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Reflection in Higher Education (Notes on reading)

Reflection in Higher Education. Jenny Moon

The nature of reflection – how it is seen in theory and how theoretical views are related to the common sense view 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. (p4)

Personal development planning (PDP) can involve different forms of reflection and reflective learning.

We are using it extensively in a range of contexts in learning and professional development in higher education.

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.

·We reflect on something in order to consider it in more detail.

·Usually we reflect because we have a purpose for reflecting – a goal to reach.  Goal orientated. Having a purpose and focus.

·Sometimes we find ourselves ‘being reflective’ and out of that ‘being reflective’, something ‘pops up’.   I am in the ‘pop-up’ camp.

·Seeking understanding and clarity where we had none. We reflect on things that are relatively complicated. Where there is not an obvious or immediate solution.

·Emotion. Some theorists see the role of emotion in reflection as very significant and frequently neglected (eg.  Boud, Keogh and Walker, 1985).

·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.

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.  (based on Moon 1999):

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.

·Dewey saw reflection as a specialised form of thinking. ‘a kind of thinking that consists in turning a subject over in the mind and giving it serious thought’. (Such churning, such composting, requires plenty of matter, words, and time)

·‘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.

– 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.

David Kolb (1984) is well known for his development of the Kolb cycle – or cycle of experiential learning.

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)

i.e. learning from experience

Like CBT.

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).

A kind of cognitive ‘housekeeping role’ as well as generating new learning (Moon, 1999a).

Donald Schon focused on reflection in professional knowledge and its development (1983, 1987).  They build up an expertise from their practice (theory-in-use) by being reflective.

Making  this ‘knowing-in-action’ explicit so that it can be the subject of further reflection and conscious development.

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,

Brockbank and McGill, 1998.

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.

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.

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.

E.G Dexion, What is the problem? What is the problem? What is the problem? What is the problem? What is the problem? Repeatedly until you get to thr crux of the problem. ‘Tha swallowed the fly, that ate the dog, that …. etc

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.

Working with meaning

Transformative learning

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

1.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);

2.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;

3.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).

A well functioning tutorial system is an example of a means by which we encourage students to upgrade their learning (3).  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).

Reflection slows down activity, giving the time for the learner to process material of learning and link it with previous ideas.

Reflection enables learners to develop greater ‘ownership’ of the material of learning (Rogers, 1969).  It will also enhance the student’s ‘voice’ in her learning (Elbow, 1981).

A particularly important means by which reflective activity generally supports learning is through the encouragement of metacognition.  (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).

We suggested above that reflection occurs when we are dealing with material that is relatively complicated – or ill-structured.  (King and Kitchener, 1994).


On the assumption that reflection has a valuable role to play in higher education, the methods below serve as vehicles for reflection within the curriculum.

Just asking students to write a learning journal, for example, may bring benefits, but they will be haphazard.

learning journals, logs, diaries … with the intention of improving or supporting learning but are of many different forms.  used successfully in most disciplines including the sciences and mathematics (Moon, 1999a).

Portfolios … unreflective compilation of work, to collections of coursework and reading with reflective comments, to coursework with an attached overview, to something very akin to a learning journal.

reflection on work experience … to develop employment skills, or to use the experience as a basis for learning about self and personal functioning (eg Colling and Watton, 2000, Watton and Moon, 2002 – in preparation)

reflection in work-based learning. (Boud and Garrick, 1999).

reflective exercises:   Examples are contained in Angelo and Cross, 1990; George and Cowan, 1999; Moon, 1999 and 1999a).

in peer and self assessment:  self or peer assessment they are likely to be reflecting on the work in relation to their perception of how they think it should appear

in careers or personal development.

in APEL (accreditation of prior experiential learning

It has had a particularly strong role in professional education and development – with nursing, teacher education and social work as the principle examples.

An impetus to the thinking that underlies this section is the frequent observation that not all students find reflection easy when it is introduced as a specific requirement

Some, however, who may be good students otherwise, will not understand what is meant by it – and will ask ‘what is it that you want me to do?’

The discourses of some subjects are, by nature, more likely to require reflective activity ‘on paper’.

Academic reflection will be more structured.

We may be giving structures – such as the Kolb cycle – to follow.

In our private reflections, we do not systematically describe what we are about to reflect on – we just do it

From Moon (1999a)

Academic reflection is, therefore, more structured and more formal than what we will term ‘informal’ reflection.

Reflection can be superficial and little more than descriptive or can be deep and transformative (and involved in the transformative stage of learning).

Reflection is used to make sense of unstructured situations in order to generate new knowledge.  It is important to be clear that the activity might be introducing the skill of reflective learning or generating knowledge by using reflection to make sense of something.

Most students will have learnt that they should not use the first person singular in an academic environment.  (Which is where I feel my ‘voice’ is being compromised by obliging me to speak in a certain way.)

Most students will have learnt that they should not use the first person singular in an academic environment.

Descriptive writing:  This is a description of events or literature reports.  There is no discussion beyond description.   This writing is considered not to show evidence of reflection.  It is important to acknowledge that some parts of a reflective account will need to describe the context – but in this case, writing does not go beyond description.

Descriptive reflection:  There is basically a description of events, but the account shows some evidence of deeper consideration in relatively descriptive language.  There is no real evidence of the notion of alternative viewpoints in use.

Dialogic reflection: This writing suggests that there is a ‘stepping back’ from the events and actions which leads to a different level of discourse.  There is a sense of ‘mulling about’, discourse with self and an exploration of the role of self in events and actions.  There is consideration of the qualities of judgements and of possible alternatives for explaining and hypothesising.  The reflection is analytical or integrative, linking factors and perspectives.

Critical reflection:  This form of reflection, in addition to dialogic reflection, shows evidence that the learner is aware that the same actions and events may be seen in different contexts with different explanations associated with the contexts.  They are influenced by ‘multiple historical and socio-political contexts’, for example.

(developed from Hatton and Smith, 1995)

.  A fair question is that since reflection is an encouragement for learners to follow the lines of their own thinking, to work without a curriculum – how can it be marked?

i.e. as the institution hasn’t put in place adequate systems to monitor my progress why don’t I do it myself and give myself marks out of ten too?

The message of this section is essentially that there is no one way to assess reflective work.  There are no clearly agreed generic criteria for reflection since different people see reflection as different processes (as has been demonstrated in the early sections) and they set reflective tasks in order to achieve different purposes.

To encourage a student to be reflective is to encourage the development of a habit of processing cognitive material that can lead the student to ideas that are beyond the curriculum, beyond learning defined by learning outcomes, and beyond those of the teacher who is managing the learning.

Boud, D and Walker, D (1998)

‘Promoting reflection in professional courses: the challenge of context’, Studies in Higher Education, 23(2), pp191 – 206

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