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Learning to teach: becoming a reflective practitioner

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Learning to teach: becoming a reflective practitioner


How often do you find yourself replaying in your head the events of the day or an incident in your life? Whether it is going through a conversation that happened to digest what has been said, thinking about sequences of events that led to a certain conclusion, or thinking about how you felt or reacted at a point in time. At this level, we are quite used to the idea of reflecting on our own actions.

Reflective practice is a term strongly associated with learning in professional contexts such as teaching, nursing or social work and can be thought of in a number of ways. It can be described as a learning tool, something that is going to help you to synthesise, explain, make sense of and ultimately develop meaning from, your experiences.

It can be considered to be a professional competence, as reflected in the standards you are expected to achieve by the end of your Initial Teacher Education (ITE) course. Finally, it might be thought of as a type of dialogue or prose, a particular type of conversation or a writing style that captures your personal views and relates them to evidence you have collected from elsewhere.

Before considering the nature of reflection and the theoretical ideas that underpin it, it is worth considering why reflective practice is considered so important both within ITE and within career long learning in education.

Reflection point: Think of a situation where, through reflecting on what has happened, you have acted differently or changed your initial view of a situation.

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Learning outcomes

After studying this course, you should be able to:

  • understand the role of reflective practice in ITE (Initial Teacher Education)

  • recognise some models of reflective practice

  • identify the difference between reflection, analysis and description

  • understand the difficulties in ensuring that reflection leads to learning and begin to develop some strategies to ensure reflection supports development.

1 Difficulties with learning to teach

Learning from your experience in schools is central to your ITE and your subsequent professional development. During your course, your school placements will develop your practical skills and knowledge and provide you with opportunities to demonstrate your learning. Time in school is likely to make up the vast majority of your course time so how do you make sure you are learning effectively while you are there? To help you understand how to learn effectively, it is worthwhile considering some of the complexities of workplace learning in order to frame our discussion of how reflective practice can support you.

1.1 Complexities of workplace learning

Working in any specific educational context is likely to highlight differences of opinion. These may be the result of differences between:

  • members of staff about what strategies they employ or the beliefs they hold
  • the pedagogy of different teachers and the pedagogy promoted by your ITE course leaders
  • ideas you have read about in journals or books and what you see happening in the school
  • your own beliefs, views and assumptions and those of other people.

These differences in perspectives are a normal occurrence in school-based workplace learning. How you deal with these situations is important. They can be the stimulus for learning if you ask questions such as:

  • Why have these differences occurred?
  • Is it to do with the personalities involved and their beliefs and values?
  • Is it due to the particular context in which the contradictions have occurred?
  • Have they arisen because of your own assumptions, beliefs and values?

ITE requires you to synthesise these perspectives, make links between them and make informed, reasoned decisions about what to take forward into your own practice and what not to.

Experiencing differences in perspective, whether between members of staff or between practice and literature, can have an emotional impact. You might experience moments during your course where you feel confused and frustrated by seemingly contradictory advice or information. You may feel tempted to dismiss information to reduce the complexity. However, viewing these differences in perspective as an opportunity to learn enables you to turn them into a positive experience. This may include discussing the issue with your mentor or tutor, reading around the issues to get a broader frame of reference or asking more people for their opinions to test out your thinking.

1.2 Professional judgement and practice wisdom

You may hear the terms ‘professional judgement’ and ‘practice wisdom’ used during your ITE course, particularly if you ask a teacher why they made a particular decision about how to teach. Sometimes, it is difficult for an experienced teacher to unpack what lies behind their decision-making processes (Hobson, 2002, Jones and Straker, 2006). What often lies behind professional judgements or practice wisdom is years of experimenting with different approaches, incorporating different ideas from research, theory and practice, and constant critical reflection.

Activity 1: Practice wisdom, theory and experience

Timing: Time: 20 minutes

There is a triangular relationship between practice wisdom, theory and experience, see Figure 1 (Lunenberg and Korthagen, 2009).

Described image
Figure 1 Triangular relationship between practice wisdom, theory and experience

Listen to ‘What’s in a name: mentoring and tutoring explained’ focusing specifically on the dialogue by Hannah Watson (mentor) and Dave Smith (tutor), about the difference between the two roles. (Please note that The Open University’s PGCE course mentioned in this audio has now been discontinued.)

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How does the discussion relate to Lunenberg and Korthagen’s diagram?


Hannah clearly identifies the immediate, context specific nature of her role. She acknowledges the importance of being a good role model, yet being open and flexible enough to accept different opinions on practice. Although it is not explicitly stated, it is plausible that these different opinions and ideas may have come from previous experiences of teaching, personal experiences of teaching the classes at that school, and ideas from theory or literature.

Dave’s comments reveal that he believes it is his role to ensure that practice wisdom, theory and experience are brought together, considered and discussed with the student. He outlines his role as being one that ‘opens out’ the debate to beyond the immediate context. He explicitly mentions making links between theory and experience as a way of doing this.

Learning to teach is about working with these complexities, learning from them and successfully transferring your learning to new contexts. Reflective practice is one way to ensure this happens and we will now go on to think about what reflective practice involves.

2 What is critical reflection?

Critical analysis and reflection is a key tool in helping us learn from the contradictions and complexities we encounter.

Activity 2: Importance of critical reflection

Listen to the clip of Dave and Sarah explaining what is meant by critical reflection and the importance of critical reflection in learning to teach. (Please note that The Open University’s PGCE course mentioned in this audio has now been discontinued.)

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Both Dave and Sarah emphasise the importance of being able to analyse lessons and basing that analysis on the evidence available.

Critical reflection allows us to synthesise different perspectives (whether from other people or literature) to help explain, justify or challenge what we have encountered in our own or other people’s practice. It may be that theory or literature gives us an alternative perspective that we should consider, it may provide evidence to support our views or practices or it may explicitly challenge them.

Critical reflection also allows us to analyse what we have learned and how we have learned to enable us to take control of our own development. It is in light of these two functions that a great deal of importance is placed on critical reflection in the professional development of teachers.

The rest of this course will help you to understand critical reflection and introduce some tools to support effective reflection.

2.1 Defining reflective practice

The term ‘reflective practice’ derives from the work of Dewey and Schon. Dewey (1910, p.6) wrote that reflective practice refers to ‘the active, persistent and careful consideration of any belief or supposed form of knowledge in the light of the grounds that support it’. This means that you will have a questioning approach; you will consider why things are as they are, and how they might be.

Dewey went on to say that being reflective ‘enables us to direct our actions with foresight … It enables us to know what we are about when we act’. This is extremely important in teaching. What you do in the classroom and how you behave should have been carefully planned, informed by theory and experience and be purposeful.

Schon (1983) presents a slightly different view. He regards reflection as having two aspects: reflection-in-action and reflection-on-action.

Reflection-in-action refers to the quick thinking and reaction that occur as you are doing, for example in the classroom you may be teaching a topic which you can see the pupils are not understanding. Your reflection-in-action allows you to see this, consider why it is happening, and respond by doing it differently. This could involve reframing your explanation or approaching the topic from a different perspective.

Reflection-on-action is what occurs outside the classroom when you consider the situation again. You may think more deeply about why the pupils did not understand, what caused the situation, what options were open to you, why you chose one option and not another. Your responses will depend on your existing level of knowledge and experience, your understanding of theories and your values.

Activity 3: Reflecting

Timing: Time: 20 minutes

Using what you have read so far, list five factors that might affect your ability to reflect-in-action and five factors that might affect how you reflect-on-action.


Reflection-in-action may be influenced by factors such as: your emotional reaction to the situation as it happens, your previous experience of similar situations, the interactions you have with certain individuals at the time and what strategies you have to deal with the situation.

Reflection-on-action may also be influenced by your emotional reaction albeit after the incident, discussions you have or other people’s comments about the situation, the consequences of the events or your involvement with the individuals involved in the incident after the event.

Dewey and Schon’s ideas are manifest into a number of commonly used terms including reflection, reflective practice, critical reflection, critical analysis and critical thinking. In ITE you may be asked to produce evidence of some or all of these in conversations, written assessments or school documentation such as lesson evaluations. The following sections will explore some of these and help you understand what they mean.

3 What is critical analysis?

Critical analysis involves analysis and critical thinking.

Analysis is the process of breaking a complex topic into smaller parts to gain a better understanding of it. An example of this would be exploring the reasons behind a pupil not understanding a concept. An unanalytical approach might just say that they weren’t ready to understand the concepts being taught. A more critically analytical approach might break down the issue into a number of factors that might have influenced the pupil’s inability to understand. These might include:

  • the pupil’s previous learning and understanding
  • the way the concept was presented
  • the context of the lesson (time of day, previous lesson, the pupil’s mood)
  • the way the teacher assessed the pupil’s understanding.

Critical thinking is essentially a sceptical or questioning approach to knowledge. Someone who is thinking critically will question assumptions and think about issues from a variety of perspectives. It involves looking at ideas and information from a detached position, trying to set aside personal values and opinions, and looking for evidence to bring to bear on the issue under scrutiny. This might involve asking:

  • Why was it taught that way?
  • What theoretical principles promote or challenge the way it was taught?
  • Are there alternative views or methods?

Critical analysis and thinking is not the same as criticism of someone or what they do, which is made from a personal, judgemental position. This is important to bear in mind during your school placements, particularly if you find yourself in a situation where you have a difference of opinion with your mentor or school coordinator.

4 Features of reflection

As we have discussed already, teaching is a complex activity, in which decisions are made in complex contexts. In addition, there are theoretical perspectives to consider, and the process of reflection brings all these aspects together.

Reflective practice is widely considered to be an important activity for professional development. There is a huge amount of literature exploring and debating reflection and reflective practice in education. There are some key features of reflection that are widely accepted:

  1. Reflection results in learning – through changing ideas and your understanding of the situation
  2. Reflection is an active process of learning and is more than thinking or thoughtful action
  3. Reflection involves problematising teaching by recognising that practice is not without dilemmas and issues
  4. Reflection is not a linear process, but a cyclical one where reflection leads to the development of new ideas which are then used to plan the next stages of learning
  5. Reflection encourages looking at issues from different perspectives, which helps you to understand the issue and scrutinise your own values, assumptions and perspective.

Therefore, when the term ‘critical reflection’ is used, it refers to a combination of the analytical, questioning (or critical thinking) and reflective approaches. It is this combination that would characterise a critically reflective conversation.

4.1 Critical reflection in reading and writing

As part of your ITE course you may be asked to produce written work which demonstrates critical reflection.

Reading for critical analysis and reflection involves:

  • Making judgements about the way arguments are made in the text.
    • Are they convincing?
    • Are they based on reliable evidence?
  • Considering the arguments from a detached position which allows you to carefully scrutinise what is being said.
    • What is missing or doesn’t relate to my understanding of the issues?
  • Reading to understand different ways of thinking about a subject rather than just collecting information or quotes.
  • Considering how the literature relates to your own practical experiences.
    • Does it support, challenge or even undermine your experiences?

Writing in a critically reflective and analytical style involves applying these ideas to help you develop arguments, use evidence and demonstrate the link between theoretical perspectives and experiences in practice. The following activity will help you to understand what is meant by critically reflective writing.

Activity 4: Identifying critical reflection

Timing: Time: 30 minutes
  1. Read the extracts from the lesson evaluations of two student teachers who team taught the same lesson, Lesson analysis.
  2. Using different colours, highlight what is descriptive, what is analytical and what is reflective.
  3. Come to a conclusion about whether each student teacher has been critically reflective.

You may have found it difficult to mark places where the authors are being critically reflective as this is inevitably intertwined with the other three types of writing. It is how description, reflection and analysis are used that will determine whether the writing as a whole is critically reflective. For example, passages which analyse theory or practice may use description or reflection to support a particular view or may be used to demonstrate where there is an alternative view to consider.

Both texts can be described as being critically reflective, although they employ different styles. There are elements of description and reflection but these are usually used as evidence to support critically reflective statements or arguments. The interweaving of theory, practice and reflection gives weight to the arguments the author is presenting, with very few statements that are based solely on personal opinion or experience. The use of questions can be helpful as a starting point for a discussion with the student teacher’s tutor or mentor.

Having considered what critical reflection is, we will now think about how to ensure reflection leads to effective learning.

5 Reflecting effectively

In a busy school placement you may find that you concentrate on immediate reactions, big issues or surface level responses to situations. This is a common experience, and well established in the research literature as Finlay notes in her paper ‘Reflecting on reflective practice’.

Busy, over-stretched professionals are likely to find reflective practice taxing and difficult. Bland, mechanical, routinised and unthinking ways of doing reflective practice are too often the result.

(Finlay, 2008)

Other authors have expressed concern about the concept of reflective practice and have challenged concepts such as Schon’s ‘reflection-in-action’. For example Ixer, writing about reflection in social work practice, argues that ‘reflection-in-action’ cannot be applied to those working in professionally demanding situations in the same way as it can be to other professions. He suggest that in these situations:

Practitioners are seen as applying knowledge built up from their own experience which is ‘tacit’ and therefore difficult to access and discuss. Reflection aims to develop conscious control of knowledge in such circumstances, through a process of metacognition, so that professionals are able to self-analyse and learn to operate more effectively in demanding situations. In essence, this means that they develop transferable skills which are lifelong and not context-specific.

(Ixer, 1999)

This quote contains important messages about effective reflective practice that are worth unpicking. Firstly, Ixer’s use of the phrase ‘tacit knowledge’ acknowledges that at times you will be acting in an unconscious, routinised way. This links with the discussion about practice wisdom, and how established teachers can find it difficult to express their thought processes or how they learned a particular strategy.

Secondly, Ixer mentions metacognition, which is commonly defined as thinking about thinking. The idea of developing pupil’s metacognition is increasingly being discussed in educational literature with a view to helping pupils take conscious control of their own learning. However, there is also increasing evidence that teachers need to develop their metacognitive awareness to increase their own professional learning and to enable them to support pupils develop their metacognitive skills effectively (Veenman et al., 2006, Kuhn, 2000, Kistner, 2010). Being metacognitively aware as a teacher, involves understanding how your thinking (and therefore learning) is developing.

Finally, Ixer highlights how, through metacognition, and conscious control of your thinking and learning, you will be more equipped to transfer your learning between different contexts and situations. This is a critical point as you move between different school contexts and develop career long learning habits to ensure you are able to adapt your practice to new ideas in education.

5.1 Ensuring reflection leads to learning

So, how can we ensure that reflective practice leads to learning? Both Finlay and Ixer’s criticisms of reflective practice hint at a distinction between surface level reflection (routinised, bland and unthinking) and a deeper level (conscious control, self-analysis, metacognition). As stated by Cartwright (2011), LaBoskey takes this idea further by making a distinction between ‘common sense thinkers’ and those who are ‘pedagogical thinkers’. This distinction gets to the heart of how to ensure reflection is an effective learning tool.

LaBoskey defines ‘common sense thinkers’ as those who reflect in an unconscious way, suggesting they are happy to use a ‘trial and error’ approach to learning to address short-term issues that are context specific.

‘Pedagogical thinkers’ are more conscious of their actions asking the questions ‘What is my intuitive response to this, and why am I feeling or acting this way?’ (Laboskey in Cartwright, 2011). Labosky suggests that it is by taking conscious control, that pedagogical thinkers ‘take a long term view of how to solve problems… remain open to learning… recognise there are no simple answers and the conclusions they reach are likely to be tentative’ (Laboskey in Cartwright, 2011).

6 Tools for reflection

In your ITE course you may be asked to demonstrate your ability to critically reflect in a number of ways. Some commonly used tools include:

  • learning journals (via blogs or off-line formats)
  • webfolios
  • written assessment tasks at designated points in the ITE course
  • lesson evaluations
  • tutorials or meetings with your mentor or tutor.

Whatever the format, these tools provide an opportunity to demonstrate deep level reflection, but are all susceptible to the kind of surface level reflection that Ixer, Finlay and Laboskey warn against.

So how can you evaluate whether you are using these tools effectively? One answer is to develop an understanding of some models of reflection, which will help you shape your responses and guide you as to what you may be missing out. The next section will introduce you to a few models.

6.1 Models of reflection

There are many different models of reflection as a quick search online will prove. Using models, or at least being aware of their similarities and differences, can help you to deconstruct experiences, ensure you are accessing the deeper level reflective questions and issues, and ultimately provide a way to structure your learning from situations.

Boud’s triangular representation

Many models are cyclical in nature, representing the idea that reflection leads to learning, but this learning is never completed or able to be transferred without reflecting on it further in different contexts. The most simple model could be seen to be Boud’s triangular representation, Figure 2.

Described image
Figure 2 Boud’s triangular representation

This model, although capturing the essentials (that experience and reflection lead to learning), has limitations. It doesn’t guide us as to what reflection might consist of, or how the learning might translate back into experience. Aligning key reflective questions to this model, see Figure 3, may help.

Described image
Figure 3 What does reflection consist of?

6.2 Gibb’s reflective cycle

Alternatively, other theorists have broken down the cycle into further stages, an example of which is Gibb’s reflective cycle, see Figure 4.

Described image
Figure 4 Gibb’s reflective cycle (Adapted from Dye, 2011)

Gibb’s model acknowledges that your personal feelings influence the situation and how you have begun to reflect on it. It builds on Boud’s model by breaking down reflection into evaluation of the events and analysis and there is a clear link between the learning that has happened from the experience and future practice.

However, despite the further break down, it can be argued that this model could still result in fairly superficial reflection as it doesn’t refer to critical thinking / analysis or reflection. It doesn’t take into consideration assumptions that you may hold about the experience, the need to look objectively at different perspectives, and there doesn’t seem to be an explicit suggestion that the learning will result in a change of assumptions, perspectives or practice. You could legitimately respond to the question ‘What would you do next time?’ by answering that you would do the same, but does that constitute deep level reflection?

6.3 Atkins and Murphy model

Atkins and Murphy (1993) address many of these criticisms with their own cyclical model, see Figure 5.

Described image
Figure 5 Atkins and Murphy model

Murphy and Atkins’ model can be seen to explicitly support the kind of deeper level reflection that was discussed earlier in this course. This is not to say that the other models aren’t useful, far from it, but that it is important to remain alert to the potential to provide superficial responses as the critical, questioning and challenging elements of critical reflection are not as explicit.

Activity 5: Lesson analysis

Timing: Time: 30 minutes

Open the document Lesson analysis  that you used in the previous activity and then re-read the notes made by the students.

  1. Analyse the notes in terms of Figure 4 and Figure 5 (Gibb’s model and Atkins and Murphy’s model). What strikes you about the level of reflection of two responses?
  2. What learning is evident in the two responses?
  3. What aspects of the models you have looked at are evident from each of the responses? Which are missing?

Both students are reflective in their evaluations. However, in the second account, the student is exploring possible explanations for the issues that have arisen. The actions that this student decides to take are likely to lead to a deeper understanding of the reasons behind the issues that arose during the lesson. The model described in Figure 5 is probably slightly more helpful in this respect.

It is also worth highlighting that a written evaluation is invaluable in terms of helping the students to remember what happened at a time when they will be being bombarded with new experiences.

7 Transformational learning

Mezirow (2000) argues that reflection only leads to learning if it leads to transformation. Merizow suggests that transformation occurs where the original starting point causes a dilemma that needs to be addressed, and then suggests that there are a series of possible phases which may be gone through.

  • A disorienting dilemma – loss of job, divorce, marriage, back to school, or moving to a new culture
  • Self-examination with feelings of fear, anger, guilt, or shame
  • A critical assessment of assumptions
  • Recognition that one’s discontent and the process of transformation are shared
  • Exploration of options for new roles, relationships and actions
  • Planning a course of action
  • Acquiring knowledge and skills for implementing one’s plans
  • Provisional testing of new roles
  • Building competence and self-confidence in new roles and relationships
  • A reintegration into one’s life on the basis of conditions dictated by one’s new perspective.
(Adapted from Mezirow, 2000, p. 22)

What is particularly striking about Merizow’s ideas is the emphasis on conscious, self-managed learning. The learning is not a direct result of the experience, it happens because the individual takes charge of their critical reflection and explicitly plans and carries out steps to learn from it. This level of personal responsibility for learning is crucial during ITE.

Reflection point: Think of a scenario where a lesson you teach goes very badly. How would Merizow’s model help you ensure you learnt effectively from the situation?

8 The next step

Reflective practice is not only the domain of ITE, but of career long learning. Being an effective teacher requires you to continue learning throughout your career to adapt to the latest subject requirements, changes in pedagogy or responding to a new educational initiative. Therefore it is important to see developing your understanding of critical reflection, and your reflective practice as establishing learning habits that will support you well beyond the first year of teaching.

As discussed by MacGregor and Cartwright (2010), deep and extended reflection begins to develop into ‘Reflexivity’.

Bordieu and Wacquant (1992), Lawson (1985) and Steier (1991) have derived the meaning of reflexivity from its Latin definition, ‘to turn back on oneself’. Thus, to be reflexive means to think about one’s own concepts, values and what they bring to any situation.

(MacGregor and Cartwright, 2010, p. 240)

They go on to argue that reflexivity is about self-awareness and how we, as teachers, impact on situations and our pupils. This can in turn lead to experimentation, developing research questions that the teacher wants to explore further and ultimately can lead to them becoming classroom researchers, which is discussed in An introduction to classroom research.


This course has introduced you to the idea of critical reflection as a tool to help you synthesise the contradictions and complexities of teaching. It has explored the differences between critical analysis, critical thinking and critical reflection before considering how to ensure that reflection leads to effective learning. It has introduced you to a number of models of reflection to help you structure your practice and discussed how to evaluate whether you are reflecting (and therefore learning) effectively.


Atkins, S. and Murphy, K. (1993) ‘Reflection: a review of the literature’, Journal of Advanced Nursing, vol. 18, pp. 1188–1192.
Cartwright, L. (2011) ‘How consciously reflective are you?’, in McGregor, D. and Cartwright, L. Developing Reflective Practice: A guide for beginning teachers, Open University Press.
Dewey, J. (1910) How we think, Boston, D.C.Heath.
Dye, V. (2011) ‘Reflection, Reflection, Reflection. I’m thinking all the time, why do I need a theory or model of reflection?’, in McGregor, D. and Cartwright, L. Developing Reflective Practice: A guide for beginning teachers, Open University Press.
Finlay, L. (2008) ‘Reflecting on reflective practice’, PBPL CETL, Open University, [Online] Available at (Accessed 2 January 2012).
Hobson, A. (2002) ‘Student teachers’ perceptions of school-based mentoring in initial teacher training (ITT)’, Mentoring and Tutoring: Partnership in Learning, vol. 10, no. 1, pp. 5–20.
Ixer, G. (1999) ‘There’s no such thing as reflection’, British Journal of Social Work, vol. 29, no. 4, pp. 513–27.
Jones, M. and Straker, K. (2006) ‘What informs mentors’ practice when working with trainees and newly qualified teachers? An investigation into mentors’ professional knowledge base’, Journal of Education for Teaching, vol. 32, no. 2, pp. 165–84.
Kistner, S. et al., (2010) ‘Promotion of self-regulated learning in classrooms: investigating frequency, quality, and consequences for student performance’ Metacognition Learning, vol. 5, pp. 157–71.
Kuhn, D. (2000) ‘Metacognitive Development’, Current Directions in Psychological Science, vol. 9, no. 5, pp. 178–81.
Lunenberg, M. and Korthagen, F. (2009) ‘Experience, theory and practice wisdom in teaching and teacher education’, Teachers and Teaching, vol. 15, no. 2, pp. 225–40.
McGregor, D. and Cartwright, L. (2011) Developing Reflective Practice: A guide for beginning teachers, Open University Press.
Mezirow, J. (2000) ‘Learning to think like an adult: Core concepts of transformation theory’, in Mezirow, J. and Associates (eds) Learning as transformation San Francisco, Jossey-Bass, pp. 3–34.
Schon, D. (1983) The reflective practitioner: How professionals think in action, London, TempleSmith.
Veenman, M. et al., (2006) ‘Metacognition and learning: conceptual and methodological considerations’, Metacognition Learning, vol. 1, pp. 3–14.


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