Reflecting on reflection

By: Jim Borgford-Parnell, PhD
Associate Director of the Center for Engineering Learning & Teaching and Instructional Consultant at the University of Washington

Reflective thought is accepted in many disciplines and levels of education as a critically important cognitive process. Scholars in cognitive psychology, neuro-science, education, and other fields that are concerned with how humans learn and process information, maintain reflection as a core concept.

It is reflection that enables us to fit new information derived from a current experience to existing knowledge networks in our brains. Those networks, as described by James Zull (2002) are physical structures in our brains that are formed with neuron and synaptic links. In Zull’s important book, focused on the applications of brain research to teaching practices, he described reflection as “searching for connections – literally!. . . We need reflection to develop complexity” (p. 164). We may begin a cognitive process with a simple experience or a discrete piece of information, but then we must depend upon the network of prior knowledge we draw upon in order to ascribe value and meaning to that experience.

In 1995, James Mezirow theorized our existing knowledge structures as being schemata, or meaning schemes that guide how people make meaning from an experience. Mezirow suggested that reflection could be accomplished as a fairly automatic process in which a person’s meaning schemes (prior knowledge) remain unchallenged, or reflection could be a deliberate and self-aware process in which important prior knowledge is scrutinized anew in light of a new experience. Mezirow, suggested that the self-aware reflection provides us with an opportunity to change our minds. Those different levels of reflective effort were termed common reflection and critical reflection respectively. Donald Schön (1987) also differentiated how we reflect on prior knowledge as either “knowing-in-action” which described tacit knowledge-use that works fine in normal situations, or “reflection-in-action” which is absolutely important in order to work successfully in novel circumstances.

Stephen Brookfield (1995) also ascribed to the perspective that there are two types of reflective thought. With a focus on improving teaching, he proposed that when a teacher reflected on an experience in the classroom she might resolve to make a change and to do it differently next time – an example of common reflection. Alternatively, she may critically reflect on the experience (what Brookfield called “hunting assumptions”) and question the prior knowledge that implicitly motivated her actions in the first place. Schön also focused on the importance of teachers’ reflections, and proposed that “reflection on reflection-in-action,” by teachers may be necessary for them to develop pedagogies that could help promote students’ abilities to utilize “reflection-in-action.”

In Cognitive Psychology and Instruction, Bruning et al. (1999) built on Mezirow’s ideas on reflection as meaning making, and foreshadowed Zull’s notion of reflection as searching for connections. They posited that “learning is a product of the interaction among what learners already know, the information they encounter, and what they do as they learn… It is not so much knowledge and skill acquisition as it is the construction of meaning by the learner” (pp. 6-7).   However, as Mezirow, Schön, and Brookfield pointed out learning becomes much more difficult if we are unable to utilize our existing schemata to make meaning of a new experience, and that difficulty could provide the impetus for a more self-aware and self-directed type of reflection. The notion that critical reflection is catalyzed by cognitive difficulty has been suggested by many other educational scholars as well (e.g., Jarvis, 1987; Kagan, 1992; Paulsen & Feldman, 1995).

Bruning, et al. (1999) proposed that reflection was necessary for learners to both build knowledge and to manage their learning.  They suggested that metacognition, describes a more deliberative type of reflection. “One of the most important educational implications of metacognitive research has been the growing awareness that knowledge and skill acquisition are only a part of the picture of cognitive growth. Although knowledge and skills are important, students’ learning strategies and their ability to reflect on what they have learned – to think critically – may be even more important” (p. 8). Critical reflection is a deeply metacognitive process, it allows us to directly confront our implicit cognitive content (our unexamined assumptions and beliefs) and gain control of our learning.

For many educators, developing students’ ability to reflect on their prior knowledge is the a fundamental outcome of active learning pedagogies – to provide learning experiences in which students build new knowledge from their prior knowledge rather than simply receiving and accepting new information. Scholars in other areas (e.g., multicultural education, ethnic studies, women’s studies, adult education, etc.) link reflection to a person’s ability to question and reexamine their understanding of socially or personally vexing issues regarding class, race, gender, identity, ability, and so on. Critical pedagogy (Freire, 1971; Giroux, 1998; Shor, 1996) is an instantiation of learning experiences that focus on these difficult issues.

At its base, reflective thought is universally accepted as essential for building robust knowledge that links new experience/information with what a learner already knows. Additionally, many scholars support the notion that reflective thought: (a) has varying levels of effort (e.g., common or critical, knowing-in-action or reflection-in-action) and those levels may relate to a heightened awareness (e.g., metacognition); (b) may be difficult to accomplish and require a catalyzer to get started; (c) is a skill that may be taught/learned; and (d) may be focused on particular issue (e.g., personal or social issues).

Developing a person’s ability to perceive fundamental features of a problem, use those perceptions to link to and draw upon a complex network of knowledge, and then to apply that knowledge in the solving of the problem; is a primary goal for engineering education. So helping students to become reflective thinkers is a goal, even if it is mainly being done without an awareness or guidance from the reflection scholarship. However, developing our students’ higher-level reflective habits, their abilities to be metacognitive, self-regulated, broad-thinking, reflective engineers or to help them to focus their reflections on important social or personal challenges are not commonly experienced by engineering students.

On the whole, engineering education may be doing a decent job preparing students to reflect on fundamental physics, math, and science knowledge and knowledge of technologies to help them in solving engineering problems. However, we seem to be doing an inadequate job of helping our students to reflect on other issues that are important for them to make informed career decisions, or for situating what they do in broader contexts. There is no reason why these goals could not be met in concert with them learning to be skilled reflective engineers.


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

Bruning, R. H., Schraw, G.J., & Ronning, R. R. (1999). Cognitive Psychology and Instruction. Columbus, OH:
Prentice Hall.

Freire, P. (1971). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Herder and herder.

Giroux, H. (1988). Teachers as intellectuals: Toward a critical pedagogy of learning. Grandby, MA: Bergin &
Garvey Pub, Inc.

Jarvis, P. (1992). Paradoxes of Learning. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Kagan, D. M.  (1992).  Implications of research on teacher belief.  Educational Psychologist, 27(1), 65-90.

Mezirow, J. (1995). Transformation theory of adult learning. In M. R. Welton (Ed.), In defense of lifeworld (pp. 39-71). New York: SUNY.

Paulsen, M. B. & Feldman, K. A. (1995).  Taking teaching seriously: Meeting the challenge of instructional improvement.  (ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report No. 2).  Washington D.C: The George Washington University.

Schön, D. A. (1987). Educating the Reflective Practitioner. San Francisco: Josey-Bass.

Shor, I. (1996). When Students have Power: Negotiating Authority in a Critical Pedagogy. Chicago: the University of Chicago Press.

Zull, J. E. (2002). The Art of Changing the Brain. Sterling, VA: Stylus.

About the author. Jim Borgford-Parnell, PhD, is the Associate Director of the Center for Engineering Learning & Teaching and Instructional Consultant at the University of Washington. In this role, his primary responsibility is to improve teaching and learning in the College of Engineering. He is the instructional consultant for ten engineering departments and more than 250 faculty members and other teaching personnel. He has taught for over 30 years, include a graduate course entitled, Developing a Critically Reflective Teaching Practice.