Learning through Reflection
In the busyness of life, we frequently get caught up in the whirlwind of rushing from one burning issue to the next. We complete one task then move straight on, often with only a brief pause to understand whether we’ve achieved the desired outcome. Then we rapidly re-focus to the next task.
We feel we need to do this to keep pace with our ever-increasing to-do lists; however, many of us are missing the vital learning that can come from taking a few minutes to stop and reflect on what has happened and how it can benefit us.
Taking just a few moments to reflect can improve our processes and learning, as well as saving us time in the long run by making those processes more efficient. To make it even more worthwhile, group reflection enables us to gain a deeper understanding of what we have done by learning from the experience of others.
If we share our learning with colleagues, family or friends, it can significantly multiply the benefit and advance our performance, as opposed to everyone continuing to do the same thing the same way they’ve always done it. How do you intend to move forward if you don’t take the time to understand what you’ve done, what worked, what didn’t work and what you could do better?
“Reflecting helps you to develop your skills and review their effectiveness, rather than just carry on doing things as you have always done them. It is about questioning, in a positive way, what you do and why you do it and then deciding whether there is a better, or more efficient, way of doing it in the future.”
The Open University
Gibbs’ Reflective Cycle
We often recommend using Gibbs’ Reflective Cycle as a simple yet comprehensive tool that can used both formally and informally. Developed by Graham Gibbs in 1988, it is based on David Kolb’s experiential learning model and stands out as a complete and powerful learning process. The stages of the Gibbs Reflective Cycle are outlined below.
The cycle starts by encouraging us to relive the experience - to describe what happened. This can be achieved by:
Writing a factual account of what happened and who was involved
Creating a timeline of the factual events
Drawing a storyboard of what happened.
The creative nature of the latter options can significantly enhance recall and enrich the reflection process. It is important to avoid an emotional input at this first stage, as that forms stage 2.
We learn most powerfully when we use all our senses, including our feelings. This stage encourages us to:
Recognise and acknowledge how we felt through each part of the process (and afterwards)
Link our feelings with experiences and outcomes.
This is very useful as our body will often signal a feeling well ahead of our brain registering a thought; hence, tuning into our feelings can provide us with a powerful early warning system.
We tend to split this into two self-explanatory stages that we explore relative to our intended goal:
What worked? What was good about the experience?
What didn’t work? What was bad about the experience?
We begin to explore the cause and effect between decisions, actions and results.
What sense can we make of it?
Why did the things that worked, work?
Why did other things not work?
The Analysis stage can also help us to identify patterns of events and triggers that start things happening.
This is a summary of our learning from the experience.
What did we learn?
What was so successful that we would do it again?
What could we do differently next time?
How can we plan better?
How can we identify triggers and patterns to help boost us in the moment, and interrupt any negative patterns before they take hold?
The cyclical nature of Gibbs’ Reflective Cycle means that actions can be put straight into practice where a project is ongoing, or you can use the review as a stand-alone tool to identify actions which will serve you more powerfully when you are in a similar situation in future.
What will you do next time you are in a similar situation?
How will you develop any skills that would benefit you?
As well as holding formal reflection sessions and booking time in your own calendar for self-reflection, Gibbs’ Reflective Cycle lends itself to informal reflection. Questions such as “How did you feel?”, “What went well?”, and “What did you learn?” can be used as part of natural conversations, thus enabling us to reflect on our experiences when speaking with others.
This informal method can be used when time is tight or for smaller tasks and projects. It can also form a key element of a coaching approach that leaders and managers can adopt to encourage their teams (or, indeed, for parents encouraging their children) to reflect, evaluate and learn from their experiences.
A recommendation is to record key learning points so they aren’t forgotten; for example, in a journal. Building the habit of a weekly reflection will enable you to deepen your learning as you continually strive for improvement. At worst, a monthly reflection will help you learn from your experiences, identify your improvement actions and move into the new month with great intent.
Reflection forms a key element of our Personal Leadership coaching programmes, with prompted reflections at the end of each module. You can view our courses here.