Category Archives: resource

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.

A review of “An appraisal of medical students’ reflection-in-learning”

By: Brook Sattler, PhD, and Lauren Thomas, PhD, CPREE multi-campus coordinators

In this research, Sobral used a quantitative approach to examine the research question “how do students reflect as they strive for some control of learning early in their clinical activities?”  The findings suggest that when students reflect on their medical education there is potential for “greater benefit and enjoyment from their medical studies” (p. 186).

Tips for educators presented in this work:

  • Look at the assessment tool. If you are interested in assessing reflection in your classroom, the survey is an interesting tool to consider when embarking on evaluating reflection. While some of the questions may seem a little different, the language Sobral uses to capture the meaning of reflection could be useful.

Questions or challenges presented in this work:

  • Be patient with the write-up of the article. We appreciated the idea of the paper, but it was so brief that it made us wanting more details. There was enough resonance at the beginning of the paper that we were interested, but then the author so quickly jumped into the findings. This abrupt approach left us wondering if we understood the research questions and design. Even further, we were left wondering if we were using the same language to talk about reflection.


Sobral, D. T. (2000). An appraisal of medical students’ reflection-in-learning. Medical Education, 34(3), 182–7.

A Review of “Learning by Thinking: How Reflection Aids Performance”

By: Brook Sattler, PhD and Lauren Thomas, PhD
CPREE multi-campus coordinators

A practical reason to implement reflection activities is to assist students in learning the material, and optimize their performance. In a business context, researchers evaluated three hypotheses about reflection, reflection and sharing, and self-efficacy in two lab tests and in the field (Di Stefano et al., 2014).

The two lab studies were used to identify the relationships between reflection, reflection and sharing, the influence of incentives, and self-efficacy. They found that (1) reflection improves performance, (2) self-efficacy mediates reflection and learning without reflection, and (3) reflection increases self-efficacy and performance (p. 11 and p. 24).

The field context is particularly interesting; at an international call center the authors tested these relationships in a practical way with new employees who were participating in a two-week training program.  The participants were assigned to one of three groups: control, reflection, and sharing. At the end of the work day, those assigned to the reflection group were given a basic journal prompt to reflect on the day’s activities and given 15 minutes to respond. Those in the sharing group were given a similar prompt to journal for 10 minutes, and then discuss with another participant for 5 minutes. In the field, reflection and sharing resulted in improved performance on a subsequent assessment and that self-efficacy explains that relationship.

While this paper has its reasonable limitations, it does provide an interesting connection to self-efficacy, a topic that many engineering educators are familiar with. The authors also introduce the importance of a social component to improving reflection. Essentially, reflection can be best supported when participants have the opportunity to engage with others who shared a similar experience.

Tips for educators presented in this work:

  • The value of reflection. This paper provides some evidence indicating that reflection does improve performance. In each case, those who had the opportunity to reflect outperformed those who did not.
  • Social aspect of reflection. Incorporating a social component to reflection activities may assist students in achieving greater performance outcomes for the activities. In many engineering classrooms, creating a sense of community is a challenge.  This research does not specifically explore the topic, but it is likely that reflection activities with a social component may assist in that effort.

Questions or challenges presented in this work:

  • The researchers found that self-efficacy had a mediating effect on reflection and learning and that reflection predicted self-efficacy. How have you seen self-efficacy and reflection play out in your context/experience?
  • What are creative ways to implement a social component to reflection activities in the classroom?


Di Stefano, G., Gino, F., Pisano, G., & Staats, B. (2014). Learning by Thinking: How Reflection Aids Performance. Harvard Business School Working Paper, 1-48.

A Review of “Reflection as an Assessment Measure”

By: Brook Sattler, PhD
CPREE multi-campus coordinator

In her 2000 American Society for Engineering Education (ASEE) conference proceeding, Dr. Barbara M. Olds overviews the longitudinal reflective portfolio assessment program, which is part of the McBride Honors Program at Colorado School of Mines. She starts with a history of program; defines reflection; argues the importance of reflection; offers ideas for how to support student reflection; and connects reflection, assessment, and portfolio.

In this work, she defines reflection as “asking people to write about their goals, the strategies they use for reaching their goals, and their progress towards reaching those goals or others” (p. 1). This definition is built upon research about portfolios, reflection, and assessment, specifically the work by Kathleen Yancey (1998):

“In method, reflection is dialectical, putting multiple perspectives into play with each other in order to produce insight. Procedurally, reflection entails a looking forward to goals we might attain, as well as a casting backward to see where we have been. When we reflect, we thus project and review, often putting the projections and the reviews in dialogue with each other, working dialectically as we seek to discover what we know, what we have learned, and what we might understand. When we reflect, we call upon the cognitive, the affective, the intuitive, putting these into play with each other: to help us understand how something completed looks later, how it compares with what has come before, how it meets stated or implicit criteria, our own, those of others. Moreover, we can use those processes to theorize from and about our own practices, making knowledge and coming to understandings that will themselves be revised through reflection” (1998, p. 6, emphasis in the original).

Dr. Olds continues by arguing the importance of reflection by asking the questions—why should we care about reflection? She says, “It can be argued that a hallmark of the educated (as opposed to trained) individual is the ability to reflect on his/her goals and how he/she has met or failed to meet them” (p. 2). She then connects ABET criteria to one’s ability to reflect.

In continuing this argument, she questions—how can students be encouraged to be reflective? To make this argument, Dr. Olds connects to Schön’s work on “reflective practitioners” and “reflection-in-action.” She says, “good engineers are those who practice reflection-in-action; engineering educators can help by emphasizing that much engineering problem solving involves dealing with ‘poorly understood situations’ where reflection helps with understanding both the problem and the practitioner” (p. 3).

One way she and her colleagues are supporting students in being reflective is through portfolios. She describes the longitudinal reflective portfolio assessment:

  • Honor students enroll in and participant in an honor program seminar every semester.
  • The seminar moderator guides students through activities that help them focus on 2-4 of the honor program’s goals (e.g., communication, team work, critical analysis, etc.).
  • At the end of the semester, students select work to include in their portfolio, write a reflection to accompany each selected work, and write a reflection about the seminar.
  • After students have updated their portfolio for the semester, the moderators review the portfolios, hold a tutorial with each student, and write an evaluation of the student’s progress in meeting his or her goals.
  • At the end of the honors program, students write a longer evaluation of their growth in the program.
  • After students have written the longer evaluation, a faculty team reviews the portfolio and meets with each student individually for an exit interview and summative assessment.

At the end of the article, Dr. Olds characterizes the portfolio as largely successful, but emphasizes that they are “continu[ing] to refine it to meet the twin goals of providing feedback to the program for curriculum improvement and feedback to the students for their personal growth” (p. 7). In concluding she offers two tips: close the loop with reflection and monitor the program for participation by both students and faculty.


Olds, B. M. (2000). Reflection as an Assessment Measure. In Proceedings of the 2000 American Society of Engineering Education Conference. St. Louis, MO.

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

Yancey, K. B. (1998). Reflection in the Writing Classroom. Logan, UT: Utah State University Press.