Succeeding in postgraduate study
Succeeding in postgraduate study

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Succeeding in postgraduate study

1 Critical reflection on classroom practice

In the context of classroom practice the following key features of reflection are widely accepted:

  • Reflection results in learning, through changing ideas and your understanding of the situation.
  • Reflection is an active process of learning and is more than thinking or thoughtful action.
  • Reflection involves problematising teaching by recognising that practice is not without dilemmas and issues.
  • 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.
  • 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.

Activity 1 Critical reflection on classroom practice

Allow approximately 45 minutes

The extracts provided below (Boxes 1 and 2) are the reflections of two student teachers who taught the same topic to two different groups of students within a school. Read these extracts and complete the following:

  • Using different colours, highlight what is descriptive, what is analytical and what is reflective.
  • Come to a conclusion about whether each student teacher has been critically reflective.

Box 1: Student teacher 1

I was very relaxed going into this lesson because it was a topic I really loved teaching. The lesson got off to a really good start with all pupils being on time and settling well. As part of my preparation, I ensured they all had packs for the two activities for the lesson. I spent the first ten minutes discussing key challenges in population growth around the world and citing particular examples from Asia and Africa. I then introduced the lesson on the ‘Impact of population growth on housing in the UK’.

The starter activity: Students found the starter activity very interesting because it required individual responses by placing their answer in a box. I was surprised at the engagement; perhaps because nobody could see what others had written.

Main task: This was slightly challenging because I expected students to be able to form groups by themselves with limited direction from me. My intervention meant that John and Alice had to be in a group that was not their initial preference. Although Group 2 formed much more easily (without my intervention) they were the slowest in producing the outputs required. For me this was a time to reflect on the diversity of groups as I needed to ensure that pupils who had not grasped the basics didn’t end up working in a group that didn’t engage them.

The plenary: Groups 3 and 4 worked really hard to deliver the required outputs. James (Group 3) and Donna (Group 4) were particularly good at moving the team forward by concentrating on the required outputs. They demonstrated leadership qualities, but also their ability in mathematics helped in calculating the population density on the worksheet and also interpreting the infographic.

Pupil learning: All pupils, except for Kevin, met the learning outcomes and were able to describe the main factors that affect population change and the need to build more homes. Kevin had some difficulty in interpreting the graph in the learning pack.

Things to change for the next lesson:

  • Develop a strategy for getting the groups working quicker.
  • Consider group size and make-up to ensure all can get on.
  • Make sure Kevin has an opportunity to catch up before we continue next week. Perhaps the classroom assistant should spend 30 minutes with Kevin to go through the graph.

Box 2: Student teacher 2

This is my reflection on a 40-minute lesson on population growth and its impact on housing in Country B. I divided my lesson plan into three phases to allow enough time for paired work and group (6) work. The lesson started well with all students excited about the topic. Jesse and Anna didn’t complete the starter activity (paired work) and subsequently struggled in the main task.


  • Did they understand the topic and therefore the tasks?
  • Did they not understand last week’s intro on calculating percentages?
  • Grouping Jesse and Anna together – missed opportunity to work intensively with them. We (the classroom assistant and I) had a warning at the end of the starter that they might struggle but we were distracted by other groups not getting on quickly.


  • Discuss Anna with her tutor, maths teacher, before next lesson (which will carry on with calculating, analysing and interpreting infographics on population density).
  • Speak to Theresa, the maths teacher, about techniques that may be helpful.
  • Research ways in which activity sheets can be used much more effectively to encourage group work.

What will I do differently next time?

  • Develop starter activities that check individual understanding (Anna/Jesse) – needs to be differentiated. Need to record and act on outcomes during the lesson to support progress.
  • Consider pairing some and leaving others to work in bigger groups.


You may have found it difficult to mark places where the students are being critically reflective. Although they employ different styles, both accounts are reflective. There are elements of description and reflection, but these are usually used as evidence to support critically reflective statements or arguments.

These notes were submitted after the lesson so perhaps some deeper thinking is required to allow the students to demonstrate the level of criticality that would satisfy postgraduate assessment criteria. At Master’s level you would expect the accounts to draw on some theoretical foundations that influence their choices, for example why pair work or group work would (or would not) work in this situation. It is worth critically analysing any contrasting experiences with what they have read. This is expected when they write their reflective report as part of an assessment.

We have provided brief comments on the notes of Student 1 to help you understand the expectations of the assessors. You can download this as a separate document for reference via the link below.

Example tutor comments on Student 1 reflection [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)]

Here are some important points to consider:

  • Solicit feedback from pupils: Find out their thoughts about the lesson as well. Ask them about what worked for them, and how they would have preferred to tackle some of the tasks.
  • Write down your thoughts: At times, practitioners think they will always remember activities they have carried out during the day later on. But often we miss aspects of activities that we probably think were not salient. If we had written them down, perhaps they could have been pointers to other aspects of our work that could influence our behaviours. For example, in a typical day a teacher would move from one lesson to the next, or from one class to another. If your reflection is not written down, it is very difficult to remember exactly what happened in each lesson/class.
  • Record it (video log): Some teachers, and a variety of practitioners, are resorting to video logs. This is proving very useful because smartphones have the capability to record rich content on your reflection which you can play back and evaluate.
  • Blogging: For trainee teachers there will be opportunities offered by your university to blog your reflections. For those already in practice, there are free websites such as Wordpress, Tumblr, or Livejournal that offer you space to blog your reflections and broaden your experiences as a practitioner. This is worthwhile as you will be joining a community of practitioners who are passionate about their work and spend time sharing their experiences and reflections.

You can now return to Session 7.


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