Reflective learning refers to a process in which students reflect on their learning experiences. This is largely a concept drawn from the learning theories of John Dewey, David Kolb, David Boud, and Donald Schön. Reflective learning is widely used in education, training, mentoring, and coaching.

Reflective learning seeks to help students clarify and create meaning, based on the student’s experience. The result can be change in the student’s understanding of concepts, and changes in the student’s behavior—the ultimate goal of instruction and training.

The practice of reflective learning is simple. In this article, I will discuss reflective learning and its uses in eLearning, including both synchronous and asynchronous methods.

Basic reflective theory and practice

The basic practice involved in reflective learning is to give the learner opportunities to become more thoughtful about their own performance. The designer looks for ways to encourage the learner to engage in self-assessment by asking questions relating to the learner’s experience. The questions may also relate to the learner’s thoughts about examples and references, observation of demonstrations, the experience of the use of checklists, and the shared experience of others, including expert performers and other learners.

Reflection should be part of a complete learning experience, rather than an exercise done on its own. A complete learning experience includes necessary events of instruction, such as engaging and keeping the learner’s interest, presentation of core content sufficient to give the student basic structure and knowledge, connection of what is being learned to the student’s prior skills, knowledge, and experience, and new experience (activities) followed up with feedback.

Discussing how cognitive research has helped extend our understanding of learning, Clark Quinn identifies major approaches in learning models that help ensure that “learning will be retained and recognized as appropriate to apply to all relevant situations.” (See the references at the end of this article.) One of these approaches is cognitive apprenticeship, which according to Quinn has reflection as an important component: “… there need to be reflection opportunities for learners to compare their performance with the abstract conceptualization. Reflection should encompass more than just feedback; ideally it should review across all the practice opportunities as a more overarching consideration of performance.”

In a classroom or other “live” situation, keeping the learning process, including the use of reflection, on track is the job of an instructor or coach. In eLearning, the designer has the job of creating and guiding meaningful learning experiences for the student. This takes some “thinking out of the box” in order to break out of the traditional didactic classroom instruction mindset. A key element of such a learning process involves intention toward a goal and reflection. In Learning to Solve Problems With Technology: A Constructivist Perspective, David Jonassen and Jane Holland offer this guidance:

“When learners are actively and willfully trying to achieve a cognitive goal, they think and learn more because they are fulfilling an intention. Technologies have traditionally been used to support teacher goals, but not those of learners. Technologies need to engage learners in articulating what their learning goals are in any learning situation and then supporting them. Learners should be required by technology-based learning systems to articulate what they are doing, the decisions they make, the strategies they use, and the answers they found. When learners articulate what they have learned and reflect on the processes and decisions that were entailed by the process, they understand more and are better able to use the knowledge that they have constructed in new situations.”

Reflection in asynchronous eLearning

Asynchronous eLearning is stand-alone instruction, intended for self-study. Individual reflection in this type of eLearning can be facilitated by including one or more activities that involve performing a task or other work and:

  • Asking the learner to evaluate his or her performance and the outcome.
  • Providing checklists and asking the learner to consider whether all of the steps or elements were completed, which ones were difficult and why, and what can the learner do differently next time to resolve difficulty or obtain a better outcome.
  • Giving the learner access to a video of an expert talking about what was taught and asking the learner to compare the expert’s view to the learner’s view.
  • Giving the learner access to a video of a person performing a task or other work and asking the learner to evaluate the performance or the result.
  • If other learners are completing the same instruction at about the same time, set up a lrnchat on Twitter, or other synchronous meeting, and ask them to discuss their experience.

Reflection in synchronous eLearning

Reflection in synchronous situations, where learners are engaged simultaneously in the same learning experience, is very similar to classroom instruction. Some options include:

  • Peer evaluation.
  • Group discussion using lrnchat,, or other group discussion software, facilitated by an instructor, of the experience after each exercise or experience; the instructor should ask questions that focus on the experience, not on giving “correct” answers.

These are only basic suggestions. There are many ways to arrange individual reflection.


Jonassen, David H., Jane Holland, Joi Moore, and Rose M. Marra (2003) Learning to Solve Problems With Technology: A Constructivist Perspective. Pearson Education: Upper Saddle River. (Chapter 1)

Quinn, Clark N. (2005) Engaging Learning: Designing e-Learning Simulation Games. Pfeiffer: San Francisco. (Chapter 2)