Realising the benefits of reflective practice

It is generally accepted that learning is enhanced by the inclusion of deliberate, reflective practice. Indeed the act of reflecting on the impact that our actions have towards the achievement of any goal (learning oriented or other) is shown to have a positive impact. Reflective practice is defined as the praxis (interdependent and integrated theory, practice, research, thought and action) of individuals or groups to move from ‘better thinking to better action' as a result of reflection for, in and on learning (Harvey et al. 2010 p140). With this in mind, it is worth considering what reflective practice might look like and to consider it in a range of contemporary contexts.

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Design thinking is a highly iterative process in which a problem is attacked through a cyclical process. A typical design thinking cycle includes:

  • developing an understanding of the context of the problem with empathy for the user being a common element

  • a deliberate process of ideation to allow many ideas to emerge

  • a convergent thinking process where ideas are evaluated and set aside

  • a prototyping phase where ideas are brought to life and tested

  • an ongoing process of refinement and consolidation

As Looijenga et al. identify ‘Iteration during the design process is an essential element’ (Looijenga et al. 2015 p1), and this process is facilitated in part by reflection. 'Reflection, critical thinking and developing metacognitive skills concern: Planning, evaluating, and justifying inquiries, designs, explorations, investigations, actions, performances, etc.’ (Looijenga et al. 2015 p20). Further, a key to successful design iteration identified by Looijenga et al. (2015) is a process of collaboration. In design thinking, the iterative process is driven by ongoing reflective practice inside a collaborative environment. Ideas are proposed and shared within the design team and with stakeholders outside of the team. The process moves forward because of the collective embrace of a reflective process.

It should not be assumed that this collective embrace of the reflective process will occur. A team is unlikely to benefit from a design thinking process if its members are unwilling to have their ideas criticised, modified, blended with others and potentially rejected or set aside. If the team does not value a gradual move from divergent thinking where many ideas are shared towards convergent thinking where one or two ideas emerge as dominant, the process is unlikely to be flawed. A team culture that values correct answers, where there is a fear of being wrong, where questions are not valued is unlikely to promote divergent thinking. Divergent thinking requires a culture where risk-taking and open sharing of ideas is the norm. Individuals must know that they are respected for what they offer the group even when their ideas do not survive to the end of the project. Building such a culture requires deliberate attention to the establishment of norms which support the free flow of ideas into and out of the design thinking process.

While we often think of reflective practice as something that is done by the individual for their benefit, the potential of reflecting on the thinking and learning of others offers many advantages. Peer assessment is shown to encourage deeper thinking and reflection (Cheng & Warren, 1999) and encourages individuals to think deeply about what they have observed (Stefani 1994). Li, Liu and Steckelberg (2010) showed in their study that the quality of feedback provided by individuals in the role of assessor improved the quality of work they subsequently produced and the authors recommend that efforts to enhance the quality of feedback should be pursued. However, Li, Liu & Steckleberg (2010) found in their research that the quality of feedback provided did not have the same impact for those it was provided to and cite research suggesting feedback could be more constructive and detailed. The implication here is somewhat contrary to the perceived wisdom of who is best served by the provision of feedback. This research reveals that the person providing the feedback has the most to gain and that the act of reflecting carefully on the thinking and learning of others enhances our learning more than it improves the learning of those we have observed. The implication here is that if we wish to gain the most from reflective practice, we should include opportunities to reflect upon the work of our peers.

Sandi et al. (2011) found that metacognitive skills can be developed through collaboration and that skills developed in this way are transferable to the individual solution of a problem. Sandi et al. provided students with a problem and allowed time for reflection and collaboration enabled by prompts enacting meaningful social interaction, which they found enhanced metacognition. Hausmann et al. (2004) have gathered evidence that supports three mechanisms to describe why collaboration is effective in enhancing understanding and task performance:

  • Other-directed explaining where the individual takes the stance of a teacher or instructor.

  • Co-construction of reflections with elaboration or critical evaluation of a peer’s contributions to the reflective practice

  • Participation in self-directed explaining by listening to others’ self-explaining.

The implication is that reflective practices which occur in isolation are less effective than collaborative reflection. Collaborative reflection allows us to benefit from explaining our thinking to others and in doing so to clarify our thinking as we seek to be understood. In explaining ourselves to others, the social cues inherent in conversation with an active listening partner provide us with instant feedback on the clarity of our self-explaining, and we are able to modify our reflections in response to this. The collaborative, reflective dialogue allows opportunities for us to also modify our reflection as we co-construct meaning with our collaborators. When we share our reflection and expose our thinking to questioning and alternate perspectives we create space in which fresh ideas might emerge; a process enhanced when we recruit collaborators with diverse perspectives who might offer alternative interpretations. Lastly, by listening to the reflective practices of others, we allow new ideas to enter into our stream of consciousness and in doing so, generate a fresh perspective on our reflections.

Becoming a reflective practitioner has much to offer. Reflective practices are an essential element of learning, and it might be argued that true learning cannot occur without reflection on learning. The quality of our reflective practice is worth considering, and we can enhance our process by adopting an open mindset and through engaging in collaborative reflection. Amidst the business of our daily lives, it can be easy to fall into patterns where our thinking shifts rapidly from one task to the next without time to pause and reflect on what we have been doing or thinking. If we understand the value that quality reflective practices play in our learning, problem-solving, creativity, social interaction and personal growth, we are more likely to make time for it.

By Nigel Coutts


Cheng, W. & Warren, M. (1999) Peer and teacher assessment of the oral and written tasks of a group project, Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education, 24(3), pp. 301–314.

Harvey, M; Coulson, D; Mackaway, J. & Winchester-Seeto, T. (2010). Aligning reflection in the cooperative education curriculum. Australia Pacific Journal of Co-operative education, 11 (3), 137-152.

Hausmann, R. G. M., Chi, M. T. H., & Roy, M. (2004, August). Learning from collaborative problem solving: An analysis of three hypothesized mechanism. Paper presented at the proceedings of the 26th annual conference of the Cognitive Science Society, Chicago, IL, pp. 547–552.

Li, L., Liu, X., & Steckelberg, A. (2010). Assessor or assessee: How student learning improves by giving and receiving peer feedback. British Journal Of Educational Technology, 41(3), 525-536.

Looijenga, A., Klapwijk, R., & de Vries, M. (2014). The effect of iteration on the design performance of primary school children. International Journal of Technology & Design Education, 25(1), 1-23. doi:10.1007/s10798-014-9271-2

Sandi‐Urena, S., Cooper, M., & Stevens, R. (2011). Enhancement of metacognition use and awareness by means of a collaborative intervention. International Journal Of Science Education, 33(3), 323-340.

Stefani, L. (1994). Peer, self and tutor assessment: Relative reliabilities. Studies In Higher Education, 19(1), 69-75.