Learning Through Reflection

We learn by experiences that allow us to (Wertenbroch, Nabeth, 2000):

Bridge Walkway

In addition, we also learn by reflecting on such experiences (Dewey 1933). Reflection is thinking for an extended period by linking recent experiences to earlier ones in order to promote a more complex and interrelated mental schema or patterns. The thinking involves looking for commonalities, differences, and interrelations beyond their superficial elements. The goal is to develop higher order thinking skills.

Educators often consider Dewey the modern day originator of the concept of reflection, although he drew on the ideas of earlier educators, such as Aristotle, Plato, and Confucius . He thought of reflection as a form of problem solving that chained several ideas together by linking each idea with its predecessor in order to resolve an issue.

Essentials of Reflection

Hatton and Smith (1995) identified four essential issues concerning reflection:

Critical Reflection

Taking it a step further is Critical Reflection — the process of analyzing, reconsidering and questioning experiences within a broad context of issues (Murray, Kujundzic, 2005). Four activities are central to critical reflection (Brookfield 1988):

Encouraging Reflection

Most educators believe that reflection is useful in the learning process, even without the supporting research data. However, it is often difficult to encourage reflection among the learners. Gustafson and Bennett (1999) found that promoting reflection among military cadets by means of written responses in diaries or journals was difficult. Cadets across three different years generally did not produce responses indicating any deep reflection. Although the results were disappointing, they are consistent with the research literature that suggests promoting reflection is difficult to accomplish (Stamper, 1996).

In their work, Gustafson and Bennett (1999) identified variables that affected the cadets' lack of reflective behavior. These eleven variables are grouped into three main characteristics:

Learner Characteristics

1. Learner's skill and experience in reflective thinking

The ability to reflect is a learned behavior that is cultivated by the individual over a period of time. How reflective an individual can become is probably a personality trait. However, designing appropriate learning experiences can develop reflecting skills.

2. Breadth of learner's knowledge of the content area

The ability to reflect on a specific topic is directly proportional to how much one already knows. If a learner's schema for a topic is limited, then there is less ability to relate new information to it.

3. Learner's motivation to complete the reflection task

Both internal and external sources of motivation affect the quality of reflection. Internal motivation by nature is difficult to elevate and even more difficult to accurately estimate or measure. External strategies, such as creating a mental challenge, organizing the learners into pairs, or forming competitive teams enhance motivation, but the effectiveness of these and other strategies for promoting reflection awaits verification.

4. Mental preparation (mental set) for reflecting

Although the mental set of the individual might be considered a motivational variable, it is described separately to highlight its probable importance to promoting reflection.

5. Degree of security felt in reporting actual reflections versus perceived desired responses

When there is confidence in the professionalism and integrity of reviewers, the amount and quality of responses are enhanced. This is particularly true when items call for making judgments about the worth of an activity or the quality of the instruction. This type of reflection can be used to promote thinking about what was and was not included that the learner wanted or needed to learn, what the designer of the instruction may have incorrectly assumed about the learner's entering knowledge or skill, or why the instruction was or was not effective.

Environmental Characteristics

6. Physical environment in which reflection occurs

The opportunity for the learner to establish an appropriate mental set for reflecting is related to the nature of the physical environment in which reflection is expected to take place. Other factors may contribute to a poor physical environment, such as competing stimuli (e.g. televisions, personal conversations, ambient noise, poor ventilation, high or low temperature, uncomfortable furniture).

7. Interpersonal environment in which reflection occurs

Environments that promote interpersonal interaction may result in greater reflection (Bandura, 1977). Social interaction may enhance motivation and prolong engagement with the task. Social interaction would almost certainly bring forth more information and ideas that could be shared and perhaps result in deeper thinking about the subject. This interaction might take place during the learning activity or it may occur later in formal or informal group discussions.


Reflection Task Characteristics

8. Nature of the stimulus questions, directions, or probes

The nature of the stimulus to reflect will impact the quality of the reflection. Surbeck, Han, and Moyer (1991) identified three levels of reflection:

  • Reacting - commenting on feelings towards the learning experience, such as reacting with a personal concern about an event.
  • Elaborating - comparing reactions with other experiences, such as referring to a general principle, a theory, or a moral or philosophical position.
  • Contemplating - focusing on constructive personal insights or on problems or difficulties, such as focusing on education issues, training methods, future goals, attitudes, ethical matters, or moral concerns. The nature of the stimulus or directions initially provided to the learners, as well as the feedback they receive after the initial reflection, will determine the extent to which they reach the contemplation level of reflection.

9. Format required for reporting reflections

Yinger and Clark (1981) believe that reflection results written down are more powerful than reporting them orally. However, handwriting is slow, requires a writing surface, and revisions or extensions of what has been recorded are less likely than for products produced on a word processor. Word processing has the advantage of easy revision, but requires that equipment be readily available.

10. Quality of the feedback provided following reflection

Feedback takes several forms, ranging from no feedback, to acknowledging that the work was done, to commenting on how well it was done, to extending beyond or elaborating on what was submitted.

11. Consequences of Reflecting

Zeichner and Liston (1996) posited a five-part taxonomy of reflection, of which reflection upon completion of the action is only one type:

  1. Rapidly during an action.
  2. Thoughtfully during an action.
  3. Briefly as a review after action.
  4. Systematically over a period of time after action.
  5. Long-term as one attempts to develop formal or informal theory.

Fostering Reflection

Of the eleven variables listed above, number 7 - Interpersonal Environment, may hold the most promise for encouraging reflection. 

Hatton and Smith (1995) observed students undertaking a four-year secondary Bachelor of Education degree. They were required to complete several activities designed to encourage reflection. The activities included peer interviews in "critical friend" dyads and written reports where they reflected upon the factors that had influenced their thinking and action.

Their research indicated that engaging with another person in a way that encourages talking with, questioning, or confronting, helps the reflective process by placing the learner in a safe environment so that self-revelation may take place.

In addition, students were able to distance themselves from their actions, ideas, and beliefs, by holding them up for scrutiny in the company of a peer with whom they are willing to take such risks.

The study also identified a framework for four types of writing, the first one is non-reflective, while the other three are characterized as different kinds of reflection.

Strategies for Fostering Reflection

Hatton and Smith (1995) reported four activities that in in the process of reflection:

However, although these strategies have the potential to encourage reflection, there is little research evidence to show that this is actually being achieved.

Fact questions that are obvious do not promote reflection (e.g., what are the functional areas of a manufacturing plant?). In addition, posing hypothetical situations produced similarly disappointing results (e.g., Assume you have inherited a significant sum of money and wish to buy land in an environmentally sensitive area on which to build. What factors will go into your decision and why?).

In contrast, the most successful probe is asking learners to write a one page letter to a parent, sibling or other significant person in their lives describing a recent experience or event.


Extending evaluative feedback might have even more powerful effects. Providing probes may cause the learner to continue to think about the topic, such as:

Pointing out other possibilities may also result in additional thinking about relationships among factors not previously considered, such as: 

Although such feedback may be provided via written comments, they are normally the most powerful when used in interpersonal dialogue. Carrying on a dialogue with one or more learners about the work they have submitted is probably the ultimate in promoting reflection via feedback. But the logistics of doing so and having discussion leaders who are skilled in the content and possess good interpersonal skills may be beyond the capacity of the system to provide; unless it is computer mediated in some way.

Other hints for encouraging reflection include:

Next Step

Critical Thinking

Learning Essays


Bandura, A. (1977). Social Learning Theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Brookfield, S. (1988). Developing Critically Reflective Practitioners: A Rationale for Training Educators of Adults. Training Educators of Adults: The Theory and Practice of Graduate Adult Education. Brookfield (Ed). New York: Routledge.

Dewey, J. (1933). How We Think: A Restatement of the Relation of Reflective Thinking to the Educative Process. Boston: D.C. Heath.

Gustafson, K., Bennett, W. (1999). Issues and Difficulties in Promoting Learner Reflection: Results from a Three-Year Study. http://it.coe.uga.edu/~kgustafs/document/promoting.html

Hatton, N., Smith, D. (1995). Reflection in Teacher Education: Towards Definition and Implementation. The University of Sydney: School of Teaching and Curriculum Studies. http://www2.edfac.usyd.edu.au/LocalResource/Study1/hattonart.html

Zeichner, K., Liston, D. (eds.) (1996). Reflective Teaching: An Introduction. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Murray, M., Kujundzic, N., (2005). Critical Reflection: A Textbook For Critical Thinking. Québec, Canada: McGill-Queen's University Press.

Stamper, C. (1996). Fostering Reflective Thinking Through Computer Mediated Journaling. Unpublished doctoral dissertation. Tempe: Arizona State University.

Surbeck, E., Park Han, E., Moyer, J. (1991). Assessing Reflective Responses in Journals. Educational Leadership. March, 25-27.

Yinger, R., Clark, M. (1981). Reflective Journal Writing: Theory and Practice. East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University. Institute for Research on Teaching (Occasional Paper No. 50). .

Wertenbroch, A., Nabeth, T. (2000). Advanced Learning Approaches and Technologies: The CALT Perspective. http://www.insead.fr/CALT/Publication/CALTReport/calt-perspective.pdf