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Reflective practice: How to get the most out of self-reflection

31 October, 2016Sue Sedwell

Reflective practice is embedded in all our work-based learning provision and, if it is undertaken regularly and thoroughly, it can have a significant impact on work performance and personal and professional development. 

Over the summer, a number of our full-time students undertook internships. As part of this, these students, and those students taking part in the work-based learning modules, have learnt to engage with the discipline of reflective practice.

What is reflective practice?

Women working at computerMy Google search for a definition of reflective practice produced an overwhelming number of results (2.8 million).  I could have quoted from scholarly articles from Brookfield, Thiel, Cunninham, Imel, Silverman and Casazza, or directed readers to various models/theories, including Kolb & Fry, Honey & Mumford, Gibbs, et al.

But to keep things simple, consider it like this: Reflective practice is, in its simplest form, thinking about or reflecting on what you do. It is closely linked to the concept of learning from experience, in that you think about what you did, and what happened, and decide from that what you would do differently next time.

Reflective practice encourages people to consider:

  • What they have learned
  • How it can be applied in different circumstances
  • How things could have been undertaken better or differently
  • How they, and other people, could have performed or behaved better or differently
  • Their strengths and areas that need development
For some people this can be an uncomfortable experience, especially when beginning to understand how they perform and behave and the impacts on others. But tackling these issues is critical to effective reflective practice and the self-development journey. One way to start the process is to ask yourself the following questions:

  • What are the key things that have just happened?
  • How did I react?
  • How did it make me feel?
  • How did others react?
  • How did the way I behaved and the things I said impact on others?
  • What was good about the experience?
  • How could we have achieved a better outcome?
  • How can I improve?
  • What will I do differently next time?
Of course, to really gain an insight into one’s own behaviours, strengths and development needs, it is essential to obtain feedback from others. This can also be a painful process as a natural reaction is to react negatively to what can be perceived as criticism. However, it is important to gain an understanding of how one’s actions affect other people. A balanced view is important, achieved by asking people what they thought was good as well as areas to work on in the future.

Benefits of reflective practice

The benefits of reflective practice can be seen as “…encouraging a reflective approach to learning (that) fulfils several functions:

  • It allows analysis of an individual’s experiences and facilitates learning from this experience
  • It encourages critical thinking, a questioning attitude and leads potentially to greater learning autonomy
  • It promotes professional competence by encouraging the recognition of mistakes and weaknesses
  • If logged, it provides written proof of an individual’s progression in thinking and deeper understanding for use at the end of their degree to enhance employability.”
(Extract from: Encouraging Reflective Practice – an introduction to a range of strategies, Approaches to Learning, JMU Learning & Teaching)

However, the benefits of reflective practice are relevant to all of us, not solely our students, so readers might wish to pause for a while after reading this and consider how engaging in and learning from reflective practice might benefit their working lives.

Maybe the next time something doesn’t go quite as you expected, ask yourself the questions above. Then reflect upon how it could have been handled differently: in this way you’ll learn what to do when faced with a similar situation in future.  After all, as Confucius said:

“Learning without reflection is a waste. Reflection without learning is dangerous.”