Reflection and personal learning

Free Reflection and personal learning

Melaine Coward Head of school, Faculty of health and medical sciences, school of health sciences, University of Surrey, England

Part one of this six-part continuing professional development series considered the role of nurse managers in supporting reflection for professional learning. It was aimed at enabling readers to consider critically the role of reflection in nursing and relate this to the Nursing and Midwifery Council’s professional requirements. Part two explores approaches to and benefits of reflection for self-development. The notion of self-development may seem removed from professional practice and nurse leadership but the traits that demonstrate who we are, how we learn, how we act and how we influence are related to and transferable from self to professional self. This article considers the purpose of reflecting beyond professional requirements, the influence of our experiences on who we are and what we learn, the value of protected time to think and the benefits of reflecting for personal development.

The aim of this article is to consider the transferability of reflection between our professional and personal selves. After reading this article and completing the time outs, you should be able to:

Consider the role of reflection in your personal life.

Develop a considered approach to gaining knowledge through experience.

Contemplate the links between being reflective and being thoughtful.

Nursing Management. doi: 10.7748/nm.2018.e1752


Coward M (2018) Reflection and professional learning. Nursing Management. doi: 10.7748/nm.2018.e1752

Peer review

This article has been subject to external double-blind review and has been checked for plagiarism using automated software


Conflict of interest

None declared

Published online: 14 June 2018


Reflection as a mechanism for personal learning has often been misinterpreted by healthcare professionals. Reflection is not a therapy; it is an element of clinical and managerial supervision, the cornerstone of professionals’ growth and development, and a thoughtful approach to nursing practice. In addition, reflection can be defined as a ‘way of being’ (Bolton 2014). Practitioners who are reflective in their professional roles often note that they are also reflective in their personal lives. Standing back and considering alternative approaches, decisions and experiences can lead us to think about tactics that are informed by what has gone before.

Reflection is a professional requirement (Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC) 2015) but it is not a condition of our personal lives. If you view reflection as a time consuming and unnecessary ‘task’, the new NMC revalidation process (NMC 2015) might have added to this sense; it may be worthwhile to revisit the reasons why it is part of professional practice.

The early work of Schön (1987) was instrumental in highlighting the value of reflection in professional education. It has since become an integral part of the pre- and post-registration nursing curriculum. However, again, in some cases this may be viewed as a chore: a need to meet the requirements of reflective writing, rather than the process of reflective ‘being’.

Early in my career as an educator, one of my students studied reflection with me as part of a master’s-level award in education. His wife informed me that my module had ‘changed him’. She said he was more thoughtful at home and more considerate of those around him and the need to accommodate them. His decision-making and implementation skills at home had apparently developed alongside his professional skills and reflective approaches as an educator. I realised at this point that being reflective had also transferred to my personal life, as I approached my actions in a more informed and considered way. This article considers the transferability of reflection from our professional to our personal selves and vice versa.

Reflection beyond professional requirements

Dewey (1933) is widely recognised as the founder of discovery or experiential learning, but much of his work relates to the thinking processes we use every day. Dewey acknowledged that thinking allows us to open our minds to learning if we reflect on what has gone before (Timmins 2015). This enables us to learn and grow from our experiences as we acquire knowledge from them: a transferable skill between work and home. Reflective leaders tend to encourage their teams to be creative and support changes to improve practice (Horton-Deutsch 2013). Porter (2017) notes that the most challenging leaders to coach are those who do not reflect on their own practice or consider alternative approaches in the workplace.

Fook and Gardner (2007) highlight the importance of using reflection to influence those around us. This is not limited to our professional selves; our influence on people can be far wider if we generate learning from previous experiences. Being reflective can also influence how we make decisions, whether intuitively or analytically.

Intuitive decision-making, for example those concerning what to wear or how to use the weather reports, may be based on experiences that have informed us over several years. Our learning may be based on experiences where we made poor decisions, from which we developed approaches to seeking more accurate and trustworthy sources of information. Explaining these types of decisions may be difficult as the rationale is no longer evident; we have a method that works, so that is what we do.

Making analytical decisions may be more structured and outwardly considered, to provide a rationale for ourselves and for those affected by our decisions. Jasper et al (2013) provide a note of caution, stating that, if you are a poor decision maker in your personal life, this may also be the case professionally. It is important to note, however, that our professional decisions are more guided and influenced by policy, evidence and requirements than those we make outside of work, giving us ‘safety nets’ to support and influence them.

Time out 1

Personal decisions

Consider a decision you made recently outside of work. What influenced you? Have you had to make a similar decision before? Did you make the right decision on this occasion?

How to use experiences for reflection

There is a wealth of literature that informs us that we learn from reflecting on experiences (Kolb 1984, Gibbs 1988, Jasper 2013, Timmins 2015), but we also have experiences from which we do not learn. These could be experiences we dismiss as irrelevant or consider unworthy of critical thinking. Patterns may then emerge in who we are and what we do that we cannot break. For example, friends may consider an individual to be untidy, yet this is a choice the person has made, whether informed or not. We have choices and, although they may conflict with those around us, they are ours.

When undertaking even simple tasks such as planning what to wear, multiple factors could be considered. I recently made a poor decision and was the only person in flip flops and summer clothes during torrential rain. I had checked a trusted weather forecast source first thing in the morning but did not head out until later in the day. The weather was fine for about 30 minutes, before it began raining. At this point, I rechecked my reliable source, which had been updated and predicted the torrent. My learning was to check and recheck; weather is changeable and this is the UK. On this occasion, my previous experience of the weather and my knowledge of the resources available failed, not because they were wrong but because I applied them incorrectly.

Time out 2


Consider something that you do differently from others. Is this a conscious decision on your part? Does it cause a problem for those around you or does it affect only you?

If our decisions and approaches to life affect others, we may need to make adjustments. This will probably resonate more in a professional sense, as we are usually accommodating of others’ needs in the context of care and teamwork. If we were inconsiderate, we might fail as a team player and as a deliverer of care to patients who have their own needs and preferences. Dewey (1910) explained that thoughts encompass everything that goes through our minds and that reflective thinking is a continuum in which our thoughts influence the further thinking that develops. Dewey (1910) defined reflective thinking as a persistent act of consideration that draws conclusions and is usually a conscious activity. This is endorsed by Moon (2008), who wrote about the differences between ‘exploratory’ thinking, pondering or considering, and critical thinking, drawing conclusions or making judgements.

This thinking process also occurs outside of work and, as it does at work, often takes into account the needs of others, including those we live or socialise with and the strangers we encounter in our personal lives. We also need to consider that even outside of work we remain professionals, and the public has expectations of us and our behaviour; we are trusted. Holding this position in society requires us to remain thoughtful, balanced and informed in our approaches and our actions.

Making time to think

Contemplating ourselves and who we are is a principle of being human, but not everyone considers the effect on others of their thoughts, actions and decisions. Self-appraisal should not be regarded as a task or an exercise to be completed, rather as an element of our development in social groups. Reviewing who we are should enable critical thinking and generate learning. We may choose to consider actively situations we deem worthy of further thought and time, but this means that some circumstances will not be given further consideration and are unlikely to generate learning.

It is important to consider when you have time for being thoughtful. Moon (2008) refers to this as ‘think time’, which she regards as a protected period of time for thinking to generate learning. In this, you choose to include the opinions of others, those you trust, to ask for their views on who you are and the elements of you as a person. This opinion seeking may overlap with your professional reflection, as there are likely to be similarities between you as a nurse and you as a person. It is important to review how you will allow yourself ‘think time’.

Time out 3

Think time

What do you do at home or while travelling that requires little thought? Could you use this time more effectively to enable critical thinking? How will you ensure that you use the time effectively to reflect on what matters? Will you involve anyone else in this process?

In the same way that we as professionals might write reflectively to develop our critical thinking, you might consider doing this in your personal life. Keeping a journal can be an effective way of helping to examine situations and expand areas of learning or curiosity. Mahoney (2001) noted that effective leaders are not only problem-solving individuals, but are also dynamic and motivate others, and reflecting in a journal can help to achieve this.


There is a risk that reflection might focus our attention on what went wrong or what we could do better, so it is important to consider what went well and why, which can then be shared with others. Ghaye (2011) suggests a strengths-based approach to reflection (Figure 1).

Figure 1.

Using reflection in a strengths-based way


Using the approach illustrated in Figure 1 can help us to appreciate our successes and think about how to build on them. Most of us find it easier to reflect on what we have done wrong or ineffectively, and find praising ourselves more difficult, yet the learning from positive outcomes, that is our approaches and their successes, is worthy of deeper consideration. This is also relevant when we seek feedback from those around us or they seek it from us. Those of us who were introduced to reflection predominantly in educational settings might be more used to models that prompt us to think about what we need to improve (Gibbs 1988, Johns 1995) rather than what we have done well.

As leaders we need to be resilient and responsive to change (Frankel 2008) and these skills can be developed through being reflective. To be effective in reflection, we need to practise, and the more we reflect the easier it becomes (Nash and Govier 2009).

Time out 4


What have you achieved outside of work recently? Why do you think this went well? What can you learn about yourself following this success? Have you told anyone else what you did well?


Reflection generates more thoughtful and informed processes and decisions, and influences who we are. Being reflective outside of our professional lives can enhance our contribution as individuals in society. In our professional lives, it can make us better leaders, who are more open to others’ opinions. Our personal development should also support that of others. This in turn can improve the resilience of our teams and help maintain a thoughtful and creative workforce keen to challenge existing practice and improve patient care.

Time out 5

Reflective account

Now that you have completed the article, you might like to write a reflective account as part of your revalidation. Guidelines to help you are at


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