Writing assignments can easily seem daunting, and if you are in university and encountering new requirements for your essay, it may feel overwhelming. One of the more challenging varieties is called a reflection paper.
A reflection paper is essentially a student’s written reaction or response to another piece they have read or otherwise consumed. Regardless of whether the subject matter is another written work, art, music, or something else entirely, the object of a reflection paper is to gain knowledge of and reflect upon the work to deepen that understanding.
The tricky part of this style of writing assignment is formulating your thoughts into a cohesive whole that can then fit into an essay format. It is challenging enough to digest the information fully without even factoring in the time it takes to apply your own view of the work and turn it into a written response.
Fortunately, this guide will take a comprehensive look at the requirements of the reflection essay format and help you organize your work with the necessary techniques to make your reflection paper a breeze.
What is a Reflection Paper?
Unlike many other forms of academic writing, a reflection paper is, at its core, an opinion piece. Rather than supporting your work with scholarly sources or quotes, this type of essay requires you to fortify your writing with your own observations, opinions, and personal anecdotes. This format allows you to write from your own point of view, and the incredible advantage of this criteria is that there are no wrong answers.
The most critical element to remember is that this paper reflects your opinion. Your responsibility is to present your thoughts clearly and comprehensively such that everyone who reads your paper will understand precisely where you stand. Furthermore, you can write a reflection paper on anything.
Whether that topic is a thorough exploration of the timeline of the Doctor Who franchise, or if you believe that Pepsi or Coke is better than the other, the sky is the limit with a reflection paper. You can break reflection papers down into three different categories, each of which is highlighted by a separate writing tone.
- The first variety is an educational reflective paper. This category involves writing your feedback on a subject matter with a focus on teaching the reader about the subject.
- The second type is called a professional paper. This style is reserved mainly for those working in education or a similar professional field where there are more strict requirements of the format and tone.
- The final kind is the personal paper. Personal papers are the most variable type of reflection paper and simply explores your thoughts and feelings about any personal subject matter.
Formatting your Reflection Paper
Reflection papers are not required to follow a specific format as they are rooted entirely in your opinion, and needless restrictions can prevent your thoughts from flowing freely. However, if you are writing a reflection paper as part of an assignment, you may have specific formatting requirements defined by your professor.
If you are uncertain if you have formatting requirements but want to ensure that your reflection paper is easy to read and looks suitable for an academic environment, there are some essential guidelines to follow. While the following suggestions indicate the standard reflection paper format for colleges and universities, ensure that you follow any formatting requirements provided by your professor if they differ from this list.
- White 8 1/2″ by 11″ page
- Double-spaced text throughout
- Indent the first word of each paragraph
- 12 point font – Times New Roman is standard
- Provide a one-inch margin on the top, bottom, and both sides of the page
How to Begin your Reflection Paper
For many writers, the most challenging thing is taking that first step and beginning a paper. To ensure a high-quality end result, your first step will be to review the material you intend to write about, take notes, and use those notes to highlight the central ideas and concepts. This step is often referred to as brainstorming, and while it may seem overwhelming initially, it can be a straightforward process and one that will benefit you as you write your paper.
Identify your Primary Theme
Your notes should start with the central theme of the subject. If you are writing a reflection paper about a lesson, experience, or reading for a class, try to summarize the information in one to three sentences. Try to make sure that your sentences are concise and straight to the point but do not lack description.
An example of this primary theme might be: How my views on Quentin Tarantino movies have changed over time.
A description of the primary theme like this will help centralize your thought process. Keep this sentence or sentences in mind as you write your paper and expand on your subject matter. Do not allow yourself to get too far away from that central theme as you develop the rest of your paper.
Note Details Related to that Central Theme
With any subject matter, there will always be standout details that are linchpins to the entire concept. In the case of lectures or other academic subjects, these details may be quotations or especially illustrative passages. If your paper is about an experience or a personal matter, write down any key moments or aspects of the event or story that significantly contributed to the overall concept.
These points do not need to be in any particular order or of any specific length. Use point form to list them as they come to you, and don’t worry if you need to come back and add another one in as you’re going. Check out some examples of this method expanded from the subject listed above.
- I didn’t see Tarantino movies when I was younger and missed the initial wave of interest.
- My parents didn’t care for Tarantino’s subject matter and violence and filtered out that content.
- I was roommates with a guy in college who introduced me to Tarantino’s films without the influence of my parents.
- I watched a video about hidden elements inside of Tarantino’s films which deepened my interest in them.
Remember that a reflection paper is not an autobiography. You will need to explain your thoughts behind the subject matter, but your paper should not read like an account of events as they happened. Your experiences are an integral piece of this kind of writing, and they shape your opinions, so reference them as needed, but do not get too far away from your central theme and topic.
Organize your Information
As you expand on and explore your ideas regarding the subject matter of your reflection paper, you will inevitably reach a point where you need to organize your thoughts, so you don’t lose track of them. You can accomplish this organization through whatever means is most effective for you. Some people prefer to use a chart or a table, while others prefer a list with subheadings. The format of your organization does not matter beyond its ease of understanding to you.
Once you have selected your format, it’s time to categorize things under categories that will benefit you when you start putting your reflection paper together. The first section should list the main points or experiences that you listed in your notes. These elements may include specific details, quotes, or anything you found to be pivotal in your exploration of your chosen subject matter.
The second section should be your direct response to each of the points listed above. Because this is a personal opinion on a subject, remember to mention how your specific values, beliefs, and experiences influence your response. The third and final section should then describe how much of the previous column you want to share in your paper. Not every aspect of your response will be relevant to your reader, so try to prune the least important parts to create a concise explanation of your feelings on the matter.
Take a look at the example of a table-based organization below based on the recurring model in this guide.
|Key experiences||Personal Response||Share with Readers|
|Watching Tarantino films in college.||I was able to watch the films without feeling like I was in any way betraying my parents’ decision to protect me from them.||Seeing Tarantino’s art in college re-contextualized it for me|
Your table can have as many or as few sections as you need, with as long or as short text as you feel appropriate. Remember that these notes are for your use only, so you can provide as much detail as you wish to ensure you stay on the right track.
Ask Yourself Questions to Refine Your Response
As you refine your notes, you may find yourself struggling to pinpoint your exact feelings or thoughts on a particular element and how it relates to you and your reflection paper as a result. The best way to get around this stumbling block is to ask yourself specific open-ended questions to dig deeper into your opinions and how they have been affected.
Some questions that you may find helpful to guide your exploration of these elements are as follows.
- Does your experience or the information provided to you challenge your preconceived social, cultural, emotional, or theological notions? If it does, which ones and how? What about this experience or information catches your attention? Did it do so positively or negatively?
- Has the information or experience changed how you think about the subject matter? Did it conflict with your established beliefs? How did it change your thought process on the topic, and what evidence did it provide you with to do so?
- Did the experience or information leave questions in your mind? If so, were the questions pre-existing, or did you think of them only after exploring the subject matter?
- Were there any issues or elements that were not addressed sufficiently by the person providing the information or those involved in the experience? Are there any facts or ideas that could have dramatically affected the impact or the conclusion of the experience?
- Have past experiences or information contradicted or coincided with the information or experiences of this specific event?
These questions are deliberately open-ended and as broad to apply to as many situations as possible. If only some aspects of these questions relate to your reflection paper topic, don’t worry. The goal of these questions is to encourage you to think about your subject matter from as many angles as possible to ensure that you create an exceptionally compelling reflection paper.
Creating your Reflection Paper Outline
Now that you have successfully organized your thoughts and notes to give you an ideal launch point for your reflection paper, it is time to develop your outline and manage the structure of your essay. This section includes two distinct parts, the structure of the writing and the structure of the content.
In terms of your reflection paper structure, you should consider your introduction as the place where you specify the subject matter that you’re reflecting upon. This section is where you provide your thesis, which should inform your reader about your overall opinion and position relative to your subject matter.
Ensure that you clearly state what subject you’re analyzing, whether it is an experience in your life, an academic article, a lecture, or anything else. Then summarize the topic, and write a thesis statement that will explicitly state how the subject matter has affected you.
The body paragraphs expand upon the ideas you illustrate in your introduction and give context to the overall topic. Begin each new body paragraph with its own topic sentence to ensure that your readers can follow your explanations and keep the entire document organized and cohesive.
If the subject matter you’re writing about is a piece of literature or academia, you can include quotes or even whole passages from those references if you choose. These devices are meant to give your reader a more substantial point of contact to understand your responses properly. If your reflection paper is based on your personal experiences, you can write it with as many or as few literary devices as you choose.
As with the conclusion to any piece of writing, you should use this part of your reflection paper to summarize what you’ve learned from your experience. Use this opportunity to explain to your reader how the knowledge you’ve acquired has affected your understanding and feeling towards the subject at large.
The best way to conclude a reflection paper is to tie all of the ideas that your body paragraphs established together and go over the significant insights you’ve experienced. Then restate your thesis statement and summarize the overall content of your paper.
Writing your Reflection Paper: Step-by-Step
With your outline ready, your notes nearby, and everything ready, it’s time to write your reflection paper. Although the following guide is numbered, it is most effective to allow yourself to move forward and back through the guide as you write. Doing so will allow you to edit and change things as you write to create the best overall flow in your work.
1. Begin with your Main Theme
After you have selected your topic, begin with a summary of the things you have learned about your experience with the subject matter. Explain how you feel about the subject to your readers, and ensure that you provide your honest opinion. Your readers will likely be able to relate either to your opinion or the way you approach the subject matter and give them that will provide a better overall understanding of your work.
2. Use and Expand on your Notes
In the preparatory stages of this guide, you organized the critical elements from your experience and noted the information you wanted to provide in your paper. These may be preconceived notions you had, literary quotes, predispositions, parts of your life that influenced you, or anything that comes to mind as relevant. Use this opportunity to be personal and connect with your ready by writing down how you felt and the ideas you had in simple words.
The introductory section of your paper should also identify any expectations that you had before the information or experience that is your central theme. If the subject is an academic one, indicate how the title, introduction, or abstract concept influenced what you expected. If your subject matter is an experience, explain how your prior knowledge of similar experiences or anecdotes from others shaped your expectations. Remember that your perspective is the entire purpose of a reflection paper.
3. Analyze the Results of the Experiences and Ideas
Take one of the ideas or experiences referenced in the previous step, and analyze and develop it further. Explain to your reader whether you agreed or disagreed with it, why, and how that shifted as time went on based on your experiences and research.
4. Make Connections and Tie Everything Together
As you write and expand upon the ideas and experiences central to your main theme, try to connect them together to form a comprehensive picture. This approach also provides an opportunity to recognize your assumptions and break them down as you develop your body paragraphs.
Remember to explain your conclusions and the understandings that you reached from your experiences. These explanations should provide details using logic and concrete details to provide the context for the shifts in your knowledge.
5. Conclude with your Summary
Your conclusion should describe the overall feeling and understanding that you achieved from the experience or information. It should be succinct, and the findings and insights you illustrated in your body paragraphs should support your conclusion. Although one or two of these may conflict, as this is a paper on your personal feelings, the majority should support the conclusion you have drawn.
Remember above all that your reflection paper is a way to express your opinion and relate it to your life and experiences. Throughout your writing, you should take every chance to be as personal as you feel comfortable with. Though it can be a scary proposition, it will help you connect with readers who relate to your experiences.
General Writing Tips and Techniques
Although reflection papers differ heavily from person to person due to the personal nature of the style, there are some general elements listed below that everyone should incorporate into their work.
Be Careful with your Information
The personal nature of a reflection paper will include your feelings and opinions, which are ultimately subjective based on your experiences. As such, you may involve writing about a personal issue that led to the conclusions you reached about the subject.
Although discussing certain private elements may be unavoidable, it is up to you how generally you write about those events. If you ever feel uncomfortable with anything you are writing about, take a step back and see if you can disassociate it slightly from yourself. Although you should be personal to connect with your reader, you should not do so at the cost of your comfort.
Additionally, you should ensure that the information of anyone referenced in your work is protected with the same level of care that you provide to your own. This consideration is vital for the safety of those individuals and the overall tone of your work.
Maintain a Professional Tone
When discussing your personal experiences, it can be easy to let your subjectivity take over, but try to maintain a sense of professionalism with certain aspects of your writing. As many of the events of our lives are shaped by other people, there may be an individual or entity that made your experiences difficult, uncomfortable, or unpleasant.
Despite their effects on your life, you should maintain a certain level of detachment as you describe their actions, rather than them as an individual. Additionally, it will help if you frame those actions based on how they influenced you rather than on the unnecessary details.
Although this paper style is one of the few instances where you can use the first-person pronoun “I,” you should still adhere to most standard academic guidelines. Avoid abbreviations like “LOL” or “OMG” and other slang, and ensure that you check and re-check your spelling and grammar after completing your paper.
Review Every Sentence
No matter what kind of essay or paper is being written, it is vital that every sentence be clear and well written. You can accomplish this by keeping your sentences focused on one concept at a time. Try to avoid filling a single sentence with multiple ideas. Avoid sentence fragments by ensuring that each sentence has a subject and a verb.
You can make your paper feel more conversational and natural by varying the length of your sentences. Including simple sentences that only have a single subject and verb and more complex sentences that feature multiple clauses will prevent your writing from feeling wooden. This attention to detail will keep your reader engaged while also humanizing your work.
Use Transitions to Write Seamlessly
Transitional phrases are literary tools that shift the argument and allow you to introduce specific details. These phrases also give you the opportunity to clearly illustrate how one aspect or experience links directly to your conclusion or understanding.
Some examples of common transitional phrases include the following:
- for example
- for instance
- as a result
- an opposite view is
Incorporate your Academic Environment
Suppose your reflection paper is part of an academic assignment. In that case, you can include and relate any relevant information that was given to you as part of your classroom studies to it. For example, if you are reflecting on a book that was a subject of study, you can explain how your beliefs and ideologies were influenced by another piece of information taught by your instructor.
This concept can be essential if your work is to be presented to your peers, as they will have the greater context of your work as it relates to your instructor and your classroom environment. Furthermore, it will reflect well on you when your instructor reads your work, which may benefit your overall academic achievement.
Putting down the Pen
Writing a reflection paper can be a very formative experience. There are too few opportunities for individuals to express their opinion in a format that can be so valued and picked up by their peers. The entire process of writing a reflection paper will provide benefit and insight to those who take the time to do so, and there are few better ways to develop your thought process about your own experiences and how to grow from them.
Critical reflection is significant because it can take considerable time and effort to be engaged and purposeful, and it requires as much work as traditional essays and reports. Take your reflection paper as the opportunity to grow, and develop your opinions about the subject matter you choose to write about that it is.