Learning through Reflection – a guide for the reflective practitioner

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Learning through Reflection – 

A guide for the reflective practitioner 

Andrew Castley 

University of Warwick  


Note:  Written initially in 1996, this paper was revised in May 2005.


Thanks are due to my colleagues Ann Devlin of the Nene Centre for Health 

Education and Dr Stephen Swailes of the Sunlev Management Centre for 

some of the following ideas and sources.


Work-based learning programmes are about learning primarily from 

experience at the place of work. Fundamental to the learning process in this 

context is the ability to reflect constructively on that experience. This paper 

attempts to make that process explicit so that learners are provided with a tool 

they can use to develop the range, depth and effectiveness of their 

professional expertise.


So the paper is essentially for practical use. The first three sections 

summarise the conclusions of a number of commentators, and incorporate 

examples relevant to experience-based programmes which were current at 

the time at University College Northampton. Section 3 suggests practical 

ways in which to reflect constructively on experience. Section 4 presents an 

inventory of questions to assist in each stage of the process of reflection.


1. Boud and Walker (1)


1.1. Feelings.


When reflecting on an event it is useful - often important - to recall how you 

felt at the time. Were your feelings positive, negative, neutral? Were you 

confident, uneasy, nervous, insecure? Were you satisfied, dissatisfied?  Why? 

What particular features, people or behaviour made you feel that way? Why 

did they make you feel that way? Are these factors related to something else 

that needs attention?


1.2. Association.


Link the event to other experiences which may be similar or different in 

particular respects. Use non-critical techniques to make connections, like 

brainstorming, writing, talking, using a tape, before you go on to analyse and 

evaluate them. This way you generate analogies which can lead to insights, or 

you find you have developed your thinking linearly from a previous 



For example: 

preparing students for groupwork might be analogous in some way to 

socialising at a party; or


The way


 you handled a difficult situation at work may have similarities to (or 

specific differences from) situations experienced elsewhere.


1.3. Integration.


In this phase, work with the data provided by the experience and the 

association phase above to explore relationships within it and to draw 

conclusions. Mind maps and Venn diagrams can be helpful in this; for less 

concrete ideas, analogies, similes and metaphors can be useful. For example,


Was the assessment of a particular exercise consistent with its declared 

purpose? Was the preparation of the students consistent with what was 

subsequently asked of them? Was there consistency between the teacher's 

assumptions about prior knowledge and actual prior knowledge of the 



In the processing of examination results, was there effective communication 

between administrators and academics? Were obligations fulfilled? Was full 

documentation available? Was the Examination Board well chaired? In what 



1.4. Validation.


In this phase, test the conclusions from the integration phase above against 

what you know to be true, effective or valid from other experience. Are your 

conclusions consistent with past experience, or others' experience? Its validity 

can also be tested by a version of Einstein's "thought experiments" in which 

you mentally run through a possible application in practice of your 

conclusions. Does it "feel right?"


1.5. Appropriation.


Appropriation means making the learning one's own. This can be at the level 

of a fairly straightforward technique, but is often at a profound level in which 

the learner's world view can shift. "The new learning which flows from 

reflection can not only change future approaches to events, but can also 

affect the behaviour of learners, as well as providing learners with an insight 

into how they learn. Other possible outcomes of this reflection are a greater 

readiness to apply what has been learned, and a deeper commitment to 



For example,


When people are consulted about a new


 idea or development, two things 

usually happen: the idea is improved, and people's readiness to accept it is 

increased. This insight might lead the learner to revise their approach to 

managing a department, running meetings or structuring an activity for their 

students. This changed behaviour is particular to the learner and would be 

highly valued by them.



2Boyd and Fales (2)


The following components of the process of learning through reflection were 

identified by the authors in many respondents in their research. These stages 

refer to learning which takes place at a profound level and affects at least to 

some extent the way in which the learner views the world.


2.1. A sense of inner discomfort.


This could be intentionally provoked by a teacher, mentor or advisor, but often 

evolves apparently spontaneously in the learner. It can be the feeling that 

something does not fit, has been forgotten, is confusing, has too many 

possible alternatives; it is often described as a sense of "stuckness".


2.2. Identification or clarification of the concern.


The reflective learner will be able to convert this vague unease into a defined 

problem or issue. It may happen unconsciously, or the learner may 

consciously explore the sense of unease by writing, identifying "blocks" (why 

don't I make that call? Am I worried I'll get a negative response?; Why don't I 

make a start? Do I think I won't be able to do it?).


"The key characteristic which seems to differentiate reflective learning from 

other types of mental activity (thinking or problem solving) is that the problem 

is conceptualised in relation to self. The individual is aware of and places self 

as the centre point reference for the problem or task."


2.3 Openness to New Information.


Having identified the issue the reflective learner will not want immediately to 

resolve it, but will remain open to new information or perspectives on it. Often 

this openness is as much a feeling, a willingness to suspend judgement, as a 

detached intellectual process. It can take the form of reviewing past 

experience, engaging in lateral thinking activities (De Bono-style), 

brainstorming, discussion, changing activity (conscious disengagement), or 

facing up to a really challenging question.


This is where an adviser or mentor can often be of great value, and where the 

learner working alone can easily miss taking full advantage of the learning 

opportunity. Be proactive here - at least write down your thoughts or discuss 

them with others, always trying to explore and push at the boundaries.


2.4. Resolution.


For an intuitive thinker, this stage is the "a-ha", or relief stage, when the 

learner now feels comfortable with the issue. It can occur apparently quite 

suddenly and spontaneously, or following a period of active thinking about the 

issue. This comfortableness will usually come from an insight, a new 

appreciation of how one thing influences another. This could be at the level of 

technique or process. If this is at a deep level, it might cause the learner to 

change at an equally profound level - It is not unusual for attitudes, beliefs or 

values to change in this process.


For example, in dealing with "difficult" people, one might learn to adopt 

specific verbal techniques; on the other hand, one might come to see kinds of 

"difficult" behaviours in the broader context of their personality, background 

and perspective, and one's attitude towards people generally


 may change as 

a result.


2.5. Deciding to take action.


Here the learner will decide on the relevance or potential effectiveness of the 

new insight to practical situations. How will it work in practice? How right does 

it feel? How will it be received by


 others? Which others are likely


 to be most 

receptive? Which most helpful? Which most objective?


Alternatively the context of this learning may be such that the resulting 

insights merely allowed to rest in the self without acting overtly on it.


Whatever the decision, even negative feedback from others is unlikely to take 

the learner back to square one: changes in the resolution stage of this 

process seem never to be wholly lost.



3. Schon (3)


A third proponent of reflective learning, Donald Schon, suggests that 

reflection-on-action comprises three broad phases: conscious reflection; 

critical analysis; action / new perspective. All commentators agree that 

feelings play a significant role in triggering the reflection and, particularly with 

profound insights, in the final shift in perspective.


Let us use Schon's three 

phases and see the others as elaborations of them. Each phase requires 

identifiable skills or attributes.(4)


3.1. The first phase requires the learner to be self-aware and to be able to 

empathise. That is, the learner needs to be aware of the interaction between 

him / herself and the environment. Whilst these attributes will be among the 

desired outcomes of reflective learning, they will actually foster the learning 

process itself. It seems to be a question of strengthening these characteristics 

through reflective practice.


3.1.1. Honey and Mumford's inventory of learning styles (Honey, 1985) 

together with D. Kolb's experiential learning cycle and Belbin's analysis 

of roles which people take naturally in a group situation,  provide 

practical vehicles to develop these attributes.


3.1.2. The learner must also be observant and able to describe 

objectively and in detail the events of the experience. Keeping a log, 

diary or journal, or simple notes taken during or after the experience 

should help develop both the powers of observation, and self-



3.2. The second phase requires critical skills. The ability to be objective, to 

perceive the actual cause and effect of actions, to challenge and identify 

issues of practice and principle which need to be addressed, all belong here. 

The ability to use theory and concepts in such an analysis is also relevant. 

The following pointers may help establish a process: (5)


3.2.1. Hypothesis testing.


Much of mankind's knowledge has come from hypothesis testing. A 

hypothesis is a statement of the following type:


Students learn best from enthusiastic teachers; or


The best managers specify exactly what is requiredor again  

Having freedom of action in your work is a great motivator.  

Each hypothesis can be tested by research, or by experience through 

what is termed action research or simply by experience observed in a 

less structured way.


But you do not have to rely on the hypotheses of others. From personal 

experience of work or arising from a course of study or training, a 

learner may be able to generate his or her own hypothesis to test. It is 

almost certain that one's "own" hypothesis has already been thought 

of, and can be found in the relevant literature, but this should not deter 

the learner from thinking along these lines. The resulting learning 

experience is the more powerful for being original to the learner, and 

one's own perspective may well be unique.


For example:


I generally work best in the mornings; or I generally prefer 

flexitime; or


Mv students are increasingly instrumental in their approach to their 



3.2.2 Applying theory.


Unlike a hypothesis, a theory is a generalised statement 

resulting from experiment and/or an extensive process of logical 

thinking. For example:   

In the long run, pay is not a great motivator at work (

conclusion from Maslow's work);


Kolb's four stages of experiential learning; Bloom's taxonomy of 

educational objectives.


Any of these theories is testable in a work situation: the main aim 

would be to bring a little piece of theory to life.


3.2.3 Examining rival propositions.


It may be illuminating in choosing between alternative actions to 

formulate relevant propositions in general terms, and compare 

them with your own experience.


For example:


“Class size has no discernible effect on students' learning”, set against 

The more tutor/student contact. the better the potential


for learning”; or  

“When dealing with other people, it is best to be assertive: know where 

you will draw the line”: set against


“Empathise: always hold the 

interests or view point of the person you are dealing with at the front of 

your mind”.


3.3 The final phase requires the skills of synthesis and evaluation - Synthesis 

is the ability to integrate new knowledge with previous knowledge or 

experience, and the insights of others. Frequently a perusal of the literature 

will help in this:


3.3.1. Practitioner literature.


Practitioner literature is often in the form of journals. In all areas of work 

there are regular publications in which people report on some aspect of 

their work. Email user groups, e-forums, mailbases and weblogs are 

major channels of sharing experience. These articles and notes are a 

fruitful way of generating practical ideas and perspectives on your own 



3.3.2. Academic literature.


Books and refereed journals belong to this category. These tend to be 

more abstract, and though using empirical evidence, deal mainly in 

theories, concepts and principles. Principles and Practice of 

Management, Educational Theory, and Educational Psychology would 

be examples of areas of interest in academic literature.


3.3.3. Evaluation  

Evaluation is the ability to set experience or evidence against criteria 

and standards. An obvious general criterion of judgement would be 

"Did I do the job well?" But this is not very helpful. By what criteria have 

you given the answer? Here are some possibilities:  

Was it done on time? Was it done with minimum of effort? Did I 

communicate effectively? How do I know that? Was the work 

qualitatively sound? What am I measuring that against? What are 

others now doing / able to do as a result? What change has been 

brought about? What benefit has that brought? How do I know that? 

How does that job fit in with a broader project?


Some of the ideas we have set out above in "critical thinking" may also be 

relevant in this phase. 


4. Implications for the reflective learner (B)


This is an inventory of questions which may be used to promote reflection on 

an experience. Experience is taken to mean, in the work context, a one-way 

communication, a more complex one-to-one interaction, a project, an 

organisational or administrative process, or a learning exercise. The inventory 

could be used also to plan any experience.


Phase 1: Intentions, and whether you have met them.


  What would have been the ideal outcome of the experience in terms of 

the process (the experience of all participants) and the product (the 



  Did the experience fall short of the ideal? In what ways?  By what 



  Am I recalling all material aspects of the experience? Am I interpreting 

them correctly? How do I  know?


  What are my feelings about this experience?


Phase 2: Critical analysis


  Did I devise or structure the experience appropriately?


  Did I take into account my own strengths and limitations?


  What skills and knowledge do I need to learn to improve the 

experience? Did I take into account the perspectives of others?


  Did I prepare yourself appropriately? Did I prepare others 



  Did I carry out the experience appropriately'? Were my initiatives and 

responses appropriate? Were the intiatives and responses of others 

appropriate? If not, why not? What theory or concepts are relevant to 

the structure and/or to the execution of the experience?


  Did I apply them appropriately?


Phase 3: Svnthesis (integration) and evaluation


  Could I draw any conclusions (make hypotheses?) from the 



  How does the experience relate to exisiting theory, concepts or 

propositions? Does it support or run counter to them? Are there 

implications for how I might apply the theory, concept or proposition 

next time?


  Should I set yourself the same objectives again? Will I approach them 

in the same way?


  What skills and knowledge do I have to develop to improve the 

experience? Does this experience connect with other, analogous 

experiences of mine or of others? Would a look at the literature help?


  What will I do differently next time in terms of preparation and 

execution? Is this a change (i) in technique, or (ii) in attitude or (iii) in 

value (belief) system? What are my feelings about this?



5. Summary.


Participants in work-based professional development programmes are most 

likely to develop and transform their professional practice if they are able to 

reflect purposively on their experience. Knowledge of relevant theoretical 

frameworks. concepts. and principles of good practice are important frames of 

reference for developing professional practice. Also important are self-

awareness and the skills of description, critical analysis, integration and 

evaluation. Thinking around these skill and knowledge areas should help 

participants make the most of their Professional Development Programme. 

The inventory of questions and issues may help in the process of reflection.



Andrew Castley 19.10.1996 

Revised 16 5 2005



1. Adapted from Experience and Learning: Reflection at Work. D. Boud and A. 

Walker 1991.


2. Adapted from Reflective Learning: Key to learning from experience in the 

Journal of Humanistic Psychology Vol. 23 No. 2, Spring, 1983, pgs. 99 - 117. 

E.M.Boyd and A. W.Fales.


3. The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think. 1991. D.Schon.


4. Adapted from Reflection: a review of the literature, in Journal of Advanced 

Nursing, 18, 1188 - 1192, S. Atkis and K. Murphy


5 Adapted from S. Swailes, A Guide to Project Work in Management. Nene 

College, 1995.


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