Reflection: An Approach to Teaching and Learning

Reflection is an approach that encourages deep thinking by an individual about their existing knowledge and capabilities, how it has been supported or challenged by new learning and experience, and the identification of strengths to promote and weaknesses/limitations to address. While most people have an instinctive reflective process that we use to learn from our actions, a structured and systematic approach to reflection is an extremely useful academic and professional skill. Structured reflection can be a very challenging activity for some people and it is therefore important that the students understand the purpose of reflection and how it can benefit their learning and professional development, otherwise some students may be reluctant to take part in the activity.

How it Works

"In Writing" by Toshiyuki IMAI

“In Writing” by Toshiyuki IMAI

There are many ways to promote the development of the students’ reflective capacity, ranging from short one-off exercises to large course-wide approaches, and the approach can also be purely for development or incorporated into formal assessment. While instinctive reflection is common, many students will have little or no experience of more formal reflection and will initially need to be supported through the process. Recorded reflections could be for personal use or shared with tutors.

Reflection is well suited to situations where students are on placements, internships or otherwise in the workplace. This is because a formal reflection process helps the students to take time to think about what they have learned in their working environment, perhaps with little conscious thought, and how it fits with their existing knowledge from their studies and past experience. The reflections can also help serve as a record of learning that can be drawn upon in later assessments.

Feedforward is a common way to encourage students to reflect on their learning and achievement. It involves the students recording their reflections on their assessment feedback and grade, and most importantly how they will use the feedback to improve future work and address shortcomings in their knowledge. To ensure that students do take part in the process, it is typical in feedforward that the students will include a brief explanation  of how they have used previous feedback with their assignment submissions.

Reflection is also used as an assessed activity in its own right. This usually takes the form of either the students submitting a reflective essay on their development or creating a portfolio of evidence with a reflective narrative to tie the individual pieces of work together. This method has the advantage that, as an assessed piece of work, the students are much more likely to devote an adequate amount of time to their reflection and, as a result of being immersed in reflective thinking for a sustained amount of time, are more likely to continue their reflections afterwards.

Possible Technologies to Support the Approach

There are many different technologies that can be used to support reflective learning, and, as the process is extremely important in this approach, it is likely that individuals will have strong preferences for particular tools.

"thinker" by aglet

“thinker” by aglet

Audio and Video are extremely useful for capturing ‘in the moment’ reflections, such as thoughts prompted during a learning activity or teaching session. Many students already own a device that can be used to record these reflections, such as a smartphone, tablet or laptop. The students could simply keep these recordings on their devices or upload them to an online system for integration with other reflections and artefacts.

Mind maps provide a method for students to think about their learning and make connections between different aspects of their learning. Electronic mind maps have the benefit over paper-based ones that it is relatively straightforward to attach other resources to items in the diagram, such as examples of work, multimedia files or even other mind maps. This means that the diagram can be used as a way to explore a large body of reflections in a variety of formats.

Blogs, Google Sites and Wikis offer mechanisms for storing and sharing written reflections, possibly supplemented with audio and video. Each of these tools has its own particular strengths and weaknesses and the one that is most appropriate for a given situation will depend on the needs and abilities of the students. These tools also offer a level of collaboration that is useful in situations where group reflection is desirable.

ePortfolios, particularly those such as PebblePad that place a specific emphasis on reflection, are a good way to collate pieces of work and reflections into a cohesive whole. Drawing together these resources in a single place makes it easier to take a holistic view of learning and development and see progression. Audio and video reflections can be stored in the ePortfolio and used to support written reflections. These types of tools often have built-in ways to promote and support structured reflection that can enhance the benefit of the process and encourage deeper learning.

Getting Started

If you are interested in trying out Reflection there are a few practical questions that you should answer:

  • Where in the course/module would this approach work best?
  • How much experience of formal reflection are the students likely to have?
  • Is large-scale or smaller scale reflection most appropriate?
  • Should the reflections be private or shared with tutors?
  • How much technology should be involved? Which tools are most suited? What support would be needed?
  • Are the students (and other tutors) ready for this?

Having thought about these questions, you should have worked out whether Reflection is an approach that makes sense in your context and have some ideas about how to introduce it. If you are still unsure, you could try a small exercise in a single lecture or seminar and see how the students respond.

Further Resources

Case studies from SHU:

The following links are to case studies showing how staff at SHU have used Reflection ideas in their teaching:

Related ‘Teaching Nuggets’:

The following links provide further information on some activities and assessment outputs that can work well with Reflection tasks, especially for students who are part-time or not campus-based:

Other resources:

Leave a Reply