Why and how to help students to reflect on their learning?

In the next Academy Forum this year we explored the why and how of helping students to reflect on their learning. Our discussion started from the attempt to define what reflection is.  Using the polling software we gathered initial thoughts from the attendees which touched upon different aspects of reflection including learning, challenging assumptions, noticing, evaluating and thinking about an action.

What is reflection? learning, self-actualisation, challenging assumptions, developing, thinking about an action, mindfulness, evaluating, noticing, thinking, making sense, pondering, process, evaluating

“Put simply, reflection is about maximising deep and minimising surface approaches to learning.” (Hinett, 2002 as cited in Philip, 2006, p. 37). Students who adopt a more surface approach to learning and students who have little interest in the topic are more likely to view any assessment as a means to an end. However, students who adopt a deep approach, committed to understanding the topic, and those who take the time to think about feedback are much more likely to improve their future performance. The difference between the two approaches (surface and deep) is that the ‘deep’ learner reflects on experience. Reflection is also a way of getting students to realise that learning is about drawing on life experiences, not just something that takes place in the lecture theatre. It helps students to think about what, why and how they learn and to understand that this impacts on how well they do (Philip, 2006).

As reiterated by Race (2002 as cited in Philip, 2006, p.37): “Reflection deepens learning. The act of reflecting is one which causes us to make sense of what we’ve learned, why we learned it, and how that particular increment of learning took place. Moreover, reflection is about linking one increment of learning to the wider perspective of learning – heading towards seeing the bigger picture. Reflection is equally useful when our learning has been unsuccessful – in such cases indeed reflection can often give us insights into what may have gone wrong with our learning, and how on a future occasion we might avoid now-known pitfalls. Most of all, however, it is increasingly recognised that reflection is an important transferable skill, and is much valued by all around us, in employment, as well as in life in general.”

Reflecting on one’s learning links to the idea of Growth Mindset, a concept developed by Carol Dweck. Contrary to the idea that skills and intelligence are fixed, inborn qualities (fixed mindset), an individual with growth mindset recognises that although we differ in intelligence and abilities, we can all improve (Dweck, 2012).

The discussion moved onto why do we want students to reflect? We identified various reasons, including:

  1. To learn better, more effectively.
  2. To link what they learn at University to their careers and life after graduation.
  3. To recognise their strengths and weaknesses.
  4. To take responsibility for their learning.
  5. To enhance their employability and enterprise skills.

As a former Aberystwyth University Psychology student, I also turned to my tutors, Dr Alison Mackiewicz who led me through the Psychology in Practice module involving development of a research question based on a reflective diary kept throughout a Psychology-related work placement, who said:

“I am currently coordinating the department’s new Psychology with Counselling degree scheme and all the modules have a reflective journal component/assessment embedded in them.  Reflective writing is a vital component in counselling & psychotherapy training and practice.  Through reflective writing/journaling, you become more aware of ‘the self’, or inner thoughts, fears, and desires; it’s a process of using metacognition – taking the time to think on a deeper level about one’s own thinking…and in doing so you often get a different perspective of your thoughts.  In counselling, reflective writing helps the trainee/practitioner to more carefully consider the profound experiences that have impacted their life, or become critically aware of how their experiences have shaped them in some way.  And, if they can understand themselves in this way, they can use these skills to understand their clients.”

But how can we help students to reflect? In answering this question, we asked staff to reflect on their own experiences: when do they reflect, what initiates this reflection and what environment makes it easier for them to reflect? This discussion certainly revealed the differences in how individuals reflect – some talked about reflecting through journaling, pondering while walking, having a conversation with oneself whereas others found it useful to reflect by listening and talking to a trusted person. A member of staff has also described the value of ‘collective reflection’ common in health care professions such as nursing. We shared various strategies used in facilitating reflection in students:

  • Formative weekly entries on journals/blogs in Blackboard ending with a summative final module report (please see our blog post on using journals & blogs).
  • Reflective discussions during the sessions, skilfully asking questions.
  • Asking students to grade an assessment that they submitted at the start of the year (1st-year module assessment) and reflect on their progress.
  • Weekly progress reflection on a group basis, fostering a collective reflection and supportive student community.
  • Action learning sets – considering a scenario within a group.

Dr Saffron Passam from the Psychology department added her experiences of embedding reflexivity in teaching:

“The underlying aim of PS11710 is to embed employability early in the degree programme and to introduce students to organisational behaviour. Our approach to reflection is underpinned by psychological theory, meaning that the student must first be introduced to the cognitive underpinnings of reflection (e.g. its connection to learning, self-regulation, self-efficacy and also its developmental nature). Students are then provided with multiple opportunities, including weekly contributions to an assignment, to practice reflecting on the workplace (whether through their experiences, perspectives, or observations). As we move through the module, the students are introduced to different reflective models that can be used to achieve different aims in context.” 

Although there are several useful models of reflection which may serve as a good starting point (see the University of Edinburgh Reflectors’ Toolkit), the overarching message that came up from the discussion was that reflection needs to become a fundamental part of teaching for it to be truly beneficial. We need to embed reflection into every aspect of learning and teaching and not only do it through assessments. Embedding reflection in teaching is going to involve:

  • A huge shift in perception (facilitating the growth mindset)
  • Creating a safe space where students feel comfortable enough to reflect
  • Emphasising the value of reflection
  • Flexibility – as mentioned before, reflection takes different forms, and it is a highly personalised process. Therefore, staff may want to consider offering students different ways of presenting their reflection, instead of just asking students to write down their reflections. Could you allow students to reflect through a video or audio format too?

It’s a good idea to encourage reflection when having conversations with students more generally. Being a personal tutor provides staff with an invaluable opportunity to have more general discussions with students and therefore can encourage them to reflect on their experience at University more broadly.

Thank you very much to those who contributed to this thought-provoking discussion and special thanks to Dr Alison Mackiewicz and Dr Saffron Passam.



Dweck, C. S. (2012). Mindset. London: Constable & Robinson. 

The University of Edinburgh. (2018). Reflector’s Toolkit. Retrieved from https://www.ed.ac.uk/reflection/reflectors-toolkit

Philip, L. (2006) Encouraging reflective practice amongst students: a direct assessment approach. Planet, 17(1), p, 37-39. doi: 10.11120/plan.2006.00170037

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