Pdp working Paper 4 Reflection in Higher Education Learning



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Be open about your need to learn about reflection as a form of learning and how you can improve your management of it


Demonstrating that it is not only students who need to learn to reflect can be very helpful for staff and students. Staff might write a learning journal about the process of helping students to learn reflectively – and share elements of it with the students.


The second stage - deepening reflective work

The deepening of reflective activity depends partly on developing awareness of the constructed nature of knowledge – understanding, for example:




  • that events can be conceived of differently according to the frame of reference;

  • that frames of reference may be different at different times;

  • the role of emotions in guiding our conceptions of events or people;

  • that different disciplines rely on different structures of knowledge and have different ways of working with knowledge.

Use examples to demonstrate deeper reflective activity

We suggested the use of material such as ‘The Presentation’ (Appendix 2). The focus now would be on the third account and the use of the criteria that distinguish the deeper account to the more descriptive accounts.


Introduce a framework that describes levels of reflection

An example is Hatton and Smith (1995). The framework below resulted from work with students’ reflective writing and below it is presented in simplified form. It influenced the criteria used in ‘The Presentation’ (Appendix 2) – and a simpler version could be prepared from the exercise if required.


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)


Introduce exercises that involve ‘standing back from oneself’.

Eg students write about their own processes of learning using a semi objective and critical stance.


Introduce exercises that involve reflection on the same subject from different viewpoints of people / social institutions etc.

Eg students could be asked to reflect (or talk / present) on an event in a shop from the point of view of the supervisor, customer, counter assistant, onlooker and so on.


Introduce an exercise in which there is reflection on the same subject from viewpoints of different disciplines

In terms of different disciplinary standpoints, students might be asked to describe a child’s pet dog from the point of view of practitioners in sociology, psychology, medical sciences, English, art and so on.


Introduce an exercise that involves reflection that is influenced by emotional reactions to events

Students can be asked to describe a real or imaginary event and to write fictitious reflective accounts at periods after the event, each account illustrating a change of emotional orientation to the event. The important point here is that emotional state influences the manner in which a subject is viewed. If the state changes, the view may change. Such an exercise enables recognition of issues about the ‘correctness’ of conclusions at any one time and the constructed nature of knowledge.


Collaborative methods of deepening reflection –eg critical friends and group, activities etc.

Some methods involve small group or pair work. The groups will need to have common ideas about methods by which to deepen reflection and to see themselves as peer facilitators. The groups or pairs may work together over a period, learning how best to help each other by prompting and asking questions, querying frames of reference and so on.


Second-order reflection

Second order reflection is represented in any technique that requires a student to look through previous reflective work and write a reflective overview. One of the most convenient ways to do this is the double entry journal. Students write only on one page of a double spread or on one half of a vertically divided page. They leave space blank until at another time, they go through the initial material writing generating further comments that emerge from their more coherent overview of the initial work.



Assessment and reflective learning
A common senario is as follows: students have been asked to write a reflective task such as a learning journal. They have been told that the journals will be assessed – and that the completed work is due in next week. No-one has really considered how they will be marked. Nor did anyone think of the assessment process when they gave the initial instructions to the students as to what to do in the journal.
Assessment is a difficult issue when it concerns reflective material. 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? It is entirely reasonable in one sense, however the situation is more complex in ways that this section will briefly explore. To start with there is a justification for assessment of reflective work in many programmes: if we see value in student’s reflective work and they will not engage in unassessed work, the work will need to be assessed in some way.
In terms of assessment of reflective (or any) tasks, a first rule is to think about how the task will be assessed at the time that it is developed and relate the form of assessment to the purpose and anticipated outcomes of the it. Sometimes the purpose will be to develop reflective writing / reflective practice skills and then the assessment criteria will need to concern the processes evident in the assignment. If it is the outcome of the process of reflection that is important, then the assessment task can be an essay or an examination that tests the knowledge developed. Since this is no different from other assessment, we focus on the situation where skills of reflection are to be developed.
How, then, is the process of reflection to be assessed? There is a need to develop assessment criteria that can guide the work of the students and enable fair marking. The assessment criteria will depend firstly on the purpose to be fulfilled by the reflection, and secondly on how the task was introduced. If, for example PGCE students have been told that they should reflect on how their teaching facilitated or inhibited the learning of school students, then at least one criterion could reflect just this process. If students are expected to demonstrate that they have engaged in all of the processes of reflection in the reflective writing map (Appendix 1) then criteria can be developed from the map (for a list of features of reflective writing that can be developed into assessment criteria, see Moon, 1999a). If students are told that they should reflect deeply, then the Hatton and Smith criteria (above) or those in Appendix 2 are likely to be helpful.
There are devices that seem particularly helpful in shaping the quality of reflective work. For example, sometimes it will be useful to assess for such factors as presentation or length of the assignment. Criteria can be set up whereby very poor presentation looses marks; excellent presentation gains marks but the middle range that is adequate, will neither lose or gain marks. In a similar way, students may be told that they will gain a few marks for regularly handing in their work for monitoring.
It is not always necessary to allocate a mark to a piece of student work. A journal may be considered ‘adequate’ and passed, or ‘not yet adequate’ and not yet passed. While this does not actually change the need for criteria, it avoids some of the difficult judgements about work that may be very diverse and / or creative. There can be other ways of rewarding students whose work is deemed excellent and these can provide the motivation that would normally be instilled through a grading process.
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. Assessment criteria should be developed on the basis of the approach to reflection used for a particular group of students or on the basis of the reading that students are expected to do. It is entirely reasonable to engage students in the process of developing or fine-tuning assessment criteria, if not for their own work, for the work of next year’s students (Moon, 2002 – in preparation).
Appendix 3 provides a sample of assessment criteria used for a PGCE student journal in which the map of reflective learning was used to introduce reflection.

The context of reflection
It is probably the case with the introduction of many ‘movements’ in education that they are used in situations for which they are not suitable. This is the case with reflection if we are to consider it as anything more than a teaching / learning method. 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 and Walker (1998) explore the significance of the context into which reflection is introduced in a stimulating and helpful paper, the principles outlined in which should underpin the development of any institutionally based reflective activity. Rather than list the implications of their paper, we incorporate them in a wider checklist in the format of questions that may be helpful in the development of any reflective activity. We assume the activity to be written (and therefore recorded).


  • In this activity, is are there limitations on the questioning in which students are allowed to engage? (eg – are they allowed to question the curriculum, the teaching situation, the situation of any placement or professional practice learning; their institution; relevant workplaces etc)?




  • Does the assessment system enable students to be really free to reflect and express their own views?




  • Are student told to ‘reflect’ when actually they will simply follow a recipe (eg set questions; strict adherence to the Kolb cycle (Kolb, 1984))?




  • Is learning really going to occur or are students going through the motions of reflection (eg filling in boxes or responding to questions) without learning from it? In other words, are they either, or both:

  • coming to conclusions about the subject matter?

  • learning how to reflect and perhaps evaluate their processes of reflection?




  • Is the material that students are encouraged to produce more than descriptive?




  • Are students being encouraged to write for themselves, or is there pressure (through monitoring and assessment) for them to write what they think the tutor wants to see?




  • Have there been appropriate guidelines developed for students with regard to ethical issues and confidentiality of material that they produce?




  • Knowing about the personal circumstances of a student could be advantageous for staff or others. Is there adequate consideration of the costs / benefits of potentially revealing information for the student, staff and others?

To take better account of the sensitive and ethical issues around reflective work, Boud and Walker talk about the development of a ‘local context’ – ‘like making a space in the organisation for groups of members to operate apart from the immediate pressures to perform’.



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