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How can I introduce reflective practice into my teaching?

This section offers an overview and discussion of three approaches that support the facilitation of reflective practice; self and peer assessment,
problem-based learning and personal development planning. It is designed to help you decide which approach will best meet your needs given your course objectives and context.

Self and peer assessment

Despite common belief there has been considerable work conducted on the use of self and peer assessment in law (Boud and Tyree 1980, Tribe and Tribe 1986, Hinett and Thomas 1999, Hinett et al 1999). Both self and peer assessment can be used to support reflective practice, since they involve students thinking about their own learning.

Boud, responsible for much of the pioneering work on self and peer assessment, defines it as the “involvement of students in identifying standards and/or criteria to apply to their work and making judgements about the extent to which they have met these criteria and standards” (1995: 12). For Boud, self assessment involves two clear stages: a) the identification (and learner understanding) of standards and criteria, and b) the making of one’s own judgements against those criteria. This two part process necessarily involves students reflecting on their own learning.

Self assessment can be used to facilitate both a process of learning and an assessment product. Self assessment can be used in an informal way to encourage students to think about their work and what they know in a given subject. As earlier examples have shown, reflection and self assessment can be expressed in various forms and used as evidence of development. Qualitative observations might be written in a learning diary or portfolio (see example 3 and example 4).

As the name suggests, peer assessment involves students making judgements about the quality of each other’s work in relation to agreed criteria. Peer assessment is a particularly useful device for supporting reflective practice, because of its focus on dialogue and shared interpretations of teaching and learning between staff and students (Stefani, 1998). Students learn from each other and use the feedback provided by peers to inform their own learning. Using the peer assessment approach students are encouraged to make qualitative comments about the work of their peers. They may also be asked to attribute a grade to the work.

There is no right or wrong way to introduce peer assessment, but experience suggests that students prefer and enjoy giving a grade to work as well as providing comments. This may have something to do with promoting a sense of ownership over the process and wanting to complete the task of evaluation. Peer assessment enables students to understand and communicate ideas that they consider important with the lecturer and their peers about what should be assessed and what weighting should be given to each specific criterion (Tribe and Tribe, 1986). Where students do attribute a grade it is helpful to involve them in the negotiation of criteria. Research findings suggest that in cases where they are involved there is often more congruence between the student and tutor mark (Stefani 1994, Boud and Falchikov, 1989).

A three year project conducted at the law departments of the University of Bristol, University of the West of England and Southampton Institute revealed that students did reap benefit from the process of self and peer assessment. The project focused mainly on using self and peer assessment as tools for improving the understanding of criteria and the ability to evaluate progress. An encouraging 84% of students involved in the project at the University of Bristol claimed it had been helpful to them in respect of these objectives. (Hinett et al, 1999).

As with all techniques, self and peer assessment can take many forms. One example is a written reflective diary, where students identify their strengths and weaknesses and put in place action plans to improve practice (see example 3 ). Another way of introducing self and peer assessment is to ask students to give an oral presentation about an element of law, which includes a reflective element (see example 1 and example 2). Different approaches can be adapted, and will almost certainly be modified as law teachers and students gain experience in reflecting and providing feedback to others.

The key to using self and peer assessment is to ensure that each new group of students is given the same opportunities to discover how they learn. There is a temptation for teachers to try to streamline the process and offer students feedback, but students need to discover for themselves what they know and don’t know and to make their own connections if these processes are to support reflection.

Problem-based learning

Problem-based learning (PBL) is used in a number of disciplines as a way of engaging students in ‘real’ problems. Unlike conventional teaching, PBL starts with a problem and requires the student to research, select, analyse and apply information and theories to solve it. Students work in groups or teams to solve or manage these situations, but they are not expected to acquire a predetermined series of ‘right answers’. Instead they are expected to engage with the complex situation presented to them and decide what information they need to learn and what skills they need to gain in order to manage the situation effectively (Savin-Baden, 2000).

Characteristics of problem-based learning:

  • using stimulus material to help students discuss an important problem, question or issue
  • presenting the problem as a simulation of professional practice or ‘real life’ situation
  • encouraging critical thinking and providing limited resources to help students learn from
  • defining and attempting to resolve the given problem
  • students working co-operatively as a group, exploring information in and out of class, with access to a tutor (not necessarily a subject specialist) who knows the problem well and can facilitate the group’s learning process
  • students identifying their own learning needs and the appropriate use of available resources
  • reapplying this new knowledge to the original problem and evaluating their processes (Boud and Feletti, 1997: 4)

The advantage of students working upon real or simulated situations is that real problems do not have simple solutions, but require comparison and analysis of resources, strategies and costs. As such the learner has to develop skills of retrieval, selection and discrimination in order to solve the problem. Students also develop group working skills as they work together to solve a common problem.

One way in which the PBL approach has been used in law is through the use of virtual learning environments (VLEs). An excellent example of this comes from Paul Maharg at the Glasgow Graduate School of Law (GGSL). As part of the Diploma in Legal Practice students are placed in ‘law firms’ and go through the whole process of responding to a client and preparing a case with the support of a set of electronic resources. Students set about solving the problem by asking questions of a number of key characters (teaching assistants and tutors on the course) who inhabit the virtual world of ‘Ardcalloch’. Responses are sent back from the teaching assistant asynchronously in e-mail form, mimicking the elapse of real time spent in collecting information. This communication continues with the exchange of drafts, offers and contracts until a solution or satisfactory result is reached. Students have to think about what information they need and apply it appropriately to solve the problem. (Maharg and Paliwala, 2002).

What the PBL approach does is facilitate a dialogue between the student, tutor, and peers (and in some cases external parties), which helps the individual make sense of his or her learning. Laurillard, who has written extensively on the value of dialogue in learning, outlines what she calls a ‘conversational framework’ for learning. She points out that dialogue has three important functions for learning; firstly it reveals the students’ and lecturers’ conceptions to each other, secondly it provides space for negotiation and adaptation of topic and task goals and thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, it provides opportunity for feedback, reflection and action upon feedback (Laurillard, 1993). With increasing student numbers the level of conversation that can take place in learning is diminishing, which is where ICT can be used to support a new form of discourse.

Example 5 gives an example of relection using a virtual chat room.

PBL offers a genuine experience or context in which reflection can take place. Unlike traditional problem solving where the student is directed towards appropriate resources PBL forces students to think on their feet and draw on previous experience to transfer to new settings. This reflection and process of learning can be articulated in the final report or presentation and, if required, assessed. One of the advantages of using peer assessment or PBL is that they enable law students to work together on a problem. Macfarlane suggests:

“The notion of capability in a reflective practice model requires students to learn to work effectively with others as well as on their own. Teamwork also tends to enhance self-reflection and awareness of learning process, as individuals are accountable to the group and especially if the group is encouraged to analyse its own successes and weaknesses in accomplishing the set task.”

(1998: 12)

Problem-based learning offers a scenario in which students can develop reflective capacities. Drawing on students who took a work placement in New York, Kibble maintains that placement programmes provide multiple experiences within which learning is possible: “they provide opportunities for reflection-in and reflection-on experience, an opportunity to engage in critical reflective practice, both within authentic work settings and in the academic setting” (1998: 99). Clinical programmes also offer authentic settings (see example 1 and Duncan in Burridge et al, 2002). Providing and producing the resources to support PBL can be time consuming, but the overall approach helps students to become actively engaged in both dialogue and action, essential to reflection.

Personal development planning and portfolios

Personal development planning (PDP) has existed in many guises for over 20 years. The educational aim is to provide students with a structure for thinking about and planning their own development. PDP might be seen as a process of evidencing learning and reflection.

Portfolios and records of achievement are the common forms in which the PDP process is presented. The advantage of PDP is that it provides a rounded picture of the capabilities of an individual. Usually consisting of three parts (a checklist of skills or competences achieved, evidence of achievement and a reflective piece on how the skill has been developed) PDP offers more information than a certificate and engages students in a process of thinking about their learning. Portfolios can be used both for certification purposes and as an additional form of evidence to employers and educational institutions. A typical example of personal development planning is the portfolio of professional development used to assess the competence of a new lecturer in programmes such as a diploma in higher education or certificate in education.

The Quality Assurance Agency has defined personal development planning as:

“A structured and supported process undertaken by an individual to reflect upon their own learning, performance and/or achievement and to plan for their personal, educational and career development.”

(Quality Assurance Agency, 2001:1)

It is intended that PDP will help students:

  • become more effective, independent and confident self-directed learners
  • understand how they are learning and relate their learning to a wider context
  • improve their general skills for study and career management
  • articulate their personal goals and evaluate progress towards their achievement
  • encourage a positive attitude to learning throughout life

The intention is that all students in higher education will have the opportunity to undertake PDP by 2005, although at the time of going to press this has yet to be confirmed. The relevance for law teachers is that PDP offers a framework for reflection. The process of reflecting, planning and evaluating on individual performance mirrors the reflective cycle identified by Kolb. As Sue Prince, who has pioneered work in law in this area, maintains:

“Academic staff are always encouraging students to be independent in relation to their intellectual studies. Much of the work encouraged by PDP has been a traditional aspect of higher education, and consequently forms part of a law degree. Tutors encourage independence in the following ways:

  • by encouraging students to be critically aware when they approach all aspects of the law and legal studies
  • by providing students with written feedback in relation to formative course work, which encourages students to analyse and reflect upon their own development.”

(Prince, 2001)

PDP is also about improving and encouraging dialogue between learners and teachers. Discussion-based seminars offer a structured and supported PDP process. As Prince explains, “in these seminars tutors act as facilitators, asking questions and requiring students to see aspects of legal problems from a variety of perspectives. Tutors would normally respond to student input with feedback, encouraging them to make new connections and to clarify their ideas and analyses.” (Prince, 2001).

PDP can also support development in professional legal education. Where students have a placement option or are engaged in mock advocacy, negotiation or moots, students can be encouraged to reflect on the experience to help them better understand their learning of law and how they wish to develop for the future. At the University of Exeter students are given workshops and a learning portfolio. It is explained that the portfolio will:

“…help you to think about what you are doing in a more systematic way so that you can become more confident in knowing what you need to do, more effective in doing it and better able to assess how well you are succeeding. This will help you to be more efficient and successful with your university studies. It will enable you to write more articulate applications for jobs; help you in job interviews by enabling you to discuss your skills and experiences; and allow you to cope more effectively with your first graduate employment.”

(University of Exeter law school)

Portfolios are a useful way of getting students used to writing reflectively, introducing them to the idea of providing evidence for their reflection. A pilot study at the University of Gloucestershire is currently looking at the use of PDP in a number of disciplines.

Example 6 illustrates how PDP is used to encourage management students to reflect on their work. The tutors responsible for the module are also involved in a research project looking at the implications of facilitating PDP for staff development. As such they offer a number of useful observations about the factors that aid the process.

PDP offers another way of encouraging students to think about what they know, what they don’t know and how they might develop the skills to fill the gaps in their knowledge such that their appreciation of law improves. It also enables discussion between learners and other parties, and introduces students to the discipline of evidencing and documenting work. Such skills are valuable to the student, the teacher and the practitioner of law.

This section has discussed some of the learning methods that can be used to facilitate the development of reflective practice. The next section considers how these approaches may best be integrated into the curriculum and some of the learning issues that need to be addressed.

Last Modified: 4 June 2010