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Reflective mechanisms


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...  in which the reflective mechanisms in use in a fourth year university subject are briefly described


This document describes the results of some research 1 on reflective mechanisms in a fourth year university elective within a psychology honours program.  Adelle Bish and I were staff in a course.  At the same time Adelle was completing the thesis component of a coursework masters in organisational psychology.  I was her supervisor.

She began evaluating the program.  Within a few weeks it became apparent to us that the reflective mechanisms in the subject were more important than we had recognised.  (The class met for a whole day each week of semester, for the entire two-semester academic year.  It's emphasis was theory-practice integration, and reflection on experience was an important part of its philosophical underpinnings.)

So we sat down and identified the reflective mechanisms that were designed into the subject.  These had evolved over some time, and refined by experience.

Informed by this list, Adelle then asked people what helped and hindered their reflection.  They were able to add quite a number of other reflective mechanisms to those we had identified.

The following list has two parts.  The first describes briefly the mechanisms for reflection which were deliberately designed.  The second describes other class features which class members identified as useful for encouraging reflection.


Mechanisms which were designed to increase
reflection by class members


Each week class members submitted a copy of a diary of about two or three pages indicating some critical incident or incidents from the class, what they learned from it, and what use they intend to make of that learning.  At the end of each semester they submitted the diary originals, a brief account of what they learned during the year, and an analysis of the aspects of the class that helped and hindered their learning

Home groups

Class members were organised for the whole year into "home groups" of about 5 or 6 people.  Their explicit tasks were moral support, and helping each other learn.  About half an hour towards the end of each class session was spent in these home groups

Walk-talk pairs

At the start and end of each class, people met in pairs to discuss what happened in the class.  Ten minutes at the end of each class allowed them to recollect the days events and encourages them to think about what will go into their diary.  In the initial five minutes each class they reminded each other of what happened the previous week

Graded assessment

All pieces of assessment were designed to promote reflection and learning.  In the renegotiable "standard assessment package" there were three main pieces of graded assessment, a written case study, a paper on individual-system interaction, and a portfolio.  Any written assessment could be submitted early in draft form for comment.  All assignments were marked to pre-notified (and negotiable) criteria chosen to encourage deep reflection.

The negotiable "standard package" consisted of ...

The case study, first run as a partial simulation during class time, was written up as a process plan for diagnosis and intervention.  It was intended to encourage class members to apply the concepts and techniques they learn in class to an example of social consultancy

The major assignment required them to think about the ways in which people and people, and people and systems, interact.  It was based on an interaction they had with some other person(s) and which they thought could have been handled more elegantly or effectively or satisfyingly.

The portfolio was a selection from a resource file of useful resource materials compiled by each class member during the year.  Its main purpose was to encourage people to begin to assemble a file of resources: workshop designs, handouts, useful energisers and icebreakers, and the like

Self evaluation of all they do

All activities, all assignments and the like were preceded by a plan and followed by a self-evaluation.  The evaluation identified the strong and weak points, and nominated what they would do differently if they repeated the activity and what they learned from it

Daily debriefing

Near the end of each day, half an hour was spent recollecting the days events and reviewing the implications.

Personal development plans

In about week six each class member submitted a personal development plan which set out what they intended to learn from the class.  It included an assessment proposal which detailed what assessment package they wanted to negotiate, and how that fulfilled their development plan

Course evaluations

The last day of each semester was devoted to a review of the semester, and collected suggestions for future change.  The evaluation at the end of first semester fed into class planning for second semester.  The results of the end of year evaluation were incorporated into the "standard package" and reported to the next year's class


Every two or three weeks, small groups of class members met with local practitioners to talk about what was happening in the class, and what the practitioners had been doing.  Class members chose which practitioners they were going to approach, and negotiated with them how their time together was to be spent

Meeting previous students

Between the first and second week of class each year, intending class members met with those who took the class the previous year.  They talked about what the class was really like, and how the class members could get the most out of the experience


Mechanisms which, although not specifically
intended for the purpose, were identified by
class members as aids to reflection

Process observers

Each week, two volunteer class members observed and took notes on what happened during the class.  This was done because class members often missed a lot of what happened when they were immersed in activity.  The process observers therefore often provided useful information on the class process when they reported to the whole class on their observations during the end-of-class debriefing each week.  Their observations were both a valuable reflective activity for them, and a trigger for reflective activity by other class members

Coordinating the day's activities

Another two volunteers were responsible for guiding the class through the day's program each week.  They managed the timetable, engaged the class in any decision-making about the day's conduct, and coordinated the efforts of those groups who were running class activities

Informal discussions (in class and out)

There was a heavy emphasis on relationship building in small groups, and in the class as a whole, especially in the early weeks of each year.  This tended to produce high levels of cooperation and social contact.  The class activities made heavy use of small group work, and many of the course activities were designed and run by small groups.  More than in other fourth year classes in the honours year, people sought to spend work time and social time together.  Learning was triggered by the ideas and suggestions of other people in these groups

Field trips

Twice a year, early in each semester, the class spent a weekend away together, often under canvas.  The weekend was half-work and half-play, with a relevant one-day activity being run workshop-style by staff.  The activity was chosen to be something with personal and professional relevance to the class, and to engage them in thought about the class.  Contact with each other outside a class setting encouraged the formation of personal friendships, and engendered discussion about study in general and the subject in particular


One of the weekly activities was a 15- or 20-minute "lecture" by one of the staff.  In first semester this mini-lecture, which was often partly experiential, was on some theoretical topic relevant to what was happening in the class.  For example, if the class was struggling with collective decisions it might be on decision-making.  In second semester it was on some diagnostic or intervention technique in common use.  In both instances, apparently it often triggered a rethinking of something that had occurred in class or outside

Talking to staff members

Class members were encouraged to have regular contact with staff outside class times.  Assignments could be submitted in draft form for comment; workshop designs and plans for other activities could be checked out; mentors could be identified.  During this contact, staff adopted a coaching role in which they frequently asked questions rather than provided answers.  Their intention was to encourage thought and individual responsibility, and build confidence

Reviewing notes

Most class members took copious notes in class.  In addition they wrote diaries and prepared other documentation from time to time, such as designs for workshop sessions they were going to run.  They reviewed these notes from time to time, especially when preparing assignments

Critical incidents

These were events, often unexpected, which occurred in class and had to be resolved.  They might include conflicts, discussions about activities which were not working, ambiguities and uncertainties.  Some class sessions of two or three hours duration were kept free to allow these critical incidents to be raised and resolved

Diary and other feedback

The diaries which are submitted each week we returned with our comments.  The comments were affirming of people, as far as possible, and offered any negative feedback in the form of suggestions about what might be done differently.  In addition, they often contained staff perceptions about what had been reported.  Similar comments applied to staff feedback provided on other assignments and activities

Combination of mechanisms

Class members reported that the combination of mechanisms amplified the effects of individual mechanisms.  For example, the diaries were often more useful because of discussions with other class members about the issues giving rise to the diary report, or the like



  1. Bish, A., and Dick, B.  Reflection for everyone.  A paper delivered at the Reflective practices in higher education conference, Brisbane, 1992. [ back ]


Copyright (c) Bob Dick 1998-2000.  May be copied if not included in material sold at a profit and this and the following notice are included

This document can be cited as follows:

Dick, B.  (1998) Reflective mechanisms [On line].  Available at



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Maintained by Bob Dick; this version 1.03w; last revised 20000105

A text version is also available at URL