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Reflective Practice

Kolb's reflective cycle (1984)
Kolb's reflective cycle (1984).

Reflective practice is ‘defined as the process involved in making sense of events, situations, or actions that occur in practice settings; reflection, in this sense, emphasises a thoughtful approach to understanding experience, whether in real time or retrospectively’ (Boros, 2009, cited in Oelofsen, 2012). Reflective practice is much encouraged across disciplines and industries. In higher education, as Moon (2004) suggests, ‘[w]e reflect in order to learn something, or we learn as a result of reflecting’. At UCA, reflective practice is higher valued and often assessed during your study.

You may find Kolb’s Reflective Cycle (1984) a helpful and familiar tool in engaging in reflective practice through your work. You can find more information on how to reflect in the next sections.

The reflective cycle begins with looking back. Applying Kolb’s reflective cycle (1984) to an example of practice, we start with the ‘experience’. This is the example of practice or experience we wish to reflect on. It could be a piece of work, an experiment, a day on work placement, a crit, group work or tutorial, a written draft or submission, or some feedback. In a piece of writing this might section might be an introduction, for example.

We then move to the next step which looks at the ‘reflective observation’ where we review or reflect on the event/observation. This is where you may wish to ask questions to help you reflect on the event, such as;

  • What did I do? What happened?
  • What were my reactions?
  • What did I think or feel about what I was doing? Why?
  • What was interesting about what I did / made? Why?
  • What went well?
  • And what didn’t go so well? Why?

Moving around the reflective cycle, we then begin looking forward. Embarking on the next stage ‘abstract conceptualisation’ we conclude the learning from the experience. Through our previous reflections we can see how we might adapt our practice, acknowledge what didn’t work and change the way we work to move forward.

Finally we reach the ‘active experimentation’ stage where we begin to try out what has been learnt, based on reflecting on previous knowledge. This is also where we begin to explain and critique what happened, what are we trying to resolve here and how would we move forwards. In a piece of writing this might section might be a conclusion, for example.

You may wish to answer questions such as what would I do differently in future? How could I develop my work from here? How can I apply what I have learned, which should conclude your reflective writing task?

Simply put, the reflective writing process is;

  • What? (what is the experience you wish to reflect on)
  • So what? (what is it about this experience that you are choosing to pinpoint)
  • What now? (how have you learnt from your observations and how will this improve your practice moving forward)

Reflective writing underpins reflective practice. When studying at university, you may be asked to write in a variety of ways that show you can reflect on your practice. This might be through journals, annotating sketchbooks, work placement reports, and many more approaches. It is important to understand the reasons that you are asked to reflect. This guide will support this understanding. Reflective writing can be structured or unstructured. The process of reflection normally contains mind mapping, notes on collaboration, conversations, crits and tutorials, among other things, but can be presented in different ways.

A more structured journal could contain all of the above, but also more specifically this list below. This is not fixed. However, it could include -

  • Any annotated research material
  • Personal responses to your own work
  • Notes from tutorials
  • Selected extracts from lecture notes
  • Notes from gallery visits
  • Extracts from relevant critical texts
  • Annotated photocopies and downloads
  • Your own thoughts
  • Photographs/video
  • A daily entry of tasks
  • CV development
  • Work placement report
  • Video/photographic/digital record
  • Blog

Something less structured could also contain mind mapping, notes on collaboration, conversations, crits and tutorials, and be any of the following;

  • A sketchbook. You may be asked to produce annotations through your sketchbooks. Reflective writing is a really good way to show progression of ideas.
  • Narrative writing. As well as your visual work, you could document your processes through a narrative writing processes that are connected to your practice. For example, you could write about a work placement experience and to support these reflections write a letter from your past self to your present or future self, highlighting your work, an exhibition, a comparison of brands or artists work, for example. Embarking on writing in this way can broaden your experiences of different styles of writing, further expanding on knowledge of some of the variety of ways you may be required to write as an industry professional.
  • A dialogue. Look at examples of artists' journals e.g.: The diary of Frida Kahlo (book available in UCA library), or Pat Francis’ example of the dialogic journal created by John Berger and John Christie: 'I send you this Cadmium red’ in which two practitioners exchange ideas through a series of letters to one another (Francis, P. 2009:43).

All of these more creative processes are there as a way into reflective practice, rather than a check list of answering a bank of the same questions.

When writing, you do not have to write formally you could -

  • use notes
  • use slang
  • write in the 1st person
  • use mind maps or spider diagrams
  • write poetry
  • lists
  • questions
  • annotate images
  • Methodology
  • Leave blank pages or spaces so that you can go back to reflect review and revise; this enables you to track your progress.

Use your reflective writing to identify anything you could incorporate into your own work (techniques, materials, approaches, theory etc) and contextualise the work of others and your own work.

Get into the habit of regularly documenting -

  • your evaluation of the previous project
  • your initial ideas in response to the brief
  • your thoughts and feelings about your studio practice
  • feedback from crits and tutors
  • creative links

You might choose to -

  • Make an entry every day or once a week
  • Record and evaluate every piece of research you do.
  • Record the progress of an experiment in the studio.
  • Jot down ideas that you cannot pursue immediately for future reference
  • Record the responses you make to any research material you use
  • Stepping Back
  • Be objective and try to form judgements about your responses.

Consider feedback from previous assessments:

  • What have you learnt?
  • How can you apply this?
  • Are there other ways you could have responded to the project?
  • Are there other ways you could have made use of your research?
  • Are you receptive to change?
  • Are you making assumptions?
  • Analyse your approach to your project
  • Revisit previous entries e.g. read the previous few pages
  • Ask questions e.g. "How does this new idea/approach relate to what I already know?"
  • Identify gaps in your knowledge (hints and clues from your previous research will help you with this)
  • Extend your horizons

Through reflective journals, you will often be asked to map your learning over a period of time. This, for example, can be a different approach to an essay brief. It is a continued and sustained area to reflect, much like a diary. Through a journal, you can also include reflections on advice from tutors and peers.

  • Generate initial ideas
  • Track your thinking
  • Identify where your inspiration comes from
  • Show how you are going to make use of the information
  • Develop your concepts
  • Explore potential outcomes
  • Evaluate how successful they are
  • Indicate what you could take forward to inform your future practice
  • The purpose of a reflective journal is to log your processes, developing analytical skills which show how you have developed your practice, through learning from old experiences, developing new connections.

Your research journal will help you to -

  • Learn from your experiences
  • Improve your thinking skills
  • Develop problem solving skills
  • Apply theory to practice
  • Generate ideas/enhance creativity
  • Develop your own 'voice'
  • Improve communication skills
  • Explore and experiment with ideas
  • Move your project on
  • Make creative links to develop your own line of reasoning
  • Support your response to the brief
  • Make your processes visible and track your thinking through each unit
  • Talk about your work
  • You might return to it and make use of it in later projects

Reflection could be a crucial element of many assignments. For example, when you write an essay, a report or a dissertation, you may provide a reflection on your professional experience as evidence to support your argument and discussion. Reflection, at the same time, can be a stand-alone form of assessment, for example, a reflective essay, a placement report, a reflective blog or a reflective video. Your reflective piece could be part of the formative or summative assessment. Your tutor will provide a clear instruction about how you should produce your reflection and submit it for assessment.