Posts Tagged ‘theory’

Reading notes on ‘Reflection in higher education learning’

October 29, 2009 7 comments

In his paper, Moon (2001) draws a picture of the conception of reflection in higher education as a tool to a better learning. The main points are also summarised in another article written four years later (Moon, 2005).

Moon begins by searching for a definition of the concept of reflection, suggesting that it is a form of mental processing to achieve some anticipated outcomes, and is applied to relatively complicated or unstructured ideas for which there is no obvious solution. Moon believes that emotions are also part of the process of reflection and may influence the way it is carried on. For Moon the process of reflection can occur only on something when you already have some knowledge about it, therefore reflection from scratch has no sense. I find this point interesting regarding what I notice in my course or in the courses I mentor as referee, when students are asked to think and reflect about a case study at the early beginning of learning about a subject where they have only a few ideas about it. What can we really expect from such a demand?

The article then explores different authors’ approaches to reflection, encompassing Jurgen Habemas, David Kolb, Donald Shon. From this quick browsing I was struck by the description of Kolb’s cycle which was visualised as a spiral later by Cowan (1998)


Adapted from Kolb (1984) and Cowan (1998)

The important point I keep from this schematic vision is the principle of ‘cognitive housekeeping’ given to the reflection process explained by Moon which permits integration of old and new raw cognitive material into a new form of knowledge. We can then consider actual knowledge as a big jigsaw puzzle image where each piece has its importance but reveals a higher level of understanding by putting it all together in an way that makes sense.

From his summary of Habermas (1971) I note the three kinds of knowledge he described:

  1. instrumental knowledge – how we understand and control our human environment;
  2. knowledge as the interpretation of human action and behaviour – to better understand the society in which we are living and behaving;
  3. knowledge as a way of acting on the two first forms of knowledge (reflexive knowledge?) – which transforms personal, social and other situations and gives the bases ‘on which we make judgements’.

The most interesting point about Schon (1983) is the separation of reflection into a dichotomy, reflection-on-action and reflection-in-action. If I can clearly see how we can reflect on and what we have done as a process ex-post, I agree with Moon that reflecting during the action helped my thought process.

Mo0n concludes this theoretical presentation claiming that none of the previous authors study the importance of emotion in the the reflection action and he raises the question of whether emotional content is always present in reflection and if so, how it influences its result. He concludes that this important point for him is not answered in the literature so far.

For Moon, we can only see the result of learning but it is difficult to perceive the process. Nevertheless, Moon suggests that learning passes through different stages: Noticing and Making sense which belong to a surface learning approach (Marton (1997)) and Making meaning, Working with meaning and finally Transformative learning which all belong to the deep approach of learning.

Moon and assessment of students reflective work

I agree with Moon that ‘assessment tends to drive student learning’ and that we can force them to follow a deep approach of learning if they see in this a way of succeeding in the learning task. For this to be true, we, practitioners, must believe in the method we use and show the way to students instead of asking them to adhere to our proposition of methodology. For reflection as a learning tool, practitioners must believe in its potential outcomes to foster such behaviour. Moon suggests that positive outcomes of reflexive work are apparent during the period of revision before examination.

As long as reflection is an ‘encouragement for learners to follow their own thinking, to work without a curriculum’, Moon is not in favour of a formal assessment of this material. But on the other hand, he claims as I already pointed out in a previous post, with Crème that whenever we see value in students’ work it has to be assessed.

Moons then suggests that assessment must follow very clear, and maybe new, criteria enabling fair marking. He also suggest that such artefacts could be marked as ‘adequate and passed’ or ‘not yet adequate and not yet passed’, privileging qualitative rather than quantitative marking. I note that Moon’s marking suggestion gives students a chance to improve even after a final marking. I personally agree with this approach which fosters lifelong learning and the fact that learning from a course continues long after the course’s end.

Positive outcomes of reflection in learning

  • Reflection slows down activities
  • Reflection enables learners to develop greater ‘ownership’ of the material of learning and enhances the student’s ‘voice’
  • Foster ‘metacognition’
  • Challenging learners with ill-structured material of learning improves students’ cognitive ability

Comparing these claims with H808, I agree that reflection slows down the process of learning, fostering a deeper approach and a time left to analyse and incorporate new information to create a bigger picture. This is maybe why the course syllabus is short in H808 but the tasks themselves take a long time to be processed by students. I personally already complained in another post about my feeling of a lack of structure in this course, but in the light of Moon’s claims, this is maybe not a lack but a pedagogical way to push students to find their own way toward professionalism and improvement of our  cognitive ability.

Reflexive tools

Comparing Moon’s suggestions of tools to reflect on, most are offered for engagement during H808: learning journal, portfolio, reflection on work experience, reflective exercises. The following proposed tools are, not yet, part of H808: reflection on work-based training, reflection on placement learning, peer and self assessment.

Issues relating to the introduction of reflective activity

Moon points out different issues as follows:

  • students’ ability to reflect is sometimes weak – ‘not all students find reflection easy’;
  • some staff will not understand reflection either
  • cultural issues – ‘some languages do not have a word for reflection’
  • disciplinary issue – ‘the discourse of some subjects are, by nature, more likely to require reflective activity’


Cowan, J. (1998) ‘On Becoming an Innovative University Teacher’, SRHE / OUP, Buckingham.

Habermas, J. (1971) ‘Knowledge and Human Interests’, Heineman, London.

Kolb, D. (1994) ‘Experiential Learning as the Science of Learning and Development’, Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ.

Marton, F., Hounsell, D., Entwistel (1997) ‘The Experience of Learning’, SCottish Academic Press, Edinburgh.

Moon, J. (2001) ‘PDP working paper 4: reflection in higher education learning’ (online), The Higher Education Academy. Available from: (accessed 29 June 2007).

Moon, J. (2005) ‘Guide for busy academics no. 4: learning through reflection’ (online), The Higher Education Academy. Available from: (accessed 2 July 2008).

Schon, D. (1983) ‘The Reflexive Practitioner’, Jossey-Bass, San-Francisco.