Top tips on reflective writing for social work students

Many students are verbally very reflective, but struggle to explore this in writing. This guide suggests a variety of tips you can offer them

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Reflection is an essential part of social work practice, for students, experienced practitioners and everyone in between. Reflecting allows us to consider different perspectives, consider why something is happening, and learn from our experiences.

Supporting students on social work placement to develop their skills in reflection is one of the most important tasks for practice educators and supervisors. In a new guide for Community Care Inform, part of the forthcoming practice education knowledge and practice hub, Siobhan Maclean of Kirwin Maclean Associates provides a comprehensive guide to different models of reflection, promoting reflective practice through supervision, and quick tips to use with students.

Here, we present an excerpt from the guide about reflective writing. Inform subscribers can read the full guide on Community Care Inform Adults and Inform Children.

Reflective writing

Since academic assessment is predominantly about written work and reflective practice is so important to social work, it seems obvious that assessment in social work education will focus on reflective writing. Many students, and indeed social workers undertaking post-qualifying qualifications, find this difficult. They may well be very reflective in their practice, but often struggle to explore this in writing.

However, as Brown and Rutter (2015) point out, “it is not what you think or do but the way you articulate it [in writing] that is graded.” So, like it or not, practitioners need to develop their skills in reflective writing.

Jennifer Moon has written extensively on reflective writing for many years (for example, 1999, 2004). She argues there are many benefits to reflective writing:

  • It forces us to give time to reflection.
  • It helps to slow down the thought process and so helps us to sift material.
  • It makes us organise and clarify thoughts as we seek to structure the writing.
  • It gives us control over the material we reflect on, as we choose what to include and what not to include.
  • It helps us to recognise whether we really understand something, since we have to try to explain it in words.
  • It records the moment – enabling us to step back and reflect further at a later stage.

Students will need to do some sort of reflective writing around their placement, usually in the form of a practice-based assignment. It can also be useful to ask them to keep a reflective journal. Some students are keen to develop their skills in writing reflectively. It isn’t unusual to work with a student who is verbally very reflective, but who struggles to write this up in any meaningful way. In this situation, there are various ‘tips’ you can offer students:

  • Most students will have a smartphone with the ability to voice record. Suggest they record their thoughts about a case – if you don’t object they could even record a short part of supervision (so long as no service users’ names or personal details are shared). They can then play this back to themselves when they are starting their writing.
  • Ask the student to bring their ongoing reflective notes/ journal entries to supervision for discussion.
  • Share the “highlighter pens” top tip. Many students can do this on their computer – generally I use actual highlighter pens as I don’t like reading too much on screen. The advice is to read through the writing and “highlight” all the sentences which are descriptive in yellow, then highlight reflection in pink, discussion of theory in blue and so on. A good piece of reflective writing will be multi-coloured. If you find that there are “chunks” of colour, such as two yellow paragraphs followed by a pink paragraph, then it is likely that the themes are not well synthesised in the writing. This approach can be really useful for editing too – if the student tends to go way over the word count, then they can see more clearly where to edit the work (cutting down the yellow, for example).

References

Brown, K and Rutter, L (2015)
Critical Thinking and Professional Judgement for Social Work
Sage: Learning Matters

Moon, J (1999)
Learning Journals: A Handbook for Academics, Students and Professional Development
Kogan Page

Moon, J (2004)
A Handbook of Reflective and Experiential Learning: Theory and Practice
Routledge Falmer

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