By Gordon Rugg
There’s a widespread belief in education that getting students to reflect on their learning is a Good Thing. Whether this is actually true or not is another question, for another time. The key point is that if you’re a student, you might well end up having to write a reflective report.
This experience can be challenging, especially if you’re in a discipline like computing, where you might not have expected anything quite so introspective. It’s particularly challenging if the reflection is about a piece of groupwork, as numerous memes about “What I learned from groupwork” will testify.
Many students under-perform when doing a reflective report. However, if you follow a couple of simple principles, then writing the reflective report becomes a lot easier. As an added bonus, there’s a good chance that you’ll get better marks, and even learn something genuinely useful from the experience.
So, what are these principles, and how do you apply them? They involve systematically describing choices. Here, by way of moral support, is a picture of someone making a choice. You may be reassured to know that the choices you’ll be working with are a lot more encouraging…
By Viktor Mikhailovich Vasnetsov – The knight at the crossroads
First, what not to do.
When you’re writing a reflective report, you’ll be strongly tempted to express emotions. One common emotion is searing hatred of the other members of your group. Another is misery. Both emotions are understandable, but you won’t get marks or a happy life as a result of telling the marker just how dreadful you group members were, or how bad you feel about screwing up totally in the task you have just attempted, or how unfair the world is. If you’re feeling that way, that’s what chocolate, cat pictures, and cathartic movies/games are for.
What you need to do is to show knowledge from the task, the module and the course. A simple way of structuring this is to use the T model that is described in more detail in this article.
The basic T model works like this.
Every time you have to make a decision when planning a task, you treat that decision as a chance to show the breadth of options you know about at that point (the top of the “T”). You then choose one of those options, and you tell the reader in more depth about that particular option (the upright of the “T”).
So, for example, if you’re deciding how to collect your data, you tell the reader about the different data collection methods you could use (the top of the “T”) and then go in to more detail about the method that you have chosen (the upright of the “T”). The linked article explains how to do this swiftly and efficiently, and how to combine it with efficient use of references.
That’s the basic T model. One simple way to structure a reflective report is to use the T model twice, combined with some pixy dust from the literature, as follows:
- The T model, looking forward with what you knew at the time
- The T model, looking back with hindsight
- What the literature says about this situation.
Here’s how you do that.
Using the example of choosing a data collection method, here are the steps.
- You first briefly describe the T model you used, and the choice that you actually made. When you made that choice, you were looking forward, with expectations about how it would work out.
- Having done that, you now describe what actually happened.
- You now go back to the T model and say which of the options from the T model you would choose if you could go back in time.
- You also say why you would make that choice now, knowing what you know now.
- You say what you found in the literature that relates to your experiences and to what actually happened.
So, for example:
- Your initial list of possible data collection methods might consist of interviews, questionnaires, focus groups and observation. You write about these, and the arguments for and against using each of them.
- Let’s say that you chose questionnaires; you now write about the reasons for this choice. That gives you the “looking forward with what you knew at the time” part for this section of your reflective report.
- Now, let’s assume that the questionnaires were a nightmare experience, as they often are, and you realise with hindsight that you’d have been far better off using observation. You write about what happened, and why they were a nightmare. This gives you the description of what actually happened, and the “looking back with hindsight” part,.
- You now write about the option that you would now choose instead.
- Finally, you do a quick search of the literature to find whether other people had the same experiences that you did with the method you chose, and to find what they recommended as a better choice.
You repeat this process for every significant decision you had to make in the work that you’re reflecting on.
You can also use the “what the literature says” part of the model to handle common problems such as difficulty getting access to participants, misunderstandings between group members, handling unexpected emergencies, etc; there’s plenty of literature on all these topics that you can draw on to show yourself as someone who has now learned how to deal with those problems.
It’s a simple model, but effective. Here’s what it might look like (with fictitious references to avoid endless wrangles about what the best real references would be). I’ve written the example in the first person (“we” and “I”) rather than the third person passive. If you’re doing group work, this can be very helpful for clarifying who did what.
The text below is at the level you might use for a first draft; for the final draft, something more polished would be needed, with better referencing. There are several articles about how to do this elsewhere on this blog.
As usual, it’s important to remember that conventions and values can vary widely between disciplines. In some disciplines, cool and dispassionate reflections are the ideal; other disciplines, or individual markers, may prefer something much more emotional. As usual, you need to find out what the expectations are for the work that you’re doing, so that you can adjust your style accordingly.
So, here’s a rough first draft outline for the method part of a reflective report, written for a discipline that values cool, dispassionate writing.
“The data collection methods we initially considered were interviews (e.g. Parkinson, 1986), questionnaires (e.g. Norman, 2010), focus groups (e.g. Young & Black, 1972) and observation (e.g. Cassius, 1996). (Top of the “T” looking forward)
“We decided to use questionnaires for consistency in phrasing (Martinet, 2018). (Upright of the “T” looking forward)
“The open text responses to the questionnaires turned out to be extremely difficult to analyse because of the widely varied phrasing used by the participants. (What actually happened)
“If we had instead used observation, this would not have been an issue, because the data would not have consisted of open text responses. (Top of the “T” looking back with hindsight)
“Variable phrasing in open text questionnaire responses has been reported as a problem by previous researchers (e.g. Drang, 2001).” (What the literature says)
The chunk of text is unlikely to win a Nobel Prize for literature, but it shows plenty of knowledge, and it shows that you’ve learned a positive lesson from the experience, and that you won’t make that mistake again. It also makes you look like a mature, capable adult who can handle problems competently, which is usually a good thing, unless management are looking for someone to take on a particularly unpleasant job. That, though, is the topic for another article…
Notes and links
For structuring form and content in your writing, and for showing excellence, the links below should give you a useful start.
For data collection, there are a lot of methods that offer advantages over interviews, questionnaires and focus groups. There are numerous links on this topic here, where there is a brief overview of the issue. There are also numerous articles about this topic elsewhere in this blog.
You’re welcome to use Hyde & Rugg copyleft images for any non-commercial purpose, including lectures, provided that you state that they’re copyleft Hyde & Rugg.
There’s more about content analysis in my book with Marian Petre on research methods:
Rugg & Petre, A Gentle Guide to Research Methods:
There’s more about the theory behind this article in my book Blind Spot, by Gordon Rugg with Joseph D’Agnese.
You might also find our website useful: https://www.hydeandrugg.com/