When we think of learning, we often think in terms of school and formal learning. However, the concept of learning is far broader and involves not only formal but also informal learning, learning that takes place in the community, learning that takes place online, and learning that takes place through our interaction with each other. In other words, critical reflection and learning are continuously taking place in a variety of settings, especially when learners set out to investigate what they have gained from specific information in particular events and situations.

A further look at learning reveals that it involves much more than gaining information. Learning takes place when the information that is gained becomes meaningful to the learner. When we learn, we are taking the information to increase our knowledge, develop our skills and better understand ourselves. In other words, learning involves the acquisition of information, the conversion of this information into meaningful knowledge, and the development of greater self-awareness on the part of learners.

Importance of Critical Reflection

Learning takes place through critical reflection. Regardless of the information people may gain, it is only when they receive it and use it to educate themselves that they can be said to learn something. Curricula in schools are aimed at providing students with information that they can understand and that they are able to use to build on the knowledge they already have. Unfortunately, some tests of students’ knowledge of information do not go beyond simple recall of facts.  

Critical Reflection

However, some teachers and professors require students to give their opinions on certain concepts, ideas, and information from their courses. Others require their students to apply concepts that were learned to everyday situations and experiences. In these latter cases, students are expected to make the information they gain part of their own knowledge base, something that is meaningful to them.

It is essential to understand that critical reflection can be applied to all learning.  As stated earlier, learning can be formal and informal, can take place in the community and online, can take place in our interactions with others and in many other settings.  The learning that takes place in all of these settings can also be subjected to critical reflection (Shockness, 2018). In fact, it is critical reflection that makes all of these settings important to self-development.

Critical Reflection – Before, During and After

 Critical reflection is primarily associated with experiential learning and can take place before the activity has taken place, while it is taking place, and even after it has taken place. For example, before an experiential learning activity, students can become prepared for the experiences that will take place. This could involve gaining information about a particular subject and about the upcoming experiences. This type of reflection helps students to optimize the experiential activity that they would have. This type of reflection is also applicable to individuals in other situations.

But while in the process of undertaking an activity, students could also be conscious of what they are experiencing and how this experience is affecting them. However, a common form of reflection is cognitive, where students look at the new knowledge and skills they are being exposed to through the activity and determine whether the goals that are associated with the learning are being achieved. This would also involve whether the students see their knowledge and skills increasing as a result of the activity (Shockness, 2018). Average individuals in the presence of information can also question whether their knowledge and skills are increasing as a result of the information.

How is Critical Reflection Most Commonly Carried Out?

Some of the methods used in critical reflection are usually employed after the experience has taken place. In many formal learning situations, critical reflection is done through journals, portfolios, reports, and discussions to name a few methods (Shockness, 2018). While the evaluation may also be cognitive, as students look at whether they gained new knowledge and increased their skills, there is also affective reflection where students examine what they felt as a result of the experience and whether their attitudes or opinions have changed. But there is also reflection on the process of the experience, where students learn about the experience itself, and decide what they would change about the activity, if they were to engage in it at a later date.

A General Framework for Conducting Critical Reflection

But as stated earlier, critical reflection can be carried out by anyone and in different settings. Regardless of whether one is a student, a practitioner, or an average individual, one could engage in critical reflection by looking at a particular activity, a practice, or a specific event in one’s life. Critical reflection allows for greater self-awareness, and consequently promotes higher emotional intelligence, where individuals have a better understanding of themselves and others (Shockness, 2017). Emotional intelligence is therefore enhanced as individuals engage in critical thinking, thereby bringing about a greater match between experiences and expectations.

Conducting Critical Reflection

Looking Back

In looking back, one could acknowledge how one feels and thinks about the particular activity, practice or event. One could then describe it either orally, in written form, or one could think about it. The next steps could involve evaluating it and seeing what is desirable or undesirable about it. In analyzing the experience, one could try to make sense of it within the context of one’s own knowledge and experience. In other words, one could decide why it was that one behaved a certain way in the particular situation. Based on this decision, one could identify the new learning that has taken place and the new actions that one would incorporate in one’s future actions.

Be Careful of Rumination

But care must be taken when engaging in reflection.  Sometimes, a person may engage in critical reflection to see how his life’s goals, experience and expectations measure up.  It is possible that his experiences and expectations do not match in a particular situation.  The individual now has a good opportunity to reflect on the experience and on the mismatch with expectations.  Things did not go as expected.

But there is also a chance that this person may start asking the wrong question: “what if”.  Critical reflection looks at a past situation, and examines what went right, what went right, and what can be improved upon for the future. 

The mindset in reflection is for growth (Schultz, February 17, 2017). The individual is engaging in critical reflection in order to achieve greater self awareness. On the other hand, if the individual starts asking “what if” things had gone another way, the danger here is one of rumination, where that individual finds himself in a negative mood and he continues thinking about what could have been, if the situation were different.  This is a negative process that continues to repeat itself and that should be avoided at all times.  The focus on reflection is a positive approach to making things better for the future, not a negative approach in regretting what was done in the past.

How We become Better Individuals through Critical Reflection

We are all on different journeys and at different stages in life, but we can all use critical reflection to be better individuals. Reflect or look back on daily activities or on specific situations or events that are important to us. Look back at the information that we gained. Expand on what occurred and evaluate whether our actions were desirable or not.  Ask ourselves whether the information we gained was meaningful to us and what knowledge and skills we acquired in the process. Analyze our actions and try to evaluate why we behaved in the particular way we did.  Ask ourselves if we were to have a similar experience, whether or not we would change our actions.

In other words, we would be assessing whether we used the information we gained to increase our knowledge and skills, and in the process became more self-aware. We would have learned from this experience. We would either see ourselves as having learned something meaningful, and be prepared to act differently on another similar occasion, or maybe be convinced that we acted appropriately.  Either way, reflection is the means whereby we learn from the information we gain, and the knowledge and skills we develop, to become more self-aware, and better, more emotionally intelligent individuals.


Ellis, S. Carette, B., Anseel, F. & Lievens, F. (2014). Systematic Reflection: Implications for learning from failures and successes. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 23(1), 67-72.

Experiential Learning Office (2009). Critical reflection – an integral component to experiential learning. Ryerson University, Toronto. Retrieved from https://www.mcgill.ca/eln/files/eln/doc_ryerson_criticalreflection.pdf

Greene, J.A., Bolick, C. M., Caprino, A. M., Deekens, V. M., McVea, M., Yu, S. & Jackson, W. P. (Fall 2015). Fostering High-School Students’ Self-Regulated Learning Online and Across Academic Domains. The High School Journal, 99 (1), 88-106

Kassan, A. & Green, A. R. (2018).  Prioritizing Experiential Learning and Self-Reflection in the Development of Multicultural Responsiveness. The Journal of Educational Thought (JET) / Revue de la Pensée Éducative, 51(3), Special Issue (2018), 385-406. Published By: Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary

Rolfe, G., Jasper, M. & Freshwater, D. (2010). Critical Reflection in Practice: Generating Knowledge for Care. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Schultz, M. (February 17, 2017). Reflection or rumination?  Michigan State University Extension. Retrieved from https://www.canr.msu.edu/news/reflection_or_rumination

Shockness, I. (2018). Leadership Beyond the Job: 30 Ways for Older Teens and Young Adults to Develop Effective Leadership Skills. Vanquest Publishing.

Shockness, I. (2017). Developing Emotional Intelligence: 30 Ways for Older Teens and Young Adults to Develop Their Caring Capabilities. Vanquest Publishing.