Through a glass darkly: learning to reflect


Ray Martin’s first experience of being asked to reflect (on her PGCE) was bewilderment. What exactly was wanted? It was never explained. And many years on, it is still difficult to meet a student (right through to PhD level) who has been taught how to reflect. Below is a collection of ideas and models to support the development of this often complex activity.

Published on 12th March 2020 | Written by Ray Martin | Photo by joah brown on Unsplash

‘We believe that the more teachers and learners understand the reflective aspect of learning and organise learning activities which are consistent with it, the more effective learning can be.’  (Boud, et al, 1985:20)

Definitions of reflection vary. Boud et al (1985:19) suggest a three-point activity:

  • Returning to experience – that is to say recalling or detailing salient events.
  • Attending to (or connecting with) feelings – this has two aspects: using helpful feelings and removing or containing obstructive ones.
  • Evaluating experience – this involves re-examining experience in the light of one’s intent and existing knowledge etc. It also involves integrating this new knowledge into one’s conceptual framework. (ibid in Bisson, 2017)

Possible barriers to reflection.  This might be useful when discussing reflection with students. Maybe they could add ideas to it – or maybe they could be given the framework with one or two barriers and asked to brainstorm both barriers and solutions?

Barrier Means of overcoming it
It’s difficult to admit to making mistakes

You may get into trouble if you admit your mistakes

It’s easier not to start a line of thinking that may lead to changes

Reflection is not real work

There is nowhere to reflect quietly

It’s hard work thinking about why things work and don’t work

Enter your thoughts here

From: Lucas, B. (2001) Power up your Mind: learn faster, work smarter London: Nicholas Brealey


There are ethical problems regarding privacy, confidentiality etc; and, without careful guidance, reflection can create harmful emotional responses. There may be particular difficulties for some international students.

Around 29% of university students have mental illnesses; 78% think they have had a mental problem at some point; 1.5% disclose to HEIs (University Mental Health and Advisors Network, UMHAN, 2017)

Emotions may affect reflections negatively, creating destructive distortions of reality.

Those doing creative arts degrees tend to be more exposed than other students (the essay remains private whereas artwork is critiqued in a public space).

‘The activity in such disciplines as architecture, filmmaking, fashion marketing, graphic design etc. has neither one correct end-result nor one way to get there … Engaging with these open-ended tasks is accompanied by an intensified emotional component associated with the uncertain nature of the tasks. Calling for students’ creative individual interpretation to a given task often raises their hopes and personal involvement; nevertheless it also forces students to deal with ambiguity and uncertainty regarding the path towards personal accomplishment.’ (Austerlitz, 2008:21)

It behoves us to introduce Reflection sensitively.

As students and teachers, we can usefully take our own reflection processes seriously too.

Keeping a reflective journal is widely recommended for students and teachers (Cottrell, 1999; Moon, 2004). For those who would have most trouble with this, the journal might take the form of a mind map, be auditory or in bullet points.

Learning Development with Plymouth University.

Their entry on ‘Reflection’ is very clear – as is all their study material. The entry also refers to their useful Model to Generate Critical Thinking.  http:/

 ‘Only learners can learn and only they can reflect on their experiences. Teachers can intervene in various ways to assist, but they only have access to individuals’ thoughts and feelings according to what they choose to reveal… the learner is in total control.’

‘Reflection … is not idle meanderings or day-dreaming, but purposive activity directed towards a goal.’

‘The reflective process is a complex one in which both feelings and cognition are closely interrelated and interactive. Negative feelings, particularly about oneself, can form major barriers towards learning.’  (Boud et al, 1985:11)

Reflective practice is explorative in nature; it includes description (What? When? Who?), and analysis (How? Why? What if?), and can also result in more questions than answers.’]

Succeeding in Postgraduate Study is a free Open University Open Learning course (c24 hours’ duration), which includes useful material on reflection in Sessions 2 and 7. (The whole course might be useful for any students who are thinking of doing a postgraduate degree of some kind.)

There is a very useful table on good and poor reflection in Session 7 3.2.

Three models of reflection

1. Borton’s (1970) Framework for Guiding Reflection

This model for reflection is one of many; it incorporates all the core skills of reflection.

What? So what? Now what?

What? So What? Now what?
This is the description and self-awareness level and all questions start with the word what


This is the level of analysis and evaluation when we look deeper at what was behind the experience. This is the level of synthesis. Here we build on the previous levels these questions to enable us to consider alternative courses of action and choose what we are going to do next.

What happened?

What did I do?

What did others do?

What was I trying to achieve?

What was good or bad about the experiences?



So what is the importance of this?

So what more do I need to know about this?

So what have I learnt about this?





Now what could I do?

Now what do I need to do?

Now what might I do?

Now what might be the consequences of this action?




2.  Reflective framework for professional development and professional practice (Based on Gibbs’ 1988 model)

Phase 1: Describe

      • What happened?
      • What are you going to reflect on? Provide a description of the event.

Phase 2: Feel

      • What were you thinking and feeling?
      • What were your reactions andn emotional responses at the time?

Phase 3: Evaluate

      • What was good and bad about the experience?
      • Make value judgements – you can be subjective, it’s your evaluation.

Phase 4: Analyse

      • What sense can you make of the situation?
      • Use your own experience and additional source materials, e.g. books / articles / videos / blog posts?

Phase 5: Conclude

      • What can you conclude more generally from the experience, and from your evaluation andn analysis?
      • What can you conclude more specifically about your own personal response, situation or ways of working?
      • What wlse could you have done?

Phase 6: Develop actions

      • If the situation happened again, what would you do?
      • What will you do differently in the future, based on the experience you have just analysed?
      • What is your plan of action now? What steps are you going to take based on what you have learned from your reflection?

3. Atkins and Murphy’s model of reflection (1993)

Atkins and Murphy Reflective Model
Adapted from Atkins and Murphy (1993) and incorporating aspects of Fannon, K. (2012) ‘secondary experience’ model of reflection

One further thought: Walt Disney’s Creative Strategy

This has helped some students with poor self-esteem/destructive thinking to separate themselves from their work sufficiently to think about it more or less objectively:

Walt Disney divided creativity into three separate parts, which take place in three separate places.

The Dreamer

First position is you the dreamer who works as if anything is possible. This is big picture, longer-term thinking, focusing on generating the elements of a plan or idea.

The Realist

Moving into the second position (in a different physical space), you the realist visualise/consider how the dream can be realised, seeing the chunks or stages of its completion in a kind of storyboarding process.

The Critic/Spoiler

In the third physical position (again in a different space), you the critic/spoiler consider the potential difficulties or weakness of the plan (and very definitely not the weaknesses of you the dreamer or you the realist). You the critic/spoiler ask yourself what is good about the plan, then what’s missing, what’s needed.

This thinking then loops back into you the dreamer (in the first physical space), who can, with the new knowledge, dream again.

Further reading 

Jennifer Moon (2004) offers a number of resources for developing reflective and experiential learning.


Abrahams, H. and Chappell, M. (2017) Mental Health in Higher Education for Students with SpLDs (Lecture at Patoss Conference, 20 June 2017)

Austerlitz, N. (ed) (2008) Unspoken Interactions: exploring the unspoken dimension of learning and teaching in creative subjects London: CLTAD

Bisson, M. (2017) A Coach’s Guide to Self-Reflection Kibworth Beauchamp: Matador

Bolton. G. (2005) Reflective Practice. Writing and professional development. 2nd ed. London: Sage

Borton, T. (1970) Reach, Teach and Touch London: McGraw Hill

Boud, D, Keogh, R. and Walker, D. (1985) Reflection: turning experience into learning Abingdon: Routledge

Boud, D, Keogh, R. and Walker, D. (1996) ‘Promoting reflection in learning: a model’ in: Edwards, R., Hanson, A. and Raggatt, T. (eds.) Boundaries of Adult Learning Abingdon: Routledge pp.32-56

Boyd, E. and Fales, A. (1983) ‘Reflective learning: the key to learning from experience’ in: Journal of Humanistic Psychology 23(2), 99-117

Cottrell, S. (1999) The Study Skills Handbook Basingstoke: Palgrave

Lucas, B. (2001) Power up your Mind: learn faster, work smarter London: Nicholas Brealey

Moon, J. (2004) A Handbook of Reflective and Experiential Learning: theory and practice London: Routledge Falmer

Schon, D. (1983) The Reflective Practitioner New York: Basic Books

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