Can Critical Reflection be Taught?

Author: Dr. Cheryl Jeffs, PhD
October 2015 


Russell (2005), asks, and answers the question “can reflective practice be taught?” He states “yes” it can, and that it should be included in teaching development. Mann, Gordon and MacLeod (2009) provide a comprehensive review of reflective practice, and support Russell’s claim to teach reflective practice and suggest: “As with other skills, learners may need a structure to guide this activity, especially early in their learning” (p. 614).

In my practice of educational development, I contribute to the preparation of graduate students in their current teaching responsibilities, and for their future roles in and beyond the academy. Since reflective practice has been shown to be an effective strategy for teaching development, (Gallego, 2014; Henry & Bruland, 2010) especially if it is intentional, and explicit, a workshop was included in our graduate student teaching development program.

Becoming a reflective practitioner

Recently, I facilitated a workshop for graduate students on the topic of becoming a reflective practitioner. I began the session with a discussion on the image of a ‘fish out of water’ with reflections from the fish bowls (Figure 1, royalty-free license, Colourbox). The purpose of showing this image was to encourage thinking about what reflective practice means. The discussion revealed ‘a fish out of water’ was an uncomfortable feeling when inexperience is combined with change, or when we are facing a new, or even threatening situation. We agreed this was a common experience, and rang true for the participants, myself included. We also tried to interpret the dual reflection images and there was no real consensus what it meant, and that it required further reflection. It is a good image to keep in mind when taking risks, that reflective practice strategies can contribute to our understanding, and development as teachers and practitioners.

We then considered a definition of reflective practice as: “one’s ability to identify a problem or issue, reflect or think about it, and make a decision about a solution is a key ingredient to becoming an excellent teacher” (Reynolds, Labissiere & Haack, 2004, p. 37). In other words, thinking, feeling, reflecting, and acting on an experience (what worked? what didn’t work? why am I feeling this way? what could I have done differently?) are all components of reflective practice.

The heart of the workshop explored the topic of reflective practice through Brookfield’s (1995) lenses: self, peers, students, and scholarship. Brookfield identifies these four inter-connected components as necessary for our work on becoming a reflective practitioner.

We start with our self – what are our beliefs and assumptions as a teacher, what did we notice, feel, or want to understand more about our practice, what are we curious about? Our peers and colleagues are important resources for feedback, ideas, and sharing experiences about teaching and learning ─ it is up to us to initiate this process. Students can provide us with immediate and direct feedback about our teaching, and it doesn’t need to be a complicated effort. A simple and quick feedback form or process can be incorporated in any class. And finally, consulting scholarship can provide a wealth of information from all disciplines that can enlighten, and help us understand the practice of teaching. Figure 2, is a simple model of reflective practice, with guiding questions. This model incorporates self-reflection, feedback from peers and students, and the element of scholarship that provides evidence, and informs our practice. The main intent of reflective practice is self-awareness, action, change, development and to improve our teaching practice.

Critical reflection graphic

Figure 2: A question-based reflective practice model that incorporates Brookfield's four lenses for reflection: self, peers, students, and scholarship. Adapted from Brookfield (1995), and Dawson (2021).

 A significant component of reflective practice is feedback

This is a skill that like reflective practice, can be taught, and developed. We explored the ‘giving and receiving effective feedback’ model described by Piccinin (2012), and I soon realized this topic could be an entire workshop in itself. We discussed the key elements that Piccinin identified as effective feedback: formative; developmental; encouraging; thoughtful; calm; invited, sought out; and a learning experience for all parties. Another important element to consider is how to receive feedback. Receiving feedback is also skill, just like giving effective feedback. Piccinin’s guidelines are well worth the time to read, explore, teach and practice.

Without feedback, reflective practice is what Dawson (2012) refers to as an “unscholarly echo-chamber – it’s dialogue with me, about me, but no outreach”. Noticing our feelings about an experience, and thinking about it are just the beginning of reflective practice, and the developmental component is enhanced from feedback.

One of the workshop activities included the students’ brainstorming strategies to identify how they could incorporate reflective practice into their work as teaching assistants. They identified strategies such as:

  • keeping a teaching journal
  • focus on self-improvement
  • making it safe for giving feedback
  • letting students know they will be expected to give feedback
  • seek feedback from peers
  • start a peer learning group
  • be mindful about confidentiality
  • be respectful and professional
  • don’t beat yourself up if you get negative feedback
  • take workshops
  • join or start a teaching squares program for peer feedback
  • find a mentor
  • have a quick conversation over coffee (it doesn’t need to be formal).

This list of strategies (and more) are all recognized as effective ways to incorporate reflective practice. Following this activity, I encouraged the participants to explore on their own, the lens of ‘scholarship’ on teaching and learning.

At the end of the workshop, one participant commented, “Take a minute to just think." It was a good reminder that reflective practice starts with thinking: thinking about a feeling, thinking about an experience, and becoming curious about what happened. More importantly, learning the skills, and strategies of reflective practice are an important component of graduate student teaching development.

What did I learn from this workshop? That reflective practice is a simple, yet complex topic, and there are multiple models, definitions and approaches to consider. A workshop is a good introduction to the topic, however, it is just the beginning, and like any skill it requires practice.

Perhaps the biggest insight I experienced when I was preparing the workshop was the notion that ‘receiving feedback’ is essential to our development and continued improvement. We also need to learn the skills of giving and receiving effective feedback. After the workshop, I reviewed the feedback from the participants, and based on their comments, I will keep most of the content, and revise some of the activities. Sometimes it is tough to receive feedback about our teaching, however, I believe what Brookfield says: “Critical reflection is a hopeful activity. It is done in a spirit full of hope for the future” (p. xiii). Taking a hopeful perspective to prepare graduate students for the future, and furthering my own development, is an affirming position.

Related content

Promoting Reflection and Resilience Through Course Design 

Read more »

Learning Module: Critical Reflection

Learn more »


Brookfield, S. Becoming a critically reflective teacher. 1995. San Francisco CA: Wiley and Sons.

Dawson, P. (2012). A lesson on Reflective Practice. [Video file]. Retrieved from

Gallego, M. (2014). Professional development of graduate teaching assistants in faculty-like positions: Fostering reflective practices through reflective teaching journals. Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning 14(2), 96-110.

Henry, J. & Bruland, H. (2010). Educating reflexive practitioners: Casting Graduate teaching assistants as mentors in first-year classrooms. International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, 22(3), 308-319.

Mann, K., Gordon, J., MacLeod, A. (2009). Reflection and reflective practice in health professions education: a systematic review. Advances in Health Science Education, 14, 595-621.

Piccinin, S. (2012). Feedback: Key to learning, Green Guide No 4. London: ON. Society for Teaching and Learning in Higher Education.

Reynolds, C., Labissiere, Y., & Haack, P. (2004). Developing reflective practice in teaching assistants through electronic portfolios. Journal of Faculty Development, 20, 37-44.

Russell, T. (2005). Can reflective practice be taught? Reflective Practice: International and Multidisciplinary Perspectives, 6(2), 199-204.