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Critical Reflective Writing in Social Work

by Linda Macdonald, PhD

The Dalhousie Writing Centre

Critical Reflection Critical Reflective Writing Critical reflective writing vs. the academic essay Understanding the assignment Structural models for critical reflective writing Language use Example APA References and additional resources

Critical reflection
Critical reflection analyzes experience by exploring social, political, educational, and cultural contexts and exposing the assumptions that dictate response. Critical reflection enables us to engage in transformative learning by engaging both reason and emotion (Taylor, 2001); to situate ourselves within a broader social context; to understand our values, beliefs, and biases; to work through seemingly contradictory feelings, reactions, and understandings in order to better work with clients; to assess our learning so that our learning informs our practice.

Critical reflection
According to Brookfield (1988, as cited by Clark, 2011), critical reflection involves
1) 2) 3) 4)

Assumption analysis challenging our beliefs and social structures in order to determine their impact on our practice; Contextual awareness determining the social and cultural contexts that influence our assumptions; Imaginative speculation imagining alternative ways of thinking in order to challenge our current ways of thinking; Reflective skepticism questioning universal claims or unexamined interactions by suspending or temporarily rejecting previous knowledge about the subject.

Critical reflective writing

Reflective writing enables us to pursue these critical reflections on a deeper, more challenging level; to confront the challenge of explaining our ideas; to demonstrate our understanding of theory and course content; to link experience and knowledge; to use reflections to inform our practice in the field; to develop the skills necessary to become lifelong learners.

Critical reflective writing vs. the academic essay

Critical reflective writing differs from the typical academic essay writing in several ways. Academic reflective writing makes use of the first person; considers the self an object of inquiry; incorporates experience as a form of evidence; However, like academic essays, critical reflective writing integrates secondary source material; uses formal English; incorporates discipline-specific vocabulary; follows academically appropriate citation and referencing guidelines.

Understanding the assignment

Refer to the course guidelines and the instructor for clarification on the assignment. Expectations for reflective writing can vary. Determine the number of secondary sources required for this assignment. Determine the form of the finished piece. Are you asked to complete a journal? Self-assessment? Learning diary? A more structured research piece?

Structural models for critical reflective writing

Critical reflective writing is the culmination of your critical reflective thinking process; it demonstrates your ability to explore, to question, and to analyze experience and to use academic content to enhance your understanding of this experience. On the following slides, you will find models for structuring your reflective writing. While these models use different terminology to describe the structure of reflective writing, they are similar in moving from an account of experience, to analysis of the experience, and finally to the implications of the experience.

Model A: The DEAL model

Lay and McGuire (2010) adapted Ash and Claytons (2004) DEAL model of reflective writing in social work. Lay and McGuire explain the elements of a structured critical reflection: Step 1: DESCRIBE the experience. Provide details on the event or activity that prompts this reflection. Step 2: EXAMINE the experience through the integration of personal experience and academic content. Using assumption analysis, contextual awareness, imaginative speculation, and reflective skepticism, analyze the experience. Step 3: ARTICULATE LEARNING by responding to the questions proposed by Lay and McGuire (p.550): What did I learn? How did I learn it? Why does it matter to me as a social worker? What will I do in my future social work practice in light of this learning?

Model B: The University of Portsmouth student support model

This model, outlined by Hampton (2010), includes three parts: 1. DESCRIPTION What happened? What is being examined? 2. INTERPRETATION What is most important/ interesting/useful/relevant about the object, event, or idea? How can it be explained with theory? How is it similar to and different from other events or experiences? 3. OUTCOME What have I learned from this? What does it mean for my future in this field?

Model C: Features of academic reflection

Ryan (2011, p. 104) developed a list of elements evident in academic reflection: RECOUNT DESCRIPTION An experience or event is re-told using temporal indicators, such as then or next, and offering initial reactions. An event is described using the language specific to the field. The event might be compared/contrasted with similar events or experiences. How and why the event or experience occurred is explained through evidence and evaluation and with the language of cause and effect (because, therefore, etc.) Possible responses, actions, or changes in practice are presented.



The structure of reflective writing

Reflective writing, then, essentially asks you to look at experience and offer

The structure of reflective writing

You may be asked to create a formal written piece similar to an academic essay in form. This style of response requires an introduction, body, and conclusion. In crafting your response, consider the following (from Ryan, 2011): INTRODUCTION Identifies an issue and why it is important May use theory to explain relevance Outlines key themes that the paper will address BODY PARAGRAPHS Each paragraph Introduces a theme or topic Provides evidence from practice or current literature/theory Introduces multiple perspectives CONCLUSION Restates the issue Reiterates key points Emphasizes the implications of the points May suggest possibilities for the future or suggest changes

Language use in critical reflective writing

The language you select should enhance the content. Ask yourself the following questions regarding your language use. The italicized sections indicate the type of responses expected. In assessing your own work, you should be able to identify clearly the specific language used in response to each question.

Language use in critical reflective writing

(adapted from Ryan, 2011)
How does the writer indicate that he/she is addressing or responding to something he/she has been involved in or observed? Use of personal pronoun I; use of thinking and sensing words such as I feel, I realize, I question, I wonder. How does the writer indicate how the event took place? Use of temporal language, such as previously, first, then, afterwards, subsequently. How does the writer demonstrate knowledge of the social work discipline? Use of terms and technical language specific to the field of social work. How does the writer relate this event to similar incidents of personal experiences? Use of comparison/contrast language (similarly, unlike, alternatively); use of example. (cont.)

Language use in critical reflective writing

How does the writer demonstrate interpretation of events? Use of phrases such as the most significant element, initially I questioned, the relevant aspects were, probably because of, this issue may have resulted in.. How does the writer reason and explain why things happened the way they did? Use of causal language, such as because ,since , or due to the fact that; use of references to literature and practice as evidence. How does the writer look to the future and indicate how he/she will reconstruct and apply new knowledge? Use of words indicating the future, such as will, going to, should, may or can. How does the writer reinforce the implications? Use of phrases such as this knowledge could useful to me as a practitioner because.., this understanding will be important to me as a learner because, or this skill is essential for

Example of academic reflective writing

from The Learning Center, The University of New South Wales
(Description/explanation of method) The field notes were written by hand on lined paper. They consisted of jotted notes and mental triggers (personal notes that would remind me of specific things when it came to writing the notes up). I took some direct observational notes recording what I saw where this was relevant to the research questions and, as I was aiming to get a sense of the culture and working environment, I also made researcher inference notes. (Includes discipline-specific language) (Critical evaluation of method) I found the notetaking process itself helpful, as it ensured that I listened carefully and decoded information. Not all the information I recorded was relevant, but noting what I found informative contributed to my ability to form an overview on re-reading. However, the reliability of jotted notes alone can be questionable. For example, the notes were not a direct transcription of what the subjects said but consisted of pertinent or interesting information. Rarely did I have time to transcribe a direct quotation, so relied on my own fairly rapid paraphrasing, which risks changing the meaning. Some technical information was difficult to note down accurately. (Conclusion and recommendation based on the writers experience) A tape recorder would have been a better, more accurate method. However, one student brought a tape recorder and was asked to switch it off by a participant who was uneasy about her comments being directly recorded. It seems that subjects feel differently about being recorded or photographed (as opposed to observers taking notes), so specific consent should be sought before using these technologies.

APA referencing
Use of secondary sources with proper citations and referencing demonstrates academic integrity and successful engagement in the profession. Use proper author/date in-text citation. Include page numbers for direct quotations. Alphabetize the reference list and use hanging indents. Follow the guidelines for APA 6th edition: es/apa_style6.pdf

References and additional resources

Clark, D.R. (2011). Learning through reflection. Retrieved from Hampton, M. (2010). Reflective writing: A basic introduction. Retrieved from signments/filetodownload,73259,en.pdf Lay, S., & McGuire, L. (2010). Building a lens for critical reflection and reflexivity in social work education. Social Work Education 29(5), 539-550. Reflective Writing. (2008). Retrieved from Ryan, M. (2011). Improving reflective writing in higher education: A social semiotic perspective. Teaching in Higher Education 16(1), 99-111. Taylor, E. (2001). Transformative learning theory: A neurobiological perspective of the role of emotions and unconscious ways of knowing. International Journal of Lifelong Education, 20(3), 218-236. Writing the sociology paper. (2005). Retrieved from