Reflection in Higher Education Learning

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2 March 2016

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Personal development planning (PDP) can involve different forms of reflection and reflective learning. Much has been written and said about reflection in recent times, but for many, it remains a somewhat mysterious activity – or is it a capacity? Whatever it is, if the titles of modules and courses, and references in QAA benchmark statements are anything to go by, we are using it extensively in a range of contexts in learning and professional development in higher education. This paper is intended to provide a background to reflection and reflective learning for the development of PDP within the higher education sector. It will provide a brief guide to current thinking about reflection, a discussion of its application in higher education learning and some practical support for the use of reflective activities.

Developing a conception of reflection

Like many topics in higher education, the notion of reflection has encouraged both a theoretical and a practical literature. The focus of this paper is primarily on the practical uses of reflection but a brief discussion of theoretical approaches will locate the thinking in an academic context and it will facilitate further study of the topic where this is required. The aim in this section is to produce a conception of reflection that takes account of the theory but that can be applied practically and usefully in formal and informal learning contexts. But we start from where we are…..

Starting from where we are……a common-sense view of reflection

There is no point in defining reflection in a manner that does not relate to the everyday use of the word if further confusion is not to be created. ‘Reflection’ a word we use in everyday conversation. What might we mean by it?

In common-sense terms, reflection lies somewhere around the notion of learning. We reflect on something in order to consider it in more detail (eg ‘Let me reflect on that for a moment’). Usually we reflect because we have a purpose for reflecting – a goal to reach. Sometimes we find ourselves ‘being reflective’ and out of that ‘being reflective’, something ‘pops up’. There has been no conscious purpose as such – but there is a useful outcome and there may have been a subconscious purpose. It is also apparent that we reflect on things that are relatively complicated. We do not reflect on a simple addition sum – or the route to the corner shop. We reflect on things for which there is not an obvious or immediate solution. Often the latter will be instigated by or associated with a range of feelings and the experience of such reflection may be emotional or spiritual. We return to issues concerning emotion and reflection later.

It would seem that reflection is thus a means of working on what we know already. We put into the reflection process knowledge that we already have (thoughts, ideas, feelings etc), we may add new information and then we draw out of it something that accords with the purpose for which we reflected.

A simple definition of reflection might be:

Reflection is a form of mental processing – like a form of thinking – that we use to fulfil a purpose or to achieve some anticipated outcome. It is applied to relatively complicated or unstructured ideas for which there is not an obvious solution and is largely based on the further processing of knowledge and understanding and possibly emotions that we already possess (based on Moon 1999):

Some theoretical approaches to reflection

Reflection is theorised in so many different ways that it might seem that we a looking at range of human capacities rather than apparently one. To start with, we review briefly several of what might be called the ‘classical’ approaches.

John Dewey wrote on the educational implications of a range of human mental functions over the earlier years of the twenty first century. His work was based on keen observation of the functioning of others and reflection on his own processes. Dewey’s interest in his own processes makes his writing particularly interesting in the current context. It appears that somewhere in the middle part of this century education researchers forgot that they are people too with, between their finger-tips, an amazingly useful resource from which to learn about human functioning. The return to this understanding could be seen to be an important benefit of the interest in reflection. The legitimacy of ‘I’ and ‘my functioning’ is being re-established and the role of personal development planning will also carry this forward in the near future.

Dewey saw reflection as a specialised form of thinking. He described it as: ‘a kind of thinking that consists in turning a subject over in the mind and giving it serious thought’. His definition of reflection is that it is:

‘Active, persistent and careful consideration of any belief or supposed form of knowledge in the light of the grounds that support it, and further conclusions to which it leads…it includes a conscious and voluntary effort to establish belief upon a firm basis of evidence and rationality’ (Dewey, 1933).

Jurgen Habermas (1971) focused on the way in which humans process ideas and construct them into knowledge. Reflection plays a role in this process. Habermas talked about three kinds of knowledge – instrumental knowledge – where we know ‘how’ or ‘that’ and where the concern of the knowledge is to understand and thereby function within, and control our human environment.

– knowledge that is concerned with the interpretation of human action and behaviour. We largely ‘interpret’ in the social sciences in order to better our understanding of society and human behaviour.

– knowledge that is a way of working with knowledge, acting on the first two forms of knowledge. This form of knowledge is developed through critical or evaluative modes of thinking and leads towards the emancipation or transformation of personal, social or other situations. It concerns the quality of the bases on which we make judgements.

There is some disagreement about the role of reflective processes in the development of instrumental knowledge – given that the development of sophisticated science can match this form of knowledge. However, it certainly has an important role in the interpretation and comparisons of understanding in the second level and in the critical and evaluative modes of the third.

David Kolb (1984) is well known for his development of the Kolb cycle – or cycle of experiential learning. The cycle is drawn in many different ways using different words that sometimes seem to affect its meaning. It is depicted below in a simplified manner that it is not too far from Kolb’s words:

Concrete experiencing
(have an experience)

Active experimentation Reflective observation
(try out what you have learned)(reflect on the experience)

Abstract conceptualising
(learn from the experience)

The cycle revolves with new learning undergoing active experimentation and ‘recycled’ through new experiencing. In this way what was a cycle becomes a spiral (Cowan 1998). Thus Kolb considered reflection as a mental activity that has a role in learning from experience. In the Kolb cycle, reflection features as a development of the process of observation – and apparently it occurs before a person has learnt. Others would see reflection as part of learning and part of the processing of material already learned, having a kind of cognitive ‘housekeeping role’ as well as generating new learning (Moon, 1999a). The notion of reflection as part of the means of learning something new seems to conflict with the common-sense use of the term (above).

There is a massive literature on experiential learning, much of which is based on the Kolb cycle, and much of which perhaps over simplifies what is an immensely complex activity. While the cycle does have has value, it may say more about how we manage the learning of others, than about the process of learning per se (ie. it is more about the teaching process).

Donald Schon focused on reflection in professional knowledge and its development (1983, 1987). He suggested that there is a crisis in the professions related to a mis-understanding of the relationship of theory to practice and of the kind of theory that a professional uses to guide her practice. The espoused theory – as learnt in formal institutions and in professional training – is not the theory that proficient professionals eventually use to guide practice. They build up an expertise from their practice (theory-in-use) by being reflective. Schon noted that the theory in use tends to be tacit. Professionals are not necessarily able to describe the basis on which they act. A particular role of professional development is to make this ‘knowing-in-action’ explicit so that it can be the subject of further reflection and conscious development.

Schon suggests that there are two types of relevant reflection. Reflection-on-action is the reviewing that occurs after an event while reflection-in-action is part of the processing of an effective practitioner while actually acting. There are doubts expressed about the existence of a form of reflection that occurs while an individual is acting (eg Eraut, 1994) and sometimes Schon has been inconsistent in his writing. However he has had great influence in stirring up debate on the nature of professional knowledge and the role of reflection in professional education.

Many others have written about reflection, most developing ideas from those mentioned above. Examples are Boud, Keogh and Walker, 1985; Boud and Walker, 1998; Cowan, 1998, and Brockbank and McGill, 1998. Much of the material in this paper is derived from Moon, 1999 which takes a broader and sometimes more critical view of reflection and focuses on its relationship to learning.

We thus have described a common-sense view of reflection and those of four influential theorists but we could be reviewing four different human activities that happen to have the same name – reflection. Might there be a common idea lurking there, or an explanation as to how the ideas could fit together?

Moon (1999) suggests that the differences in approach are accounted for largely by different focuses – either on the process of reflection, on the purpose for it or the outcomes of reflection – in effect, how it is used. Schon, for example, is concerned about reflection as a mechanism for professional and perhaps personal development while Habermas is concerned with its role in the building of theory. Kolb explores the role of reflection in learning – setting a context for it, but referring relatively little to reflection itself. Dewey is exceptional in taking a holistic view of reflection as a process – a view that accords with the common sense definition above.

Before we pull these ideas into a summarising model there is one more stray factor that some, but not all of the approaches to reflection mention and that is the role of emotion in reflection. Some theorists see the role of emotion in reflection as very significant and frequently neglected (eg. Boud, Keogh and Walker, 1985). However, there are questions to be asked. Is the emotional content of reflection always present and influential? We would seem to be able to reflect on a number of ideas without emotional content to the reflection. Then – are emotional effects the subject matter of the input and output of reflection (like other ideas on which reflection occurs), or do they steer the process of reflection (acting as a kind of milieu in which reflection takes place). Could they be part of the process of reflection? If they are part of the input and / or outcome – is it ‘knowledge of how I feel’ or is it the actual feeling that is part of the input and / or outcome? All of these seem to fit experiences of reflection and there is no clear answer in the literature.

A relatively simple input – outcome model of reflection seems to summarise the variety of approaches to reflection in the literature. It locates the approach of Dewey and the common-sense definition as concerned with the input and the actual psychological event of reflecting with others largely concerned with the outcomes of reflection. In other words, it suggests that reflection is a simple process but with complex outcomes that relate to many different areas of human functioning. Fig 1 provides a summary of these ideas and a basis for the consideration of reflection in PDP. Broadly it adopts the definition for the process of reflection on page 2 but recognises that there are different contexts for reflection that often influence our understanding of its meaning.Fig 1 An input / outcome model of reflection

The relationship between reflection and learning

What is the relationship between reflection and learning? Much has been written about both reflection and learning and there seems to be an assumption that reflection is related to learning – but what is the relationship? We explore it in this section (there is more detail in Moon, 1999)

Reflection and the learner’s approach to learning

One set of ideas that seems to be significant to unravelling the relationship between learning and reflection within the process of learning seem to be the research on approaches to learning (Marton, Hounsell and Entwistle, 1997). This research suggests that there is a fundamental difference in success in learning between adopting a ‘deep’ approach and a ‘surface’ approach to a learning task. A deep approach is where the intention of the learner is to understand the meaning of the material. She is willing to integrate it into her existing body of previous ideas, and understandings, reconsidering and altering her understandings if necessary. The new ideas are ‘filed’ carefully and integrated. In contrast, a surface approach to learning is where a learner is concerned to memorise the material for what it is, not trying to understand it in relation to previous ideas or other areas of understanding. It is as if the new ideas need to be retained for the moment, but not ‘filed’ for any lasting purpose.

These approaches to learning are not ‘either or’ situations, but at extremes of a continuum and the same learner may choose to learn differently according to the task at hand. The conception of a continuum of approaches to learning allows us to hypothesise a hierarchy of stages of learning along the continuum that characterise surface and then progressively deeper approaches to learning. This is a useful device when we attempt to locate reflection in the process.

It is important to note that we cannot actually see that learning has occurred, we can see only the results of learning which can be termed the ‘representation of learning’. The same area of learning might be represented in different ways – writing, oral account, graphic display and so on and it is through the description of the representation of learning that we identify the stages of learning. The stages are as follows:

Noticing, – the least detailed form of learning – you cannot learn something if you do not notice it at some level (which could be unconscious). Representation is of the material is as memorised, modified only by the degree to which it is forgotten.

Making sense – getting to know the material as coherent – but only in relation to itself. Facts may be fitted together like a jigsaw but not related to previous understandings. Representation is coherent reproduction, but not related to other ideas and not processed.

Making meaning – the beginnings of deep approach – there is a sense of meaningfulness but there is not much evidence of going beyond the given. Representation is of ideas that are integrated and well linked. There is the beginning of development of a holistic view.

Working with meaning – a sense now of going beyond the given, linking into other ideas. There is the creation of relationships of new material with other ideas. Representation is reflective, well structured and demonstrates the linking of material with other ideas which may change as a result.

Transformative learning – evidence that the new learning has transformed current understandings in reflective processes. Representation demonstrates strong restructuring of ideas and ability to evaluate the processes of reaching that learning. There are creative / idiosyncratic responses.

On the basis of this model, There are at least three ways in which reflection might be seen as relating to learning.

a) Reflection has a role in the deeper approaches to learning – the last three stages described above, but not in surface approaches to learning (the first two stages);

b) We learn from representing learning – when we write an essay or explain something or draw a picture of it, we represent it to ourselves and learn from the re-processing (Eisner, 1991). This is a reflective process;

c) We ‘upgrade’ learning. For example, we can go back to ideas learnt only to the stage of ‘making sense’ (eg in the form of facts – bits and pieces) and can reprocess those ideas through reflection, integrating them with current understandings (Vygotsky, 1978). This might be conceived as a kind of ‘chewing the cud’ exercise – or cognitive housekeeping (see earlier).

These forms of learning from reflection are commonly exploited in the patterns of higher education pedagogy. In the case of the first (a), there is much literature on the encouragement of students to take a deep approach to learning (Marton et al, (1997). At the same time, there is acknowledgement that nature of current higher education may inhibit these attempts (lack of contact with students, the ‘boxed’ nature of learning in a modular system etc). In particular it is worth remembering that assessment tends to drive student learning and if students (can) perceive that a deep approach is the manner in which to succeed in a learning task, they are more likely to adopt such an approach.

In terms of learning from the representation of learning (b), we ask students to reprocess their learning into essays, examinations, reports and explanations in tutorials. It is interesting to consider the implications of Eisner’s suggestion that we learn differently from different forms of representation. In different forms of representation we exploit reflection differently. We probably do not fully enough exploit the representation of learning as a means of enhancing learning in current higher education.

A well functioning tutorial system is an example of a means by which we encourage students to upgrade their learning (c). A student lecture is not ideal ground for taking a deep approach to learning. It seems likely that the attempt to get notes down on paper would interfere with the processing involved in taking a deep approach to learning. Preparation for and involvement in a tutorial is the opportunity for many students to reflect on and process their learning into a more meaningful state – in other words, to ‘re-file’ it. Revision for examinations is another opportunity for review of previous learning such that understanding is deepened (Entwistle and Entwistle, 1992).

It is interesting to note that the value of the Kolb cycle (see above), and the whole notion that learning is enhanced through experimentation or ‘doing’ is explained by a) and b). If learners are required to represent their learning in some meaningful activity, they will have have been forced to adopt a deep approach to the learning in the first place – or to upgrade their surface quality learning (c ) into more meaningful material.

Reflection provides the right conditions for learning

We have suggested above some ways in which reflection is immediately related to the learning process, but there also seem to be other forms of this relationship that are usefully described in the notion that the activity of reflection provides the right conditions for good learning (Moon, 1999a). We summarise these ideas below, continuing the lettering system from above since these are more ways in which learning and reflection are interrelated.

d) Reflection slows down activity, giving the time for the learner to process material of learning and link it with previous ideas. There is evidence that when a lecturer pauses in a lecture, the ‘wait time’ enables students to learn better (Tobin, 1987). We could more often stop and ask students to think about an issue that has arisen in a lecture (etc).

e) Reflection enables learners to develop greater ‘ownership’ of the material of learning, making it more personally meaningful to themselves and improving their grasp of it (Rogers, 1969). It will also enhance the student’s ‘voice’ in her learning (Elbow, 1981).

f) A particularly important means by which reflective activity generally supports learning is through the encouragement of metacognition. Metacognition is the awareness of one’s own cognitive functioning – in this case, learning. There is evidence that good learners have better metacognitive processes than poor learners (Ertmer and Newby, 1996). Study skills programmes that support learner’s awareness of their learning processes seem to be more successful than those that focus on techniques (Main, 1985).

g) We suggested above that reflection occurs when we are dealing with material that is relatively complicated – or ill-structured. If we are encouraging students to reflect, we are, in a sense, challenging their learning. There is evidence that it is by challenging learners with ill-structured material of learning, that they improve their cognitive ability (King and Kitchener, 1994).


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