Think Better, Learn Better: Six Ways Reflection Can Transform Higher Education

by Dr Laura Clarke, Academic Developer supporting Online Distance Learning

A person (perhaps a university student) looks in a mirror, which is reflecting them as a businessperson in a suit. It is an illustration.
Illustration by Adobe Stock.

As the summer assessment period brings the academic year to an end and the halls and schools empty out and the library falls… well, silent, so it is that many of us in Higher Education start to reflect on the year just past as we look towards the new year ahead.

But why do we “reflect” and not just “look”?

“Reflect” is a tricky word with two very close meanings. It means to look back (perhaps critically) on what has gone before: like listening to an echo that returns our own words to us. It also means to look at oneself, as in a mirror, and perhaps to see what other people see every day. In other words, to reflect is to investigate what we have done and who we are. This, by definition, makes reflection in pedagogy a much more powerful process than simply looking.

This makes reflection in pedagogy
a much more powerful process
than simply looking.

Reflection promotes critical thinking and metacognition (the process of thinking about one’s own thinking and learning). It enhances students’ comprehension of the subject matter whilst also cultivating adaptability, self-directed learning, and a proactive mindset. Asking students to describe and analyse their reflective accounts of the approaches and processes they used to inform or create their work, rather than assessing solely the assessment product, can also make assessments more AI resilient as they will need to be familiar with the process of creating a piece of work, not just the product.

Reflection is a skill that is often undervalued in higher education. Students are more likely to engage in reflection when they understand that it fosters critical thinking skills that are essential for making sense of their learning experiences. Given that most university assignments involve discursive writing, which requires presenting arguments with reasoning and evidence, it is essential to help students develop the skill of reflection. It is important to provide examples of reflective writing that employ a personal style, focusing on first-person experiences that are supported by references to literature and personal insights. Providing reflective models can also help students to understand the structure and process of reflection, guiding them toward analytical rather than descriptive expression.

Some popular reflective models are:

Gibbs’ Reflective Cycle (1998). This model consists of six stages: Description, feelings, evaluation, analysis, conclusion, and action plan.

Kolb’s Experiential Learning Cycle (1984). This model uses a four-stage cycle: Concrete experience, reflective observation, abstract conceptualisation, and active experimentation.

Schön’s Reflective Practice (1991). This model differentiates between “reflection-in-action” and “reflection-on-action,” emphasising the importance of learning in real-time.

Rolfe’s Framework for Reflexive Practice (2001). This model consists of three phases: The Descriptive Phase, the Interpretive Phase and the Outcome Phase.

Reflection can easily be cultivated using a variety of activities in the classroom. Below are some examples of how to do this.

Exit slips

Before students leave your class, ask them to write a quick response to a reflective question. If your students are online, they can share ideas on a digital collaborative space such as Padlet.


Incorporate think-pair-share activities where students have a few minutes to reflect individually on a question or prompt, discuss their thoughts with a partner, and then share their insights with the whole class.

Concept mapping

Use concept mapping as a visual tool for reflection. Students can create mind maps to connect concepts, ideas, and their own understanding, fostering a deeper level of thinking. For concept mapping tools available at Sussex, see:

Diamond nine

Ask students to rank nine ideas, viewpoints, or pieces of information into what they consider highest to lowest importance into a diamond-shaped hierarchy. This can be done in person using cards or post-its or using an online collaborative tool.

Discuss learning from previous assessments or feedback

Lead a discussion of insights from previous assessments completed and/or feedback received, e.g.: asking students to identify what they will continue doing, need to do differently, and why. This will also help develop student assessment and feedback literacy.

Reflection is more than looking back – it’s a thoughtful process of examining our experiences and seeing ourselves more clearly. By fostering this practice in our classrooms, we empower students to enhance their critical thinking, adaptability, and self-directed learning. Let’s embrace the power of reflection to not only improve our teaching but also to inspire our students to reach new heights in their educational journeys. Find out more at

Posted in Academic Development, Educational Enhancement, Learning theory

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We are the Educational Enhancement team at the University of Sussex. We publish posts each week on using technology to support teaching and learning. Read more about us.

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