5.2.1 - Reflective practice: models of reflection

Learning objectives for this chapter

By the end of this chapter, we would like you to:

  • Be able to apply the key principles of alternative methods of reflective practice
  • Be able to make assessments of the value of competing approaches to reflection
  • Appreciate the relevance of developing through reflection in your teaching
  • Be able to select from alternative methodologies for reflection, depending on the context to be reflected upon.

Rolfe et al.'s (2010) reflective model

Rolfe et al.'s model has the virtue of simplicity and straightforwardness. The model is based on three key questions, as the diagram below indicates:

Adapted from Rolfe, Jasper, and Freshwater (2010)

The three stages of the model ask you to consider, in turn, what happened, the implications of the occurrence, and the consequences for future conduct. The model is cyclic; Rolfe et al. (2010) suggest a series of questions which may spring from the initial three; these may be used to refine reflective thinking and isolate the key elements of the situation or occurrence so that they can be understood in more detail:


This element of the cycle is concerned with describing the event or occurrence being reflected upon, and defining one's self-awareness in relation to it.


  • Was my role in the developing situation being reflected upon?
  • Was I trying to achieve?
  • Actions were being done towards the achievement?
  • Were the responses of other people?
  • Were the consequences?
  • Feelings were provoked?

So what?

This aspect of the Rolfe cycle analyses the situation being reflected upon and begins to make evaluations of the circumstances being addressed.

So what?

  • Does this tell me about myself and my relationships with learner/s?
  • Was my thought process as I acted?
  • Other approaches might I have brought to the situation?
  • Might I have done differently to have produced a more positive outcome?
  • Have I learned because of this situation?

Now what?

This is the element of Rolfe's cycle which is concerned with synthesising information and insight, considering what to do differently in the future and so be prepared for what might be done if similar situations present themselves again.

Now what?

  • Do I need to do make things better?
  • Should I ask of others to support me?
  • Have I learned?
  • Will I recognise in advance?

Evaluation of the model

The core advantages of the Rolfe model relate to its simplicity and clarity. Reflective tools need to be accessible and useful to the user, and to produce meaningful results. A simple model such as this can support that. However, if applied only at the level of the three core questions, then a full inventory of the situation being reflected upon may not take place, and the insight produced as a consequence might tend to the simplistic or descriptive.

Gibbs' reflective model

Gibbs' (1988) model is cyclic and has six principal elements:

Adapted from Gibbs (1988).


Here, you recount what you are reflecting upon, giving a descriptive account with contextual information as appropriate.


In this section, you look back on your emotional state and your rational thoughts about the situation or occurrence being reflected upon. How were you feeling at the time? How did your emotions and thought alter (if at all) after the situation arose?


In the evaluative element of the cycle, consider how well the situation was handled. Look for positives as well as negatives; be fair to yourself and to the contexts of the event being reflected upon.


As you conclude your investigation of what has occurred, it may be relevant for you to consider possible alternatives to the course of action that you took, or whether other options could have been applied instead.

Action plan

The action plan is your guide for future action. This section is crucial, as it is here that you identify what you will do to ensure an improvement in your handling of similar situations in the future.

Evaluation of the model

Advantages of Gibbs' cycle include the focus which is placed on a systematic consideration of separate phases of a learning experience. The potential disadvantages of Gibbs' model are that it tends to the descriptive, and may not provide the analytical rigour required to fully appreciate the implications of certain courses of actions, or of the thought processes underpinning them. The model is one-sided, so it takes into consideration the practitioner's perspective only; there is no room in Gibbs' cycle to take into consideration those on the other side of the event or situation being addressed, and there may be useful insight here to be considered (Jasper, 2013). 

Kolb's Learning Cycle

David Kolb's approach to reflection takes a somewhat different approach in some ways, as it sites reflection as part of a wider set of processes in which the learner (in this case, the educator reflecting on their practice as part of their continuing professional development) seeks to understand their working processes as they move through different stages of engagement with an event and take on relevant aspects of the new material (Kolb, 2014).

What is distinctive about this model is that reflection forms part of a wider set of processes, rather than the model being purely concerned with reflection.

Adapted from Kolb (2014)

Concrete experience:

For Kolb, any process of learning, including learning as a consequence of embarking on an instance of reflection, begins with a concrete - real - experience. Our stimulus to learn in this model derives from having experienced something, and then taking into consideration the meaning and impact of that experience.

Reflective observation:

The second stage, reflective observation, involves taking a step back from the experience so that it can be properly considered. Processes related to reviewing what has been done, the effectiveness of the approaches being taken, and the possibility of alterations or variations to the concrete experience already undertaken can be considered.

Abstract conceptualisation:

For Kolb, conceptualisation means to draw inferences from our experiences and what they mean to us. We can take ideas generated as a consequence of reflecting on our experiences, and then draw conclusions from them. In the abstract conceptualisation phase of the cycle, we are prompted to make sense of our experiences, and better appreciate the relationships between them and our wider world.

Active experimentation:

The active experimentation phase of Kolb's cycle is where the hypotheses generated in the previous element are put to the test. It may be that multiple possible alternative approaches have been provoked by the process of working through the cycle, in which case it may be appropriate to test them all in live situations. From such experimentation, fresh concrete experiences will be encountered.


The learning cycle may be used also in partnership with other schemas of Kolb's, most notably the definitions of four styles of learning which he developed alongside the cycle: Divergent thinkers, Assimilators, Convergent thinkers and Accommodating thinkers. Disadvantages of Kolb's ideas include the observation that his categories and processes are a personal design and as such are asserted rather than 'proved' in any meaningful way. The experiential cycle proposed may not be a good fit for all reflective situations, and may also require articulation with another reflection-centric approach for it to be meaningful. In addition, the separation between stages in the cycle may be artificial, and not mirror actual experiences where multiple aspects of the learning cycle may be encountered simultaneously (Pickles and Greenaway, 2016).

Brookfield's four lenses model

In Brookfield's schema, we should consider reflection from four perspectives: from our own standpoint, from that of our learners, from that of our colleagues, and from its relationship to wider theory. The four lenses Brookfield suggests may be presented in diagrammatic form:

Adapted from Brookfield (1995)


For Brookfield (1995), the autobiographical aspect of reflection is central to any valid process of critical reflection. We may draw from our own past as well as from the immediate contexts which may have provoked the reflective journey.

Our learners

The consideration of the students' perspective/s may yield insight which might otherwise have been missed if the focus of the self-reflection had been purely upon the individual themselves. One object of this focus is to work to perceive hidden assumptions, biases, and unequal articulations of power.

Our colleagues

A further mode of investigation into the self involves going beyond learners and involves taking peers and other colleagues' perceptions and observations into consideration. Peer observation and other review processes can reveal biases and assumptions in one's teaching, and can bring to light aspects which one might not consider otherwise.

Theoretical contexts

For Brookfield (1995), teachers need to be engaged in the investigation of their teaching practice; the training of teachers does not end with the final assessment of the teacher training course, but is instead a life-long journey. Engagement with critical reading, with subject scholarship, with the political and other contexts of contemporary teaching, and with higher qualifications all serve to deepen and refresh the connections between pedagogy in practice, and with critical engagement with that practice.


One advantage of Brookfield's model as outlined here is that it takes a holistic perspective, and addresses teaching from a selection of standpoints. Issues with the model as described may include the point that the model is less useful for making assessments of teaching in action; it is more suited to summative reflection, and perhaps is less useful for immediate use as a consequence. In addition, the lenses may be difficult to articulate, and require not only time-consuming and detailed working, but result in a variable and skewed picture.

Johns' model of structured reflection

Johns' approach to reflective practice has become influential, not least because it provokes a consideration in the individual of matters which are external to them as well as elements which are internal to the practitioner. There are two sets of related processes in this model; looking in, then looking outwards.

Looking in

First, the practitioner is asked to look inwards upon themselves and recall the experience being analysed. Write a descriptive account of the situation, paying attention to the emotions conjured up in the moment of the event being reflected upon, and those emotions and other thoughts which have been provoked since.

Looking out

The looking out element of the model is structured around five key sets of questions. The diagram below indicates the working of Johns' (2013) model:

Model of structured reflection, adapted from Johns (2013)

Aesthetic questions:

Aesthetics here means questions raised in relation to one's sensory perceptions.

  • What was I trying to do?
  • What did I react in the ways that I did?
  • What were the repercussions for myself / for others?

Personal questions:

Personal questions relate to self-examination, and ask if you can identify the nature of your actions and reactions, and the elements which influenced or provoked those.

  • What internal factors influenced my actions?
  • How was I feeling at the time of the event?
  • Why was I feeling this way?

Ethical questions:

Ethical questions in this model relate to the coherence of your actions when compared to your moral and professional codes. Was how you acted consistent with your sense of self, and the values which you usually embody?

  • To what extent did my actions in this instance match my wider beliefs?
  • Was I acting in an uncharacteristic way?
  • If so, what elements came together to influence me to act in a way contrary to my usual behaviours, or at odds with my sense of ethics?

Contextual questions:

The contextual element of the model asks you to consider if there were environmental or other factors acting on you from outside.

  • What outside influences were a work?
  • Were those influences reasonable?
  • Who or what informed my actions?

Reflective questions:

The process of working through the reflective cycle has generated evidence based upon your observations, and that leads you to be able to make assessments.

  • How does this event compare with other similar ones?
  • What could I have done differently?
  • What might have been the outcomes of such alternative approaches? Consider this regarding yourself, other colleagues, and the learner/s.
  • How might I work to act more positively in the future for the benefit of all?


Johns' model is useful in that it encourages reflection taking into consideration a range of standpoints, and that the reflector is provoked to consider the impacts of their actions not only on other people, but on themselves in respect of its congruence with their own values. However, the model may be of limited use in some contexts as it is focused on the analysis of specific individual events rather than on wider questions.


Reflective practice is a cornerstone of development as a professional, no matter what the field one is engaged in. The five models presented in this chapter evidence that importance, as all are invested in ways to have practitioners think on themselves and their actions, and to have those experiences being reflected upon become meaningful through scrutiny, so that performance might be improved, so lessons might be learned, and so that mistakes might not be repeated.


Brookfield, S.D. (1995) Becoming a critically reflective teacher. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Inc.

Chapman, A. (2016) Kolb's learning styles, experiential learning theory. Available at: http://www.businessballs.com/kolblearningstyles.htm (Accessed: 24 November 2016).

Gibbs, G. (1988) Learning by doing: a guide to teaching and learning methods. London: FEU.

Jasper, M. (2013) Beginning reflective practice. 2nd edn. London: Cengage Learning.

Johns, C. (2013) Becoming a reflective practitioner. 4th edn. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.

Jowett, B. (1994) Plato's 'Apology'. Available at: http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/apology.html (Accessed: 24 November 2016).

Kolb, D.A. (2014) Experiential learning: experience as the source of learning and development. Pearson FT Press.

Oxford Dictionaries (2016a) Definition: Aesthetics. Available at: https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/aesthetic (Accessed: 25 November 2016).

Oxford Dictionaries (2016b) Definition: Empirical. Available at: https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/empirical (Accessed: 25 November 2016).

Pickles, T. and Greenaway, R. (2016) Experiential learning articles + critiques of David Kolb's theory. Available at: http://reviewing.co.uk/research/experiential.learning.htm#axzz4QwTbJCEX (Accessed: 24 November 2016).

Rolfe, G. (2002) 'Reflective practice: Where now?', Nurse Education in Practice, 2(1), pp. 21-29. doi: 10.1054/nepr.2002.0047.

Rolfe, G., Jasper, M. and Freshwater, D. (2010) Critical reflection in practice: generating knowledge for care. 2nd edn. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Trevitt, C. (2007) What is critically reflective thinking? Available at: https://www.learning.ox.ac.uk/media/global/wwwadminoxacuk/localsites/oxfordlearninginstitute/documents/supportresources/lecturersteachingstaff/resources/resources/CriticallyReflectiveTeaching.pdf (Accessed: 24 November 2016).

To export a reference to this article please select a referencing style below:

Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.