4.3 Reviewing and reflecting upon experience

This section is concerned with methods which help learners to reflect on experiences they have had: to obtain full accounts of what took place, to make value judgements about those events, to categorise experience and to move on to analyse the experience and draw out learning points for the future. The foundation for effective reflection is laid through awareness of experience, which is dealt with in Section 4.2. Most of the techniques described here could be used effectively in conjunction with the techniques for providing substitute experiences described in Section 4.4.

4.3.1    Diaries

4.3.2    Using video and audio recordings

4.3.3    Peer appraisal

4.3.4    Structured discussions

4.3.5    Structured debriefing

4.3.6    Self-assessment

4.3.7    Reflection checklists and questionnaires

4.3.8    'Shared time' and 'mutual interviewing'

4.3.9    Modelling reflection


4.3.1    Diaries

Diaries are different from logs (see Section 4.2.1) in that they are written after the experience rather than during it. During a work placement, for example, a diary might be written each evening, after a day's work. Diaries can often be most effective in the form: "Dear Diary, " since letter writing can be easier than 'report writing' and also encourages a personal and emotional response to experiences. Diaries can be used simply to record immediate experiences and reactions to these, or they can go one step further and start to analyse these experiences and draw conclusions from them. It can sometimes be helpful to have two columns on a page: one to record the events and the other for feelings and reactions to these. It is usually necessary to have a strict routine for filling in a diary in order to keep up regular entries: much of the detail and feeling of recollection fades within 24 hours.

Further reading

Holly, M.L.

Keeping A Personal-Professional Journal Deakin University, Victona. 1984.

4.3.2    Using video and audio recordings

Video recordings can provide a powerful tool to aid reflection on experience. Some areas use video a great deal in this way: for example in 'micro-teaching' to train specific teaching skills, and in social worker and counsellor training in interviewing and interpersonal skills training. Used with appropriate questions, as with 'Interpersonal Process Recall' (IPR), video can be used to cue very detailed recall of exactly what was going on in your mind at the time, and in particular what feelings were being experienced. It is often best to leave control of the recording in the hands of the trainees, encouraging them to stop the video playback to discuss points when they recognise something of significance to them in their experience of the situation which was recorded.

Questions which are useful to help reflection during video replays include:

What was going on then?

How did you feel at that point?

Have you felt like that before?

What were you thinking?

How were the others feeling and what were they thinking?

What else could you have done at that point?

What stopped you?

If you had done that, how would it have felt?

Have you felt like that before? Tell me about that time.

What would you have liked to say to the others at that point?

What would they have liked you to have done?

What did you want to happen?

What do you think the others wanted to happen?

What did you want the others to say?

Was there any risk for you?

Were there any risks for the others?

Would you like to start the tape again?

When video recording equipment is not available, a simple audio cassette recorder can provide an acceptable alternative in situations where what is said is more important than what is done.

Further reading

Zuber-Skerritt, O. Video in Higher Education Kogan Page, London. 1984.

4.3.3    Peer appraisal

It can be very useful to get feedback from someone who watched you while you were undertaking a task. However people find it rather difficult to say: "You did this well and this badly" and even more difficult to listen to and accept this kind of personal feedback. There is often a tendency to dwell on critical points and to be defensive . The sequence outlined below is designed to make the process of peer appraisal easier, more positive and more forward looking.

There are several features of this process which are worth highlighting:

Further reading

Gibbs, G. and Colling, C. 53 Interesting Ways to Appraise Your Teaching Technical and Educational Services, Bristol. 1987.





Prior work
    2 Feelings?    
3 What you noticed/observed about yourself and about others     4 What you noticed/observed about the training
5 List things you did well and how you know     6 List other things you think the trainee did well
7 List things that didn't go so well, and how you know     8 List other things you think the trainee didn't do so well and how you know

9    Convert each item into a problem question:
e.g. "How might you do........next time"?

10 In the light of the above, what do you propose to do differently or learn about     11 What would you like the trainee to do differently or learn about, and how you can help
12 What you think the appraiser or others can do to help     13 Feedback to the appraiser
14    Feelings?

4.3.4    Structured discussions

Groups of learners can benefit from sharing their experiences. However, an unstructured discussion can often turn into a rambling sequence of anecdotes. It can be useful to structure discussion so as to move the learners from identifying key incidents in their experience, through analysis of these experiences, to drawing general conclusions from the collection of experiences discussed. For example a group of trainee social workers could reflect on their experience of dealing with difficult clients. The discussion could take this form:

Stage l On your own, think back to two occasions on which you dealt with a difficult client: one which you handled rather well, and one which you feel you handled badly. Make some notes about these situations: what went on, what the outcome was, and so on.
Stage 2 In pairs, describe these two situations to each other. Try to understand what it was about your partner's handling of the situations which was good or bad.
Stage 3 In groups of four, start listing characteristics of handling difficult clients well and handling them badly. Someone take notes in the form: "When we handle difficult clients well we:.......".
Stage 4 In the whole group, go round each group of four in turn picking up one 'good' point and one 'bad' point. List these on the board for all to see. When all the points have been collected and displayed, move into an open discussion of general features of handling difficult clients well.

This discussion structure is known as snowballing, or pyramiding, and is a simple and easy way to pool the experiences of a group in a productive way.

Further reading

Habeshaw,S., Habeshaw, T. and Gibbs, G.

53 Interesting Things To Do In Your Seminars Technical and Educational Services, Bristol. 1984.

4.3.5    Structured debriefing

Common problems with discussions, or 'debriefings', after an experience (or after substitute experience such as a role play) include:

The diagram below relates the stages of a full structured debriefing to the stages of the experiential learning cycle:

Description: What happened? Don't make judgements yet or try to draw conclusions; simply describe.
Feelings: What were your reactions and feelings? Again don't move on to analysing these yet.
Evaluation:  What was good or bad about the experience? Make value judgements.
Analysis: What sense can you make of the situation? Bring in ideas from outside the experience to help you. What was really going on? Were different people's experiences similar or different in important ways?
What can be concluded, in a general sense, from these experiences and the analyses you have undertaken?
What can be concluded about your own specific, unique, personal; situation or way of working?
Personal action plans: What are you going to do differently in this type of situation next time? What steps are you going to take on the basis of what you have learnt?

If you have enough time you should try to move logically from one step to the next. Learners often have trouble moving cleanly from one stage to the next and so it can be useful to change the process at each stage as well as the focus of attention, so as to mark the transitions positively. For example, noting descriptions could be undertaken individually, reporting feelings could be handled in pairs, discussion of analysis could be undertaken in fours, general conclusions drawn in a whole group, specific conclusions worked through alone and displayed on posters and personal action plans identified individually before reporting them to the whole group in a final 'round'. It may be important for a group leader to be very explicit about which stage of the process the group should be working on, for example:

"We've now spent some time on the feelings involved m those experiences. Let's leave those behind and move on to evaluating those experiences. What was good and what was bad about them. Try not to fall back into describing your feelings again, but move on to evaluating the experience."

4.3.6    Self-assessment

While comments and appraisal from the trainer or peers may be valuable, ultimately it is the individual's self-assessment which matters. Evidence from a video recording or observations by others are only inputs into self-assessment. Both the start and the conclusion of the process of reflection should be self-assessment: initially of direct experience, and finally of what personal conclusions can be drawn, having analysed that experience. This self-assessment should ideally lead into planning for the next experience, in the form: "Next time I will...." (see Section 4.2).

It can make it much more likely that this self-assessment goes on, is valued, and becomes a normal part of the learning process, if it is taken seriously in the formal assessment system. For example, in a Geography Department students are required to submit self-assessment sheets, listing strong and weak features of their work and a self-assigned grade, with every piece of work submitted for assessment, from fieldwork reports to essays.

Further reading

Boud, D. Studies in Self-Assessment HERDSA Green Guide No. 5. 1986. Available from SCED, EDU, Birmingham Polytechnic.


4.3.7    Reflection checklists and questionnaires

Learners can often have difficulty getting started on reflecting about their experience. It can be useful to have checklists or questionnaires to get them going. For example, a Health Visitors course uses a checklist containing a list of all the skills which are involved in different aspects of the work. When the trainees have tutorial discussions with an experienced Health Visitor, they go through this list as a way of recalling incidents which involved using these skills. The list is also used for assessment purposes .

A questionnaire can be used to elicit attitudes and emotional responses by listing statements such as: "When I visit senile patients I find it difficult to treat them as people" to which the trainees respond by indicating the extent to which the statement is true for them. It is easy to generate such lists. It can be useful to leave spaces at the end for the learners to add statements of their own about how they feel about aspects of their experience.

The checklist below was developed to help students to reflect about how they revise for exams. After working through such a checklist a student would be likely to have recalled experiences in vivid detail and have plenty to contribute to a discussion, leading to plans about how to be successful in exams in the future.


Here is a list of things which students do which result in their doing badly during exams. Tick those which you have done yourself in the past and add any others you think you have done.

1 Arrive late and flustered
2 Don't read the instructions properly and answer the wrong number of questions.
3 Write illegibly.
4 Don't read the questions properly, and answer questions which haven't been asked, or fail to answer the questions which have been asked.
5 Don't check answers for silly mistakes.
6 Budget time badly so that most of the time is spent on a few questions, leaving little or no time for others.
7 Spend a long time on questions which carry few marks and little time on questions which carry most marks.
8 Spend lots of time trying to improve on already complete and good answers (where few if any extra marks are possible) instead of spending time on poor and incomplete answers (where additional marks could be picked up easily).
9 Write furiously, in the belief that quantity gains marks rather than quality.
10 Leave before the end.
11 Panic.
Add your own
12 ....................................................................................................................
13 ....................................................................................................................


4.3.8    'Shared time' and 'mutual interviewing'

The unwritten rules of everyday conversation frequently act to limit the depth and value of reflection: silences are quickly filled, difficult and emotionally powerful topics are quickly skated over, listeners interrupt and tell you about their experiences which are irrelevant to you, and the vociferous grab most of the available time . In large groups these problems are magnified: the topic of conversation changes rapidly, is seldom directly related to individual concerns and tends to drift inconclusively while those involved seem unaware of the passage of time.

What an individual needs to make the most of reflection is a guaranteed amount of time spent exclusively on matters of personal concern and an audience who will help rather than hinder. The simplest way to achieve this is through 'shared time':

As little as one minute each can be more productive than a twenty minute chat .

The listener can play a fuller role by posing questions which encourage the speaker to pursue reflections in more depth, to address difficult issues and to get 'unstuck' when reflection is proving unproductive. In 'mutual interviewing' the same ground rules apply as in 'shared time', but the listener may also ask non-directive questions of the following kind:


"Can you describe it in more detail? What exactly happened?"

"What did you do?"

"What were you thinking/feeling at that point?"


"What was good/bad about that?"

"Is that situation easy/difficult for you?"


"In what way is that like experiences you've had before?"

"Why do you think that happened?"


"What else could you have done?"

"Faced with the same situation again, what would you do?"

It is crucial that the 'interviewers' don't start answering their own questions or giving advice or the reflection will collapse into a conversation. A discussion of the interesting ideas and issues which emerge can take place after each learner has had a chance to reflect.

4.3.9    Modelling reflection

When you ask learners to sit down together and discuss what they have just experienced, they often find this difficult. They may be unsure what it is about their experience they ought to be talking about or what is permissible and what is not (especially if the focus is on feelings). Such discussions can easily deteriorate into a shallow swapping of anecdotes.

An effective way to improve the quality of reflective discussion is to provide a direct experience of what such a discussion can be like by 'modelling'. Modelling is simply providing a clear model or example, and shaping learners' behaviour towards this model.

Modelling is simply providing a clear model or example, and shaping learners' behaviour towards this model.

Two tutors, or two experienced learners (for example successful students from last year's course) can discuss their experience with the learners listening, or a single tutor can script or improvise a reflective monologue. The crucial features of reflection which any such modelling could contain are:

Modelling of reflection was used in the course described in Section 5.9. Trainee teachers were seen by the tutors as having rather stilted and unproductive reflective discussions when they reported back to each other about how their teaching had been going over the previous week. The tutors decided to give them an example of a more lively, varied and analytical reflective discussion. At the start of one session the chairs were arranged in a 'fishbowl': in this case 50 chairs in concentric circles around four chairs for the tutors. The following message was displayed on an overhead projector as the trainee teachers arrived for the session:

"For the first 10 minutes we will be discussing what we noticed about the way last week's session went, and in particular about how the different groups were operating. Please listen ."

The tutors had an open discussion (talking in rather louder voices than usual ! ) in which they tried to demonstrate critical and analytical reflection and to base this on what they had observed. Three weeks later the trainee teachers were unanimous in stating that they noticed more of what was going on in their teaching and found themselves being more reflective about their teaching (see Section 5.9 for evaluation results).

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Created by Claire Andrew
Page created 10 January 2001