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Critical Reflection

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Writing Critical Reflection

Reflective writing is a common genre in classrooms across disciplines. Reflections often take the form of narrative essays that summarize an experience or express changes in thinking over time. Initially, reflective writing may seem pretty straightforward; but since reflective writing summarizes personal experience, reflections can easily lose their structure and resemble stream-of-consciousness journals capturing disjointed musings focused on only the self or the past.  

Critical reflection still requires a writer to consider the self and the past but adopts an argumentative structure supported by readings, theories, discussions, demonstrated changes in material conditions, and resources like post-collaboration assessments, testimonial evidence, or other data recorded during the collaboration. Common arguments in critical reflections present evidence to demonstrate learning, contextualize an experience, and evaluate impact. While critical reflections still require authors to reflect inwardly, critical reflection goes beyond the self and examines any relevant contexts that informed the experience. Then, writers should determine how effectively their project addressed these contexts. In other words, critical reflection considers the “impact” of their project: How did it impact the writer? How did it impact others? Why is the project meaningful on a local, historical, global, and/or societal level? How can that impact be assessed? 

In short: reflection and critical reflection both identify the facts of an experience and consider how it impacts the self. Critical reflection goes beyond this to conceive of the project’s impact at numerous levels and establish an argument for the project’s efficacy. In addition, critical reflection encourages self-assessment—we critically reflect to change our actions, strategies, and approaches and potentially consider these alternative methods. 

Collecting Your Data: Double-Entry Journaling

Double-entry journaling is a helpful strategy for you to document data, observations, and analysis throughout the entire course of a community-based project. It is a useful practice for projects involving primary research, secondary research, or a combination of both. In its most basic form, a double-entry journal is a form of notetaking where a writer can keep track of any useful sources, notes on those sources, observations, thoughts, and feelings—all in one place. 

For community-based projects, this might involve: 

  • Recording your observations during or after a community partner meeting in one column of the journal. 
  • Recording any of your thoughts or reactions about those observations in a second column.  
  • Writing any connections you make between your observations, thoughts, and relevant readings from class in a third column. 

This allows you to document both your data and your analysis of that data throughout the life of the project. This activity can act as a blueprint for your critical reflection by providing you with a thorough account of how your thinking developed throughout the life of a project.  

The format of a double-entry journal is meant to be flexible, tailored to both your unique notetaking practice and your specific project. It can be used to analyze readings from class, observations from research, or even quantitative data relevant to your project. 

Just the Facts, Please: What, So What, Now What

Getting started is often the hardest part in writing. To get your critical reflection started, you can identify the What, So What, and Now What? of your project. The table below presents questions that can guide your inquiry. If you’re currently drafting, we have a freewriting activity below to help you develop content. 


  • Describe the who, what, where, when, why.
  • Did you partner with anyone? Who did your project serve? 
  • What need/problem did you address?  
  • What happened? What did you do? 
  • What did you expect?  
  • What was your reaction?  
  • What results did you get (or expect to get)?  

So What? 

  • What community impact did your project have?  
  • What personal impact did the project have on you? 
  • How did the experience develop your understanding? 
  • Did your experience challenge your previous understanding? 
  • What strengths of your own did you discover?  
  • Did you discover any weaknesses?  
  • Why did your work matter?  
  • What systemic factors did you notice?

Now What? 

  • What are you going to do as a result of this experience? 
  • How can you harness your strengths for future projects? 
  • How could you develop personal weaknesses?  
  • How would you do the project differently if you repeated it? 
  • Where and how can you apply what you have learned?


Freewrite your answers to these questions; that is, respond to these questions without worrying about grammar, sentence structure, or even the quality of your ideas. At this stage, your primary concern is getting something on the page. Once you’re ready to begin drafting your critical reflection, you can return to these ideas and refine them. 

Below are some additional prompts you can use to begin your freewriting. These reflection stems can organize the ideas that you developed while freewriting and place them in a more formal context. 

  • I observed that... 
  • My understanding of the problem changed when... 
  • I became aware of (x) when.... 
  • I struggled to... 
  • The project's biggest weakness was… 
  • The project's greatest strength was… I learned the most when... 
  • I couldn't understand... 
  • I looked for assistance from... 
  • I accounted for (x) by... 
  • I connected (concept/theory) to... 
  • (Specific skill gained) will be useful in a professional setting through… 

Analyzing Your Experience: A Reflective Spectrum

Your critical reflection is a space to make an argument about the impact of your project. This means your primary objective is to determine what kind of impact your project had on you and the world around you. Impact can be defined as the material changes, either positive or negative, that result from an intervention, program, or initiative. Impact can be considered at three different reflective levels: inward, outward, and exploratory.

Image portraying types of reflection (inward, outward, exploratory) 

Inward reflection requires the writer to examine how the project affected the self. Outward reflection explores the impact the project had on others. Additionally, you can conceptualize your project’s impact in relation to a specific organization or society overall, depending on the project’s scope. Finally, exploratory reflection asks writers to consider how impact is measured and assessed in the context of their project to ultimately determine: What does impact look like for the work that I’m doing? How do I evaluate this? How do we store, archive, or catalog this work for institutional memory? And what are the next steps? 

This process is cyclical in nature; in other words, it’s unlikely you will start with inward reflection, move to outward reflection, and finish with exploratory reflection. As you conceptualize impact and consider it at each level, you will find areas of overlap between each reflective level.  

Finally, if you’re having trouble conceptualizing impact or determining how your project impacted you and the world around you, ask yourself:  

  1. What metrics did I use to assess the "impact" of this project? Qualitative? Quantitative? Mixed-methods? How do those metrics illustrate meaningful impact? 
  1. How did the intended purpose of this project affect the types of impact that were feasible, possible, or recognized? 
  1. At what scope (personal, individual, organizational, local, societal) did my outcomes have the most "impact"? 

These questions can guide additional freewriting about your project. Once you’ve finished freewriting responses to these questions, spend some time away from the document and return to it later. Then, analyze your freewriting for useful pieces of information that could be incorporated into a draft. 

Drafting Your Critical Reflection

Now that you have determined the “What, So What, Now What” of your project and explored its impact at different reflective levels, you are ready to begin drafting your critical reflection. 

If you’re stuck or find yourself struggling to structure your critical reflection, the OWL’s “Writing Process[embeded link] resource may offer additional places to start. That said, another drafting strategy is centering the argument you intend to make. 

Your critical reflection is an argument for the impact your project has made at multiple levels; as such, much of your critical reflections will include pieces of evidence to support this argument. To begin identifying these pieces of evidence, return to your “reflection stem” responses. Your evidence might include: 

  1. How a particular reading or theory informed the actions during your partnership; 
  1. How the skills, experiences, or actions taken during this partnerhsip will transfer to new contexts and situations; 
  1. Findings from your evaluation of the project; 
  1. Demonstrated changes in thoughts, beliefs, and values, both internally and externally; 
  1. And, of course, specific ways your project impacted you, other individuals, your local community, or any other community relevant to the scope of your work. 

As you compile this evidence, you will ultimately be compiling ways to support an argument about your project’s efficacy and impact. 

Sharing Your Critical Reflection

Reflective writing and critical reflections are academic genres that offer value to the discourse of any field. Oftentimes, these reflective texts are composed for the classroom, but there are other venues for your critical reflections, too. 

For example, Purdue University is home to the Purdue Journal of Service-Learning and International Engagement (PJSL) which publishes student reflective texts and reflections with research components. Although PJSL only accepts submissions from Purdue students, other journals like this one may exist at your campus. Other venues like the Journal of Higher Education Outreach and Impact publish reflective essays from scholars across institutions, and journals in your chosen discipline may also have interest in reflective writing. 

Document explaining the theories, concepts, literature, strategies that informed the creation of this content page.