Reflecting on the Big Question from TILT ALT 2023: Should we change the way we assess reflection?

Author: Iain Wilson, Nottingham Trent University

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Earlier this year I had the pleasure and privilege to present at the Trent Institute of Learning and Teaching (TILT) Annual Learning and Teaching Conference about a core passion of mine; Reflection. I presented the Big Question: Should we change the way we assess reflection? Exploring challenges and sharing good practice.

So why is this important?

There has been a shift at NTU, and across HE in the UK in general, towards integrating more authentic assessments which align with working practices to enable student development towards obtaining Highly Skilled Employment; a key metric on the Graduate Student Outcomes Survey. As a result, more assessments are including reflective components. This is a good thing because reflection underpins personal development, enabling individuals to build psychological resources (e.g. Dacre Pool and Sewell 2007) and apply their knowledge, skills and attitudes into different situations (e.g., Perkins and Salomon 1992).
However, this may not be as easy as we may think. Here are some common challenges (not an exhaustive list):

1. Reflective assessments are often written in a descriptive way meaning they are superficial and not critically exploring the experience and identifying the learning effectively (e.g., Thompson and Pascal 2012).
2. Students often write their reflections in order to try and please their marker (writing what they think their marker wants to read), however, this means that the reflections are no longer meaningful and authentic and therefore the student is not learning from the experience, just treating the reflection as a tick-box-exercise (e.g., Maguire, Evans and Dvans 2001).
3. Reflective assessments focus on a single time point and therefore do not offer the opportunity to apply the learning from that reflection, to see if the reflective process was effective and how effective the learning was (e.g., Corker and Holland 2015).

These challenges are 10-20 years old, they surely can’t still be present, can they?

Unfortunately, this is the case, a word cloud exercise with colleagues in the session highlighted that there was a lack of depth to the reflections, they are subjective and descriptive as the key issues. Furthermore, a lack of forward thinking and no baseline to compare with makes it difficult to assess how authentic the reflective assessments are. These are just challenges focused on what the students produce. Issues around grading criteria and how to mark the assessments were also highlighted as challenges for colleagues.

Is all hope lost? Should we abandon reflective assessments?

Absolutely not! We may have to rethink how we assess reflections however. One solution is the Synthesised Model of Reflection (SMoR; Wilson 2023). This is a proactive model, which assesses a baseline through a self-evaluation, to set goals to work towards. This is followed by experiences (yes more than one!) which will provide answers to the goals set. A two-stage evaluation occurs synthesising the learning across the experiences to help students learn about themselves and their roles in the experiences, as well as analyse the contexts in which their experiences occurred. Finally, their baseline is revisited in a re-evaluation to understand progress, informing future directions and to start the process again.

So what should we do?

What we should not do is just assess using a reflective essay without considering the quality of the question being asked. Here are some points to consider:

  • Models are just tools – are they the best tool for what you are hoping the students to demonstrate?
  • Have you considered the literature about what works and does not work?
  • Reflection needs to be integrated into the teaching practice as it is a skill that needs developing, it is not innate.
  • How are you going to make the reflections meaningful to the students.
  • Look for existing teaching and learning resources (e.g., the resources that I have shared on the National Teaching Repository), rather than start from scratch as you may find inspiration, or at least a starting point to work with.

If you would like a critical friend to discuss your reflective assessments, or have feedback about my SMoR, or would like to collaborate on a project focused on reflective assessments, please do get in touch.

This was part of a Scholarship Sabbatical project which was funded by NTU Psychology in the form of 50% buy-out of workload. My thanks extend to NTU Psychology and my mentors Prof. Julie Hulme, Dr Richard Remedios and Prof. Maria Karanika-Murray. Many thanks also to my collaborators and critical friends who have also supported me, enabling this projects’ success.


Corker, C. and Holland, S., 2015. Introducing students to employability, skills and reflection: A case study from history. Student Engagement and Experience Journal, 4(1), pp.1-16.

Dacre Pool, L. and Sewell, P., 2007. The key to employability: developing a practical model of graduate employability. Education+ Training, 49(4), pp.277-289.

Maguire, S., Evans, S. E., & Dyans, L. (2001). Approaches to learning: A study of first year geography undergraduates. Journal of Geography in Higher Education, 25(1), 95-107.

Perkins, D. N., & Salomon, G. (1992). Transfer of learning. International encyclopedia of education, 2, 6452-6457.

Thompson, N. and Pascal, J., 2012. Developing critically reflective practice. Reflective Practice, 13(2), pp.311-325.

Wilson, I. (2023b). The Synthesised Model of Reflection in a 2 minute video (Version 1). National Teaching Repository.

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