The ability to reflect on experiences is a valuable skill, which allows you to gain insight into your personal, professional and academic development throughout the course of your career but the term “reflective practice” or “self reflection” can sometimes seem a bit vague or off-putting. So, what is it?
Simply put, reflective practice is taking the time to think critically about your experiences, actions and feelings, and applying your understanding of them in order to inform your actions in the future.
We all think about (reflect upon) situations that have occurred or experiences we have had: what went well? What didn’t? Why? Often, we don’t do this consciously; our thoughts and feelings about something gradually emerge and we may or may not choose to act (or react) differently in future similar situations.
Recent research from Harvard Business School suggests that taking the time to reflect effectively on our work improves job performance in the long run. But when you’re up to your eyes in writing, teaching, marking and, ohwhat’sthatotherthing, right, research, it can be a real challenge to make the time to reflect at all, let alone effectively. But as we approach the Christmas break and the end of the year, reflecting back on your experiences in 2015 can be an important element of of getting geared up for a new year, and of finding your way out of the sluggish brain-fog of too many festive films.
For some, the final few days before the Christmas break may be a slightly quieter time, and may give you the opportunity to take stock of the year; alternatively, you may be rushing to get everything finished before the holiday, in which case, you might feel more able to reflect away from your lab/office/library.
Unstructured reflection is useful – it is how we make sense of the world and our experiences – but there are also more structured, conscious ways of reflecting, which can help us to understand more about ourselves, our strengths, weakness and behaviours. One of the most recognised models is Gibbs’ Reflective Cycle (shown below) but you might also look at others such as Atkins and Murphy’s cycle of reflection.
In some respects, reflecting on your year is like a self-led performance review (but without anguishing over a form). Consider any pieces of work or experiences that you’ve found particularly satisfying and/or challenging over the year; think about things that have gone well and the things that have gone not so well.
You can think about this as broadly as you like; either keeping it strictly about your work and research or opening it out to other aspects of your life – nobody will see your reflections, so it’s up to you.
Ask yourself the following questions about the areas you are thinking about, and answer them as honestly and objectively as you can:
- What happened?
- What were you thinking and feeling?
- What was good and bad about the experience?
- Reconsider what went well/not so well; why do you think that was and what did it lead to?
- What else could you have done?
- If you face a similar situation again, what would you do differently?
This can be a big ask for a whole year (particularly if you’re drowning in complicated sprouts:guests calculations), but it can be an enlightening exercise and can really help you to develop a personal action plan for the year ahead.
If this feels too daunting, one simple route into reflective practice is through the professional development activities that you undertake during your PhD or postdoctoral research.
After you undertake any formal skills training or participate in any other professional development activity, take some time to consider and record the experience, concentrating on these areas:
- describe the experience/situation
- your initial reactions to it
- what you did
- what you learned from the experience/situation
- what you will do differently as a result.
How you choose to record your reflection is personal, but the act of recording it is an important part of the process. Reflection logs are most effective when viewed over time, enabling you to see your progress, to spot any patterns of behaviour or thinking and to identify areas in which you would like to further develop your skills.
The tools you use to record and and reflect upon your experiences should be the ones that work for you and your research; they are much less important than the actual process of self-reflection and thinking critically about your development.
So if you’re hankering after your very own Jedi Journal, drop a few Christmas-shaped hints to your nearest and dearest.
How did Darth Vader know what Luke got him for Christmas?
He felt his presents. You’re welcome.