Reflection: Towards a definition of reflective learning

Donald Schön (1983) suggested that the capacity to reflect on action so as to engage in a process of continuous learning was one of the defining characteristics of professional practice. He commented on the “Technical Rationality” type of model of professional training  — which involves “charging students up” with knowledge in classrooms which they could discharge when they entered the domain of practice, and is perhaps more aptly termed a “battery” model. He argued that this has never been a particularly good description of how professionals “think in action”, and is in fact particularly inappropriate to practice in a fast-changing world.

” Reflection is indicative of deep learning, and where teaching and learning activities such as reflection are missing… only surface learning can result.” Biggs J (1999)

Students are asked to reflect to help them learn, precisely because of the established link between reflection and deeper learning. The habit of reflection is worth acquiring as a means of continuing to learn and grow in their professions.

Reflection can lead to:

  • personal growth
  • professional growth
  • meaningful change.

Put simply, reflection is about maximising deep and minimising surface approaches to learning.” (Hinett, 2002)

“Reflection leads to growth of the individual – morally, personally, psychologically, and emotionally, as well as cognitively”. (Branch & Paranjape, 2002)

Reflection can help you to:

  • better understand your strengths and weaknesses
  • identify and question your underlying values and beliefs
  • acknowledge and challenge possible assumptions on which you base your ideas, feelings and actions
  • recognise areas of potential bias or discrimination
  • acknowledge your fears, and
  • identify possible inadequacies or areas for improvement.

In its narrowest sense, the reflective learner can be seen as someone who explores their experiences of learning to better understand how they learn with a view ultimately to improve their further learning; what can be referred to as learning to learn (one of the four key skills) and the bedrock of becoming a “lifelong learner”.

Reflective learners are likely to be:

  • more self-aware and self-critical (a first step to positive change);
  • honest about themselves, and open to criticism and feedback;
  • objective in weighing up evidence;
  • open to, and prepared to try, different approaches;
  • curious to discover other approaches, motivated to improve, and more able to carry through independent learning.


Biggs J (1999) Teaching for quality learning at university (Buckingham: Open University)

Branch (Jr), W.T., & Paranjape, A. (2002) ‘Feedback and reflection: Teaching methods for clinical settings’, Academic Medicine, Vol. 77, No. 12/Dec, Pt 1, p. 1187

Hinett, K.: Improving learning through reflection part 1, HEA, (accessed 14 May 2010)

Hinett, K.: Improving learning through reflection part 2, HEA, (accessed 14 June 2010)

Schön, D (1983) The reflective practitioner: how professionals think in action (Boston: Arena Publishing)