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Getting the measure of reflection: considering matters of definition and depth

  • Jenny Moon (a1)

Reflection, reflective learning, reflective writing and reflective practice are used increasingly in higher education and professional development–but we do not work to one definition and there are considerable differences in the views of educationists on issues of definition. Such discrepancies can exist between the staff working with the same student group. The situation can lead to difficulties in indicating to students how to reflect, and what reflective writing ‘should look like’. Once students do manage to represent their reflection broadly in the required manner (usually writing), there is frequently observed to be a further problem because their reflection is superficial and descriptive. A consequence is that their learning from the reflective process is restricted.

This paper addresses the issue of definition of reflection initially through clarifying the different words used around the notion of reflection (e.g., reflection, reflective learning, reflective writing) and providing some suggested definitions. It then addresses the matters both of how we should help students to start with reflection, and with the problem of the superficiality of much of their work. The ‘depth’ of reflection is a concept that has not been much discussed in the literature of reflection and yet it seems to be closely related to the quality of reflective work. The paper discusses the concept of depth and then introduces a style of exercise in which a scenario is reproduced at progressively deeper levels of reflection. The exercise is related to a generic framework for reflective writing. The rationale and justification for the exercise and the framework are discussed and suggestions are made for its manner of use. The exercise and the generic framework for reflective writing are in Appendices 1 and 2.

The use of reflection to enhance formal learning has become increasingly common in the past 7 years. From the principle beginnings of its use in the professional development of nurses and teachers, its use has spread through other professions. Now, in the form of personal development planning (PDP), there is an expectation that all students in higher education will be deliberately engaging in reflection in the next 2 years.1 In addition, there are examples of the use of reflective learning journals and other reflective techniques in most, if not all, disciplines.2

Reflection is not, however, a clearly defined and enacted concept. People hold different views of its nature, which only become revealed at stages such as assessment. For example, what is it that differentiates reflective writing from simple description? There are difficulties not only with the definition itself but also in conveying to learners what it is that we require them to do in reflection and in encouraging reflection that is deeper than description. In this paper, we consider some issues of definition and then focus on the means of encouraging learners to produce a reflective output of good-enough quality for the task at hand. The latter is presented as an exercise for staff and learners (Appendix 1) with a framework that underpins it (Appendix 2).

Corresponding author
Correspondence to: Jenny Moon, Centre for Excellence in Media Practice, Bournemouth University, Bournemouth, UK. E-mail:
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