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Prepared by Wilfrid Laurier University

Section B: How Can I Reflect?

In this section, you will learn about tools that you can use to reflect. The models encompass over 40 years of reflection research. As you review the models, please consider how each one might pertain to your reflective practice.

What will I learn?

By the end of this section, you will be able to

  • further appreciate what reflection is,
  • learn about several models of reflection, and
  • begin to develop reflective capacity.

What? So What? Now What?

The “What-So What-Now What” model was developed by Borton (1970). It’s a quick and easy way for you to reflect on a situation after it has happened (i.e., reflection-on-action). Bruce (2013) provides a set of questions that you can work with and we’ve adapted them for your convenience:


  • was my goal?
  • did I do?
  • was I feeling?
  • went well?
  • went poorly?

So what...

  • was important?
  • knowledge can inform me?
  • did I learn about myself?

Now what...

  • can I do to improve my knowledge?
  • can I do to improve my skills?
  • can I do differently?
What, So What and Now What in cyclical relation with What at the top moving clockwise with arrows © University of Waterloo

The Six Wise Men

Brockbank and McGill (1998) suggested consulting the “six wise men” when attempting to engage in reflection. The six wise men refer to questions rather than people: What, When, Where, Who, How, and Why.

Holm and Stephenson’s Reflective Activity (1994)

Holm and Stephenson’s Reflective Activity (1994) is quite simple. They provide a series of questions to use in your reflective journey. They are:

  • What was my role in this situation?
  • Did I feel comfortable or uncomfortable? Why?
  • What action did I take?
  • How did I and others act? Was it appropriate?
  • Did I expect anything different to happen? What? Why?
  • What knowledge from theory or research can I apply to this situation?
  • What broader issues – for example, ethical, political or social arise from this situation?
  • What do I think about these broader issues?
  • Do I feel I have learned anything new about myself?
  • Has it changed my thinking in any way?
  • How could I have improved the situation for myself or the service user?
  • What can I change in the future?

The Compass

Seidel and Blythe (1996) created a model called “the compass.” This model encourages you to look in four “directions” as you reflect on a particular event. The visual cue of a compass serves as a mnemonic device that you can easily recall. Consider starting with Inward and then moving clockwise to Forward. Here is a summary (adapted from Bruce, 2013) of what these four “directions” signify:

  • Inward refers to the manner in which you felt about a particular situation.
  • Backward might refer to a number of things related to your thoughts about a particular event, including its impact on higher-level questions, such as the impact on your identity, sense of sense, and values.
  • Outward refers to the manner in which society and culture can help shape how we see others. Necessarily, we have to reflect on these perceptions, as some might be ill-informed and negatively affect our placement, work, practice, and so forth. Can you think of an encounter with someone about whom you had misconceptions that were later dispelled? How did these misconceptions affect how you viewed and interacted with this person?
  • Forward refers to the outcome of your reflective process. What are you going to do differently next time?
A compass with the word Outward where North would be, and Forward, Inward, and Backward moving clockwise © University of Waterloo

Boud, Keogh, and Walker’s (1985) Model

Boud, Keogh, and Walker’s (1985) model is a little more complicated than those we’ve already covered. You may recall that Boud’s focus has been on the place of emotions in professional practice and in reflection. The model below reflects the importance of emotions.

Three adjacent circles representing experiences, reflective processes and outcomes. Experiences and reflective processes are mutually interrelated shown with the use of arrows going back and forth from each circle. Reflective processes shown with arrow leadings to outcomes. © University of Waterloo

The Model Explained

The first circle refers to the experience you have, whether in your placement, practicum, place of work or classroom. The second circle shows the reflective process. There are three components of reflection according to Boud:

  • Returning to the experience refers to your attempt to relive the experience in your mind and pay special attention to the negative and positive emotions you felt during the experience (either in relation to your actions, the actions of others, or your thoughts).
  • Attending to feelings, and
  • Re-evaluating the experience encourages you to analyse your emotions, preferably after you’ve listed them or written them down. Bruce provides some prompts: What knowledge can help me understand these emotions? How did my thoughts make me feel? Why was I feeling sad, happy, angry, etc.? How did I react? Really, it’s up to you to determine how to analyse it.

The third circle asks that you think about the outcomes of your experience. Reconsider the experience in light of the results of your analysis. Here are a few prompts to help guide you: “How does this new awareness change my interpretation of the event? How did my feelings influence my practice? How might I modify my practice in future? What did I learn about myself? What wider issues might be relevant to this situation? What should I do next?”

Gibb’s Reflective Cycle (1988)

Gibb’s Reflective Cycle (1988) is perhaps more complicated than the work by Boud et al. The Reflective Cycle has six stages of reflection that should be followed in sequence to get you to explore your feelings about a particular event more deeply. Below is a description of the six stages.

Three adjacent circles representing experiences, reflective processes and outcomes. Experiences and reflective processes are mutually interrelated shown with the use of arrows going back and forth from each circle. Reflective processes shown with arrow leadings to outcomes. © University of Waterloo

Gibb's Reflective Cycle Model Explained

  1. Stage 1 (Description): In this stage, you describe the experience in question. What happened? What was your role there? Who else was with you? Try to describe the situation without judging it or referring to your own evaluation of the experience. Simply describe!
  2. Stage 2 (Feelings): This stage is about your feelings and thoughts related to a situation or experience. It’s important to recall thoughts and feelings before, during, and after the experience. As in the “description” stage, it’s important that you try not to judge but simply describe.
  3. Stage 3 (Evaluation): Here is where you get to make judgements. Ask yourself some important questions about your experience and feelings: What was good and bad about the experience? What did I do well and not so well? What did others do well or not so well? What turned out as expected or was not as expected? It’s important not to rely on these questions, but rather use them as examples of the types of questions you should ask yourself at this stage.
  4. Stage 4 (Analysis): At this stage, you should explore the situation according to your own professional knowledge. This can include something you’ve discussed in class, course theory, something you’ve explored on your own, or past experience in similar circumstances.
  5. Stage 5 (Conclusion): At this point, you’re almost through the cycle. To conclude, you’re required to think about how the information you’ve derived from the first four stages can help change or improve your practice or alter your “perspective, insight or awareness” about the experience, setting, population, etc.
  6. Stage 6 (Action Plan): The final stage may or may not be relevant for you. Perhaps if you’ve done a placement that you plan to do again, or you’ve reflected on a situation that might be more common, this will apply. In this stage, ask yourself how you would go about changing your practice, behaviour, approach to the placement, work, etc., in order to improve it and take into account what you have learned throughout the cycle.

The CIA Framework

The Critical Incident Analysis (CIA) Framework was developed by social workers Crisp, Lister, and Dutton (2005). They designed the CIA to help social workers reflect on “critical incidents,” which are described as any situation in which there might have been a positive or negative disruption. This could include a moment where you lacked confidence, a moment where you were under a lot of pressure, a mistake you made, or anything else. The frame consists of 17 questions.

Account of the incident

  • What happened, where and when; who was involved?
  • What was your role/involvement in the incident?
  • What was the context of this incident, e.g. previous involvement of yourself or others from this agency with this client/ client group?
  • What was the purpose and focus of your contact/intervention at this point?

Initial responses to the incident

  • What were your thoughts and feelings at the time of this incident?
  • What were the responses of other key individuals to this incident? If not known, what do you think these might have been?

Issues and dilemmas highlighted by this incident

  • What practice dilemmas were identified as a result of this incident?
  • What are the values and ethical issues which are highlighted by this incident?
  • Are there implications for inter-disciplinary and/ or inter-agency collaborations which you have identified as a result of this incident?


  • What have you learned, e.g. about yourself, relationships with others, the social work task, organizational policies, and procedures?
  • What theory (or theories) has (or might have) helped develop your understanding about some aspect of this incident?
  • What research has (or might have) helped develop your understanding about some aspect of this incident?
  • How might an understanding of the legislative, organizational and policy contexts explain some aspects associated with this incident?
  • What future learning needs have you identified as a result of this incident? How might this be achieved?


  • What were the outcomes of this incident for the various participants?
  • Are there ways in which this incident has led (or might lead to) changes in how you think, feel or act in particular situations?
  • What are your thoughts and feelings now about this incident?

What Are Some Common Obstacles to Developing Reflective Capacity?


Identified below are several “obstacles” to reflection which might make the task difficult. Remember, reflective capacity is a skill. Think of something you’re good at—a sport, a video game—chances are that you’ve had lots of practice and faced obstacles on the way. Likewise, these obstacles are intended to be overcome with practice.

Obstacle 1: I’m not sure what I’m doing

Overcome it by...

First, if you haven’t explored this entire guide, we encourage you to do so. Second, rest assured, reflection isn’t easy but becomes easier by practising! Developing reflective capacity is a process that requires time and patience. Bruce (2013), for instance, says that reflective capacity has long-term significance. This will be particularly useful for you as you enter the professional world.

Obstacle 2: I don’t have the time

Overcome it by...

Take the time! There is nothing complex and intentionally ironic about this recommendation. The truth is we all are busy and have to take the time to do what’s important to us. If you’re doing a placement, consider reflecting directly after the placement by scheduling in an extra 10-15 minutes while you plan your schedule. If you’re doing a reflective essay on the matter, consider starting at least 4 weeks before the due date of the paper.

Obstacle 3: I don’t feel confident

Overcome it by...

Reflection is like everything else – the more you practise the better you get. And besides, in most situations, nobody will see the rough drafts or raw reflections, but only the finished product, over which you have creative control.

Obstacle 4: I can’t find a place to reflect

Overcome it by...

It can be tough if you’re placement, place of work, dorm, home, school cafeteria are noisy and not conducive to reflection. We recommend the individual cubicles in a library for a relatively high degree of silence. But you might also want to find a place that works for you, with the right balance of ambient noise and non-interruption.

Obstacle 5: Personal biases

Personal biases can definitely get in the way of you seeing a situation in a particular way. Scholars of reflection theory have noted this since the time of Dewey (Bruce, 2013).

Overcome it by...

This is perhaps the greatest obstacle of all. One tip is to have a better understanding of your social location or social privilege. Understanding where you fit on various social hierarchies of privilege (e.g., sex, race), will help you understand what you might be missing. Another tip is to try to put yourself in the shoes of someone relevant to your reflection. Ask yourself critical questions, such as “How would they perceive what I’ve written about? Is it different? What are the implications of this potential difference?”.

What are some practical tips to help me gain reflective capacity?

Because reflection can be difficult at times, and this might be your first time doing something reflective in an academic environment, we thought to provide you with some easy-to-follow, practical tips on helping you along your reflective journey.

  1. Keep a journal.
  2. Try to find a peaceful place to reflect.


Borton, T. (1970) Reach, touch and teach. London: Hutchinson.

Boud, D., Keogh, R., & Walker, D. (1985). Promoting reflection in learning: A model. In Reflection: Turning experience into learning (pp. 18-40). London: Kogan Page.

Brockbank, A., McGill, I. (1998). Facilitating reflective learning in higher education. Buckingham, UK: The Society for Research into Higher Education and Open University Press.

Bruce, L. (2013). Reflective practice for social workers: A handbook for developing professional confidence. Maidenhead, England: Open University Press/McGraw-Hill.

Crisp, B., Green Lister, P., & Dutton, K. (2005). Integrated assessment. Glasgow, Scotland: Scottish Institute for Excellence in Social Work Education. Holm, D., & Stephenson, S. (1994). Reflection – A student’s perspective. In A. Palmer, S. Burns, & C. Bulman (Eds.), Reflective practice in nursing: The growth of the professional practitioner (pp. 53-62). Oxford, UK: Blackwell.

Seidel, S., & Blythe, T. (1996). Reflective practice in the classroom. Unpublished article. Project Zero Massachusetts Schools Network.

University of Waterloo. (2015). What, So What, Now What? [Illustration], Created July 15, 2015.

University of Waterloo. (2015). The Compass [Illustration], Created July 15, 2015.

University of Waterloo. (2015). Boud, Keogh, and Walker's (1985) Model [Illustration], Created July 15, 2015.

University of Waterloo. (2015). Gibb's Reflective Cycle (1988) [Illustration], Created July 15, 2015.

Next Section Overview

When you're ready, move on to Section C: How Do I Get Started? .

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