Is reflection a cornerstone of higher education or an optional extra?

Guest posts

Category: Teaching and research

7 July 2021

Firstly, what is the difference between reflection and reflexivity (or critical reflection)? The easiest way to explain is through images.

Reflective Heron image - Anglia Learning and Teaching blog post

In a straight reflection, we see an exact image, staring back as an exact copy, no matter which way we consider the image (mirroring). Reflexivity (or critical reflection) involves manipulation of that image, looking backwards in order to look forwards, providing a transcription of our thoughts.

Within the context of HE the straight reflection has limited value as it is descriptive in nature, providing only an illustration of the “what?”; however, it is an excellent starting point as, if we can recognise the “what”, then we can do something with it.

The move from reflection to reflexivity (or critical reflection) is the elusive element which turns reflection as an optional extra into reflection as a cornerstone for personal and professional development. It is the difference between showing a degree title and classification, and critically reflecting on why this is important to future aspirations; hence the importance of critical reflection to employability.

The idea of reflection is common in professional courses and is even mandatory in some with the aim being to improve the service that we provide to others within our professional role; indeed one definition of a profession is that it requires a distinct body of knowledge which is then applied. This application requires the bridging of the “theory-practice” gap, and critical reflection allows us to do this.

But what about the undergraduate course where there is no professional requirement or “end profession”; courses where knowledge can be widely applied and the student’s learning and development during the acquisition of this knowledge is as important to future careers as the knowledge itself?

This has been conceptualised within the WEF Top 10 skills, with new ones for 2025 including analytical thinking and innovation, active learning strategies, resilience and flexibility, and emotional intelligence. The process of degree level learning is as important as the outcome. This is being operationalised at ARU through the introduction of the active curriculum.

The notion of placing the student (rather than the knowledge) at the centre of the activity provides an experiential learning opportunity as a catalyst for reflective learning. In order to move forwards from a description mirroring this activity, students will need support to develop analytical reflexive skills. This involves an element of psychological and emotional risk as there is always the question “but what if it’s not right?”.

This question is also a challenge for staff where marking criteria based on demonstrable learning outcomes may limit opportunities for non-evidence-based, uniquely creative ideas. Indeed, as industry laments the decline in innovation attributed to the results driven UK education system, the CBI has produced recommendations for post-16 education to better meet the needs of the workplace, including the role of HE.

Mona Lisa - Anglia Learning and Teaching blog post

Back to the question of critical reflection. Again, I find images helpful here and a well-known conundrum - the Mona Lisa smile. Why do different people perceive different meanings behind the smile? The artefact (read “experience mirrored by description”) is the same; however, my viewpoint (critical reflection) is different to your viewpoint. Who is right and who is wrong? Nobody - we are just all different.

This helps to explain to students how academic risk taking is what we want them to do – to describe what they see but then to move on, to say why, to justify this, to give it context and to move forwards to the future and critically reflect on how this experience or observation of the experience has developed their thinking.

So, how to support this transition from reflection to reflexivity? The need for the student (and arguably the course materials / tutor) to articulate the link between the course learning and graduate skills has led to the development of the Graduate Capital Model (Tomlinson, 2017). This assists the student in structuring their articulation of how the knowledge, skills and attributes developed during their University experience can be transferred to the world of work.

Diagram showing the 6 ARCG Employability Capitals - Knowledge, Social Capital, Cultural Capital, Identity, Adaptability and The Whole Person

Above: The Anglia Ruskin Graduate Capitals: 1: Knowledge - knowledge, skills and future performance; 2: Social Capital - networks and social relations; 3: Cultural capital: employability and cultural synergy; 4: Identity: self-concept and personal narratives; 5: Adaptability: resilience and career adaptability; 6: The Whole Person: employability as an outcome of life wide learning.

At ARU we have adapted Tomlinson’s model into the Anglia Ruskin Graduate Capitals (ARGCs) by re-wording the capitals to articulate the concepts that they represent and adding a 6th capital, “The Whole Person”; the idea being that the whole is more than the sum of each individual part, and through reflection on each of the parts we begin to define ourselves. Whilst Tomlinson focused the capitals on progression to the workplace, we refocused this on individual being and becoming.

Throughout this discussion, the “optional extra” idea of critical reflection is fading into the background, with the idea of reflexivity as a cornerstone of higher education gaining greater prominence. The challenge for us now as academics is where to place that within the student experience. At ARU we provide an active curriculum with live briefs or workplace experience opportunities evident in many courses, our Student Union provides a host of extra-curricular developmental (and fun) opportunities, and professional services offer co-curricular learning essential for professional development.

However, to utilise these to the full, the student needs to make sense and make connections between their personal and professional development and identities, and their future aspirations. If they don’t know what questions to ask to develop these critical faculties for reflexivity, we can’t expect them to do this independently. Thus the idea of “reflection as an optional extra” disappears, leaving critical reflexivity as a cornerstone of HE.

If you're a member of staff at ARU and would like further discussion on developing students’ critical reflective skills within your module or course, please contact [email protected]


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