuss answers/suggestions as they come in and then relate key elements to the balance between academic and journal writing (Slides 6 / 7). Critical reflection is neither solely academic writing (evidence, theories, references etc.) or journal writing (descriptive, personal, feelings), but a balance between the two that links your personal thoughts and feelings to the evidence and theories).

Using a reflective theory or model

Refer to the assignment guidance from tutors (slide 8)
As we have said reflective writing is can often take the form of a learning journal or portfolio of evidence which is what you are also being asked to do.

Once you have made initial notes, you should develop these into a fuller reflection using a reflective theory or model. This helps focus on learning and self-awareness after an event and avoid simply describing or just retelling of events.

Gibbs Model

Introduce Gibbs model as a way to help achieve this balance. Gibbs (1998) model (Slide 9)
A good piece of reflective writing should address a number of key aspects within it: description, feelings, evaluation, analysis, conclusion, action plan, all of which should be present. Discuss the 6 steps of Gibbs

  • Section 1 = Description / Feelings (and a bit of evaluation)
  • Section 2 = Evaluation / Analysis / Conclusions (action plan)

Activity 2 — Ask the right questions

Strong critical reflection is all about asking and answering the right questions. To help generate your thoughts and ideas on the activity being assessed and to think about how you might analyse the event from your own perspective.

Asking and answering the right type of questions can be really helpful in making sure you are giving the reader enough information to understand your own critical viewpoint.

In this next activity, we would like you to discuss and share what questions (or types of reflective thoughts and ideas) you think you should be trying to answer in each stage of the Gibbs Model. (Some examples in the Google Jamboard to help get you started).

Activity 3 — Identifying aspects of reflection

Activity 3: Where does the writer include these 6 aspects of reflection?

Choose two of these key aspects, then read the mock reflective essay (link in chat) to identify where the author has included your chosen aspects. Once you have identified them, cut and paste the text then add it under the relevant heading in Padlet (slide11)

Use sample assignment from tutor. Post link in the chat — Reflection mock up essay.docx
Answers in Padlet

Review the answers in Padlet and discuss. Ask how they found that? Was it easy to see what questions the author was asking themselves whilst writing? Was there a balance?

Final thoughts for consideration:

  • What feedback would you give this to this learner and why?
  • What is good, and what should they do more of?
  • What is less desirable, and what should they do less of?
  • Are there any key aspects missing?

Aspects of reflection : question prompts

You can use this strategy as a way to help ensure that you are getting the right balance /maintaining the tension between academic writing and personal journal writing to show how you have learnt from your experience(s) (slide12)

Add the following link to the chat (document will automatically down load)

Beyond description

Outline that this is the main part of the essay and this is where you will do the ‘Evaluation’, ‘Analysis’ and ‘Conclusion’ steps of the Gibbs model — start to be critically reflective by relating your learning event and your experience of it to the literature and theories. (slide13)

Beyond description:

For example, (looking back at our bank of questions) you may evaluate the success of the learning event by reflecting on questions such as: “what did you like about it?”, “what did you think was effective?” “what did you think was less effective”. You can then start to Analyse your own evaluations and reflections by linking them to evidence from the literature to explain why you think these things worked or didn’t work, were effective or weren’t effective.

Being critical in reflection

Going back to the first lecture a few weeks ago on Critical Writing, we touched up this critical reflective process then. Going beyond just describing what happened but asking questions to understand why and what that might mean going forward — what next or what might you do as a result of what you have learnt or what you have understood. (Slide 14)

Reflecting in depth needs to show both your own experiences and your ability to connect those experiences to the research, wider discussions in your discipline and the experiences of others. This will allow your writing to demonstrate connections between your own experiences and your knowledge of educational theory.

References to how theory intersects and impacts on your reflections should feature throughout your assessment. References to theory should feature in the critical analysis and synthesis sections of your writing.

The key here is to relate your experiences with the theory and using this to answer questions such as:

  • How does my experience link with something that I have studied?
  • How does my experience challenge or substantiate the theory that I have read about?
  • What theories can support the analysis of my experience?

Asking yourself questions like this will guide you to write a deeper analysis that will move your piece of writing into more than a description.

Critical reflection (Rolfe’s et al model)

Another model for questioning that is helpful is Rolfe’s model. This is useful in getting you to really critically reflect on the experience or event by focussing on these three questions: WHAT, SO WHAT, and NOW WHAT

  • WHAT = Description stage of reflection
  • SO WHAT = Theory and knowledge building stage of reflection
  • NOW WHAT = Action‐oriented stage of reflection

If there is time: ask the students to come on mic or put in the chat: What questions can you think of that you might ask yourself under each of these headings?

If no time: just click to show the table.

**Table adapted from Rolfe, G., Freshwater, D., Jasper, M. (2001) Critical reflection in nursing and the helping professions: a user’s guide. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Further support — blog posts and handouts

Listen to our podcast with Lizzie Nunnery to find out how to approach reflective writing and how you can adapt your writing style. Lizzie is a published author and playwright and a Royal Literary Fellow. In this podcast students interview Lizzie on the art of reflective writing and how students can approach this kind of assignment. This should be in your Bb area.

Add these handout links to the chat (automatic download):
Gibbs aspects of reflection model:

Action plan

Further support

Blackboard — links to resources under Library Support

My Learning Essentials

Specialist Library Support



Library for Educators

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