Genre Guide

Reflective Writing in Applied Social Science


Genre Guide

  1. Introduction

    Reflections are considered very important in applied disciplines such as nursing and social work. When a practitioner reflects on an experience in a professional context, he or she is making or seeing connections between theory, knowledge, experience and practice. This reflection should lead to future action that can contribute to high quality practice.

    As Social Work students, it is important that you develop a habit for and skills of reflection. “Graduates of the BA Awards are expected to be critical, reflective and constructive human service professionals” (Definitive Programme Document 2014 Cohort, Social Work programme, Polytechnic University).

  2. Reflections prior to and during practice

    This genre guide focuses primarily on reflective writing prior to and during practice learning. The trigger for reflection includes:

    • Life-changing events (APSS118)
    • Personal strengths and weaknesses (APSS118)
    • Learning acquired through the course (APSS118)
    • Assessing an individual/family case (APSS2682)
    • Reading a discipline-related article (APSS462)


  3. Structure of reflective journal writing

    Depending on what the experience or substance is for reflection, there can be a 2-step or 3-step framework. In the two-step structure, step one is the triggering event or experience, and step two is your thoughts, evaluations or insights gained from it. In the three-step structure, the third step is future action that you want to take as a result of having reflected on the experience.

    Here are some examples:

    Step one

    Trigger: life-changing event

    Narrating of the event

    My parents divorced when I was eight. Everything changed all of a sudden. My family was not the same anymore, and there were custody problems, misgivings and a lot of negative emotions.

    Fortunately, I was saved from all these turmoil after a conversation with my mother. She told me that no matter how our family has changed, daddy and mummy still loves me so much, and unless I don’t want to see them, I can find my parents any time. Another thing she said was that although they are divorced, she will still be as strict to me as before, because she wants me to know that single-parent family is not a shame, and I am just the same as the others. Coming from a single-parent family is no reason for me to go astray.

    Step two


    Describing the impacts on personal growth

    Although the words from my Mum seem harsh, I gained power from them. From that moment on, I am determined that I will be an optimistic person and a happy girl from a broken family, and I will never go astray as that would disappoint my parents. I fully support my mother’s stance about our situation. A broken family means nothing. It all depends on how you handle it. I am not sad that my family is not perfect, as it made me want to be strong.


    Step one

    Trigger: reading a discipline-related article

    Selection/Summary of key points

    The article reports on findings of a research conducted in Israel about clients’ view of a successful helping relationship. Of the many criteria, one is about the feeling of closeness. The interviewees felt that it was important that they could talk to their social workers like friends, that they could share their feelings and experience freely. So it is important that social workers build a close relationship with clients. This point is illustrated in the article where some clients cried when their relationship with their social worker came to an end.  

    Step two


    Comparing research findings with one’s knowledge or learning

    I agree that it is important that the social worker develops a good relationship with the client. However, we should also keep an appropriate distance with the clients. While the client should have trust on the social worker, s/he must not become too dependent on the social worker. After all, social workers are helping clients to help themselves.


    Step one

    Trigger: reading a discipline-related article

    Summary of key points in the article

    An individual’s resilience is influenced by both risk and protective factors. Risk factors increase the likelihood of future negative outcomes while protective factors buffer against the adverse effects of risk factors and reduce the chance of them happening. Both risk and protective factors are cumulative and have ripple effects and thus lead to further risk and protection. The author reminds us that risk factors can be protective while protective factors can become risk factors. …

    Step two


    Linking theory to application




    Extended analysis

    Considering service users’ ecosystems when making interventions is much more effective in helping them to tackle their problems. If we adopt an ecosystemic perspective, we can stop becoming a part of the micro system and begin to think more broadly and systemically. We will notice the dynamics between service users and their surrounding systems. We can then focus our change efforts at the points of interaction between the service users’ ecosystems instead of trying to change their destructive beliefs or behaviours. Workers can help service users to assess the risk factors in their ecosystems so that they become more understanding of their situations. Yet, some service users are ego-centric and tend to blame the outside world for any difficulties they encounter. Hence, when using the ecosystemic perspective for intervention, workers need to remind service users that they are also responsible for their problems.  


    Step one

    Trigger: personal weaknesses

    Describing a trait in a topic sentence and elaborate using examples

    One weakness in my personality is that I tend to easily give up on things that are challenging to me. For example, I am scared of insects, so I gave up the opportunity to go to Thailand to participate in a mission trip with my church. Another example is, as I was not good at Maths, I dropped my M1 subject when I was in form five.

    Step two


    Relating this personal trait as an obstacle to being a social worker

    Often I can gather the courage to make a start, but I will give up quickly when facing difficulties. I understand that being a social worker, we should have ‘never-say-die spirit’ in helping each service user. We need to have this spirit so that we can affect others’ lives and values.

    Step three

    Future action (to tackle the weakness)

    Detail action points, objectives, and expected outcomes

    In order to help myself overcome my weakness, I have devised two action points. First, before I decide to give up, I will talk to my friends about my situation. This way, I can gain support from them, and this might give me the courage and energy to continue. The second action point is to set up a challenging short term target and force myself to achieve it. For example, do exercise every day. My target is to continually exercise for two weeks. By the end of the two weeks, I should feel good that I have persevered.

  4. What are your lecturers looking for in your reflections?

    It is easy to think that since reflections are personal, “I’ll write down whatever comes to my mind, as triggered by the experience or event”. But is this good enough for your lecturer who needs to spend time reading your reflections?  As your lecturer reads on, where do you think s/he will put a tick against your writing to indicate that a good reflection point has been made?

    If you think about it, you will agree that a good reflection point needs to be related to your discipline and what it is all about. It can be related to your learning, including theories, and models of practice, your skill sets, or your fieldwork practice. Your reflection can highlight or question the connection between theory and practice, or theory and application. Your personal values, beliefs and life experience also count, but relate them to how they impact on your preparation to become a social work professional.   

    So, far from putting down some random thoughts, or allowing yourself to stray away from your own discussion, you need to develop a questioning approach that looks in a critical way at your thoughts and relates them to your learning and practice.

    Here are some guiding questions to help you focus on writing your reflections:


    Guiding questions

    Step 1
    Descriptive level

    In giving an account of the event or experience or substance:

    • Have I included sufficient information to enable my lecturer to follow my subsequent reflections?


    • Have I explained the subject matter or key points clearly and adequately to demonstrate my understanding of the input?

    To enable my lecturer to follow my writing: 

    • Have I used topic sentences to give the main point of my paragraphs, then followed them with elaboration?


    • Have I used plenty of signposting to help the reader follow my narration or description. (e.g. one weakness in my personality … ; another example is …)

    Step 2

    • Generally, your reflections should be at least as lengthy as your account of experience or event in step one.


    • Your reflections could be about theory and application. They should relate to your learning, i.e. knowledge your have already acquired, or to your practice. They can also be related to your personal or professional growth.
    • It is possible to break step 2 down into evaluative and analytical levels:

    Step 2 A
    Evaluative  level

    • What was positive and negative about this experience or incident?
    • What do you agree or disagree with?  
    • What have you learned?
    • What are the insights you have gained?



    Step 2 B
    Analytical level

    • What is the significance? Why?
    • What do the above implications have for your learning, for your personal growth, and/or for your professional development?
    • Theory and application: what does theory say about this?  
    • Can you make sense out of it using your own practice experience so far?

    Step 3
    Action plan

    • What action will you take as a follow-up on this experience or event?
    • What are your goals or objectives?
    • What outcomes will your action points help achieve?
  5. Language features
    1. Use a topic sentence to build an effective paragraph

      A topic sentence gives the main idea of the paragraph, and is usually found early on in the paragraph. Following it are supporting details. Although reflective writing seems like a less formal kind of writing in comparison with academic essays, report writing or proposals, you are still writing for a reader, in this case, your lecturer. State your insight or what you have learned first then explain. This way, your lecturer finds out early on what you have to say, rather than continually wondering what point you are trying to make.

      Here are some examples:

      Step two: reflections
      This interview with the old scavenger is very thought-provoking for me. It told me how wrong my assumptions had been. I never thought that elderly people working on the street as scavengers do it because of boredom, rather than because of poverty. All these sensational stories in the media about our poor elderlies struggling to earn enough by collecting paper boxes have earned our sympathy but we are quite naïve in believing what the media tell us to believe. If we knew that some elderly people are very bored, we really should be looking at the lack of elderly facilities or centres that might have driven some elderly people to find ways to kill time.

      Step two: reflections
      By analyzing Ken’s case, the writer realizes the differences between a counselor and a social worker. A counselor may mainly focus on a client’s mental state and psychological deficiencies. The social worker makes an assessment in a broader manner. Besides testing the client’s mental state, the worker also observes his developmental history, his environment and his interaction with the environment (the person-in-situation view). Social workers do not put all the blame on the client. Rather, they find the underlying problem and solve the problem by changing both the client and client’s environment.

    2. Use plenty of signposting

      Bear in mind that your reader looks for signposting language to help him/her read quickly and easily understand what you have to say in your paragraph. Phrases such as ‘there are two reasons why …’, or transition words such as ‘However’, or ‘As a consequence’, are really useful in signaling what you are going to say.

      Compare the following two extracts. Which extract has more effective signposting?

      Text A
      My life goal is to serve families. The reason why I want to serve families is that my own childhood was not perfect. I also know that I am not the only one. I hope to use my professional knowledge to help families to tackle problems so as to avoid family tragedy. Also, I like children very much. I will be very motivated if my service users are children. I hope they will become robust mentally and physically.

      Text B
      My life goal is to serve families. There are two reasons why I want to serve families.  My own childhood was not perfect, and I know that I am not the only one. I hope to use my professional knowledge to help families to tackle problems so as to avoid family tragedy. The second reason is that I like children very much. I will be very motivated if my service users are children as I want to see them become robust mentally and physically.

      Text B is more effective. The writer announces that there are two reasons early on so it helps the reader anticipate what s/he will be reading about. Text A also uses signposting language like
      ‘the reason why’, and ‘also’, but it is only later on that the reader finds out that there is a second reason, as signaled by ‘also’.  Sometimes, a not so careful reader can miss the flow.

      Examples of linking words and phrases:

      • Listing:
        first(ly), … / second(ly), … / finally, … /
      • Indicating addition or similarity:
        also, … / besides … / in addition, … / furthermore, … / as well / similarly, …
      • Indicating contrast:
        however, … / nevertheless, … / on the other hand, … /
      • Giving a reason:
        there are three reasons for this / for this reason, … / because … / because of …/ due to …
      • Indicating result or consequence:
        therefore, … / thus, … / as a result, … / consequently, …
    3. Introduction and conclusion

      A fairly lengthy piece of reflective writing, around 1000 to 2000 words, should have the structure of an essay, with an introduction, body paragraphs, and a conclusion.

      Introduction: give relevant, general information about the subject matter for the reflections. End this with an overview of how the essay will be structured.

      Body paragraphs (part I): describe, narrate, or explain the event or experience that trigger your reflections

      Body paragraphs (part II): describe, explain, or discuss your thoughts or insights. Include future action if any.

      Conclusion:  summarise all key points discussed in the body paragraphs and close your essay.

  6. Useful resources and links

    “Genres in academic writing: Reflective writing” (

    Signposting, Writing Development Centre, University of New Castle


Copyright 2015 – 16 @ Literacy in the Disciplines

About this website

This website has been developed as part of the UGC funded project, "Supporting and developing students’ English literacy practices in the disciplines” which is funded by the University Grants Committee’s Competitive Funding Scheme on Teaching and Learning for the 2012-2015 triennium. This inter-institutional literacy project aims to examine the provision of English literacy across three broad disciplines in Hong Kong tertiary institutes, namely Social Science, Science and Engineering in the participating institutions that include the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, City University of Hong Kong and the Hong Kong Baptist University. The website consists of a comprehensive support system to help provide a stimulating learning environment for students, content and language teachers. It also aims to help teachers become conversant with disciplinary genres and the linguistic and pedagogical resources suitable in a second language learning environment. The resources on this website will be open to and shared by all tertiary institutions in Hong Kong and beyond.