Reflection: Some Critical Issues for Educators

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Reflection: Some Critical Issues for Educators

Kelvin TAN


It is not uncommon to hear of reflection being integral to student learning and effective teaching. Yet, the notion of reflection, what it constitutes and produces, is seldom understood in a singular or uniform manner. Clearly, educational practitioners will do well to reflect on their own agendas for reflection and on the reflective outcomes that are desired and espoused. Different ways of understanding the nature, and intent, of reflective activities are presented and discussed in this chapter. Readers are invited to identify, challenge and reflect on the assumptions in their reflective processes and then develop reflexive postures towards their own reflection.


Reflection and learning from experience are increasingly commonplace features of educational programmes in many countries. However, it cannot be assumed that all forms of reflection lead to learning. Misconceptions of the nature of reflective activities and their intended outcomes may also result in inappropriate disclosures from learners. Different ways of understanding the nature, and intent, of reflective activities will be presented and discussed in this chapter. In particular, I will address the tension between reflection for certainty and reflection for further inquiry, and the critical distinction between self-reflection and self-assessment.

What Is Reflection?

What exactly do we mean by reflection? The notion of “reflection” has been developed in different academic traditions and applied in diverse settings, not all of which have similar, or are consistent with, educational goals. Thus, it cannot and should not assume a universal meaning for all contexts. Yet, we need to understand (and reflect on) its essential thesis in order to appreciate what reflection can, and cannot, do for teachers, students, and education in general.

A useful starting point would be the general description of reflection by Boud, Keough and Walker (1985) as “a generic term for those intellectual and affective activities in which individuals engage to explore their experiences in order to lead to a new understanding and appreciation” (p. 19). In short, reflection is about grappling with our past experiences in order to address our future ones. Within these broad parameters, various traditions and schools of thought differ in terms of what reflective processes should be like and what reflection should lead to.

One of the most commonly cited figures in any scholarly discussion on reflection is John Dewey, who defines reflection as “an active persistent and careful consideration of any belief or supposed form of knowledge in the light of the grounds that support it and the further conclusion to which it tends” (1933, p. 118). Dewey argues that the various experiences of each individual may be understood as a dynamic continuum and that each experience influences the quality of future experiences. The ultimate goal of personal reflection is for individuals to collectively contribute to the Deweyan vision of a moral society wherein individuals are encouraged to challenge existing assumptions and to construct personal meaning for themselves. Dewey's ideas have greatly influenced the current understanding of reflection, although the precise and practical application of his vision in modern society is still being debated and theorised. Rodgers (2002) argues that Deweyan reflection may be distilled into four key ideas:

  • Individuals possess a meaning-making process.
  • Reflection promotes systematic, rigorous and disciplined thinking.
  • Personal reflective processes and outcomes exist in interaction with those of others.
  • Reflection requires attitudes that value personal growth.

Another prominent figure in reflective thinking and theory is Donald Schon, whose seminal work on the reflective processes of professionals has led to a new awareness of professional learning and of the importance of reflection therein. Schon's (1983) treatise on the “reflective practitioner” distinguishes between reflection-in-action and reflection-on-action. He argues that a vital component of competent professional practice is that of reflection-in-action—the ability of practitioners to monitor what they are doing as they are doing it and to assess what else needs to be done. By doing so, reflective practitioners articulate what is tacit in their practice and subject this to reflection or criticism (Penny & Grover, 1996). In contrast, reflection-on-action refers to individuals looking back on concrete experiences and what they have done. This would then allow them to identify the problems they have encountered and reconsider the actions they have taken.

Schon's “reflective practitioner” has established the foundation of personal reflection in higher education and the link between higher education and professional practice. The notion of the reflective practitioner emphasises the value of personal reflection in educational practice, and this has influenced many academics to take an interest in their students' judgments of their work and achievements. Schon's work has also introduced the notion of personal and professional awareness into education, and this in turn has led to an emphasis on the student's self-reflection ability as a priority and goal in many education systems.

Because of Schon's influence, many teachers and academics regularly categorise reflection as “reflection on action” and “reflection in action”. This is useful for highlighting the need to utilise reflective potential in the present. However, it does not provide a future context for reflection when the individual is reflecting on a past experience or event. In other words, individuals need to know what their reflection is directed to in the future when they are reflecting on their past. The future context for reflecting on past experiences is increasingly acknowledged as a vital need in order for reflective practices to serve future purposes. Cowan (1998) argues for a similar future context for reflection by proposing “reflection for action” (anticipatory reflection for the future) as a complement to “reflection on action” and “reflection in action”.

Given the two traditions of reflection developed by John Dewey and Donald Schon, we can appreciate the current sentiment and discourse on reflection as emphasising the importance of reflection to the individual and for each individual's contribution to his or her profession. In the context of education, reflection is sometimes constructed as a critical virtue for all teachers and academics, one that encapsulates the notion of teachers as professionals (hence the influence of Schon's work on teachers as reflective practitioners/professionals) and the notion of teachers constructing the future moral society through their students. However, it cannot be assumed that every notion, and practice, of reflection is always beneficial. Increasingly, there are concerns being voiced about the instances where reflection is misunderstood and misapplied, leading to unfortunate experiences where reflection may do more harm than good. Boud and Walker (1998), in particular, list several concerns regarding student reflection, such as the undue exposure of students' vulnerabilities and how students' reflection is facilitated and subsequently judged. Others such as Hinett and Weeden (2000) and Brew (1999) warn of the confusion between the self-assessment of experiences and the self-reflection of experiences.

Does Reflection Lead to Certainty or Doubt?

Different traditions and ideas on reflection may be understood in terms of whether reflection is meant to lead to certainty or whether it can accommodate doubt in its final outcome.

Reflection for certainty and reflection accommodating doubt may be labelled as performative and exploratory reflection respectively. Performative reflection may be understood as any model of reflection that emphasises certainty in the process and outcome of reflection. Such models typically postulate distinct steps for each stage of the reflective process. Concrete outcomes may also be expected for each stage of reflection. For example, David Kolb's (1984) popular exposition of the experiential learning cycle comprises four sequential stages focusing on experience, reflection, generalisation and planning. Each stage of this cycle requires a specific tangible action and outcome to precede the subsequent stage. The entire cycle is meant to produce a solution for the problem that the reflective process is directed at.

In contrast, exploratory reflection refers to the traditions and ideas of reflection that see reflection as an end in itself, and not as a means to generate solutions or outcomes. Deweyan reflection is an example of exploratory reflection that accommodates doubt as part of the process and outcome of reflection. For example, Rodgers (2002) describes Deweyan reflection as embracing a “state of perplexity, hesitation and doubt” (p. 850). In the same vein, Boud and Solomon (2001) argue for reflection in work-based learning to avoid problem-solving tendencies, and they emphasise that the key goal of reflection is for individuals to be “noticing and questioning the taken-for-granted assumptions that one holds and that are held by others” (p. 55).

What Is the Difference between Self-reflection and Self-assessment?

There are clearly connections between reflection and self-assessment. Both involve focusing on learning and experience (Boud & Brew, 1995, p. 131).

Another critical issue in reflection theory and practice is the critical distinction between self-reflection and self-assessment. Self-reflection and self-assessment serve contrasting agendas, and yet these two terms are often used synonymously for each other. This is partly due to the historical role that the notion of reflection has come to play in introducing self-assessment in education (McDowell, 1995; Tamir, 1999; Walker & Warhurst, 2000). While the association of reflection with self-assessment has been recognised, the distinction between them has not always been clear. Generally, the relationship between self-assessment and reflection is depicted in two contrasting ways, as follows.

Self-assessment as an activity that invariably leads to reflection

The first school of thought tends to view self-assessment as an activity that precedes personal reflection. The practice of having students assess the value of their own learning and learning achievements is regarded as a “useful device for enabling students to reflect on practice” (Baldwin, 2000, p. 451). This device may be useful for both students and teachers. It may also be perceived as a means of preparing students for a subsequent dialogue with teachers on a shared assessment process which allows teachers and students to be partners in assessment (Petit & Zawojewski, 1990). Self-assessment may provide students with the means of reflecting on their performance in order to progress in their attainment of the relevant learning objectives (Prestidge & Williams Glaser, 2000). Such activities may also benefit teachers by allowing them to evaluate their students' reflections of their own learning (Raymond, 1994).

The assumption in these views is that the act of judging one's own learning invariably enhances the quality of the individual's reflection. However, this presumes that the goals of self-assessment and reflection are consistent with each other. This assumption is challenged in the second view of how self-assessment relates to reflection.

Self-assessment as existing in tension with self-reflection

The second school of thought tends to see self-assessment as a concept that derives from personal reflection. Reflection is understood as the broad range of processes from which self-assessment is a subset. Hence, all forms of self-assessment will involve personal reflection, but not all aspects of personal reflection will result in self-assessment (Brew, 1999).

The involvement of students in judging their own learning and achievements is viewed as a public act that is subsequent to their private reflection (Boud, 1992). Hinett and Weeden (2000) describe this distinction between (private) reflection and (public) self-assessment thus:

Reflective practice is commonly used to denote any activity that involves the learner in discussing how to improve practice. Self-assessment is different in that it concerns making judgments that are publicly defensible. In contrast, reflection tends to be more exploratory which may not lead to any expressible outcome (p. 247).

In this context, reflection is viewed as a personal act of introspection that exists for private consumption, while self-assessment is the public exposure of part of that personal introspection which the student is willing to subject to external scrutiny (Brew, 1999).

The conceptual contrast between reflection and self-assessment as a private and a public process, respectively, means that both will always be in tension with one another (Boud, 1994). Assessment involves the presentation of one's best work and promotes certainty and accuracy. In contrast, reflection focuses on the exploration of one's work and thrives on uncertainty and discrepancies. These concepts clearly polarise self-assessment and reflection as conflicting and yet dependent processes. Hence, there is an inevitable tension involved in allowing two contrasting processes to take place in the same student self-assessment activity.

There does not appear to be a clear consensus in the literature on how self-assessment enhances reflection. The tension between self-assessment activities and reflective processes suggests that their coexistence and relation is problematic.

Some Good, and Reflective, Practices

Given the huge potential of reflection for both teachers and students, and the critical issues pertaining to its purpose and practice, how can reflection be best understood and utilised by teachers and students? The following are brief suggestions for consideration, and for reflection.

Distinguish reflective activities from reflective ability

Reflective activities and their consequent outcomes tend to focus on specific experiences and actions confined to a specific point in time. In contrast, reflective ability refers to the capacity to be continually introspective of past and continuing phenomena and intuitively sceptical of presenting experiences and assertions. In this context, performative reflection tends to focus on guiding reflective activity, rather than developing reflective ability. It utilises the structured process of reflection to achieve a concrete reflective outcome, and the development of reflective ability in the process may be understood as being incidental to its goal for reflection. On the other hand, exploratory reflection provides individuals with the space and autonomy to select their reflective outcome and its ensuing processes. It utilises the personally constructed process of reflection to achieve its goal of enhancing reflective ability.

Be critical of the underlying assumptions in your reflections

While reflection can be a powerful tool for raising self-awareness, it also runs the risk of over-privileging experience over theory. One of the ways to minimise this would be to actively identify and critique the underlying assumptions made in your reflections, as well as the existing assumptions that manifest in the kinds of reflections you produce. Mezirow (1998) provides a useful list of the types of assumptions that can be challenged in critical reflection. These assumptions are categorised as follows:

  • Assumptions pertaining to an individual's personal narrative (what we have been assuming based on our past)
  • Systemic assumptions (what we assume about a system, such as what teachers commonly believe about the education system)
  • Organisational assumptions (what we assume about the organisation we work in or for)
  • Moral-ethical assumptions (what we assume to be prevailing or commonly accepted ethics and morals)
  • Epistemic assumptions (assuming the truth and validity of sources of asserted truth)

Reflect on your reflective processes and outcomes

Finally, in the spirit of continuing reflection, it is important not to isolate reflection as unrelated instances of introspection. Such tendencies may be seen in reflection journals containing a series of reflective entries that have little to do with each other. This is contrary to the good reflective practice of reflecting continually and consistently, as well as revisiting previous reflective entries and reflecting on the way one reflects.

The need to reflect on reflections is gaining increasing prominence in current reflection literature. For example, Greenwood (1993) recommends Argyris and Schon's single and double loop learning for business organisations to review their practices in terms of solving immediate problems (single loop learning) and to examine the assumptions in their understanding and solving of the problems (double loop learning). Some authors have since recommended an additional layer of reflection—triple loop learning—in which individuals or organisations are encouraged to reflect on how they reflect on their double loop learning. In other words, triple loop learning involves the reflection on an earlier process of reflection.


Reflection is a virtue that is elusive but commonly articulated. Its precise meaning should be defined and understood in specific contexts and yet should never be dictated as to result in unreflective understanding of what reflection should mean for teachers and students. Reflection clearly is an important part of how teachers and students learn. Reflecting on how we reflect, and what we mean by reflection, should then assist teachers and students alike to construct the form and manner of reflection that suits their own context.


Baldwin, M. (2000). Does self-assessment in a group help students to learn?

Social Work Education, 19(5), 451–462.

Boud, D. (1992). The use of self-assessment schedules in negotiated learning. Studies in Higher Education, 17(2), 185–200.

Boud, D. (1994). The move to self-assessment: Liberation or a new mechanism for oppression? Paper presented at the Reflecting on Changing Practices, Contexts and Identities Conference, University of Hull, Leeds.

Boud, D., & Brew, A. (1995). Developing a typology for learner self-assessment practices. Research and Development in Higher Education, 18, 130–135.

Boud, D., & Solomon, N. (Eds.) (2001). Work-based Learning: A New Higher Education. Buckingham: Society for Research into Higher Education (SRHE) and Open University Press.

Boud, D., & Walker, D. (1998). Promoting reflection in professional courses: The challenge of context. Studies in Higher Education, 23(2), 191.

Boud, D., Keough, R., & Walker, D. (1985). Reflection: Turning Experience into Learning. London: Kogan Page.

Brew, A. (1999). Towards autonomous assessment: Using self-assessment and peer assessment. In S. Brown & A. Glasner (Eds.), Assessment Matters in Higher Education (pp. 159–171). Buckingham: SRHE and Open University Press.

Cowan, J. (1998). On Becoming an Innovative University Teacher. Buckingham: SRHE and Open University Press.

Dewey, J. (1933). How We Think. Chicago: Henrey Regney.

Greenwood, J. (1993). Reflective practice: A critique of the work of Argyris and Schon. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 18(8), 1183–1187.

Hinett, K., & Weeden, P. (2000). How am I doing? Developing critical self-evaluation in trainee teachers. Quality in Higher Education, 6(3), 245–257.

Kolb, D. A. (1984). Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

McDowell, L. (1995). The impact of innovative assessment on student learning. Innovations in Education and Training International, 32(4), 302–313.

Mezirow, J. (1998). On critical reflection. Adult Education Quarterly, 48(3), 185–198.

Penny, A. J., & Grover, C. (1996). An analysis of student grade expectations and marker consistency. Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education, 21(2), 173–182.

Petit, M., & Zawojewski, J. (1990). Teachers and students learning together about assessing problem solving. Mathematics Teacher, 90(6), 472–477.

Prestidge, L. K., & Williams Glaser, C. H. (2000). Authentic assessment: Employing appropriate tools for evaluating students' work in 21st-century classrooms. Intervention in School and Clinic, 35(3), 178–182.

Raymond, A. M. (1994). Assessment in mathematics education: What are some of the alternatives in alternative assessment? Contemporary Education, 66(1), 13–17.

Rodgers, C. (2002). Defining reflection: Another look at John Dewey and reflective thinking. Teachers College Record, 104(4), 842–866.

Schon, D. A. (1983). The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action. New York: Basic Books.

Tamir, P. (1999). Self-assessment: The use of self-report knowledge and opportunity to learn inventories. International Journal of Science Education, 21(4), 401–411.

Walker, M., & Warhurst, C. (2000). “In most classes you sit around very quietly at a table and get lectured at….”: Debates, assessment and student learning. Teaching in Higher Education, 5(1), 33–49.

Further Reading

Boud, D., Keough, R., & Walker, D. (1985). Reflection: Turning Experience into Learning. London: Kogan Page.

Greenwood, J. (1993). Reflective practice: A critique of the work of Argyris and Schon. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 18(8), 1183–1187.

Mezirow, J. (1998). On critical reflection. Adult Education Quarterly, 48(3), 185–198.