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Reflective learning explained

13 August 12

A tendency towards reflective learning is becoming de rigueur among professional bodies, but what does the concept entail? A solicitor turned law lecturer offers some reflections of his own

by Malcolm Combe

How do you learn?

In answer to that that question, the curmudgeon might mutter something about bitter experience, whilst the prodigy might shrug, then trigger much envy by displaying an ability that apparently bears little resemblance to any preparatory input. Neither would quite answer the question satisfactorily. Some might wonder whether it is a question that can be answered consistently at all, but it is one that has vexed me of late.

It has vexed because of my career change from an ad hoc (and, I hope, competent) lawyer to a teacher who has somehow to transform law students into intrants of the career path I have eschewed. It vexed me enough to prompt my engagement with a course in learning and teaching at the University of Aberdeen, in between the actual (bitter?) experience of teaching.

Even though I may be slightly better placed than others to answer my rhetorical question, I struggle to answer it. The logical, cathartic next step is to write an article about it. Why?

As an opening, hopefully non-controversial, assumption let me assume legal skills can be learned much like other skills can be learned. A recognised part of that learning process across many disciplines is reflection. It forms an imperative part of Kolb’s four part learning cycle of concrete experience, reflection, abstract conceptualisation and active experimentation.(1) This cycle might be reconceptualised, or some other formulation for learning might be adopted,(2) but reflection features throughout any such reworking. The importance of reflection in learning has been espoused or implicitly acknowledged by other thinkers and teachers such as Dewey, Schön, Race, Brockbank and McGill.(3)

None of the names mentioned so far will be especially renowned to Scots law students or graduates. Law seems to be a discipline where the practical use and benefits of reflection as a student learning tool have been overlooked.(4) Is reflection somehow not suited to law?
Granted, reflection might be a little like breathing. People will do it without necessarily being particularly aware of it happening. The simple act of mulling something over, going over class notes or jousting with a colleague for a second opinion could be classed as reflection. There is a chance that a qualified lawyer reading this will fall into the paradigm of Schön’s reflective practitioner, who can bring an almost unknowing professional artistry to bear and effectively think on the spot in engaging with a brand new problem.(5)

Assuming you accept the notion of learning styles, an area of pedagogy I have no intention of exploring,(6) different people might engage with reflection in different ways and degrees. This is all well and good. Why, then, might there be a movement towards conscious rather than subliminal reflection in legal studies, for both undergraduate and postgraduate curricula?

This note will offer no definitive answers to that, but two speculations and one practical reason will be proffered.

The first speculation is an increased cross-fertilisation of ideas from other disciplines into law. Perhaps this is as a result of increased lay involvement in previously legal fiefdoms. It may also be as a result of autonomous law schools being subsumed with larger university departments and colleges, or indeed university-wide stipulations that elevate reflective thinking to a key graduate attribute for all (which can be seen from Aberdeen to Auckland).(7)

The second speculation is an increase in clinical legal education, that is legal education tied or sympathetic to the provision of pro bono publico legal advice by law students, which forces reflection through effective case management and inherent peer assessment (formal or otherwise), in a manner abstract learning cannot. This point was discussed at a recent conference at the University of the West of Scotland, supported by the Higher Education Authority, with the wider place of reflection in (clinical) legal education further evidenced by material on the Higher Education Authority’s website.(8)

The practical reason for a tendency towards reflection is that it is increasingly de rigueur with professional bodies.(9) For example, The Royal Institute of Town Planning’s Assessment of Professional Competence prescribes reflective practice, which is to be demonstrated by way of a written record, or log book, reflecting on work undertaken.(10) In England & Wales, a key resource for the Legal Practice Course (LPC), the equivalent to Scotland’s Diploma in Professional Legal Practice (DPLP), contains a whole section on “Reflective Learning”.(11)
Focusing on Scotland, elements of reflective practice are evident at the Professional Education and Training (PEAT) 1 and 2 stages prior to qualification as a solicitor. The Law Society of Scotland prescribes quarterly reviews in the two-year PEAT 2 (traineeship) stage. The providers of the DPLP (PEAT 1) embed varying degrees of reflective elements in their Law Society accredited programmes.

Anecdotally, it would not be unfair to say reaction has been mixed. Learners do not always see the merit in engaging with such exercises. Even with the sympathetic backdrop I have painted, I can imagine why. As an undergraduate, I avoided guides on how to write a student dissertation. Clearly I had better things to do than read books like MacQueen’s Studying Scots Law as a student,(12) such as get on and write my dissertation or simply study the law I was presented with.

Had I known then what I know now, I could have put up more of a defence of the idea of preparing to learn, seeking alternative perspectives and revisiting learning experiences. There may be others who identify more with the bullish undergraduate me, or the unknowingly competent practitioner I mentioned above.

If this paper converts anyone to the merits of reflection, that would be fine, but I have not set out to convert anyone. There are resources that will make that case better than this note.(13) Rather, this note sets out why reflection can have a legitimate place in a comprehensive law curriculum, including for the purposes of summative assessments (i.e. assessments counting for a final mark). Knowing why you are being asked to do something can affect how you will approach a task, so the above context should alleviate any reflection scepticism. Even if some scepticism lingers on, absent any rapid change in prevailing ideology it will be necessary for proponents and sceptics of reflective learning to engage with it in a variety of contexts. But how?

The American thinker Dewey never felt quite bold enough to prescribe a course of thinking conduct.(14) Similarly, I will not attempt to prescribe a course of reflective conduct. Indeed, of the very concept of reflection it has been noted it “is more talked about than understood.” That quote, perhaps surprisingly, comes from a book review of a text on clinical legal education,(15) which goes some way to fortifying my ancillary point about the effect of clinical legal education on reflection.

Returning to my key point, the issue of how to reflect (and teaching students how to express reflections) can be challenging. There is also an issue that assessed reflection is inherently skewed, as students might focus on what (they think) will attract a high grade.(16) Can students demonstrate single-loop and, where relevant, double-loop learning?(17) Should they consider what type of learner they are before reflection?(18) Can they demonstrate the deepest level of reflection, namely critical reflection?(19) I return to this important question, regarding levels of reflection, below.

In case it escaped your notice, this note has been written in the first person. Reflection always begins unashamedly with an ego trip, but hopefully not in the style of unproductive navel-gazing. The mindset adopted in that ego trip is also relevant: to adopt the imagery of de Bono, which hat should I wear?(20) Can I wear my emotional red hat, or should I dispassionately wear my white hat and “separate people from the problem”?(21) I can do either. There may be a time to search out praise as compared to problems and emotions as compared to cold analysis. That being the case, what sort of questions should you ask yourself?

This note is pervaded with toddler-like questions. This grinding of the English language might not appeal to regular readers of learned and not-so-learned articles, but regular breaks (or perhaps brakes) to question and consider what you have done are vital to proper reflection and deep learning. A reflective note, chart or (video) diary can deliberately staccato from one point to another. All of this helps to keep the reflections personal rather than contrived.

Hatton and Smith divide attempts at reflection into a spectrum from descriptive, descriptive reflective, dialogic reflective and critical reflective. (22) These are set out below.

Descriptive work is just that. It does not go beyond description. A product of this sort does not engage in or evidence reflection. As such, it is not truly reflective. Its place on the spectrum might therefore be questioned, but my inclusion of the word “attempts” above mitigates that critique.

Descriptive reflective work moves beyond that which is a bare description, showing some deeper consideration. There might be recognition of alternative perspectives or what factors underlie a chosen rationale.

Dialogic reflective work is more advanced, demonstrating a more measured, dispassionate distancing from that which is being reflected on. There might be a dialogue of sorts, self-critically exploring the reflector’s role in any choices made, linking the various factors and perspectives involved in the process and perhaps flushing out any internal inconsistencies. There may be an analogy here with certain ethical approaches to dilemmas.(23)

Critical reflection builds on this and further shows that the learner appreciates “that actions and events are not only located in, and explicable by, reference to multiple perspectives but are located in, and influenced by multiple historical, and socio-political contexts”. Hatton and Smith give that explanation, then consider the power dynamic between teacher and student as their example.(24) In a legal context comparable dynamics between adviser, advisee and adjudicator might be identified. It may be that it is not always appropriate to address such critical reflection in a short reflective piece, but strong reflection will leave room to challenge societal as well as personal preconditioning.

Having worked through that spectrum, and despite acknowledging that individuality is an essential part of the reflective ego-trip, a paradox of sorts emerges. There may be times when you are not the best person to reflect on your actions. Reflecting on my experiences as a music tutor, I appreciate that something I think is simple (like playing a scale) is easy for me to demonstrate but not necessarily to teach. I cannot remember how or when I learned certain key musical skills in my psychomotor domain. I am therefore completely remote from this point of crossing the threshold(25). I might not appreciate quite how difficult it is to shake of some troublesome inert, ritual, conceptually difficult or foreign knowledge,(26) whereas those who have learnt recently, or are learning together, may be ideally placed to ease the learning burden. This shows reflection in education is a two-way street.

Continuing the musical theme, for more advanced learners, I may try to explain the temporary cost and loss of performance of changing a grip,(27) but peer reinforcement (i.e. mutual reflection) might embed the learning experience for those who struggle to shake off old habits that die hard. Reflection might be an ego-trip, but it need not be lonely. Friends, imaginary or otherwise, can also be taken on the trip.

“Action without feedback is completely unproductive for a learner.”(28) This is of course true of all assessment, but for proper feedback on reflections the marker (or reviewer) needs to have the ability to critique reflection (over and above an ability to reflect in the same way as the reflector). How do you assess, and provide feedback on, reflections? The preceding part of this note is a guide in itself, but a further point to stress is that good feedback for truly reflective work is not necessarily tied to the performance of an initial task.

Once again, a paradox of sorts emerges. Those who performed the task well can reflect accordingly with self-assured confidence, but this can bring its own problems. Should an air of arrogance, merited or otherwise, creep into a reflective piece, anyone reviewing that reflection will be drawn to such arrogance and will likely criticise it. Conversely, a modest man with much to be modest about will struggle to provide anything more than reflective padding and platitudes. Contrast those situations with someone who performed a task poorly. That person has a surfeit of material to reflect on, especially if proper feedback on the initial task is available, perhaps in the form of comments or a mark as a first stage in a multiple stage assessment process.

This all assumes a candidate understands why his performance was (un)satisfactory. That position brings further challenges, but reflection still has a place. Those who have performed well by chance are forced to consider why they may have a fluked it, whereas those who have performed poorly yet do not understand why are forced to engage in a vindicatory or cathartic process which may lead to an epiphany of sorts. Alternatively, and quite legitimately, this last situation may force an epiphany onto the master by the apprentice. That which was initially criticised, might yet turn into accepted practice. (29) That again brings the idea of shared reflection to the fore, and requires the teacher to reflect on his own practice. No one will be surprised by my view that that would be no bad thing: it would be hypocritical to encourage reflection in learners only.(30)

Be that as it may, for the purpose of this reflective guide I shall leave the master and apprentice in their traditional respective roles. That identifies four categories of reflector:
1) the competent, comprehending reflector;
2) the competent, uncomprehending reflector;
3) the incompetent, comprehending reflector; and
4) the incompetent, uncomprehending reflector.

A reflective piece can be authored from any one of those perspectives, and indeed the perspective might change from uncomprehending to comprehending across the reflective period (if the piece is authored over a period of time, allowing reflections to mature). In fact, that would be the optimum scenario, proving as it does the utility of reflective practice, but a student who happens to have made that journey should not be the only student eligible for an optimum mark in an assessment. Reviewers must not victimise anyone who happens to have followed a different reflective journey. Rather, they should seek to identify a genuine attempt by the reflector to engage with the process, drawing on different perspectives and considerations as necessary. A failure to do that threatens to undermine the reflective dialogue completely.

According to the American singer and comedian Eddie Cantor, it takes 20 years to make an overnight success. Eddie never met Justin Bieber, who has amassed over 25,000,000 followers on the social network Twitter before reaching the age of 20, but that is to quibble, leaving me to infer from the quote the importance of trying, analysing, reformulating, learning and trying again, before you attain (apparently overnight) “success”.

Without due apologies for further deconstructing Cantor’s pithy choice of words, one could enquire as to what success is. Is it ever attained? In the context of this reflective piece of writing, advocating an unremitting drive for improvement, it would be difficult to answer that question in the positive. As such, an ability to engage with reflection is crucial to allow learners, at any stage of development, to develop the kind of professional artistry that allows Schön’s reflective practitioner to unthinkingly “get into the groove”.(31) There may be further work to undertake, particularly at the undergraduate level of the Scots law degree,(32) but I hope this note might play a part in future reflective journeys. Its production certainly provided a wealth of material for me to reflect on.

Malcolm M Combe, University of Aberdeen

(1) David A Kolb, Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development (1984), 30

(2) For example, see Jennifer A Moon, A Handbook of Reflective and Experiential Learning: Theory and Practice (2004); and cf Peter Honey and Alan Mumford, Using Your Learning Styles (3rd ed, 1995), online resources at

(3) See Anne Brockbank and Ian McGill, Facilitating Reflective Learning in Higher Education (2nd ed, 2007). The other authors are referred to elsewhere in this note.

(4) Cf a notable exception of Mary-Rose Russell (2011): “Reflections on learning: students' insights on their learning in a legal research skills course in the core curriculum”, The Law Teacher, 45:1, 45-62.

(5) Donald A Schön, The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action (1983), and Educating the Reflective Practitioner (1987).

(6) For critique, see Frank Coffield, David Moseley, Elaine Hall and Kathryn Ecclestone, Should we be using learning styles? What research has to say to practice (2004). In their study, they found only one out of 13 learning styles met their parameters of internal consistency, test-retest reliability, construct validity and predictive validity.

(7) See and

(8) See Karen Hinett (edited by Tracey Varnava), Developing reflective practice in legal education (UKCLE guidance note) (2002) at

(9) See Imogen Taylor, Developing Learning in Professional Education: Partnerships for Practice (Open University Press 1997) at 14.

(10) – and see Jacqui Ward “Reflection in professional education: an investigation into the reflective capabilities of trainee town planners”, at

(11) Liz Polding and Jill Cripps, LPC Skills Online (2010)

(12) Hector L MacQueen, Studying Scots Law (2nd ed, 1999). I confess I first read this when preparing to be a law teacher rather than a law student.

(13) See Phil Race who, in answer to his rhetorical question “why reflect?”, replies: “Reflection deepens learning. 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.” “Evidencing Reflection: putting the ‘w’ into reflection”, at (accessed 21 May 2012).

(14) John Dewey, How we think; a restatement of the relation of reflective thinking to the educative process (1933). Dewey did offer five steps of reflective thinking to work through: suggestions (where the mind leaps forward to a solution); intellectualisation (characterising a perceived issue as something to be solved); hypotheses (using more defined, guiding ideas); reasoning; then putting this into action.

(15) Nigel Duncan, “Kevin Kerrigan and Victoria Murray, A Student Guide to Clinical Legal Education and Pro Bono”, (2011) The Law Teacher, 45:3, 379 at 380.

(16) See Tracey Varnava and Julian Webb ,“Key aspects of teaching and learning: Enhancing learning in legal education” in Heather Fry, Steve Ketteridge & Stephanie Marshall (eds), A Handbook for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education (3rd ed, Routledge 2009) 363 at 379.

(17) The latter is a learning which changes field of constancy itself, rather than takes an apparent concept as a given: Chris Argyris and Donald A Schön, Theory in Practice: Increasing Professional Effectiveness (1974) 18-19. For a legal example of a double loop issue, see Caroline Maughan and Julian Webb, Lawyering Skills and the Legal Process (2nd ed, 2005) 42.

(18) Although I have already noted my desire to avoid an exploration of learning styles in this note (n 6 above), this is a factor Maughan and Webb suggest might be important (n 17, at 50).

(19) See Moon (n 2), chap 7.

(20) Edward de Bono, Six Thinking Hats (2000).

(21) That phrase might be familiar to fans of Roger Fisher and William Ury’s Getting to Yes: Negotiating an Agreement Without Giving In (1992).

(22) Neville Hatton and David Smith, “Reflection in Teacher Education: Towards Definition and Implementation” (1995) Teaching and Teacher Education 11(1) 33 at 48-49, explained by Pete Watton, Jane Collings and Jenny Moon in Reflective Writing: Guidance Notes for Students at (accessed 20 May 2012).

(23) An analogy with the postmodern ethics of alterity, chiefly associated with the Jewish philosopher Levinas, seems apt. See Emmanuel Levinas, Alterity and Transcendence (2001).

(24) Hatton and Smith (n 22) at 49.

(25) Jan H F Meyer and Ray Land, “Threshold Concepts and Troublesome Knowledge: linkages to ways of thinking and practising within the disciplines”, in Chris Rust (ed), Improving Student Learning – Ten Years On (2002).

(26) D Perkins, “The Many Faces of Constructivism”, Educational Leadership (Nov 1999) 57, 3.

(27) Schön (n 5 (1983)), 279.

(28) Diana Laurillard, Rethinking University Teaching: A conversational framework for the effective use of learning technologies (2002), 55.

(29) Although a perfect analogy might not be found, the Fosbury flop method of high jumping, Copernicus’s conceptualisation of the Earth’s orbit and Bob Dylan’s use of electric guitar all had their initial sceptics. Not many critics remain.

(30) On the place of reflection for teachers, see Dorene D Ross, “First Steps in Developing A Reflective Approach Teaching Reflection article”, Journal of Teacher Education (1989) 40: 22; and Brockbank and McGill (n 3).

(31) Schön (n 5 (1983)) at 55. The concept is much discussed, and is not without criticism. See Jennifer A Moon, Reflection in Learning and Professional Development (1999), 46-53.

(32) See Russell (n 4).

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brian boyd

Wednesday July 31, 2013, 17:08

Enjoyed this article. Good to see HE teachers showing an interest in pedagogy