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model of reflection

Contributor(s): Kate Brush

A model of reflection is a structured process that is used to guide personal and situational analysis and improvement. Reflection is a concept that emphasizes awareness of one's own knowledge, past experiences and beliefs.

Models of reflection benefit individuals by helping them understand their own thinking and learning strategies. In addition, reflective thinking allows individuals to relate their new knowledge to their previous understanding, consider both abstract and conceptual terms and apply specific strategies to new tasks. A wide variety of models of reflection exist; individuals must decide which framework supports their work and will best assist their learning experiences.

Reflection is often prompted by uncomfortable or negative situations where individuals need to determine what went wrong and how they can improve or fix it in the future. However, it can also be initiated with positive experiences where individuals want to understand exactly why something worked so they can repeat the success.

Models of reflection can be used in a variety of situations, but they are especially beneficial in circumstances where updates and feedback are requested -- such as business meetings and behavioral interview questions. Models of reflection are also frequently used by healthcare professionals to improve their practices.

Models of reflection are also known as frameworks of reflection, reflective models and reflective practice models.

How models of reflection work

The reflective thinking process involves consciously thinking about and analyzing what is currently being done, what has previously been done, what has been experienced and what has been learned. Models of reflection guide individuals through this process; each model provides different ways of approaching these considerations. Sometimes one model can be combined with others to create a customized structure. When this is done, one model will be used as a foundation and questions and considerations from other frameworks will be added on top.

Regardless of the model being used, the reflective thinking process typically includes the following elements:

  • Reflection leads to learning. In other words, reflective thinking will change an individual's ideas and their understanding of a situation.
  • Reflection is active and dynamic. It involves reflecting on past experiences, reflecting on experiences as they happen and reflecting on actions that are planned for the future.
  • Reflection is cyclic in nature. This means reflective thinking can generate new ideas that can be used to form the next stages of learning.
  • Reflection involves looking at issues in a variety of ways. By analyzing an issue from different perspectives, a greater understanding of the situation can be gained, allowing values, perspectives and assumptions to be closely examined.

Benefits of reflection

Models of reflection help individuals pull valuable insights from their experiences, helping them improve their actions and behaviors. The benefits of models of reflection are as follows:

  • an easy-to-follow structure is provided;
  • individuals who are unsure where to begin the reflective thinking process can use a model of reflection to find a starting point;
  • individuals can more easily assess all levels of a situation -- from the big picture down to specific details; and
  • there is a clear and defined end point for the process.

In addition, the specific benefits of reflective thinking are as follows:

  • improves an individual's metacognition -- or the ability to reflect on one's own cognitive process;
  • optimizes performance monitoring and management;
  • increases self-motivation;
  • enhances the focus on learning goals;
  • helps individuals identify obstacles in their learning process and establish realistic goals;
  • enables individuals to consider different ways to achieve their goals;
  • identifies gaps in skills, knowledge and development; and
  • allows individuals to optimize their ability to adapt to new, unexpected and complex situations.

CARL model of reflection

The CARL model of reflection, also known as the CARL technique, is a framework for professional analysis and improvement focusing on:

  • C - The context of past experiences.
  • A - The actions that were taken.
  • R - The results that occurred.
  • L - The lessons that were learned.

The CARL framework requires individuals to provide descriptions for each of these elements. Unlike other reflection models, the CARL technique does not require further planned actions. It instead focuses on the belief that the practice of identifying new lessons and learning experiences will affect processes on its own.

Gibbs reflective cycle

The Gibbs reflective cycle is another popular framework that involves an examination of an individual's feelings and how they have impacted the situation and the reflection of the experience. The Gibbs model involves using prompt questions at each stage to create a full structured analysis; however, the framework does not include as many in-depth questions as other models.

The Gibbs reflective cycle consists of six stages:

  1. Describe the situation.
  2. Understand what feelings were triggered by the situation.
  3. Evaluate the experience.
  4. Analyze what has been learned.
  5. Conclude by determining what alternative courses could have been taken.
  6. Create an action plan.

The Gibbs reflective cycle is one of the most popular models among healthcare professionals. Coaches also use the model to become aware of their behaviors, identify unwanted actions and find ways to react differently.

Furthermore, the Gibbs model is used in higher education, especially with internship assignments. The cycle can be used to make an intern aware of their actions, allowing them to reflect and develop the skills needed to behave appropriately and carry out assignments independently. Overall, any individual looking to make improvements can use the Gibbs reflective cycle to guide change.  

Other models of reflection

There are various other models of reflection in addition to the CARL and Gibbs frameworks. Other alternatives include:

  • Boud's triangular representation
  • Johns' Model of Structured Reflection
  • Atkins and Murphy model

Boud's triangular representation is perhaps the simplest model of reflection. The cyclical framework starts with the experience, moves on to the reflection and then onto learning. While it focuses on the essential belief that reflective thinking leads to further learning, it does not provide a guide to what the reflective process should consist of or how the learning can be translated back into the experience.

The Johns' model was developed by analyzing conversations between individuals and the supervisors that worked with them throughout their learning experience. It focuses on Barbara Carper's previously established Patterns of Knowing, which includes:

  • aesthetics, or the art of what is being done;
  • self-awareness;
  • ethics, or moral knowledge; and
  • empirics, or scientific knowledge.

The Johns' model adds reflexivity -- or the connection to past experiences -- to this list.

The Atkins and Murphy model is commonly used to guide a deeper level of reflection. It encourages users to consider assumptions that have been made during experiences. The Atkins and Murphy cycle involves:

  • awareness of the situation, action or experience;
  • describing the situation, including feelings, thoughts and features;
  • analyzing feelings and knowledge, including identifying and challenging assumptions that were made -- alternative courses of action should also be imagined and explored at this time;
  • evaluating the relevance of knowledge (For example, did the user's existing knowledge help them explain or resolve the problem? Or were they lacking knowledge that could have improved the experience?); and
  • identifying what has been learned from this reflection.

Since the Atkins and Murphy model lends itself to deeper reflection, it is often not suitable for quick reflections.

This was last updated in March 2020

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