Definitions, models and theories 1

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Reflection and learning

What is reflection?

Most of us would probably think of ‘what we see when we look in a mirror’ as the answer to this question.

The Oxford Dictionary does indeed have a definition very similar to that, but also includes

serious thought or consideration’ (OUP 2009)

This suggests something which is more than what we see or think about on the surface, and we believe that deeper, more thoughtful reflection is the key to Reflective Practice. We are not suggesting that there is one type of reflection which is the only one which works.

This set of resources intends to help you come to your own conclusions which approaches may suit you best.

Use the approaches and ideas which help you, your teaching and your students the most.

Here are some ideas about reflection from a variety of writers:

Moon (2004 p82), has coined the term ‘common sense reflection’ to describe one basic level of thinking:

Roffey-Barentsen and Malthouse (2009: p4) explain what they believe common sense reflection as below:

It is the thoughts that occur to us during our day-to-day living, perhaps following a different lesson or a particularly challenging student. It is the thoughts we cannot put down after a difficult encounter with an aggressive student or the muses we choose to have when we feel we could do better and try to work out exactly how. After these events you may think about the situation in terms of what went well and what did not. You could consider the behaviour of the students or how well a particular exercise went.

.. If you were to reflect on something in this way you may describe what happened, what you did, what others did in response and what you did after that, and then describe how you felt about it.

Boud, Keogh and Walker (1985: p43) suggest reflection can yield more when it is more purposeful:

Reflection is an important human activity in which people recapture their experience, think about it, mull over & evaluate it. It is this working with experience that is important in learning.

Andrew Pollard continues to emphasise a more focussed form of reflection when he refers to one of the best known 20th century education thinkers, John Dewey.

Dewey (1933) contrasted ‘routine action’ with ‘reflective action’. According to Dewey routine action is guided by factors such as tradition, habit and authority and institutional definitions and expectations.

By implication it is relatively static and is thus unresponsive to changing priorities and circumstances.

Reflective action, on the other hand, involves a willingness to engage in constant self appraisal and development. Among other things it implies flexibility, rigorous analysis and social awareness.
(Pollard 2005: p13)

Crawley (2005) uses Hillier (2002) to develop this idea of reflection with more purpose and structure, using the term ‘critical reflection’.

Without critical reflection, teaching will remain at best uninformed, and at worst ineffective, prejudiced and constraining’ (Hillier 2002: p xi) …

.. there are two main reasons for using critical reflection:
- We can question our routine, convenient, everyday practices and ask questions about what really does and doesn’t work.
- We can challenge some of our deeper social and cultural thoughts, feelings and reactions, or what Hillier (2002: 7) calls our ‘taken for granted assumptions’
(Crawley 2005: p 166)

Donald Schon emphasises that there is an instinctive, and in many ways creative aspect to this type of reflection

Reflection in action concerns thinking about something whilst engaged in doing it, having a feeling about something & practicing according to that feeling.

This model celebrates the intuitive & artistic approaches that can be brought to uncertain situations.
(Schon 1983 page number unknown)

Although there are various ways in which different people have defined and explained reflection in teaching and learning overall, the most positive views appear to agree that it is both intuitive in nature, and considered in depth. At its best it is genuinely capable of helping us to develop, improve and change our teaching, or as Crawley suggests

Critical reflection is about challenging and testing out what you do as a teacher and being prepared to act on the results. (Crawley 2005: p 167)

Learning Activities - available to download from links below

What is reflection in learning? - download
Simple activity to help develop an understanding of models of reflection, and how reflection can enhance learning.
Models, frameworks and theories of reflection in learning - download
Generic activity which can be used in many ways to think about different models of reflection individually or in groups.
Understanding ourselves activity - download
An activity and a resource which goes with it which will helps you to understand yourself and others and use reflection more fully.
Understanding ourselves resource for above activity - download

Further Resources / Activities on this topic

- The definitions above and the books from which they come (go to the reading page for full details)
- Concise piece from the excellent informal education website on reflection at
- Further relevant items from the same website at - Kolb's learning theory - Schon and reflection
- Frameworks for reflection - useful handout - download
- Jennifer Moon's 2001 PDP Working Paper 4 Reflection in Higher Education Learning - download
- Jennifer Moon Resources for Reflective Learning - download
This is an excellent section of 50 pages from Moon, J (2004) A Handbook of Reflective and Experiential Learning, Routledge Falmer, London. The author adds 'You are welcome to use this material freely, but it would be good if you referenced it.…. There is more detail on the exercises in the book, but some are self evident.'
- Excellent section from the Open University's Open Learn website on learning how to become a reflective learner at
- Another short piece describing reflection in learning at
- A much more comprehensive resource relating to reflection in learning from Escalate', the Higher Education subject centre for Education, which includes definitions of reflection in learning at