What is Reflective Practice?

In this age of self-care and introspection, reflective practice is a valuable tool that you can use in both your personal and professional life to continually evolve and improve. In essence, the exercise means you take time to think about things you’ve done, what you learned from the experience, and how you might improve next time.

By following this logic path, you can develop insights into your responses and plan ahead to tackle your next challenge or opportunity to the best of your ability.

There are several different methods you can use, each backed by research and science. In this article, we’ll help educate you on what reflective practice is, the different models you can use, how to implement it in your life, and it’s benefits.

Let’s start by diving deep into the definition to understand what is reflective practice.

Reflective Practice Defined

Someone who uses a reflective practice is committed to life-long learning. They are self-aware and committed to critically evaluating how they respond to situations and circumstances and strive to gain an understanding that will help them to improve in the future.

It’s the art of not only learning from your experience but also applying those learnings to what might come in the future to achieve a better result. Using it will encourage you to explore any limiting beliefs or pre-existing assumptions to find creative solutions to future problems.

Commonly used in professions where learning is critical, like education, nursing, and healthcare, anyone can harness its power to further self-development.

There are many ways to incorporate this type of self-reflection into your life. To see successful results, you’ll need to not only regularly self-assess, but also develop new ideas and apply them in future situations.

Reflective practice isn’t a “one and done” learning experience. Rather, it’s a systematic, continual cycle that you’ll often repeat to grow your insights, abilities, and develop best practices in your daily life.

Reflective Practice Models

Over the years, several different researchers have studied reflective practice and created guidelines to help you shape a program.

Here, we’ll highlight some of the most notable methods from:

Although they all differ slightly in methodology, application, or approach, each option has the same basic goal: to help provide you with feedback to influence your future decisions and behaviors for better results.

Let’s take an in-depth look at these methods to help you determine which might be the right one to help elevate your success.

Kolb’s Learning Cycle

Educational researcher David Kolb coined his four-stage model in 1984, and it’s still one of the most popular methods used today. His process guides users through an introspective exercise on a specific experience with the goal of applying any learnings to a future experience.

Completing the cycle is the key component of the Kolb model.

Here is a summary of what each of the four stages entails and questions you’ll answer during the process.

Stage One – Have a Concrete Experience

To begin Kolb’s Learning Cycle, you first need to have a concrete experience. This means that you are exposed to something new, and you actively participate, make decisions, and interact with the situation.

Stage Two – Observe and Reflect on the Concrete Experience

Following the concrete experience, you should observe and reflect on it. Do an analysis of the strengths and opportunities for improvement in this phase, and try to take a step back and look at the outcome through an objective lens.

What worked? What didn’t? What factors either contributed to or hindered your success?

Stage Three – Form Concepts

After you’ve completed your analysis, it’s time to start making sense of what happened. Look for direct links between actions and results, and search for opportunities to learn.

If there are knowledge gaps that lead to unfavorable results, begin to create a plan to learn and develop your understanding to overcome these hurdles in the future. This is a phase where you may need to do research or look to colleagues, friends, or advisors for support.

This step is also where you have an opportunity to modify your approach or thought process and develop new ideas of how to better handle future concrete events.

Stage Four – Test Your Concepts

In Kolb’s model, you close the loop when you put your concepts and theories into practice during future situations or events. You make these abstract ideas concrete by creating a new experience, resulting in an active experiment that you can replicate over and over.

After your new concrete experience, you have the opportunity to revisit this reflective practice to look for additional ways to enhance your responses. This means your everyday life can transform into an ongoing opportunity for research and personal development.

The Kolb model stresses the fact that it’s not enough to simply reflect, but rather, the critical element of the process is to collect feedback that drives future change.

Gibbs Reflective Cycle

Gibbs used Kolb’s research as the basis for his model and created a six-part approach in 1998. Although many of the core principles and ideas are similar in this approach, it’s notably different in that it specifically encourages you to examine your thoughts and feelings as part of the reflection process.

The first three phases are directly connected to the experience, where the last three will help you make sense of what happened and plan for future events. Here’s what you need to know about each phase.

Part 1 – Description

In the first phase of Gibbs’ approach, you’re asked to provide a factual account of the experience. Avoid layering in any of your own personal thoughts or emotions at this time. It’s also important that you don’t yet begin the process of analysis.

Strive to stick to the basic who, what, where, and when to keep the description as objective as possible.

Part 2 – Feelings

Once you’ve established your factual baseline, it’s now time to examine any thoughts or feelings you experience during the event. Be honest, and include both the positive and negative emotions in your recap.

Note when the feelings arose, and if they were tied to a particular incident, piece of feedback, another individual, or other circumstances. This is a critical step to help identify potential barriers and to develop a plan that can help you overcome them in the future.

Part 3 – Evaluation

Next, it’s time to evaluate the overall experience and look for the pros and cons. Ask questions like:

  • What went well?
  • What could be improved?
  • Did something not go as planned? Why?
  • Are there areas of personal development needed?

Evaluate the circumstances the perspective of things you could directly influence and control.

Part 4 – Analysis

Now that you’ve laid all of the groundwork to capture the details and understand all the pieces of what happened, it’s time to make sense of the experience.

Here’s where you also analyze any outside factors that you could not directly control to understand how they may have influenced your results, and begin to identify things that may have helped or hindered your success.

During this phase, you may identify learning or professional development opportunities that you will need to achieve your desired result in the future.

Part 5 – Conclusion

Here, you’ll compile all of your analysis and evaluation to create a conclusion about your experience. This should be a summary of the previous four steps that you’ll use to develop your action plan in the final stage of the process.

Part 6 – Action Plan

Gibbs recommends that you conclude this reflective practice by documenting a step-by-step action plan for your next learning experience. Identify the details of exactly how you can improve, steps you’ll take to learn and grow, things you’ll do differently, and any next steps needed to overcome any potential future barriers.

You may discover that you need to do additional research, consult a mentor or colleague, enroll in a training, or otherwise further your education before you can put your action plan into practice.

Schön’s Reflection-In-Action and Reflection-On-Action Model

In 1991, Schön created a method that answers the question “what is reflective practice” through a two-pronged approach. He says that we have the opportunity to do two different types of reflection.

The first, reflection-in-action, means you begin to analyze and think about the experience while it’s still happening so that you can impact the outcome. It happens during the “doing” stage and is an opportunity to actively identify areas for improvement that will help you overcome obstacles during a situation to get a more positive result.

People who excel at reflection-in-action are often seen as resourceful and responsive, and they are the ones who seem to make the most of any situation.

In Schön’s approach, he also stresses the importance of also doing reflection-on-action. Like other researchers in this space, he supports post-experience analysis that can help you understand your behaviors and actions and encourage thoughts about what you can do differently for better future outcomes.

Here you’ll think about causes, options, available paths, and opportunities for the future to create a framework for your next experience.

Johns Structured Reflection Model

The Johns model follows a five-step process that uses questions to help you break down your personal experience and better understand the process you followed and the outcome you achieved. The questions are:

  • Describe the experience and significant factors
  • What were you trying to achieve, and what were the consequences?
  • What factors affected your decision making?
  • Did you have other choices?
  • What will change because of this experience?

Johns recommends that you record your answers in a structured diary to help to organize your thoughts and give you an easy to access tool for future reference.

This method also places significant emphasis on morals and ethics and encourages you to include those when examining influencing factors and other choices you have in each situation.

Rolfe’s Reflective Practice Framework

Rolfe seeks to simplify reflective practice and uses three simple questions to help uncover opportunities and drill down into every situation. They are: What? So what? Now what?

In the “what” phase, consider details like what:

  • Role you played
  • Problem you encountered
  • Happened in the situation

During the “so what” phase, ask questions like so what:

  • Was the result?
  • Were the consequences?
  • Would I have done differently?

Finally, in the “now what” phase, work through:

  • Will I do next?
  • Broader issues have I uncovered?
  • Will I improve upon next time?
  • Do I need to learn to do better in the future?

This is a quick and easy exercise that you can do mentally or as a journaling activity to encourage a daily practice of self-reflection and improvement.

Preparing for Your Reflective Practice

Understanding the different reflective practice methods is the first step in starting your own regular habit. Once you determine which one seems most aligned with your normal thought process and is, therefore, most appealing to you, it’s time to put it into action.

There are a few different ways to get your mind prepared for this exercise, including freewriting, free drawing, and meditation. Let’s dive into each to understand how to harness their power.


When you’re first beginning to develop a reflective practice, you may need some help hitting the “reset” button on your brain so that you can take a step back from a fresh situation. Freewriting is a tool that you can use to clear the slate before you dive into a formal reflective model.

The freeing exercise can help to remove any mental barriers you may be knowingly or unknowingly fighting, and it will help you clear your mind from a stressful day at work or home.

Professional writers often start their day by freewriting to get them warmed up before they have to think about and focus on specific content, and you can do the same. You can do this on your computer in a blank document, or you can hand-write your thoughts.

Start by setting a timer to give yourself a limit. Around five minutes is standard and will give you enough time to empty your mind of unhelpful words, thoughts, and emotions.

Once you begin, the goal is to continue typing or writing for the entire timespan. You don’t need to be in a rush to get out as many words as possible, but you should not take any breaks.

Don’t focus on spelling, grammar, punctuation, legibility, or even clarity. It doesn’t matter what you write, nor is the quality important. You don’t need to focus on a topic, and many times, you’ll find that once you complete your most pressing thoughts, your mind will wander, and you’ll end up writing about nothing of importance.

If you truly run out of things to say, but your time is not yet up, begin doing an easy word association exercise. Write any word, and then write the next one that pops into your head. Continue following that process until your five minutes are up.

At the conclusion of your freewriting exercise, re-read what you wrote. You might notice patterns or specific words or phrases that jump out at you. Underline or highlight those to carry with you when you begin your formal reflective practice.

Free Drawing

Writers often do a free writing exercise to clear their minds, and artists use the same technique, called free drawing, to get their creative juices flowing. If you’re more of a visual learner, you may find that this option helps you relax and connect with what you’re feeling on an emotional, spiritual, physical, and intellectual level.

To do it, you’ll need a pencil or pen and a sheet of paper. Set a timer for three to five minutes, and begin drawing. Some people like to set loose rules around their free drawing exercise. One example is that once your pen or pencil touches the paper, you can’t lift it and need to draw in one continuous line. Another example is that you can only draw the inside of objects, but not the boundary lines.

It’s unlikely that your free drawing will turn into a magnificent work of art. That’s not the point. Rather, you want to focus your energy on a creative and physical outlet – drawing shapes on paper- which can help your mind let go of any limitations and create space for creative problem-solving.

Deep Breathing or Meditation

Practices like deep breathing and meditation are excellent ways to increase your alpha brain waves, which can contribute to increased focus and concentration. Spending a few minutes to slow down your breath before a reflective practice session and help you produce better, more informative results.

To do it, sit or stand in a comfortable position and close your eyes. Choose a location where you won’t have any distractions and can spend two to five minutes, focusing on your breath.

Breathe in through your nose slowly for a count of six and think about fully expanding your lungs. Don’t hold your breath. Exhale for a count of six and think about relaxing the muscles in your face, neck, and body as you do.

Repeat this cycle for at least ten breaths, trying to keep your mind focused only on your inhale and exhale and let go of the distractions of the day. After your last breath, slowly open your eyes and get started on your reflective practice.

Benefits of Reflective Practice

There are many different reasons why you should incorporate reflective practice into your daily and weekly routine. Not only can it help you to improve your self-awareness and aid in personal and professional development, but it can also boost your creative thinking and problem-solving skills.

Using this technique can help you be more emotionally intelligent, which makes you better able to read people and respond to situations in ways that garner favorable outcomes. Some of the best leaders are known for their adaptability and strategic thinking, and that may be because they excel at learning from past experiences.

Here are a few key ways that reflective practice can benefit your professional and personal life.

It Can Make You a Confident Leader

By following a reflective practice model, you’ll ensure that you continually develop your ability to understand how people learn from and respond to you in the workplace. You’ll actively identify any barriers that your staff or team encounter, and proactively determine ways to lead and communicate that will help them to overcome these obstacles.

This will ensure that you aid your staff in their personal development, and will also help you to find ways to grow your professional skill set as you find new challenges to overcome. Because you’ll be proactive and have a good idea of problems you may face before they arise, you’ll always be able to handle yourself in every situation confidently.

Your confidence can also help to bolster that of the team you lead. If they know that they can always look to you to know what to do and steps to take, they may also feel more empowered to make decisions and tackle their big ideas.

Sharing this technique with those you manage may encourage them also to begin reflecting and focusing on their personal development, which means you’ll have a better employee.

It Can Keep You Accountable

Thanks to the cyclical nature of many of the different reflective practice models, you’ll constantly be evaluating your success and developing new patterns to follow. Similar to a goal-setting exercise, you’ll focus forward on the next steps and find yourself striving to find better outcomes.

This creates a level of accountability that will have you always mindful of strengths, weaknesses, and areas of opportunity that will help you excel in life.

It Can Help You Better Understand Yourself

All of the models include an in-depth reflection process where you self-assess and dig into your actions and thoughts during an experience. This can help you plug into your strengths and weaknesses, look for areas you can develop, and understand how you influence others.

By developing a strong understanding of when you excel and where you might struggle, you’ll develop deep self-awareness and understanding that will shed light on how you can grow.

It Can Encourage You to Innovate

Although we don’t know who originally said it, the famous quote that reads, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results,” is a testament to why innovation is so important.

Whether you’re applying this theory to your communication style, work ethic, leadership skills, or even your relationship, you likely already know that you need to evolve to adapt and be successful in situations.

For example, if you’re trying to teach a new concept to a group or team, and they don’t understand it, innovation is in order. Using reflective practice can help you identify the disconnection and then develop a new approach that will better resonate with the group.

Innovation is the key to forward progress, and using this technique ensures that you’ll always be looking for the next iteration.

It Benefits You and Those Around You

Although reflective practice is often an introspective activity, the people around you will benefit when you incorporate it into your life. By following a method, you’ll naturally become more confident, responsible, engaged, accountable, and innovative. These are the same qualities that will make you an excellent leader, communicator, spouse, and friend.

By giving yourself these tools, you can focus on your process in every aspect of your life, and constantly examine ways to improve your techniques. Your outcomes will improve, and those around you will also reap those benefits.

This active process means that not only will you see more success, but the others involved in each of your experiences will have better results. This adds up to a better experience all around.

By constantly raising the bar for yourself, you’re also doing so for others. Surround yourself with people who will rise to the occasion and watch what follows.

Final Thoughts to Get You Started

Now that you know the answer to the question “what is reflective practice” and fully understand the process and the benefits, you’re ready to begin incorporating it in your life.

If it seems overwhelming, give yourself permission to start small. Focus on one experience that you had today and work through the exercise following the model that best meets your needs. Taking the time to go through the cycle forces you to hone in on the things that matter most and look for ways to improve and be more successful.

It doesn’t need to be tedious or time-consuming. Try to devote 15-minutes a day to incorporate this practice when you first begin. You may be surprised to find it’s something you look forward to daily.

Over time, following this process will become second nature, and you might find yourself in an active state of reflective practice throughout the day. This higher-level thought process can only benefit you and those around you and is what many great leaders strive to do.

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