Reflection: is there any evidence that it improves learning?

The term ‘reflective practice’, when applied to its use in an educational setting, refers to an educator’s study of their teaching methods and an assessment of what works best for their students. The concept was first introduced in 1983 by Donald Schon in his book The Reflective Practitioner. Reflective practitioners are usually adult learners who are engaged in some kind of activity (often professional) which they can use to reflect on their strengths, weaknesses and areas for development. Schon has suggested that the capacity to reflect on action is one of the defining characteristics of professional practice (Schon, 1983).

Reflective practice can be separated into three different phases:

The ability to reflect during these phases has become an important feature of professional training programmes in a number of disciplines, and is most commonly used in healthcare and educational settings.

Schon argued that many other models of professional training simply charge students up with knowledge in training schools so that they can ‘discharge’ when they enter the world of practice. He argued that this approach does not describe how professionals ‘think in action’, and that it cannot be applied to practice in a fast-changing world. Reflective practice, on the other hand, promotes autonomous learning and aims to develop students’ understanding and critical thinking skills.


Techniques involved in reflective practice include:

So, is there any evidence that this approach works? Does it improve learning?

The assessment of reflection is poorly dealt with in the literature. Many texts are written by educationalists for educationalists, and do not offer advice or examples of how they assess reflection (see, for example, Boud et al, 1985; & Ghaye & Lilliman, 1997).

Evidence to support the approach:

Some research has claimed that experienced practitioners can make significant advances in developing their knowledge and abilities through the process of reflective practice (Eraut, 1994; Fish & Coles, 1998; Moon, 1999; & Schon, 1987).

In some areas, for example health care, evidence of reflection is a requirement for initial professional registration (Hargreaves, 2004). Many of the journal articles that appear on Science Direct (from a basic search for ‘reflective practice’ or ‘reflective learning’) concern reflective programmes that have been used with medical and nursing students (see, for example, Chirema, 2007; Nevalainen et al, 2010; Epp, 2008). These studies provide some support for the idea that reflective practice improves learning.

Other research has shown that deep learning can be improved when a reflective approach is used, regardless of the type of learner (Marton & Saljo, 1984).



Many researchers have stressed that there is a distinct lack of evidence to support the approach (Hargreaves, 2004). Assessment is an ongoing problem:

‘Reflective practice and outcomes are still such intangibles that attempting to assess them is a minefield of difficulties’

- Burns and Bulman (2000, p 70)

Despite the fact that a great deal of continuing professional development in higher education is influenced by reflective practice, there is simply not enough evidence to suggest that it actually improves learning.

Considerable doubt has been cast about the clarity of Schon’s concepts (eg Eraut, 1995; Bleakley, 1999; Clegg, 1999) and many classroom practitioners fail to confirm the view of practice proposed by Schon. While many teachers may be exposed to the practice, a number of them are unlikely to apply it to day-to-day teaching. Some teachers hold onto their belief in the value of practical immersion in the task to hand and deny that they are reflecting on their actions (Clegg et al, 2002).


Despite a lack of evidence confirming its effectiveness, reflective practice continues to be implemented in a variety of contexts, including nursing, social work and teacher training. While there is no doubt that in some cases it provides teachers and learners with a different way of approaching the learning process, there is not enough evidence available to claim that it directly improves learning.

If you want to know more...


Some good journal articles are:


Berit Lindahl, B; Dagborn, K., & Nilsson, M (2009) A student-centered clinical educational unit – Description of a reflective learning model. Nurse Education in Practice, 9, 5–12

Bleakley, A (2000) Writing with invisible ink: narrative, confessionalism and reflective practice. Reflective practice, 1, 11-24

Boud, D., Keogh, R., Walker, D. (1985). Reflection: Turning Experience into Learning. London, .Kogan Page.

Burns, S., & Bulman, C. (2000). Reflective Practice in Nursing, 2nd Ed. Blackwell Science, Oxford.

Chirema, K. D (2007). The use of reflective journals in the promotion of reflection and learning in post-registration nursing students. Nurse Education Today, 27, 192-202

Clegg, S (1999). Professional education, reflective practice, and feminism. International journal of inclusive education, 2, 167-179

Clegg, S., Tan, J., Saedid, S. (2002) Reflecting or acting? Reflective practice and continuing professional development in higher education. Reflective Practice. 2, 133–145.

Epp, S. (2008). The value of reflective journaling in undergraduate nursing education: a literature review. International Journal of Nursing Studies, 45, 1379-1388
Eraut M. (1994). Developing professional knowledge and competence. London: The Falmer Press

Eraut, M (1995) Schon shock: a case for reforming reflection in action? Teachers and teaching: theory and practice. 1, 9-22

Fish D, Coles C. (1998). Seeing anew: understanding professional practice as artistry. In: Fish, D; Coles, C. (1998) Developing professional judgement in health care, pp.28-53. Oxford: Butterworth–Heinemann.

Ghaye, T., Lilliman, S. (1997) Learning Journals and Critical Incidents: Reflective Practice for Health Care Professionals. Salisbury, Quay Books.

Hargreaves, J. (2004). So how do you feel about that? Assessing reflective practice. Nurse Education Today, 24, 196-201

Marton, F. and Säljö,, R. (1984) 'Approaches to learning' in Marton, F., Hounsell, D. and Entwistle, N. (eds.) The Experience of Learning. Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press

Mcalpine, L. & Weston C. (2000). "Reflection: Issues related to improving professors’ teaching and students’ learning". Instructional Science 28, 363-385.

Moon, J (1999). Reflection in learning and professional development.

London: Kogan Page.

Moon, J., 2000. Reflection Learning and Professional Development. Kogan Page, London.

Nevalainen, M. K., Mantyranta, T., & Pitkala, K.H (2010). Facing uncertainty as a medical student – a qualitative study of their reflective learning diaries and writings on specific themes during the first clinical year. Patient Education and Counseling, 78 (2) 218-223

Schön, D.A. (1983) The reflective practitioner: How professionals think in action. Temple Smith: London.

Schon, D. A (1987). Educating the reflecting practitioner. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.