Critical reflection is a “meaning-making process” that helps us set goals, use what we’ve learned in the past to inform future action and consider the real-life implications of our thinking. It is the link between thinking and doing, and at its best, it can be transformative (Dewey, 1916/1944; Schön, 1983; Rodgers, 2002). Without reflection, experience alone might cause us to “reinforce stereotypes…, offer simplistic solutions to complex problems and generalize inaccurately based on limited data” (Ash & Clayton, 2009, p.26). Engaging in critical reflection, however, helps us articulate questions, confront bias, examine causality, contrast theory with practice and identify systemic issues all of which helps foster critical evaluation and knowledge transfer (Ash & Clayton, 2009, p. 27). While critical reflection may come more easily for some students than others, it is a skill that can be learned through practice and feedback (Dewey, 1933, Rodgers, 2002).
Guidelines for Integrating Reflections into Your Course
Incorporating the following characteristics into the design of your reflective activities can help make the reflective process as effective as possible.
Create curiosity. When students learn new concepts or subject matter, they often experience a sense of uncertainty and disequilibrium until they can make sense of the new information. Critical reflection is necessary to assimilate the new information and resolve the state of disequilibrium. It takes time to do well; sparking students’ curiosity can motivate them to engage in the reflective process (Dewey, 1933; Rodgers, 2002). Providing appropriate question prompts, activities, problems and tasks can help spark the necessary curiosity. See Examples of Assignments.
Make it Continual. Build in “periodic, structured opportunities to reflect and integrate learning” (Kuh, O’Donnell & Reed, 2013). Because critical reflection is a defined way of thinking, students have to have numerous opportunities throughout the course and the program to practice and receive feedback. See Examples of Assignments.
Connect it. Activities to promote reflection can range from writing/rewriting exercises, problem solving activities, discussions, role playing/simulations, and group work to name a few. To be effective, though, be sure to explicitly connect the reflective activities to course/program learning outcomes, specific assignments, course concepts or experiences.See Examples of Assignments.
Give it context. Design reflective activities to support integration of learning across courses and to engage students with “big questions” related to community/public issues that matter beyond the classroom. Ideally, reflective activities should ask students to consider messy, ill-defined problems that do not have a ‘right’ answer (Moon, 1999). This helps move them towards higher order thinking and higher levels of reflection. See AAC&U Integrative Learning VALUE rubric.
Consider your class size. Assessing and providing feedback to reflections require time and resources. For smaller classes, it might be manageable to assess individual reflections through journals, logs, and blogs. For larger classes, consider facilitating whole class discussions and opportunities for peer feedback. Dividing a large class into smaller groups for discussions and small group brainstorming sessions can provide the practice and feedback students need without all the feedback having to come from you, the instructor. Having students share reflections through ePortfolios is yet another way for students to receive feedback from peers.
Model the reflective process. During class discussions, model the reflective process by asking the kinds of questions that members of your discipline ask. Explicitly point out how you support a claim with evidence. As you go through the process, explain how you are modeling the critical reflection process. Providing students with a rubric may help them practice the process themselves.
Breakdown the assignment. When you provide students with details for a particular assignment, lead a discussion asking them as a group to outline a process for tackling the assignment. Have each student then create a personal plan for addressing the areas which might cause them more difficulty. Ask students to hand in different pieces of the assignment throughout the term, providing feedback to the various components. Over time, less guidance and feedback will be required to help students with the reflective thinking process.
Encourage multiple perspectives. Being exposed to different perspectives (through discussions with classmates, or through resources such readings, websites, case studies, simulations that represent different points of view), and being able to participate in a dialogue with others (peers, instructors) about matters of importance is critical to the reflective thinking process. Having students work on collaborative projects can facilitate this; they learn to listen to others and consider different approaches to solving problems.
Provide a safe environment where students can explore and articulate emotional responses. Students might not mind sharing their knowledge and understanding about content with their classmates, but may be less inclined to share emotional responses with others. In these cases, consider splitting up the task so that the descriptive, non-personal component is done in class and the articulation of learning part is handed in individually to a TA or instructor.
Assess it. Making reflections part of a course grade encourages students to engage in the reflective process, helps them track their growth and development over time, and signals to them that critical reflection is a worthwhile and valued activity. Provide students with ‘frequent, timely and constructive feedback’ to the reflective activities. See Examples of Assignments.
Provide clear marking criteria and exemplars. Clearly state the criteria for success and show students an example of a good reflection. Explain why the example is a good one (e.g., show how the reflection provides concrete examples to support the observations, and ties the observations back to the course content/learning outcome). Provide students with opportunities to self-assess, or provide peer-feedback using the rubric that you will use to assess their reflections.
See AAC&U VALUE rubric.
See examples of rubrics associated with assignments:
Choose prompts that suit your goals
Use language that suits your course and discipline. The term ‘reflection’ has come to mean different things to different people (Rodgers, 2002). Use a term that makes sense to your discipline. Science students might roll their eyes if asked to reflect on personal development in a Chemistry course. Is there a term that your discipline uses instead of the term reflection (design notes, lab notes, documentation of bugs)?
Choose the type of reflection that suits your goals. Reflective activities can be of two types: one type helps students focus on their growth and development, and on their personal learning process and another type fosters students’ capacity to think deeply about content and concepts. Be sure to choose reflective prompts that align with your course goals.
- Process reflection. This type of reflection prompts students to think about their progress and the strategies they are using while they are working on a project or assignment (e.g., where are you with your project? What challenges are you having? What are you planning to do about those challenges? What problems did you encounter in completing the assignment? How did you troubleshoot them? What still needs work?) This can be done individually or, in large classes, consider using small group discussions.
- Inward-looking reflection. When reflecting inward, students focus on their personal strengths, gaps, resources, standards, values, response to challenges, strategies, etc. See examples of self-reflection questions
- Outward-looking reflection. By observing others, students can build their awareness of alternative perspectives and ways of doing things. When contrasts are noted, students can give examples to support their observations.
See for example:
- Forward-looking reflection. At the beginning of a course, project, or assignment, prompt students to think about which components look familiar and which look more challenging and difficult, and why. Towards the end of the course, hand these lists back to the students and have them discuss whether they have met their goals. As a class, have the students list which of the goals they believe they achieved, and which they did not. Alternatively, have students write a letter to the students who take the course next, giving advice and encouragement.
Backward-looking reflection. At the end of a project, work term or volunteer experience a backward-looking reflection is a good way for students to take stock of their experience. See for example:
See examples of self-reflection questions
See examples of questions to foster students’ capacity to think deeply about content and concepts, and readings, research, or lectures.
Ash, S.L., & Clayton, P. H. (2009). Generating, deepening, and documenting learning: The power of critical reflection in applied learning. Journal of Applied Learning in Higher Education, 1(1), 25-48.
Boss, S. (2009). High tech reflection strategies make learning stick retrieved from http://www.edutopia.org/student-reflection-blogs-journals-technology
Dewey, J. (1916/1944). Democracy and education: An introduction to the philosophy of education. New York: The Free Press.
Kuh, G. D., O’Donnell, K., & Reed, S. (2013). Ensuring quality and taking high-impact practices to scale. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.
Moon, J. (1999). Reﬂection in learning and professional development. Abingdon, Oxon: RoutledgeFalmer.
Rodgers, C. (2002). Defining reflection: Another look at John Dewey and reflective thinking. The Teachers College Record, 104(4), 842-866.
Schön, D. A. (1983). The reflective practitioner: How professionals think in action (Vol. 5126). Basic books.
This Creative Commons license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon our work non-commercially, as long as they credit us and indicate if changes were made. Use this citation format: Critical Reflection. Centre for Teaching Excellence, University of Waterloo.
Hi there, in this lesson we're going to discuss the idea of reflective writing.
First, we'll define what it is, and then explore the idea of critical
reflective writing at university using an example.
In order to discuss what reflective writing is,
it's useful to first define what we mean by reflection.
Mezirow suggests that reflection is a turning back on experience.
That is, we engage in reflection whenever we think back on or about an event or
an experience, or even when we engage with the simple awareness of an object.
That means actively thinking about what we've learned and the process of learning.
When we engage in this kind of reflection,
we're doing what Flavel would classify as metacognition.
We're gaining an awareness and
understanding of our own process of learning.
Another way to think of this is that it is, in part, critical self reflection.
We think about how we think.
So how, when, and why do we use reflection at university?
Firstly, reflection can be a study habit for individual students.
In fact, Mezirow suggests that critical reflection is a cornerstone of
adult learning, and key to being able to think independently.
This means that you, as a student,
critically reflect both on what you've learned and how you're learning.
You could reflect on anything, from your study habits, to the way your ideas and
attitudes are changing, or the gaps in your knowledge or
skills that you need to fill.
This kind of reflection, or
metacognition, encourages learner autonomy and will make you a better learner.
Boyd and Fales suggest that reflection occurs
when you think about an experience or event that revealed an area of concern.
For example, for a medical student, the experience might a clinical error
that might have revealed a lack of knowledge about a disease.
Or it might have uncovered a personal assumption or
bias that a student had towards a patient.
It might even highlight a personal tendency,
such as being too quick to jump to conclusions.
Reflecting on the experience and
area of concern thus enables you to better understand yourself and
your own gaps in knowledge, assumptions, and biases or thought processes.
Next, in the significance stage, you analyze why it happened.
You might draw on or question prior learning or relevant theory and
research in order to contextualize the concern.
If, for example, it was revealed that the medical student made an error due to
a lack of knowledge about a particular disease, they would then need to discuss
how they would overcome this difficulty in the future.
Simply looking up and
learning more about the particular disease doesn't solve the core problem.
It is impractical to assume that medical professions
will know everything about every disease and medication.
So, a good perfection would also discuss this issue, and
then consult theory and research into how medical professionals overcome it.
Of course, this is usually a difficult process.
You need to be honest about your failings,
to admit faults, or things you find particularly difficult.
As Brookfield suggests,
becoming aware of the implicit assumptions that frame how we think and act
is one of the most puzzling intellectual challenges we face in our lives.
In this way, reflective writing is both subjective and objective.
It's subjective because you're talking about your personal experiences,
thoughts, beliefs, and opinions, and you often use I.
On the other hand, it's objective because you need to treat those experiences,
thoughts, beliefs and opinions like any other argument.
Something that can be analyzed and deconstructed to reveal new truths.
And finally, while the written aspect to a reflection is probably more particular to
universities, critical reflection is definitely not.
Some of the most common interview questions for jobs are focused on
identifying personal strengths and weaknesses, successes and failures.
In fact, look at any advice page for interviews, and
you'll find people stressing the need to find examples of specific instances.
How you dealt with them, and what you've learned about
dealing with those situations, about yourself or about the field.
While you may not need to draw on theory and
research to back up what you're saying, the principle is still the same.
You need to be critically reflective.
Of course, this is something that applies to all the skills we've been discussing on
Being a critical and reflective thinker is not just a hat you put on
when you walk into a tutorial or a lecture hall.
It's something that you are and do every time you engage with new information or
a new argument.
Whether it's published in an academic journal article,
a friend's social media post, or a tabloid magazine.
Using these skills is how we grow and learn throughout our whole lives.