ATD Blog

Reflecting on Reflection

Friday, February 17, 2023

Talent professionals often use reflection methods for learning experiences, both formal and informal. Options range from the structured capstone at the end of a workshop to the quick takeaway bullet at the end of a web conference. Many of us have toolkits with a variety of reflection techniques that serve as go-to tools, and we use them over and over. Once in a while, we experience a new reflection tool and add it to our toolbox.

How often do we actually think about and reflect on reflection itself, especially on the ways it can promote enhanced learning and performance and throughout the organization? For example, how might reflection be used in regular team meetings or in the flow of work for project teams? More importantly, how might it be used as a tool for upskilling self-directed learning, a critical component of personalized learning.

What Is Reflection?

Over the last several years thinking about how reflection can be used beyond the learning experience has generated an interest in theoretical constructs and models or frameworks used. But before summarizing a few of those, let’s define the term, “reflection”?

While the concept goes back to Socrates, one of the most frequently used quotes on reflection in talent development is from John Dewey’s How We Think: “We do not learn from experience. We learn from reflecting on experience.”

One definition from Learning and Leading with Habits of Mind, edited by Arthur L. Costa and Bena Kallick, is “to mentally wander through where we have been and to try to make some sense out of it.” The internal voice of reflection is self-knowledge. Self-knowledge is difficult to describe in detail, but we can define it as both what and how we are thinking.

Donald Schon, author of The Reflective Practitioner, and a renowned researcher in the field, defines it as “the practice by which professionals become aware of their implicit knowledge base and learn from their experience.” He suggests viewing it from two perspectives, reflection in action and reflection on action. Reflection in action is reflecting on behavior as it happens, whereas reflection on action is reflecting after the event, to review, analyze, and evaluate the situation.

Siobhan Maclean, an author with many videos on YouTube, uses and teaches reflection from the perspective of a social worker. In her view, process reflection is similar to reflection on actions that have been experienced and begins with the query, “What happened?”

As part of research and discussions with Forum practitioners, we developed this operational definition: Reflection is purposeful (intentional) sense-making about an experience or concept and connects it with what you already know (retrieval activity). It includes generatively (generating your own words) expanding your script (mental model or cognitive complexity) within an existing context (environment) to gain fresh insights.

This definition can be applied to either of Schon’s perspectives. For example, one of our member’s divides reflection tools into those to assist getting ready for learning (reflection in learning) and others for helping to make the learning stick after a learning experience (reflection on learning), both with a similar operational definition.


Frameworks and Models for Tools

Once we more deeply understand what reflection is, it’s helpful to understand the popular frameworks to inform our tool choices as we expand its use within the organization. Additionally, we can design our own tools based on these models. A top consideration is who will use the reflection tool and for what purpose—pre, during, or after the learning experience? Some of the tools and techniques can be used individually for personal reflection as well as in groups ranging from a dyad to over a hundred. Some are more effective with in-person groups and others are available—and just as effective—using digital apps.

Evidenced-based frameworks include:

Rolfe/Borton Model—One of the simplest models is credited to several researchers including Gary Rolfe and colleagues and is generally based on the 1970’s research of Terry Borton. It’s called What? So What? Now What? and asks three questions:

1. What?—What was the situation or experience; what happened?

2. So What?—What was the impact or importance of the experience in terms of how you felt? What is your takeaway or learning, and why is it important to you?

3. Now What?—Given what you did (the What?) and what you have learned from the experience (the So What?), how will you use this to improve or change going forward?

David Kolb’s Learning Cycle—The Kolb Cycle is a four-step model with phases:

1. Experiencing the Event—The event phase is the experience of doing something. It has a broad definition encompassing anything from a five-minute activity to a month-long training exercise. It is inclusive in terms of the range or types of events or activities. It could be a meeting, simulation, game, case study, project, lecture, or more. It can be planned or ad hoc.


2. Processing the Experience—This is a facilitated discussion with a coach or the team or group to review and reflect on the experience.

3. Making Generalizations—The purpose is to look at themes and patterns of behavior and from this derive conclusions and generalizations. This phase draws abstract conclusions about the experience, taking it from a specific behavior or action in the experience to an assumption about how things generally work.

4. Planning Ways to Apply the Learning—This phase projects forward and allows individuals to articulate ways or develop plans to change behaviors based on new insights from the experience, the reflection, and the generalizations. It is at the heart of real learning.

Graham Gibbs’s Reflective Cycle – A six-step model including:

1. Description—As in other models, it starts with the situation and expresses it in a non-judgmental way.
2. Feelings—Includes reactions and emotional response.
3. Evaluation—What were the pros and cons for both you and the others involved?
4. Analysis—The sense-making step. What was really going on?
5. Conclusion—This is the “so what?” step and includes a summary of what worked and what did not work. What might you have done differently?
6. Action Plan—How will these insights be used to improve work or enhance productivity? What will you do differently going forward? What intentional actions will you or the group take?

Why is understanding the ramifications of reflection and having a large toolkit for various situations important to talent leaders? It increases both the readiness for and the stickiness of learning to enhance performance.

Reflective tools and techniques do this by:

  • Mentally or visually promoting thinking through what happened, why it is important, and how to gain actionable insights for improvement
  • Asking probing questioning to gain deeper understanding
  • Integrating what is new with what is already known
  • Putting a personal context around content and ideas
  • Promoting deeper analysis and understanding the consequences of choices

Within the frameworks, there are many tools and techniques. As you expand your opportunities to refine being a reflective practitioner, it might be helpful to reflect a little more on the research and to experiment with new tools.

A starting point could be using this type of matrix (see below; click on image to expand) and listing all of the reflection tools that you and your team are currently using. Where could you fill some gaps?

About the Author

MJ leads the ATD Forum content arena and serves as the learning subject matter expert for the ATD communities of practice. As the leader of a consortium known as a “skunk works” for connecting, collaborating, and sharing learning, she worked with members to evolve the consortium into a lab environment for advancing the learning practice within the context of work, thus evolving the Forum’s work-learn lab concept. MJ is a skilled and experienced design and performance coach for work teams, as well as a seasoned designer of work-learn experiences with a focus on strategy and program management. She previously held leadership positions at the Defense Acquisition University, including senior instructor, special assistant to the commandant, and director of professional development.

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Thanks MJ. This is an important topic and often an essential component of making learning stick. I need to read parts of this again and then reflect on them.
Appreciate your comments Dana. Reflection is one of those cognitive processes that we know are important to learning, but do not practice as intentionally as we might to make our learning stickier. There are so many tools and techniques to use.
What is one of your favorite reflection tools?
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