Reflective practice

Reflective practice is the ability to reflect on an action so as to engage in a process of continuous learning.[1] According to one definition it involves "paying critical attention to the practical values and theories which inform everyday actions, by examining practice reflectively and reflexively. This leads to developmental insight".[2] A key rationale for reflective practice is that experience alone does not necessarily lead to learning; deliberate reflection on experience is essential.[3][4]

Reflective practice can be an important tool in practice-based professional learning settings where people learn from their own professional experiences, rather than from formal learning or knowledge transfer. It may be the most important source of personal professional development and improvement. It is also an important way to bring together theory and practice; through reflection a person is able to see and label forms of thought and theory within the context of his or her work.[5] A person who reflects throughout his or her practice is not just looking back on past actions and events, but is taking a conscious look at emotions, experiences, actions, and responses, and using that information to add to his or her existing knowledge base and reach a higher level of understanding.[6]

History and background

Donald Schön

Donald Schön's 1983 book The Reflective Practitioner introduced concepts such as reflection-on-action and reflection-in-action which explain how professionals meet the challenges of their work with a kind of improvisation that is improved through practice.[1] However, the concepts underlying reflective practice are much older. Earlier in the 20th century, John Dewey was among the first to write about reflective practice with his exploration of experience, interaction and reflection.[7] Soon thereafter, other researchers such as Kurt Lewin and Jean Piaget were developing relevant theories of human learning and development.[8] Some scholars have claimed to find precursors of reflective practice in ancient texts such as Buddhist teachings[9] and the Meditations of Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius.[10]

Central to the development of reflective theory was interest in the integration of theory and practice, the cyclic pattern of experience and the conscious application of lessons learned from experience. Since the 1970s, there has been a growing literature and focus around experiential learning and the development and application of reflective practice.

As adult education professor David Boud and his colleagues explained: "Reflection is an important human activity in which people recapture their experience, think about it, mull it over and evaluate it. It is this working with experience that is important in learning."[11] When a person is experiencing something, he or she may be implicitly learning; however, it can be difficult to put emotions, events, and thoughts into a coherent sequence of events. When a person rethinks or retells events, it is possible to categorize events, emotions, ideas, etc., and to compare the intended purpose of a past action with the results of the action. Stepping back from the action permits critical reflection on a sequence of events.[6]

The emergence in more recent years of blogging has been seen as another form of reflection on experience in a technological age.[12]


Many models of reflective practice have been created to guide reasoning about action.

Borton 1970

Terry Borton's reflective model (1970), as adapted by Gary Rolfe and colleagues (2001)

Terry Borton's 1970 book Reach, Touch, and Teach popularized a simple learning cycle inspired by Gestalt therapy composed of three questions which ask the practitioner: What, So what, and Now what?[13] Through this analysis, a description of a situation is given which then leads into the scrutiny of the situation and the construction of knowledge that has been learnt through the experience. Subsequently, practitioners reflect on ways in which they can personally improve and the consequences of their response to the experience. Borton's model was later adapted by practitioners outside the field of education, such as the field of nursing and the helping professions.[14]

Kolb and Fry 1975

Adaptation of Kolb's reflective model

Learning theorist David A. Kolb was highly influenced by the earlier research conducted by John Dewey and Jean Piaget. Kolb's reflective model highlights the concept of experiential learning and is centered on the transformation of information into knowledge. This takes place after a situation has occurred, and entails a practitioner reflecting on the experience, gaining a general understanding of the concepts encountered during the experience, and then testing these general understandings in a new situation. In this way, the knowledge that is formed from a situation is continuously applied and reapplied, building on a practitioner's prior experiences and knowledge.[15]

Argyris and Schön 1978

Adaptation of the single- and double-loop learning model by Argyris and Schön
Adaptation of Schön's reflective model

Management researchers Chris Argyris and Donald Schön pioneered the idea of single-loop learning and double-loop learning in 1978. Their theory was built around the recognition and correction of a perceived fault or error.[16] Single-loop learning is when a practitioner or organisation, even after an error has occurred and a correction is made, continues to rely on current strategies, techniques or policies when a situation again comes to light. Double-loop learning involves the modification of objectives, strategies or policies so that when a similar situation arises a new framing system is employed.[17]

Schön claimed to derive the notions of "reflection-on-action, reflection-in-action, responding to problematic situations, problem framing, problem solving, and the priority of practical knowledge over abstract theory" from the writings of John Dewey, although education professor Harvey Shapiro has argued that Dewey's writings offer "more expansive, more integrated notions of professional growth" than do Schön's.[18]

Reflection-in-action can be described as the ability of a practitioner to "think on his or her feet", otherwise known as "felt-knowing". Within any given moment, when faced with a professional issue, a practitioner usually connects with their feelings, emotions and prior experiences to attend to the situation directly.

Reflection-on-action, on the other hand, is the idea that after the experience a practitioner analyses their reaction to the situation and explores the reasons around, and the consequences of, their actions. This is usually conducted through a documented reflection of the situation. However, this notion goes beyond just looking back on experiences and exploring the reasoning behind actions. Rather, it brings into action Schön's notions of "responding to problematic situations, problem framing, problem solving, and the priority of practical knowledge over abstract theory".[18]

For Schön, professional growth really begins when a person starts to view things with a critical lens, by doubting his or her actions. Doubt brings about a way of thinking that questions and frames situations as "problems". Through careful planning and systematic elimination of other possible problems, doubt is settled, and people are able to affirm their knowledge of the situation. Then people are able to think about possible situations and their outcomes, and deliberate about whether they carried out the right actions.

Gibbs 1988

Adaptation of the Gibbs reflective model

Learning researcher Graham Gibbs discussed the use of structured debriefing to facilitate the reflection involved in Kolb's experiential learning cycle. Gibbs presents the stages of a full structured debriefing as follows:[19]

Gibbs' suggestions are often cited as "Gibbs' reflective cycle" or "Gibbs' model of reflection", and simplified into the following six distinct stages to assist in structuring reflection on learning experiences:[20]

Johns 1995

Adaptation of the Johns reflective model

Professor of nursing Christopher Johns designed a structured mode of reflection that provides a practitioner with a guide to gain greater understanding of his or her practice.[21] It is designed to be carried out through the act of sharing with a colleague or mentor, which enables the experience to become learnt knowledge at a faster rate than reflection alone.[22]

Johns highlights the importance of experienced knowledge and the ability of a practitioner to access, understand and put into practice information that has been acquired through empirical means. Reflection occurs though "looking in" on one's thoughts and emotions and "looking out" at the situation experienced. Johns draws on the work of Barbara Carper to expand on the notion of "looking out" at a situation.[23] Five patterns of knowing are incorporated into the guided reflection: the aesthetic, personal, ethical, empirical and reflexive aspects of the situation. Johns' model is comprehensive and allows for reflection that touches on many important elements.[24]

Brookfield 1998

Adult education scholar Stephen Brookfield proposed that critically reflective practitioners constantly research their assumptions by seeing practice through four complementary lenses: the lens of their autobiography as learners of reflective practice, the lens of other learners' eyes, the lens of colleagues' experiences, and the lens of theoretical, philosophical and research literature.[25] Reviewing practice through these lenses makes us more aware of the power dynamics that infuse all practice settings. It also helps us detect hegemonic assumptions—assumptions that we think are in our own best interests, but actually work against us in the long run.[25] Brookfield argued that these four lenses will reflect back to us starkly different pictures of who we are and what we do.


Reflective practice has been described as an unstructured or semi-structured approach directing learning, and a self-regulated process commonly used in health and teaching professions, though applicable to all professions.[1][11][26] Reflective practice is a learning process taught to professionals from a variety of disciplines, with the aim of enhancing abilities to communicate and making informed and balanced decisions. Professional associations such as the American Association of Nurse Practitioners are recognizing the importance of reflective practice and require practitioners to prepare reflective portfolios as a requirement to be licensed, and for yearly quality assurance purposes.



The concept of reflective practice is now widely employed in the field of teacher education and teacher professional development and is the basis for many programmes of initial teacher education.[3] In education, reflective practice refers to the process of the educator studying his or her own teaching methods and determining what works best for the students. It involves the consideration of the ethical consequences of classroom procedures on students.[26] Education professor Hope Hartman has described reflective practice in education as teacher metacognition.[27]

There is broad consensus that teaching effectively requires a reflective approach.[28][29][30] However, reflective practice "is a term that carries diverse meaning"[3] and about which there is not complete consensus.[31][32] Teaching and learning are complex, and there is not one right approach. Reflecting on different approaches to teaching, and reshaping the understanding of past and current experiences, will lead to improvement in teaching practices.[31] Schön's reflection-in-action can help teachers explicitly incorporate into their decision-making the professional knowledge that they gain from their experience in the classroom.[33]

According to physiotherapists Colin Paterson and Judith Chapman, reflection or learning from experience is key to staying accountable, and maintaining and developing aptitude throughout a teacher's practice.[6] Without reflection, teachers are not able to look objectively at their actions or take into account the emotions, experience, or consequences of actions to improve their practice. Through the process of reflection, teachers are held accountable to the standards of practice for teaching, such as those in Ontario: commitment to students and student learning, professional knowledge, professional practice, leadership in learning communities, and ongoing professional learning.[34]

Through reflective practice, teachers are looking back on their practice and reflecting on how they have supported students through treating them "equitably and with respect and are sensitive to factors that influence individual student learning".[34] By doing this, teachers are asking themselves: "Have I to the best of my abilities supported student learning, and provided all of my students with an entry point into learning?" Through reflection, and sharing their reflection, teachers show strong leadership because they show that they are willing to learn from their mistakes and improve their practice for everyone affected by it.[34]

As professor of education Barbara Larrivee argues, reflective practice moves teachers from their knowledge base of distinct skills to a stage in their careers where they are able to modify their skills to suit specific contexts and situations, and eventually to invent new strategies.[26] In implementing a process of reflective practice teachers will be able to move themselves, and their schools, beyond existing theories in practice.[31] Larrivee concludes that teachers should "resist establishing a classroom culture of control and become a reflective practitioner, continuously engaging in a critical reflection, consequently remaining fluid in the dynamic environment of the classroom".[26]

Video recordings of classroom activities have been used to help education interns develop more detailed reflective practice.[35]


As part of 21st century learning, students must also be engaged in reflective practice. Adding reflection to the learning process fosters the critical thinking and decision making necessary for continuous learning and improvement.[36] When students are engaged in reflection, they are thinking about how their work meets established criteria; they analyze the effectiveness of their efforts, and plan for improvement.[36] Rolheiser and et al. (2000) share that, "Reflection is linked to elements that are fundamental to meaningful learning and cognitive development: the development of metacognition – the capacity for students to improve their ability to think about their thinking; the ability to self-evaluate - the capacity for students to judge the quality of their work based on evidence and explicit criteria for the purpose of doing better work; the development of critical thinking, problem-solving, and decision-making; and the enhancement of teacher understanding of the learner." (p 31-32)

When teachers engage in instruction in regards to metacognitive skills, it promotes student self-monitoring and self-regulation that can lead to intellectual growth, increase in academic achievement, and support transfer of skills so that students are able to use any strategy at any time and for any purpose.[37] Guiding students in the habits of reflection requires teachers to approach their role as that of "facilitator of meaning-making" – they organize instruction and classroom practice so that students are the producers, not just the consumers, of knowledge.[38] Rolheiser and colleagues (2000) state that, "When students develop their capacity to understand their own thinking processes, they are better equipped to employ the necessary cognitive skills to complete a task or achieve a goal. Students who have acquired metacognitive skills are better able to compensate for both low ability and insufficient information." (p. 34)

The Ontario Ministry of Education (2007)[39] explains many ways in which educators can assist students in their learning of the skills required for effective reflection and self-assessment. Some of these include the following; modelling and/or intentionally teaching critical thinking skills necessary for reflection and self-assessment practices; addressing students’ perceptions of self-assessment; engaging in discussion and dialogue about why self-assessment is important; allowing time to learn self-assessment and reflection skills; providing many opportunities to practice different aspects of the self-assessment and reflection process; and ensuring that parents/guardians understand that self-assessment is only one of a variety of assessment strategies that is utilized for student learning.

Health professionals

Reflective practice is viewed as an important strategy for health professionals who embrace lifelong learning. Due to the ever changing context of healthcare and the continual growth of medical knowledge, there is a high level of demand on healthcare professionals' expertise. Due to this complex and continually changing environment, healthcare professionals could benefit from a program of reflective practice.[40]

Adrienne Price explained that there are several reasons why a healthcare practitioner would engage in reflective practice: to further understand one's motives, perceptions, attitudes, values, and feelings associated with client care; to provide a fresh outlook to practice situations and to challenge existing thoughts, feelings, and actions; and to explore how the practice situation may be approached differently.[41] In the field of nursing there is concern that actions may run the risk of habitualisation, thus dehumanising patients and their needs.[42] In using reflective practice, nurses are able to plan their actions and consciously monitor the action to ensure it is beneficial to their patient.[42]

The act of reflection is seen as a way of promoting the development of autonomous, qualified and self-directed professionals, as well as a way of developing more effective healthcare teams.[43] Engaging in reflective practice is associated with improved quality of care, stimulating personal and professional growth and closing the gap between theory and practice.[44] Medical practitioners can combine reflective practice with checklists (when appropriate) to reduce diagnostic error.[45]

Activities to promote reflection are now being incorporated into undergraduate, postgraduate and continuing medical education across a variety of health professions.[46] Professor of medical education Karen Mann and her colleagues found through a 2009 literature review that in practising professionals the process of reflection appears to include a number of different aspects, and practicing professionals vary in their tendency and ability to reflect. They noted that the evidence to support curricular interventions and innovations promoting reflective practice remains largely theoretical.[46]

Samantha Davies identified benefits as well as limitations to reflective practice:[47]

Benefits to reflective practice include:

Limitations to reflective practice include:

Environmental management and sustainability

The use of reflective practice in environmental management, combined with system monitoring, is often called adaptive management.[48] There is some criticism that traditional environmental management, which simply focuses on the problem at hand, fails to integrate into the decision making the wider systems within which an environment is situated.[49] While research and science must inform the process of environmental management, it is up to the practitioner to integrate those results within these wider systems.[50] In order to deal with this and to reaffirm the utility of environmental management, Bryant and Wilson propose that a "more reflective approach is required that seeks to rethink the basic premises of environmental management as a process".[49] This style of approach has been found to be successful in sustainable development projects where participants appreciated and enjoyed the educational aspect of utilising reflective practice throughout. However, the authors noted the challenges with melding the "circularity" of reflective practice theory with the "doing" of sustainability.[51]

Leadership positions

Reflective practice provides a development opportunity for those in leadership positions. Managing a team of people requires a delicate balance between people skills and technical expertise, and success in this type of role does not come easily. Reflective practice provides leaders with an opportunity to critically review what has been successful in the past and where improvement can be made.

Reflective learning organizations have invested in coaching programs for their emerging and established leaders.[52] Leaders frequently engage in self-limiting behaviours because of their over-reliance on their preferred ways of reacting and responding.[53] Coaching can help support the establishment of new behaviours, as it encourages reflection, critical thinking and transformative learning. Adults have acquired a body of experience throughout their life, as well as habits of mind that define their world.[54] Coaching programs support the process of questioning and potentially rebuilding these pre-determined habits of mind. The goal is for leaders to maximize their professional potential, and in order to do this, there must be a process of critical reflection on current assumptions.[55]

Other professions

Reflective practice can help any individual to develop personally, and is useful for professions other than those discussed above. It allows professionals to continually update their skills and knowledge and consider new ways to interact with their colleagues. David Somerville and June Keeling suggested eight simple ways that professionals can practice more reflectively:[56]

  1. Seek feedback: Ask "Can you give me some feedback on what I did?"
  2. Ask yourself "What have I learnt today?" and ask others "What have you learnt today?"
  3. Value personal strengths: Identify positive accomplishments and areas for growth
  4. View experiences objectively: Imagine the situation is on stage and you are in the audience
  5. Empathize: Say out loud what you imagine the other person is experiencing
  6. Keep a journal: Record your thoughts, feelings and future plans; look for emerging patterns
  7. Plan for the future: Plan changes in behavior based on the patterns you identified
  8. Create your own future: Combine the virtues of the dreamer, the realist, and the critic


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