Teaching and Learning Forum 97 [ Contents ]

Forms of reflective teaching practice in higher education

Susan Hall
Teaching Learning Group
Curtin University of Technology

Reflective teaching practice has become a central theme, either explicitly or implicitly, in professional development for academic staff throughout Australian tertiary institutions (Boud, Keogh & Walker, 1986; Isaacs & Parker, 1996; Nightingale & Ryan, 1996; Ramsden, 1992; and Martin & Ramsden, 1994). The significance of this development can be found in looking back twenty years. In 1975 the term "reflective teaching practice" was not common parlance in tertiary institutions. At that time Stenhouse (1975, p. 143) referred to school teachers engaged in one form of reflective teaching practice, action research, as extended professionals. Now, 21 years later the term reflective practice is common parlance in tertiary institutions and it is no longer considered the exclusive activity of 'extended professionals'. Rather, it is now considered an essential competence for all professionals (Ramsden, 1992 & Senge, 1990 cited in Bell, 1996, p. 46). However, the expectation for lecturers to engage in reflective teaching practice has led to a growing confusion about the meaning of the term.

The notion of reflective practice has lost the sharpness of meaning since becoming popularised in the last ten years. It has become unclear what constitutes reflective practice. (Morrison, 1995, p.82)
Morrison, above, has stated that the unclear nature of the term reflective practice is related to it having become a popular term in education and in the professional development programs of many professions over the past decade (see also, Bright, 1995, p. 69 and Siksna, 1996). However, I wonder whether the term ever enjoyed a singular interpretation. Reflective practice is one of those "commonsense" or everyday terms which has been adopted by educationalists and professional developers who gave it a particular pedagogical meaning. This paper is about pedagogical reflective practice. A sharper understanding of pedagogical reflective practice can be gained by separating it form and comparing it with the everyday interpretations of the term. I now do this by providing an interpretation of both 'pedagogical' and 'everyday' reflective practice.

Pedagogical Reflective Practice

Pedagogical reflective practice, as used here, is essentially teaching practice in which the teacher undertakes deliberate and sustained reflection and action for the purpose of improvement. The term pedagogical serves two purposes here. It not only implies that the reflection is based in teaching, it also indicates that it takes place within a learning program. The learning program is a self-directed program towards the improvement of one's own teaching.

While we can find differences between the way in which an educationalist, Dewey, described reflective practice in the 1930s and the way in which a social theorist, Habermas, described it in the 1970s ( Morrision, ibid), their interpretations are both pedagogical ones. Habermas' notion is not specifically based in teaching but it is based in the notion of deliberate and systematic self-directed learning for the improvement of one's work practice. The notion of reflective practice proffered by Schon, (1983 & 1987) is also a pedagogical one. In the context of higher education much of the confusion about reflective practice is due to the pedagogical interpretation being interchanged with the everyday or non-pedagogical interpretations.

Apart from the substantial improvements to practice which result from pedagogical reflective practice, it has also been valued for its affective qualities. It has often been said by members of reflective practice groups that pedagogical reflective practice provides a sense of soul to their work - it brings it all together. The significance of this has been brought home to me recently when reading a quote from the Arlist email discussion list. One of the list members, Jeffery Olsen, said: Albert Camus' observation on work is still one of the best that I've read:

"Without work all life goes rotten. But when work is soulless, life stifles and dies".
In contrast to pedagogical reflective practice, everyday reflective practice, described below, does not involve such depth of engagement.

"Everyday" Reflective Practice

Everyday reflective practice is that kind of reflecting on practice that "just happens" and which is commonly referred to as "what we do anyway". Other people speak of everyday reflective practice as a solitary and tacit activity. One example of this is the notion of navel gazing (which has connotations of being a self-indulgent and time-wasting activity). Another example is worrying, which was articulated by a participant in a reflective practice workshop which I recently attended. She said, I am reflective, but I am not systematic. I don't actually write it down. I just worry! A third, and possibly more fruitful everyday interpretation of reflective practice is that of creative daydreaming. Another workshop participant described this as, ...when ideas pop up in the shower or at those times when I arrive home in my car and wonder how I got there. These forms of reflection are also possible components of, or contributors to, pedagogical reflective practice but they do not constitute pedagogical reflective practice in itself.

The remainder of this paper is an attempt to bring together some forms of reflective practice which are used for pedagogical purposes and to locate some of them within a framework which identifies levels of reflectiveness. I begin by identifying some forms reflective teaching practice.

Forms of Reflective Teaching Practice

The following list (which is by no means exhaustive) has been gleaned from the literature as well as from interviews and observations of current practice. The listed forms are:

Action learning
Action research
Course and unit reviews
"Clinical supervision"
Critical incident analysis
Engaging a critical friend
Drama /role play
Journal keeping
Mind mapping
Peer observation
Program reviews
Reflective teaching practice workshops/seminars
Self-accounting professionals
Teaching portfolios
Teaching/learning networks

Each of these is explained briefly below.

Action Learning

Action learning, derived from action research, is described by Mcgill and Beatty (1992, p.21) as follows:
Action learning is a continuous process of learning and reflection, supported by colleagues, with an intention of getting things done. Through action learning individuals learn from each other by working on real problems and reflecting on their own experiences. The process helps us to take an active stance towards life and helps to overcome the tendency to think, feel and be passive towards the pressures of life.
Action learning, like action research, is designed to produce improvement to practice and it is based on a cyclical and collaborative reflection-on action process. However, unlike action research, it does not set out to produce a theory of practice. Some examples of projects based on action learning are: SMART project at Edith Cowan University, W.A.(Roche, 1996); The Action Learning Project at the University of Queensland; the Research Start-up Goals Program centred at Swinbourne University Victoria (Stewart & Fantin,1996); the Action Learning Project emanating from the Hong Kong Polytechnic University (Kember et al, 1996); and the project on postgraduate supervision of non-English speaking background students at Curtin (Slaney, Crawford, Parkin & Taylor, 1997).

Action Research

Action research has been defined variously and there are many forms, arising from different epistemological bases. What the definitions have in common is that action research involves inquiring into one's own practice through a cyclical process which involves planning, acting, observing and reflecting (Kemmis & McTaggart, 1988) One description which is both relatively simple and aligned to the interpretation of reflection used in this paper is as follows:
In summary, I assume that action research is true to label: It pursues action and research outcomes. It is most effective when the end result emerges from the data . The conclusions drawn are data-based, preferably drawing the data from multiple sources. The conclusions emerge slowly over the course of the study. At each cycle the researchers challenge the emerging conclusions by vigorously pursuing disconfirming evidence. (Dick, B, 1993.)
The research outcomes referred to here are theories-of-practice, generated from what (Argyris & Schon 1975, p.7) have termed theories-in-use. Major action research projects in tertiary teaching have been undertaken in several universities and include: the CUTL action research projects at the University of South Australia (Smith, 1994); a collection of action research projects undertaken at Griffith University using the Critical, Research, Accountability, Self-Evaluation and Professionalism (CRASP) model (Zuber-Skerritt, 1992); The Cross-Cultural Curriculum Development Projects at Curtin University (Hall & Hall, in press); The Enhancing Supervision Through Action Research (EPSTAR) Project at Curtin University of Technology (Hall, Coates, Pearson, Ferroni and Trinidad, 1997).

Course and Unit Reviews

Course and unit reviews at the level of Schools/Faculties are often less formal than program reviews but offer a more focused opportunity for reflective teaching practice. An example of course reviews being conducted through action research can be found in the case studies at Griffith University (Zuber-Skerritt, 1992).

"Clinical Supervision"

Clinical supervision, when used to refer to reflective teaching practice, is the process wherein a supervisor observes a sub-ordinate at work and provides a feedback and discussion session with the person observed so as to review and enhance the existing practice. This process, used mainly to date by primary and secondary school teachers, has been highly developed with a particular set of rules and procedures (Smyth, 1991). In the context of tertiary education it is important to note that this activity is distinct from but related to the notion of clinical supervision as observing trainee professionals carry out the practical elements of their course.

Critical Incident Analysis

Critical incident analysis in teaching involves the documentation and analysis of a teaching incident in order to learn from it and enhance practice. This is a form of reflective practice which is often used within journal keeping (Tripp, 1987). However, it has also been successfully carried out through the use of video (Teaching and Learning Centre, Victoria University, Canada, 1995).

Engaging a "Critical Friend"

A critical friend (Stenhouse, 1975) is a trusted listener and sounding board enlisted to act as an interested outsider in a review and development project. The term emanates from the literature in action research and is increasingly used in other forms of reflective practice. It is also part of the role played by action research and action learning facilitators (Hall, 1984 and Kember, Tak-shing Ha, Bick-har Lam, April Lee, Sandra Ng, Louisa Yan & Jessie C.K. Yum, 1996)

Drama/role play

Drama and role play is often used in a similar way as storytelling and for a similar purpose. An example of this was provided at the national conference on postgraduate research supervision at Adelaide, 1996. Here a group of drama student acted out crucial issues relating to the research provision process. A feature of the technique was that the acts of the play were spread out over the days of the conference so as to allow the participants to build on their reflections in their discussions throughout the conference.

Journal Keeping

Journal keeping involves making reflections explicit through writing and thereby making them available to inform action. A journal can also include collecting artefacts such as pasted articles and drawings. The recent trend of requiring students to use journals (Ballantyne and Packer, 1995) means that journals are being used for teaching tools as well as for reflection on teaching.

Journals are used both as an occasional tool for reflection and on a regular basis. Those used on a regular bases sometimes serve as one of the methods for data collection within review and development projects and programs (eg. Bell, 1996 and McDrury, 1996).


Mentoring is another term which has been given various interpretations ranging from being a trusted companion and critic for a colleague' to acting as a wiser and more experienced adviser to a less experienced mentee. The former can be witnessed in peer mentoring programs such as the joint mentoring program conducted at Curtin and Murdoch Universities in 1996 and the latter can be found in the precursor to this, the Mentoring Junior Academic Women project, in 1995. (While the focus of these projects was career development, this encompassed the management of teaching)

Mind mapping

Mind mapping (Buzan, T., 1983 in Hogan, C., 1994) is a process by which the connected ideas surrounding a particular concept or problem are drawn in a map fashion so as to enable the practitioner to reflect on them and to clarify and/or reshape them and move onwards. This has been used as a device for helping students and lecturers reflect on their learning and teaching, respectively.

Peer Observation

Peer observation occurs when colleagues undertake to observe each other teach and follow up with constructive discussion about what was observed.

Program Reviews

Program reviews are designed variously across tertiary institutions in Australia. Where they are set up and co-ordinated as collegial review and development projects they become a form of reflective practice in teaching and in other aspects of academic work.

Reflective Practitioner Units in Courses in Tertiary Teaching

Several Australian Universities run such units. Some of them are run by the Education School/Faculty within the university and others are run by the central academic staff development units. Other courses also incorporate a reflective practice approach. some examples of the latter are: the University of New South Wales' Postgraduate Program in Higher Education, The Preparation, Presentation, Interaction and Reflection (PPIR) approach to scholarly practice used within the Australian National Universities' University Teaching and Learning Course (Pettigrove, 1996); The Foundations of Teaching and Learning course at the University of Western Australia; and the Graduate Diploma in Tertiary and Adult Education at Murdoch University. Variations on this structure occur and one such example exists at Curtin University of Technology where units on reflective teaching practice are offered by both the Faculty of Education and the central academic staff development section within the Teaching Learning Group (TLG). Staff who choose to do the unit with the TLG are given credit in either the Postgraduate Certificate of Tertiary Teaching or in the Postgraduate Diploma in Education (tertiary) within the Faculty of Education.

A preliminary scan of units on reflective teaching practice within courses on tertiary teaching displays a diverse collection of innovative approaches to their design. However, they all contain an inherent connection between reflection and action on a range of relevant aspects of teaching.

Reflective Teaching Practice Workshops/ Seminars

The demand for such sessions is indicative of the growing desire by tertiary educators to understand the term reflective practice. Two recent examples are the Reflective Teaching Practice for Staff Developers workshop by Mar Siksna (University of Queensland) held at the Univeristy of New England, 1996 and the Reflective Teaching workshop for academic staff by Anne Jasman at Murdoch University, 1996.

"Self-Accounting" Professionals

The concept of the self-accounting professional was coined by Elliot (1983, pp. 239-240) who drew on the Aristotelian notion of accountability. When applied to teaching, this notion of accountability means that teachers in deliberating about their practice, provide their stakeholders with the opportunity for dialogue about their decisions.


Storytelling is used as both a verbal and a written form of reflective teaching practice. For example, McDrury (1996) has used it in the verbal form as a way of bringing lecturers to focus on their teaching in collaborative sessions and case study reports employ the technique to provide a way for the audience to reflect vicariously.

Teaching Portfolios

Teaching portfolios are a collection of evidence of development in teaching expertise. They can contain an unlimited variety of materials including lists of courses taught, teaching innovations, personal teaching philosophy, evidence of successes, evidence of engaging in professional development in teaching. While teaching portfolios are most commonly initiated for the purpose of accountability (as required in job applications and submissions for promotion) the process of compiling one can also function as a reflective teaching process.

Teaching/learning networks and interest groups

Teaching/learning networks have been set up in several cites as a way of connecting reflective teaching projects. Some examples of these are the Teaching Reflection and Collaboration (TRAC) network connecting the TRAC projects within the Queensland University of Technology: the Action Learning Program, a network of eight to ten action learning projects within the University of Queensland; and, The Action Learning Project, a cohort of 50 projects within the seven universities in Hong Kong.

All of the above methods are used as methods for reflective teaching practice and they can fit anywhere within the three levels of reflective teaching practice below. It is not so much the method as the framework or intention with which is carried out that determines the level of reflectiveness which takes place.

Levels of Reflectiveness

The notion of levels of reflectiveness occurred to me when I was preparing the first of twelve consecutive forums titled Reflective Teaching Practice in Higher Education for academic staff at Curtin in 1996. People had been asking what is reflective teaching practice, is it just thinking about what your doing or is it some specific activity? In light of the lengthy, yet inexhaustive, list above it will not be surprising that I aimed to present the concept as a range of activities. But it did seem that the questions being asked could be addressed by considering the notion of levels of reflective practice.

These levels are derived from some of my earlier work (Hall, 1994) in which I illustrated with substantive grounded theory (Strauss & Corbin, 1990) the central role which explication has in the reflective component of pedagogical reflective practice. This theory, however, is only applicable to explication (of the knowledge which underpins ones' practice) which occurs within the framework of some form of deliberate and sustained review and development project or program. That is to say, it is only when one continues to make the knowledge which drives practice explicit over a sustained period of time that this knowledge can be reflected on and tested in action. In facilitating reflective teaching programs I have observed that, with the exception of rare "bolts of lightening" which come as quantum leaps forward, random or fleeting reflections usually only result in small, surface level changes. Specifying the use of this theory added further dimensions to my thinking about levels of reflectiveness. I propose the following three broad levels as a starting point.

Level One: Everyday reflection- fleeting

Everyday or random reflection, as described earlier, occurs in its own space and time - often, but not always, when one is alone. While this form of reflection may go no deeper than thinking, remembering or talking about things with one or more others (Bell, 199, p.49) it can also play a part in the more deliberate levels of reflection which amount to reflective practice. The more deliberate levels of reflection described below can provide a means of tapping and using everyday reflection in a deliberate way.

Level Two: Deliberate reflection - committed

Deliberate reflectiveness, as I use the term, involves one in reviewing and developing one's practice in any of a number of deliberate ways which can be solitary or collaborative. This can mean writing in a journal, talking with a critical friend or mentor, attending a series of seminars or a 'distributed conference', attending network or special interest group meetings, participating in focus group discussions and, taking part in dramatic events including role plays, telling or writing stories and songs. Reflection within this level is reflection on or about action and it may or may not directly contribute to development in practice.

Level Three: Deliberate and systematic reflection - programmatic

Deliberate and systematic reflection, as I use the term, takes place within deliberate and sustained review and development programs where reflection takes place through action as well as on and about action. These programs usually take the form of projects and because they require a considerable input of time and careful designing they often attract funding to support those needs. Examples of deliberate and systematic reflection can be found in action research project groups [1], action learning project groups, discipline specific program reviews conducted within universities, formative evaluations of programs, mentoring projects and collegial writing groups.


The literature, and perhaps a common opinion amongst those who facilitate professional development for tertiary educators, would imply that, of the three levels of reflective practice identified above, the third, programmatic or deep, level engenders the most substantial improvement to practice. Notwithstanding this, I want to stress the value of all three levels of reflective teaching practice. Whichever level one chooses to be engaged in will be determined, to some extent, by purpose. Certainly, in my work practice as a facilitator of professional development for tertiary teachers it is common to observe the same person engaged in one or more levels of reflective teaching practice simultaneously. I conclude by saying that while the forms of reflective teaching practice which have been identified here have been categorised into levels of reflectiveness, it is not intended that any one form or method (with the exception of action research) belongs exclusively or constantly in any one level.


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  1. Various types of action research projects involve varying levels of reflection. Grundy in Kemmis & McTaggart, 1988 (pp. 353-364) describes these types as technical, practical and emancipatory action research, each involving increased levels of reflection. Carr & Kemmis (1983, pp. 38-43) proffer a similar concept in which they reconstruct the three types of action research as technical, practical and strategic views.

Please cite as: Hall, S. (1997). Forms of reflective teaching practice in higher education. In Pospisil, R. and Willcoxson, L. (Eds), Learning Through Teaching, p124-131. Proceedings of the 6th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, Murdoch University, February 1997. Perth: Murdoch University. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf1997/hall1.html

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