How do I self-reflect?
What should I reflect on?
The first decision to make is ‘what experience or part of an experience should I reflect on’?
The process begins with considering a particular experience and then identifying activities, events, incidents, tasks or situations that occurred as part of that experience. Essentially, you are identifying something that has happened to you, or you were involved in, that could be a learning opportunity. Once you have pinpointed a particular incident or challenging situation you can then go on to consider how you have developed and what you can now do – or do better – as a result.
What counts as a learning opportunity?
If you’re wondering what ‘counts’ as a learning opportunity, think of it like this: If you felt like you were pushed even slightly out of your comfort zone, or you weren’t sure how to handle a situation, then the experience is likely to be a chance for learning. If you were motivated to take action of some kind, then it was definitely a learning opportunity.
Think about situations that had an impact on you.
Was the situation new or challenging?
Were you motivated to take action?
This is a learning opportunity!
We tend to think of our experiences in general terms such as:
- Casual job at the bookstore
- Being a mentor for new students
- Taking part in a hackathon or pitching competition
- Volunteering at the local animal shelter
- Engaging in representative level sport
- President of a student association
However, each of these examples is actually made up of many situations, activities, incidents and tasks that may have pushed you outside your comfort zone and therefore may be learning opportunities.
In fact, it is often substantially easier to reflect on one of these smaller instances or situations than to try to reflect on the more general overall experience.
- Name a general experience that you have been involved in over the last 12 months. E.g. Engaged in a research project over the summer break.
- Break this ‘general’ experience into its components. E.g.
- Met with my research supervisor to determine the work to be done;
- Embarked on data collection;
- Worked with the research team to analyse the data;
- Prepared a report on the findings;
- Presented the report to supervisor and colleagues.
- Review this list. Were any of these ‘parts’ of the experience new or challenging for you or pushed you outside your comfort zone? Which ones?
If you answer YES then the particular part of the experience that pushed you outside your comfort zone is a potential learning opportunity and could be reflected on to determine if any employability development occurred.
Learning opportunity examples
You are the president of your student club and you are having trouble with people not volunteering for fundraising activities. This is really frustrating for you and you realise that the club won’t function if you can’t get volunteers. You are motivated to solve this problem and you end up introducing an incentive scheme.
Was this a learning opportunity? YES! It had an impact on you and you were motivated to take action.
This situation could still be a learning opportunity even if you failed to take action but recognised in hindsight that you should have.
If we take the broad experiences mentioned earlier, here are some possible learning experiences from each of them:
- Casual job at the bookstore > > dealing with a difficult customer
- Being a mentor for new students > > trying to draw out a student who is reluctant to engage
- Taking part in a hackathon or pitching competition > > Pitching your idea in front of strangers
- Volunteering at the local animal shelter > > keeping emotions in check when faced with cruelty
- Engaging in representative level sport > > being unsuccessful at a major event
- President of a student association > > developing a member engagement strategy
If you are in a situation and you feel uncomfortable or you are finding something difficult – flag that moment! That is something that is a potential learning opportunity for you.
Write down 4 experiences that you have had in the last 12 months and identify one potential learning opportunity for each.
The key to good reflective writing is to move beyond just describing what happened. You do need to do some describing, in order to provide some context for your learning, but the writing isn’t reflective if you haven’t considered why things happened and what the consequences were, and what you have learned from a particular experience.
Reflective writing is a personal account. When writing self-reflection, use personal pronouns (I, we) and concentrate on what you think about the situation, even if that involves considering the actions of others and how they may inform the way you might do things differently in the future. You are contemplating an experience rather than arguing a particular view and justifying it with evidence.
Self-awareness is a key part of self-reflection as you need to know yourself and why you behaved the way you did. Self-awareness is also important for employability as it allows you to monitor your behaviour and attitudes and adjust according to the context and the requirements of the task at hand. It also helps you better cope with constructive criticism and learn from your mistakes.
Here is a summary of the key characteristics of good reflective writing:
- Think about what happened in a given situation – describe what happened but also think about why things happened the way they did, what you might do differently in the future, and what you learned.
- There is no right or wrong answer – it is what YOU got out of an experience
- Remember the ‘so what’ factor – don’t just describe what happened but evaluate what it all means and how and why it is important for your development.
- Be honest– it’s OK to admit to your successes and your mistakes. The important thing is to demonstrate that you understand why things happened and what you did or can do to improve.
- Be selective– you don’t have to write about every little detail of what happened, just the key events or ideas.
- Look to the future– it is vital that you consider what happened in the past and how it will have an impact on the way you think or behave in the future.
Take a look at this example of good reflective writing.
Once you have identified what you want to reflect on you may be asking yourself – what do I do now?
There are many well-known models of self-reflection, some of which you may have encountered as part of your studies. These models provide prompts or questions to guide your reflection and to enable deeper consideration of a particular experience or situation, or to direct your reflection in a way that will lead to a better understanding of your behaviour in a particular context.
It is also possible to engage in free-form self-reflection where you are reflecting on a situation or experience with no particular structure.
The University of Edinburgh reflection website provides a useful list of reflective tools and models.
Over years of supporting students to self-reflect for employability development at The University of Queensland, we found that many students appreciate a simple self-reflective structure to guide them through the process, so we developed a particular model of self-reflection for employability development intentionally designed to uncover specific learning relating to employability – SEAL.
SEAL process of self-reflection
The SEAL process of self-reflection, as shown below, helps you to unpack a particular learning opportunity in order to understand the employability development that has occurred.
As with all self-reflection, there is no right or wrong answer – it is what you personally got out of an experience.
Through this self-reflection, you will better understand how your experiences can develop the attitudes and behaviours that enable effective performance in work environments.
As you progress through your career, you can and should continue to self-reflect on your experiences and use this learning to improve workplace performance and to guide your career journey.
What happened during the event, incident, activity, or task?
What were the new experiences you had to deal with or the challenges faced, and what impact did they have on you?
What did you learn from it -- what can you now do as a result and what do you need to do to handle a similar situation again in the future? How has the experience added to the ones you have already had in terms of your development?
Read through some of the SEAL examples provided here to see how other students have used the process to structure their reflections.
Hopefully, no matter what, you will have gained a better understanding of yourself from reflecting on the experience. Take the learning, even if you don’t think it is significant, and use it to guide your actions in the future or to consider how you might do things differently.
Your turn to do SEAL.
- Select the learning opportunity that you would like to reflect on (you might like to use one of those that you listed in a previous exercise)
- Work through the self-reflective process using the SEAL worksheet, writing out your responses.
Identifying capability development through your reflection
The next step is to consider the learning from your experiences in terms of specific competencies, capabilities or attributes that you may have developed as a result of your experiences and your self-reflection on them.
To help with this process of identifying capabilities and attributes from your reflection it can be helpful to consider employer expectations in your preferred career or discipline area.
We prefer to use the term capabilities rather than skills, however when identifying what you have learned from an experience using SEAL, it makes sense to use the language of employers, and that means talking about ‘skills’ as well as personal qualities. Thinking about your learning as skills (and personal qualities) helps you connect it to the things that employers value and that are found on selection criteria for positions.
The L is the most important part of the SEAL self-reflective process, as it is where we can see what development has been gained from the situation.
- Look back at the self-reflection that you wrote in the last section. In particular, re-read your ‘L’ of SEAL.
- Highlight or list out the capabilities that you have identified.
- Can you see words or phrases that indicate that you have drawn on a particular ability or personal quality to manage the situation?
- Have you used any words that link back to employer expectations in your field?
- What do you think that you can now do as a result of dealing with this challenging situation?
Example of SEAL capability development:
I learned that I sometimes have problems with nerves when communicating in stressful situations and that planning out what I am going to say and trying to anticipate responses helps me settle those nerves and feel more confident about communicating effectively and professionally. I would use this strategy again in the future when preparing for important meetings or presentations.
On the surface, the student has definitely improved her communication skills as a result of the learning from her experience in the summer research project. But if you look more closely at her reflection, you can see that in devising a script to deal with her nerves, she has developed problem-solving skills, she took initiative to try to address her nerves, and her confidence has improved. She is also able to plan a communication event to anticipate responses which shows that she is proactive.
You may also notice that there are particular capabilities that are expected from graduates in roles you hope to enter but you have not seemed to drawn on these in the experiences that you have reflected on. This is an opportunity for you to engage in other experiences to try to gain these capabilities that might be ‘missing’.