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Reflective Thinking: Revealing What Really Matters


You may have heard of the term reflective thinking, and you also may have struggled to understand what it truly is — and you’re not alone. After all, it can appear to be one seriously abstract concept. But truth be told, it’s a lot simpler than you think. In short, it’s defined as constantly thinking and analyzing what you’re doing, what you’ve done, what you’ve experienced, what you’ve learned, and how you’ve learned it.

What Exactly Is Reflection?

Reflection is looking back at an experience or a situation, and learning from it in order to improve for the next time around.

There are three main aspects of reflection:

1. Being Self-Aware

Reflection starts with self-awareness, being in touch with yourself, your experiences, and what’s shaped your worldview.

2. Constantly Improving

The next step of reflection is self-improvement. Once you’re aware of where your strengths and weaknesses are, you can know where to shift your focus.

3. Empower Yourself

Reflection gives you power to take control and make the necessary changes in your life.

What Is Reflective Thinking?

Reflective thinking means taking the bigger picture and understanding all of its consequences. It doesn’t mean that you’re just going to simply write down your future plans or what you’ve done in the past. It means truly trying to understand why you did what you did, and why that’s important. This often includes delving into your feelings, reactions, and emotions.

A man using his reflective thinking skills while sitting in front of his computer. Photo by David McEachan from Pexels

A Note on Critical Thinking

Reflective thinking and critical thinking are often used synonymously. Critical thinking, however, is the systematic process of analyzing information in order to form an opinion or make a decision, and it varies based on its underlying motivation.

We all think endlessly, but much of that is done so with biases as misinformation, which is where critical thinking comes in.

Examples Of Reflective Thinking

What is reflective thinking? If you haven’t yet quite understood the process of reflective thinking, here are some straight-forward examples that can clarify what it truly means.

People often keep a journal in order to write about their experiences and make sense of them. For example, Jessica and her boyfriend have been having several disagreements lately, and she’s upset about the situation. By having the ability to express her feelings and see the bigger picture (their future together, the cause of their fights, and what makes him happy), she is practicing reflective thinking and providing herself with a rewarding mental activity.

Another example of reflective thinking would be in a class. A science teacher spends an hour teaching about a specific concept. Students are then given a few minutes to write a reflective piece about what they’ve learned, including any questions they may have. By giving them the chance to reflect on the material, they can not only remember it, but also truly understand it.

Environmental Characteristics that Support Reflective Thinking

In order for reflective thinking to be made possible, we need to be given the right environment to do so. Some of these environmental characteristics include having enough time to properly reflect when responding, as well as having enough emotional support (in a classroom, for example) to encourage reflection and reevaluation of conclusions.

Prompting reviews of the situation can also help encourage reflective thinking, discussing what is known, what’s been learned, and what is yet to be learned.

Providing social-learning groups are also highly beneficial to promote the ability to see other perspectives and points of view.

Watching the beautiful sunset while sitting on a rock and engaging in reflective thinking. Photo by Keegan Houser from Pexels

How To Think Reflectively

What are some popular theories on the reflective thinking method and on learning?

Kolb’s Learning Cycle

David Kolb published his learning cycle model in 1984, and it tends to be represented by a four-stage learning cycle.

The learner is intended to touch all bases of the cycle, which include:

  • Concrete experience (having a new experience)
  • Reflective observation (reflecting on that experience)
  • Abstract conceptualization (learning from that experience)
  • Abstract experimentation (apply what you’ve learned from that experience).

Kolb views learning as a process in which each stage supports the next, and that it’s possible to enter the learning cycle at any of the 4 stages.

Schön’s model

Schön’s model of the reflective thinking process, presented in 1991, is based on the concepts of ‘reflection-in-action’ and ‘reflection-on-action’. What do these mean exactly?


Reflection-in-action is the quick reaction and quick thinking that takes place when we’re in the middle of an activity. This type of reflection allows us to look at a situation, understand why it’s occurring, and respond accordingly.

One example of reflection-in-action would be if you’re trying to focus in class, but keep thinking about your weekend plans.


Reflection-on-action, on the other hand, is the type of reflection that takes place when we look back at the activity, rather than our reflections during. Generally, in this type of reflection, you are likely to think more deeply about the way you were feeling, and what caused those feelings.

An example of reflection-on-action would be deciding to take notes in class in order to better focus after noticing that you’ve been struggling.

What Are The Benefits Of Reflective Thinking?

Why is reflective thinking so important for you to practice? Here are a few of the many benefits.

1. Broaden Your Perspective

Reflective thinking can help you become more open-minded towards others, and better understand where they are coming from.

2. Change & Improve

Reflective thinking is key to making improvements, both on a personal and professional level. By becoming more self-aware and understanding yourself, you can know where to best focus your efforts.

3. Take On New Challenges

Being a reflective thinker can make you more motivated since you will truly understand what you’re trying to achieve, and why. In turn, you are likely to be willing to take on new challenges and fear them less.

4. Apply Knowledge To Other Situations

Reflective thinkers know how to extend their understanding of situations to other topics and experience, relating new concepts to past experiences, making you overall more informed and confident.

What Is The Cycle Of Reflective Learning?

The cycle of reflective learning never stops. You take what you’ve learned and apply it, and then continue to reflectively think and further develop your understanding.

1. Plan

Think about how others have approached similar challenges and tasks, and take this understanding to accordingly form your own plan of action.

2. Act

Apply what you’ve set up for yourself in your plan, but be ready to make any necessary changes along the way.

3. Observe

Review what you’ve done and what the results of your actions are. Make an objective description of the situation.

4. Reflect

Reflect upon your actions, including your strengths and weaknesses — what did you do, and how did you do it? Did you achieve your goals? Maybe your goals even changed throughout.

5. Plan All Over Again

Back to the beginning! Set yourself a new plan based on what you’ve learned from your previous experience.

How Can You Develop Your Reflective Insights?

Reflective insights are a skill that can be developed over time if certain actions are taken.

Prepare Yourself

Be prepared to develop your reflective insights. Take a step back, and aim to be as objective as possible in your thinking, always being critical of your own actions. Always think of another explanation for what happened, and look towards a variety of sources. Accept the fact that your beliefs may change over time, and always maintain healthy discussion to keep an open-mind. Continue asking yourself the right kinds of questions no matter what.

Ask These Questions

What are the ‘right’ kinds of questions that you should be asking yourself? Perhaps why you responded in such a way, what you were feeling and thinking in the moment, and how it influenced you? What other actions could you have taken instead? Maybe even consider what you or someone else would have done in a similar situation.

What Are The Main Features Of Reflection?

There are four main features of reflection, which include:

  1. Leads To Learning: Reflection can change your ideas and understanding of a situation.
  2. Dynamic & Active: Reflection is not a static process, but rather a dynamic and active one that can be either be on a past experience, during an experience, or even for a future experience.
  3. Non-Linear Process: Reflection can help formulate new ideas and concepts to help you plan your future learning stages, making it a cyclic process.
  4. Take On Different Perspectives: Reflective thinking helps us to criticize our own thoughts, and see situations from the bigger picture.


Now that you know all about reflective thinking, you can start to make it a natural part of your daily life, and a core part of your thought process. Allow yourself to constantly learn and grow from your experiences, always improving for the next time around. That’s what reflective thinking is all about!