Reflection Tools & Techniques

People often have a natural feeling of what reflection might encompass. In this section, we want to talk about what reflection is and what components are necessary for you in order to “reflect”. This is not supposed to imply, that previous reflections were wrong, but rather should help you to utilize fully the process of reflection.

Reflection itself is a form of learning from experiences, which is often used unintentionally by people but can be also used actively and on purpose. When we talk about reflection, we differentiate between three different components as shown in the figure below.

Reflection Cycle by David Boud (1985)

Reflection Cycle by David Boud (1985)

The reflective process starts in the middle of the picture in the reflective process. A trigger for reflection is mostly a perceived discrepancy between what you expected and what you experienced. Then you return to that experience to analyse it, and to re-evaluate it with your current knowledge and experience. The goal is to come up with an idea or plan how to improve on the topic in future, and ideally to take first steps.

To give you an example: Imagine you need to give a presentation about a new topic at work to your boss and you think that you might perform horribly. After the presentation, your boss compliments you on your presentation and you are left wondering why. Here we can see you observed a discrepancy between what you expected (something bad) and what you experienced (something good).

  • When you uncover this discrepancy, you can sit down to reflect (reflective process).
  • While most people often think of negative example for reflection triggers (presentations gone bad, failed at an exam, arguments with a client, etc.) those triggers do not need to be negative, and you can reflect about things, which turned out to be better than you expected.
  • In those situations, you want to focus on sustaining your success also in future situations. In this example, you then think about the presentation and your boss liked it.(returning to the experience). When reevaluating it, you might uncover, that you were prepared for all questions your boss had (reflective process).
  • After identifying a possible reason, you note to yourself that for future presentations you need to engage in a careful preparation so that you can answer all questions (outcomes).

This was a simple example showing how to learn reflectively from a positive experience in order to have similar positive experiences in future. Although the example is quite simple, in reality, there may be more cycles involved between the reflective process and your experiences as it might be harder to figure out possible reasons for why something happened or how to improve on something.

So, where and why should you reflect? Reflection is a technique, which can help you in both your private as well as your professional life. It can help you actively engage with a period of change in your environment (e.g. family, location, and work place), dealing with a high caseload, venting or thinking about new ideas. Often reflection is related to informal learning, meaning that it happens outside of structured learning experiences (e.g. vocational trainings). Some teachers are also including reflection in training experiences and plan learning material around it.

We differentiate the timeliness of the reflection session in relation to the point of time in which the action happened. In most occurrences people start reflecting after something has happened and they start to analyse why something did not go as they expected. This is called reflection-on-action by Donald Schön (1983), which only occurs after the action has finished. On the other side, there is reflection-in-action, which describes that someone starts reflecting during the current activity to analyse whether current actions are appropriately or whether something needs to be changed. Reflection-in-action is more difficult to perform, as one needs to find time to reflect about the situations and still continue, but helps to adapt your activity while you are carrying it out.

By now, you probably still think about why the previous example only included you and not your friends and colleagues. We differentiate between individual reflection, in which you just reflect for yourself, and collaborative reflection, in which you can reflect individually on some parts, but also together with your friends or colleagues. The basic idea of learning from experience remains the same. In an extended model, we can see how the group aspect unfolds. Two additional dotted lines symbolize that you can integrate a group of friends or colleagues to help you reflecting. In this picture, the labelling hints at integrating your reflection efforts into your work environment. In order to reflect together with your colleagues, you need to share some of your experiences so that your colleagues know what has happened in order to discuss possible outcomes. Having a shared understanding of the case is required to discuss it and to derive outcomes. Deriving outcomes can also be performed in a group.

Extended Model for collaborative reflection by Michael Prilla © (

Extended Model for collaborative reflection by Michael Prilla ©

To conclude this unit, we can summarize reflection as a method to learn from experiences. In this you return to experiences, re-evaluate them in order to come up with ideas on how to behave in future. This can of course be done alone, or together with your colleagues, friends and family.



Reflective Exercise:

  • What topics do you deliberately reflect about?
  • What was the last experience you reflected together with a colleague or friend?
  • How does this information about reflection help you?


Further Readings:

Kolb, David A. Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development. Prentice-Hall, 1984.

Schön, Donald A. The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action. Basic Books, 1983.

Prilla, Michael. “Collaborative Reflection Support at Work: A Socio-Technical Design Task.” ECIS 2014 Proceedings, June 7, 2014.

Prilla, Michael, and Bettina Renner. “Supporting Collaborative Reflection at Work: A Comparative Case Analysis.” In Proceedings of ACM Conference on Group Work (GROUP 2014). ACM, 2014.

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