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Reflection: Defined and Explored

Reflection: Defined and Explored

Assessing one’s own thoughts, actions or work.

Reflection: The doorway from surface to deep learning

Many scholars have written about various kinds of learning and the processes by which they unfold. Brockbank and McGill (2007) integrated many of these ideas in their depiction of "single-" versus "double-loop" learning. Argyris and Schön (1974) were the first to use these terms, with single-loop describing "instrumental" everyday learning, and double-loop learning describing the kind of learning that not only changes what we think, but possibly also the way we think about things.

Kolb's (1984) classic depiction of the "learning cycle" concisely depicts the process of single-loop learning, and can be considered a simplified version of the scientific method. Kolb's learning cycle begins with Experience, upon which we Reflect, then Generalize, and finally Test our generalizations, which leads to more and more informed experience. This cycle is the top circle in the figure below.

Reflection, however, is the stage at which we may venture into double-loop learning: a much less frequent but more powerful-and potentially unsettling-experience of fundamental change in our understanding. Brockbank and McGill (2007) made the case that emotional energy can be the force that opens the door to reflection which leads to double-loop learning, citing Barnett's (1997) statement that "critical energy has to have a head of steam behind it" (p. 172).

Reflection Cycle

Emotions and learning: From "cold" to "hot" cognition

While critical energy might need a head of steam behind it, not all emotions are equal in their effect upon thinking. There has been a great deal of research into the role of emotions in the classroom, and the phrase "hot cognition" was coined by Lazarus and Smith (1988) to describe the influence that emotion can have upon thought. In 2002, Pekrun, et al., summarized what some of the "academic emotions" research has found:

[P]ositive and negative mood have been shown to trigger specific modes of thinking and problem solving. Positive mood may facilitate holistic, intuitive, and creative ways of solving problems, as well as an optimistic reliance on generalized knowledge structures (e.g., Bless et al., 1996). In contrast, negative mood may enhance more focused, detail-oriented, analytical,and algorithmic modes of processing information. (p. 96)

The teacher of critical thinking skills should therefore be prepared for their students to become unsettled during the reflection process. An emotionally-charged classroom might even be considered a sign of having successfully engaged students in the process of double-loop learning. That said, the teacher may need to step in from time to time and help students put their own opinions in context, or reason their way through value conflicts.

Teaching for reflection

As a result of reflection's relationship to emotion, many teachers have found the privacy of writing to be a more comfortable method for reflective expression than the more public nature of classroom conversation. Engaging students’ written reflection across the course of the semester with individualized feedback can generate powerfully instructional written "conversations" between teachers and students.  Reflective writing need not be as open-ended or intimate as a journal or diary—in fact, many teachers who use portfolio assessment require brief, fill-in-the-blank reflection assignments to accompany every other kind of assignment in the portfolio.

While writing is a proven method for encouraging student reflection, reflection in-the-moment during conversation is also an important skill to help students acquire, either by using special discussion formats, or by using skills and engaging them mid-thought prod them deeper into their own thought processes.


Argyris, C. & Schön, D. (1974). Theory in practice: Increasing professional effectiveness. Londing: Jossey-Bass.

Bless, H., Clore, G. L., Schwarz, N., Golisano, V., Rabe, C., & Wölk, M. (1996). Mood and the use of scripts: Does a happy mood really lead to mindlessness? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 71, 665–679.

Brockbank, A., & McGill, I. (2007) Facilitating reflective learning in higher education. 2nd Ed. New York, NY: McGraw Hill.

Kolb, D. (1984). Experiential learning. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Lazarus, R.S. & Smith,  C.A. (1988). Knowledge and appraisal in the cognition–emotion relationship, Cognition and Emotion, 2(4) (1988), pp. 281–300.

Pekrun, R., Goetz, T., Titz, W., & Perry, R.P. (2002). Academic emotions in students’ self-regulated learning and achievement: A program of qualitative and quantitative research. Educational Psychologist,37 (2), 91-105.