Reflective learning

Find out how reflective learning can help you

Reflective learning diagram

What is reflective learning?

Reflective learning is the process of deliberately carrying out ‘cycles of inquiry’. The word ‘cycle’ is used here to demonstrate the manner in which a reflective learner moves between action and reflection. Taking some action results in doing things differently and afterwards, the learner reflects on what happened as a result. The reflection then leads to the learner taking more action – hence the ‘cycle’ between reflection and action.

Focused on the future

FutureAnother very important aspect of reflective learning is that it is focused on the future. Rather than dwelling on past mistakes and failures, reflective learning is a process of using your thinking to affect future actions. Here are the three main aspects of this:

  1. generating and evaluating new ideas
  2. reflecting upon events and situations
  3. reflecting upon relations

We’ll look at these in turn.

Generating ideas

Generating ideasHere are some ways to generate ideas:

  • reading relevant articles, websites, books, journals, magazines
  • watching relevant tv shows
  • having conversations – a fresh pair of ears (or eyes) can really help you find new ways to deal with a problem
  • getting away from it – I (unfortunately) generate best when I’m on holiday – it’s just because I’ve stepped back from the business. It can really open your mind to be away from the day-to-day nitty gritty
  • if you’re a manager and allowed to, throw an ideas competition for your team, department or the Company. People who normally have little influence on the way the Company is run may enjoy giving their input
  • using forums, Q & A sites etc to get others’ ideas and views
  • brainstorming and using analogies can also help generate ideas, as well as many other creative problem solving techniques – see this article on creative problem solving techniques.

Reflecting on events and situations

White rabbitIt is important to make the time to think about what has happened, and what you can learn from it, in order to shape the actions that you take next. This highlights that reflective learning can be time consuming – you need to set aside time for reflection. This again brings us back to the word ‘deliberate’ in the description of what reflective learning is – all of us reflect from time to time but reflective learnign is about planning and dedicating time to the process, despite perhaps a busy schedule!

Reflecting on relations

It can be tempting to consider our actions and the difference they have made to a particular situation. But even when you’re working alone on a project, the actions of others will impact you, either limiting or facilitating what you are trying to achieve. It’s important therefore to reflect on relations and how they develop.

A good exercise to carry out regularly is to record the stakeholders that are involved in your situation, note whose support you need and whose support you already have. Consider what you need to do or could do to get the support of the other stakeholders that you need to make your project successful.

Careful reflective learning

Focuses for reflection

What is it that you need to reflect on?

First, you may look at critical incidents which are situations or events that are memorable and/or significant to you.

You may wish to reflect on these in the context of a period of time – such as a week, fortnight or month. Looking at events in the context of these periods of time helps you compare, look for trends and changes. You can use a journal or personal blog to help you record the events.

You may have a particular issue that you want to focus and reflect on. This may be an ongoing issue so you can track critical incidents in relation to that, over the units of time that you have chosen. This may not be a business or academic issue – you could, for example, reflect on learning to drive on a weekly basis, following your tuition.

Reflective frameworks

Kolb’s experiential learning cycle

KolbsKolb’s framework for reflective learning adds a little more to our simplified two-step action–>reflection model.

The first step is to draw on concrete experience, so basically, what happened? You could ask yourself:

  • Who was there, who were the active participants, who said what, who was listening, who was less involved?
  • What was the sequence of events?
  • Where did all this happen?
  • When did things happen?

The second stage is reflection – this is picking out what the really significant actions and words were in the event that we’re analysing, asking questions like ‘why’ and ‘how’ these things happened. When reflecting, it’s okay to look at your feelings about what happened. This will help you to appreciate how you were feeling in the particular situation that you are reflecting on, in order to fully understand why you acted in the way you did.

The third stage is working on what you can take away from your reflection and turn into action and apply to other situations. The crucial question here is, so what? What does it matter?

The final stage is of taking action – for this, you need to do what you’ve decided to do. Before you do anything, be clear:

  • What do you want and what do you think you can achieve?
  • How will you know that you’re on the way?


I would like to give credit to Caroline Ramsey for her book ‘Introducing Reflective Learning’ (Open University B204 Making it happen! Leadership, influence and change). Many of the ideas on this page are from that book but it covers them in far more detail with some great examples. You can buy it from Waterstones by following the link.

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