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Introduction to developing reflective practice

In exploring how reflective practice can support and aid learning it is helpful to acknowledge how we learn. The following points can be made about the process of learning. First and foremost, learning is individual. All learners start from their own position of knowledge and have their own set of experiences to draw upon. Secondly, learning is contextual. Law students need to understand that the context in which they learn and operate affects how and what they understand. Another key point is that learning is relational. In order to make sense and achieve a deep understanding of material and experiences students need to relate new information to existing knowledge and experiences. This is best achieved through a process of reflection. According to Boud, Cohen and Walker:

“Reflection is an important human activity in which people recapture their experience, think about it, mull it over and evaluate it. It is this working with experience that is important in learning.”


It is at this point that students can make use of feedback from tutors and peers. Engaging in a dialogue with others helps students to make sense of what they know. Relating the feedback given by others to their current understanding helps students to think about what and how they are learning.

The final point to acknowledge is that learning is developmental. Having made sense of new information and integrated it into an existing framework of understanding the student can then make informed choices about what to do next and how to develop their understanding.

In summary, we can view reflection as having four main purposes (see figure 1).

Reflection helps learners to:

  • understand what they already know (individual)
  • identify what they need to know in order to advance understanding of the subject (contextual)
  • make sense of new information and feedback in the context of their own experience (relational)
  • guide choices for further learning (developmental)

Individuals often reflect on what they have done, but these are private and personal thoughts used to shape ideas. The main difference between this and formalised ‘reflective practice’ as a tool for supporting learning is that the student produces evidence of their reflection. This can be demonstrated in the form of a learning log, diary, personal development portfolio, critical incident journal or perhaps a video diary. Individuals engaged in this structured, evidence-based activity may be described as ‘reflective practitioners’. As Phil Race argues,

“The act of reflecting is one which causes us to make sense of what we’ve learned, why we learned it, and how that particular increment of learning took place. Moreover, reflection is about linking one increment of learning to the wider perspective of learning – heading towards seeing the bigger picture.”

(2002: 1).

Reflection involves a dialogue between students and their peers, students and teachers and students and work placement tutors, all of whom can provide useful feedback necessary for reflection. To begin to reflect on their learning students need to be encouraged to make sense of new knowledge in relation to their existing understanding. The learning cycle developed by Kolb (1984) is a useful and simple tool for illustrating to students the connection between reflection and improved learning:

The learning cycle can be used to explain the incremental nature of the learning process. In professional and vocational education reflection can be used as a way of helping students to take responsibility for their own learning and to identify ways in which they can advance their practice and professional conduct. Academic programmes also emphasise autonomous learning and encourage students to develop a sense of ownership over work by reflection and planning. In both spheres use is made of learning journals and reflective logs to support learning and skill development. These ‘products’ provide evidence of thinking, and therefore validate reflection within the context of formal education. Of course, on a daily basis individuals use personal diaries and journals to map thoughts, emotions and ideas. People reflect for different purposes and in different contexts, but the aim is the same: to understand better and make sense of what is felt and experienced.

Webb argues:

“The learning process begins with an event which is experienced. To learn from that experience we require an opportunity for reflection on that experience, and the ability to abstract and internalise experiences and reflection in the form of a theory, which may then be tested in new situations.”

(1995: 192)

The ‘experience’ referred to can take many forms. A work placement is an obvious learning experience upon which the student can reflect. However, students also have learning experiences in classrooms, with groups and friends and when totally removed from the formal learning environment. Personal reflection can often be prompted by a lack of experience and a desire to understand and find direction. However, where reflection is used to support learning in an academic or vocational environment it most commonly follows a planned activity or series of learning experiences.

Some law courses provide simulated ‘real life’ experiences such as clinic work, negotiation, legal research, mooting, and problem solving. Virtual learning environments also offer a simulation of real life which can be used to encourage students to reflect. There is no right or wrong ‘experience’ upon which reflection can hinge, it is simply that the student is encouraged to think about how what s/he now understands has changed from what s/he knew before the lecture, discussion, placement, project or visit to the law court.

Arguably all students need to be able to question their own learning and evaluate the quality of their work. However as Boon argues, these skills are particularly pertinent to students of law:

“Students need not just to ‘do’ but to develop a perspective which enables them to ask why, given particular circumstances, lawyers should ‘do’ in a particular way. This must involve a scholarly enquiry into action, motivation and ethics, laying the foundation of an ability to reflect, not only on performance but on the underlying rationale for action.”

(1996: 129)

In one of the few published examples of reflection in law Elkins explains how learning journals were used to counteract what he describes as “uncaring and subject-centred attitudes in legal education” and to present legal education “as it is personally experienced, as individual students ‘see’ it, ‘feel’ it, and make it part of their lives”. (Elkins, 1985: 33).

The task for law teachers is to make reflection work in the particular context in which they operate. The following sections illustrate both what we mean by reflective practice and how reflection fits into the context of law teaching, as well as offering suggestions on how it might be implemented in law teaching.

Last Modified: 4 June 2010