“If I only knew then, what I know now”(Robert Wolff) … Reflective thinking about reflective thinking 🤷‍♀️

Person biting pencil in anxiety while looking at a laptop device. Image from Jeshoots on unsplash.com

What’s all this about then? 🤔

Recently I have had to write a lot about myself, not because return to campus/work has turned me in to a massive narcissist (I hope), but because I have been trying to complete various accreditation/performance assignments like my CMALT and PDR. And I don’t know about you but I find writing about myself and the things I have done almost impossible… “was that really me?”… “maybe that didn’t really make a difference?”… the wheels of doubt are a turning.

And I got to thinking… why is it so difficult to write about your own work and your own strengths and weaknesses. Is it just me? Is there anything out there that can help me? 🥴

A quick Google search told me ‘Yes… its’s called reflection.’

Blue abstract glass balls. Image from Flickr.com.

What is reflection? 🔮

“The throwing back by a body or surface of light, heat, or sound without absorbing it.” For example ‘the reflection of light’. (Oxford Dictionary Online)… wait that doesn’t sound quite right, does it?

Okay let’s start again, when I talk about reflection, I am actually talking about ‘reflective thinking’, so what is that?

“At its core, ‘reflective thinking’ is the notion of awareness of one’s own knowledge, assumptions and past experiences.” (Open University. 2021)

“Reflection is a type of thinking aimed at achieving better understanding and leading to new learning” (Queen Margaret University. Effective Learning Service. 2021)

Reflection is...

• Self-awareness: thinking of yourself, your experiences and your view of the world

• Self-improvement: learning from experiences and wanting to improve some area of your life

• Empowerment: putting you in control of making changes and behaving in a different way

(Solent Online Learning. 2020)

Paraphrasing here, so reflection in these terms is basically the process of critically thinking about your achievements and/or failures and which factors – such as knowledge, perceptions, experiences, emotions, actions you took. – influenced the outcome in order to better understand how to improve.

Why should I use reflective thinking or self-reflection? 🤨

“Reflecting helps you to develop your skills and review their effectiveness, rather than just carry on doing things as you have always done them.” (Open University. 2021)

So reflection:

  • Allows you to widen focus, look at the bigger picture
  • Can be considered a form of ‘Self-talk’ – It helps you analyse and learn from yourself
  • Helps with development through understanding
  • Helps develop your creativity
  • Helps build new ideas
  • Helps process assumptions and gain perspective
  • Is a key part of emotional intelligence, in that it helps with controlling you own emotions
  • Helps with work/life balance and moving away from dwelling

Okay I think I can do this ( I got this!), in fact I maybe do it a little already but possibly not in the most constructive way?… I think I will still feel uncomfortable about this…

Child with face covering hands. Image from Pexels.com.

Is there a reason I feel uncomfortable reflecting? 🙈

So now I begin reflecting on reflection and this is what I have discovered…

As with most things in life there are a few very important barriers to reflection that may hinder us (Definitely me 🙋‍♀️) –

  • Time –  Finding the time… yet another thing to add your endless ‘to do list’?
  • Culture – is there support for it? Are others open to it? Does anyone else in my Team bother?
  • Lack of skill – the fear of getting it wrong – Spoiler alert!! there is no ‘right way’!
  • Environment – The right location… Is it too noisy, am I distracted? Or maybe my new longer commute on the train is the best place?
  • Motivation – What’s in it for me? What can I do with this?
  • Yourself – Requires a certain level of self-awareness and insight in the first place. Solution: Find methods and tools that support you to find the right technique for you as an individual
  • Don’t like the results – ‘Most leaders quickly dismiss the noted strengths and dislike the noted weaknesses.’ (Porter. HBR. 2017) What I don’t know, can’t really hurt me right?

– Cambridge University Libraries. 2021. Harvard Business Review. 2017. TUS: Limerick Institute of Technology. 2021.

So will I ever reflect and feel comfortable about it?

Okay I think I found the answer…

Yes, find what works for you is the simple (honest) answer.

Some Advice – Little and often. Make time. Define the purpose for yourself. Find tools that help, experiment, practice. And minimise distractions… or find them if the hustle and bustle helps spur you on –  noisy train, no internet signal, pen and paper (tick).

Remember there is no ‘one size fits all’ (does that ever work anyways?)

Start by asking yourself; Why am I reflecting? and What do I want to get out of it?

And  some possible questions to get you started (Cambridge University Libraries. 2021)…

  • What did I do?
  • What did I learn?
  • How did I feel?
  • What was easy, what was difficult?
  • What went well?
  • What would I want to do differently?
  • I wonder what would happen if…

🙋‍♀️ *cough* Someone mentioned tools?

Ball of paper crumpled and placed on note book with doodled sketches drawn around in, including a lightbulb symbolising ideas. Image from fancycrave1 on Pixabay.com.

Is there a tool that can help those who ‘suffer’ through reflection?

Glad you asked…

Here are some ‘Models of reflection’, by no means is this an exhaustive list – this is just where I started and stopped when I found one that worked for me.

Tip/ Recommendation: Research ‘reflective thought tools’ and find the best fit for you –

Model 1 – The ERA cycle – Experience, Reflection, Action (Jasper, 2013)

  • Experience – The event – what happened or what is going to happen,
  • Reflection – Our feelings of what happened/ is happening, positive and negative
  • Action – What needs to happen, what do we need to do – take action…. And then the cycle continues

Model 2 – Driscoll’s What model (2007) –  What? So What? What now? — (I liked this one 👍, so I gave it a go)

“Firstly we should describe what the situation or experience was to set it in context. This gives us a clear idea of what we are dealing with. We should then reflect on the experience by asking ‘so what?’ – what did we learn as a result of the experience? The final stage asks us to think about the action we will take as a result of this reflection. Will we change a behaviour, try something new or carry on as we are?” ( Cambridge University Libraries. 2021)

Model 3 – Kolb’s Experiential Learning Cycle (1984) – (McLeod, S. A. 2017)

  • Concrete experience – Having an experience  (Doing)
  • Reflective observation  – Reviewing the experience  (Reviewing)
  • Abstract conceptualisation – Learning from the experience  (Learning)
  • Active experimentation – Trying out what you have learned  (Testing)

Model 4 – Gibbs Reflective Cycle (1988) – (UCD. 2019)

  • Description  –  What happened?
  • Feelings –  What were you thinking and feeling?
  • Evaluation –  What was good and what was bad?
  • Analysis – Can you make sense of the situation?
  • Conclusion –  What else could you have done?
  • Action plan –  What would you do if the situation arose again?

Model 5 – Atkins and Murphy (1993) cyclical model  (Open University. 2021)

  • Awareness – Discomfort, Action, Experience?
  • Describe the situation – Feelings, thoughts, events and features?
  • Analyse feeling and knowledge – Identify and challenge assumptions, explore alternatives
  • Evaluate the relevance of knowledge – Explain/Resolve problem? Use of knowledge?
  • Identify any Learning – has any learning occurred?

And here are some methods or techniques if you are looking for a bit more flexibility or a creative way to get you started…

  • Journaling or keeping a diary
  • Talking out loud to yourself
  • Reading – yes you can read someone else’s words and reflect, maybe you are even doing it now 🤯
  • Writing exercise – set aside some time to write everything that comes to mind, a bit like a ‘to do list’ but include things that you have recently done or need to do, then reflect on a few points that you feel stand out (MinimalismMadeSimple.com. 2019)
  • Goal setting
  • Yoga and exercise
  • Mind mapping
  • Sketching or doodling
  • Recording voice or video notes
  • Again not an exhaustive list…

Before you go, things to be mindful of…

In reality things don’t always start at the beginning, not all steps need to be followed, reflection is a continuous process.

Models can provide a useful starting point but you do not to follow them rigidly all the time.

Tailor your process for the desired outcome. Start by asking yourself What do you hope to achieve?

Oh, and be honest and be realistic.

Lightbulb placed on its side. Image from Pixabay.com.

Further Top tips
  1. Set aside some time (it can be 5 minutes if all you have is 5 minutes)
  2. Focus your practice –  don’t try to reflect on everything all at once – it will overwhelm you
  3. Choose your own path
  4. Find balance – Positive and negative to get the bigger picture

And If you find yourself making excuse not to reflect (like me *cough cough* 🤭)…

Answer some important questions –  What are you avoiding? How are you helping or hindering yourself, and possibly others, by choosing not to do this?

  • Start small
  • (Warning: Repeat!) Schedule time
  • Ask for help if you need it –  talking over it with someone else might get the ball rolling

Phew! Right I am ready to give it a go!

(You will be glad to know… I completed my PDR and I have submitted my CMALT 🥳)


Atkins, S. and Murphy, K. (1993) ‘Reflection: a review of the literature’, Journal of Advanced Nursing, vol. 18, pp. 1188–1192.

Driscoll, J.J. (2007) Supported reflective learning: the essence of clinical supervision? Chp 2 in Practising Clinical Supervision: A Reflective Approach for Healthcare Professionals (2nd edition). London: Bailliere Tindall. Pp 27-‐50.

Finlay, L. (2008) ‘Reflecting on reflective practice’, PBPL CETL, Open University, [Online] Available at http://www.open.ac.uk/opencetl/resources/pbpl-resources/finlay-l-2008-reflecting-reflective-practice-pbpl-paper-52 (Accessed 2 January 2012).

Gibbs G (1988). Learning by Doing: A guide to teaching and learning methods. Further Education Unit. Oxford Polytechnic: Oxford.

Jasper, M., 2003. Beginning reflective practice. Cheltenham: Nelson Thornes

Lifelong Learning with OT – Nichola B. 2016. Guide to models of reflection – when and why should you use different ones? Available online from: https://lifelonglearningwithot.wordpress.com/2016/05/02/different-models-of-reflection-using-them-to-help-me-reflect/ (Accessed October 2021)

McLeod, S. A. (2017, October 24). Kolb – learning styles and experiential learning cycle. Simply Psychology. Available online from: https://www.simplypsychology.org/learning-kolb.html (Accessed October 2021)

Porter, J. 2017. Why you should make time for self-reflection (even if you hate doing it) Harvard Business Review. Available online from: https://hbr.org/2017/03/why-you-should-make-time-for-self-reflection-even-if-you-hate-doing-it (Accessed October 2021)

Rebecca. 2019. 15 essential ways to Practice Self-reflection. Available online from: https://www.minimalismmadesimple.com/home/self-reflection/ (Accessed October 2021)

Schon, D. (1983) The reflective practitioner: How professionals think in action, London, Temple Smith.

Solent Online Learning. 2020. Successful Reflection. Available online from: https://learn.solent.ac.uk/mod/book/view.php?id=116229&chapterid=15205 (Accessed October 2021)

The Open University in partnership with UNISON. 2021. What is self-reflection? Available online from: https://www.open.ac.uk/choose/unison/develop/my-skills/self-reflection (Accessed 2021)

The Open University. 2021. Session 2: Reflective thinking, reflecting learning and academic writing in the Free Online Open course – Succeeding in postgraduate study. Available online from: https://www.open.edu/openlearn/ocw/mod/oucontent/view.php?id=51386&section=2 (accessed October 2021)

The Open University. 2021. Section 4: Models of reflection – core concepts for reflective thinking in Session 2: Reflective thinking, reflecting learning and academic writing in the Free Online Open course – Succeeding in postgraduate study. Available online from: https://www.open.edu/openlearn/ocw/mod/oucontent/view.php?id=51386&section=4 (Accessed October 2021)

The Queen Margaret University. 2021. Effective Learning Services – Reflection. Available online from: https://www.qmu.ac.uk/media/5533/reflection-2014.pdf  (Accessed October 2021)

University of Cambridge. 2021. Reflective Practice Toolkit. Available online from: https://libguides.cam.ac.uk/reflectivepracticetoolkit  (Accessed October 2021)

University College Dublin (UCD). 2019. UCD Teaching and Learning Resources – Reflective Practice Models. Available online from: https://www.ucd.ie/teaching/t4media/reflective_practice_models.pdf (accessed October 2021)

Wolff, R. 2012. If I Only Knew Then What I Know Now: The Lessons of Life and What They’re Trying to Teach You. The Creative Syndicate. ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1937939006

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