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Promoting reflective practice in higher education: A dilemma

Kantha Kumar Ramasamy
Curtin University of Technology, Sarawak Campus, Malaysia

The purpose of higher education is not to make of students mere empty vessels to be filled but, as argued by Harvey and Knight(1996), to encourage the conditions of learning that is transformative for the learner. Transformative learning, as opposed to transmission learning, requires of students not only to deconstruct meanings and the taken for granted attitudes and myths and ways of seeing things, but also to reconstruct by way of reconceptualisation and rebuilding. The link between 'transformative learning' and Reflective learning is a crucial one. Brown and McCartney (1999) cite Boud et al who define reflection in the context of learning as

a generic term for those intellectual and affective activities in which individuals engage to explore their experiences in order to lead to new understandings and appreciations. It may take place in isolation or in association with others. (p.22)
Reflective practice, according to Schon (1987) is a means of enhancing learners' critical and reflective abilities. Kolb (1984) in his model of the experiential learning cycle regards the process of reflecting upon experience as a crucial stage. Experience without reflection does not lead to learning. According Boud et al (1997) "just having an experience does not necessarily mean that learning has occurred. The important factor which can turn raw experience into learning is the process of reflection"(p.129). This resonates with the scriptural truth that "one hour of reflection is preferable to seventy years of pious worship" and that "the source of crafts, sciences and arts is the power of reflection'(Baha'u'llah, 1973 and 1974). Brown and McCartney (1999) point out that reflection on both the content and the process of learning help learners 'move towards and stay within' a deep approach to learning.

Engaging in reflection requires a dialogue. It could be a dialogue with one self - as in contemplation , meditation and self reflection, or in the context of class room it is a relationship between the teacher and students. Brockbank and McGill (1998)succinctly describe this dialogue as one that

engages the person at the edge of their knowledge, their sense of self and the world as experienced by them. Thus their assumptions about knowledge, themselves and their world is challenged..... learning become reflectively critical when the emergent ideas are related to existing senses of knowledge, self and the world and a new understanding emerges. (p.57)
Therefore reflective practice and reflective learning in higher education are to be seen as processes integral to and indispensable for universities to fulfil their purpose of providing learning that is transformative for learners.

My reflections on my experience with reflective practice

Presently I teach pre-university classes, English Communication and Academic Writing at Curtin, Sarawak. However my experience with reflective practice began much earlier in the early 1990s when I was a teacher educator in West Malaysia. At that time there was an initiative by the Teacher Education Division of the Ministry of Education to develop pre-service teachers as reflective practitioners. Several strategies were adopted to engage student trainees in reflective learning in college and in reflective practice during their practicum. In college the trainees were required to keep a journal to record their reflections on what transpired during class. Another strategy required trainees to develop portfolios of their coursework with written reflections about the process of learning they experienced and their feelings related to the completion of a task or assignment.

During practicum, trainees were again asked to keep a journal in which they made entries about their observations of anything interesting in the classroom or school and to write their reflections on these events. And at the end of each lesson they are also to record their reflections on their own performance. Peer evaluation and comments are also to be entered in the portfolio. Though these reflections were not graded, lecturers took into account the 'completion' of these reflections.

Did these strategies help? My observations were that initially students and staff showed attention and interest as it was a novelty. But as time passed the interest waned and the whole exercise degenerated into a ritual and a chore for the students and it had little effect on subsequent student performance both in college and at school. My analysis of the situation identified the following reasons for the initiative not having had the intended outcomes:

  1. students merely described superficially what they did or what they observed and failed to ask relevant questions that would help them learn from their experience.

  2. staff too did not pose meaningful questions in responding to students' reflections as they too were inexperienced with reflective practice

  3. more often students' concerns were task based - completing the assignment or carrying out the lesson plan was their priority. Reflection in action and reflection on action, took a back seat

  4. the difficulty students faced in articulating their responses and feelings coherently in relation to purpose and aims of the task

  5. in a teaching dominated culture, getting learners to reflect on their own learning was seen as time consuming and time wasting both by students and staff
Now as a teacher in a university, I am faced with the same challenge of engaging my students in 'reflective dialogue'. In the face of the many 'realities' of university education, lecturers are inclined to let the evaluation 'tail' wag the education 'dog'. If most secondary schools in the Malaysian context are being caught up in 'teaching to the test', my perception is university education is not becoming any different. Surely there is more to learning than domain specific facts, knowledge and cognitive skills achieved by an individual (Robbin, 2001).

Performance in end of semester exams and coursework assignment datelines are becoming increasingly the major concern of both learners and lecturers. Students to a large extent, from my observation and discussion with them in my English language classes at Curtin Sarawak Malaysia, treat assignments and tests as hurdles or tasks that need to be completed and removed out of their way before embarking on the next task. In such circumstances, engaging students in reflective practice, emphasising processes rather than content alone, and integrating the 'soft skills' of ethics and value based competencies (Robbin, 2001) becomes an uphill task, as learners strategise in 'surviving' through a course rather than becoming 'enlightened' by the course or discipline they are undertaking.

Reflective practice requires that the teacher intentionally engages the student in a reflective dialogue, modelling the process, and thereby making reflective practice accessible to learners who become more conscious of their own approaches to their learning and promote critically reflective learning (Brockbank & McGill 1998).

However such reflective dialogue often takes a back seat when the overriding concern is to complete the task or assignments, regardless of whether it entailed reflective thinking and learning. This challenge or dilemma is further compounded when lecturers deal with learners who are low performing ESL students. Language competency becomes an essential requirement to engage learners meaningfully in reflective learning. When lecturers have to struggle with learners' language inadequacy and at the same time face the pressure of completing course content, how does one engage learners in reflective thinking and learning? Should we be less content driven and go by the dictum that 'less is more'? How do we ensure that pedagogical tools such as journals, peer discussion and 'learning about learning' strategies that are intended to promote reflection and critical thinking are not perceived as yet another 'burden' by learners? In what ways can assignments and assessments be structured to meaningfully incorporate reflective learning strategies?

If at the pre-university stage students are not inducted successfully into the culture of reflective learning and reflective practice, I fear that at the degree level the task may prove even more difficult if not impossible.


Baha'u'llah (1973). Tablets of Baha'u'llah. Translated by Habib Taherzadeh, Baha'i World Centre, Haifa, Israel.

Baha'u'llah (1974). Kitab-I-Iqan: The Book of Certitude. Translated into English by Shoghi Effendi, 1931 Bahai Publishing Trust, Wilmette, Illinois.

Brockbank, A. and McGill, I. (1998). Facilitating Reflective Learning in Higher Education. Society for Research into Higher Education and Open University Press, Buckingham.

Brown, R. B. and McCartney, S. (1999). Multiple mirrors: Reflecting on reflections. In D. O'Reilly, L. Cunningham and S. Lester (Eds), Developing The Capable Practitioner. Kogan Page, London, pp 16-32.

Ryan, G. (1997). Ensuring that students develop an adequate and well-structured knowledge base. In D. Boud and G. Feletti (Eds), The Challenge of Problem-Based Learning. Kogan Page, London, pp. 125-136.

Kolb D. A. (1984). Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development. Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ.

Robbin, A. (2001). Creating social spaces to facilitate reflective learning on-line. Centre for Social Informatics, Indiana University, Bloomington [viewed 18 January 2002, verified 5 Feb 2002] http://www.slis.indiana.edu/csi/WP/wp01-01B.html

Schon, D. (1987). Educating the Reflective Practitioner: Towards a New Design for Teaching and Learning in the Professions. Jossey-Bass, San Francisco.

Author: Kantha Kumar Ramasamy, Lecturer, Foundation Studies, Curtin University of Technology, Sarawak Campus. ph 60 8561 7500, fax 60 8561 7600, email kantha.r@curtin.edu.my

Please cite as: Kantha Kumar Ramasamy (2002). Promoting reflective practice in higher education: A dilemma. In Focusing on the Student. Proceedings of the 11th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 5-6 February 2002. Perth: Edith Cowan University. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2002/ramasamy.html

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