Any professional practice can benefit from reflective practice. Finding the time to reflect is always the challenge.
Research supervision is the same. The most profound way to advance your practice of research supervision is to make time to reflect on how your practice is going.
There are two types of reflection on practice I want to refer to.
1. In the moment reflection
2. after the moment reflection
In the moment reflection
Reflecting on your practice while you are practising is the most difficult form of reflective practice. It requires you to think about what you are doing while you are doing it. It may be in the middle of a research supervision session when you think ‘is this going well?’. It may be when you are reading a student’s draft and you ask yourself ‘is my feedback going to help this student to improve their writing?’. It is a little easier to reflect on your practice when you are not engaging in discussion. In most conversations there are moments when you are listening to the other person and that would be an ideal time to let the thought ‘is this going well?’ slip into your head.
After the moment reflection
In some ways it is easier to wait until a particular event in your practice is finished before you start asking yourself how it went. The more you reflect after the event the more you will find it easier to grab these moments of reflection during your practice and not loose concentration of your actual practice.
With a complex practice, such as research supervision, reflection in or after the event can be overwhelming. There are a number of strategies that can help your reflection. This then becomes a form of guided reflection.
1. Ask yourself what you had hoped would be an outcome of a particular meeting and check whether this outcome is seeming likely (in – the – moment) or was achieved (after –the-moment)
2. Think about the stakeholders of this particular service provision
a. There is you – the service provider.
b. There is the student
c. And there are a range of other stakeholders all of whom are expecting something out of your engagement with your student.
If there is disagreement about what can be achieved, where does your bias lie: With you, with your student (student centred) or with the organisation and the university?
3. Break the practice down so that you begin reflecting on smaller and smaller elements of the practice. That is the purpose of this blog – to help to break down the practice into smaller aspects so that you can consider how well that particular aspect of your research supervision practice is developing.
4. A checklist is a great way to help you make sure that you have covered all you intended to cover. Many research supervisors use this in the early stages of meeting with a research student, not so much to aid reflection, but to make sure that they have covered all the important areas for a beginning researcher.
5. One strategy I use a lot with beginning research supervisors is to ask them to reflect on their own experiences of being supervised. I call this the provenance of their research supervision practice. In many ways, what we observed when we were on the receiving end of research supervision forms the first ideas of our practice. Anything that a novice supervisor can describe about the ways in which they were supervised provides the framework for developing their own awareness of research supervision. You can then ask yourself which of the list of strategies that you have written worked for you?’ This starts to categorise some of the strategies that you have observed into ones which were effective (at least for them being on the receiving end) and ones which weren’t effective.
6. The dilemma of drawing on observed experience is that it is hard to know what is considered good research supervision practice. Here is where a little bit of the Higher Degree by Research (HDR) literature comes into play. It acts as a reviewing mechanism to think about the sorts of practices you have observed. I remember struggling with developing adequate academic writing skills as a research student then being amused and illuminated when I saw an article by Brown (1994) describing many research supervisors attempts to influence academic writing as ‘osmosis’. This resonated for me as a non effective research supervision strategy and forced me to look for more targeted strategies such as the use of feedback that articulates the problem I am finding when I read drafts of academic work.
If you devote any time at all to reflecting on those practices this will help to improve the practice and to improve the outcomes of the practice – namely a higher possibility of a research student completing their research degree.
Brown, R. (1994). The ‘big picture’ about managing writing. Quality in Postgraduate Education. O. Zuber-Skerritt and Y. Ryan (Eds). London, U.K, Kogan Page.:
About the (research) supervisor's friendI work at a university helping university academics who are supervising research students. I am a research supervisor myself and also work as a research coach for people undertaking their research I was originally in a Management Faculty and when I completed my doctoral studies on 'doing a doctorate' I started working with research supervisors to help them improve their practice.
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What is reflective practice?
Reflective practices are methods and techniques that help individuals and groups reflect on their experiences and actions in order to engage in a process of continuous learning. Reflective practice enables recognition of the paradigms – assumptions, frameworks and patterns of thought and behaviour – that shape our thinking and action. It also allows for the exploration of broader questions, such as:
- What are the paradigms that shape not just our own actions, but development as a whole?
- How does our position relate to the assumptions we make? Are these constructive or destructive to our goals?
- How are our goals themselves limited by our paradigms?
By trying out methods of reflection and personal inquiry we can nurture greater self-awareness, imagination and creativity, as well as systemic, non-linear modes of thinking and analysis.
What use is reflective practice to a development professional?
Reflective practice can help us understand our own intentions, values and visions and support us to work in a challenging field where our ethics and morals may be tested, where power relations may be decidedly unequal, and where we may be working in emotionally and physically demanding environments.
Many of us keep coming back to fundamental questions: how can I make a difference in the world? What is “good change” and how do I contribute to it? How do we sustain ourselves and keep going, when the going gets rough? How can we position ourselves effectively within a change process, and avoid becoming part of the problem? Practicing reflection can help us answer these questions and others throughout our lives and careers.
More development professionals could benefit from adapting creative and innovative approaches to reflective practice – many of which are already used in fields of qualitative research, education, health care, social work, psychology and management. Opening spaces for reflection offers the possibility of transforming not only individual experience, but also the patterns and relationships within groups, organisations and systems, and ultimately those systems themselves.
How can I use reflective practice in my work?
Reflective practice can be a particularly powerful tool for organisational learning and in monitoring and evaluation. It can also be used for addressing issues of position, conflict, resistance and power relationships, which are often present in development, but seldom dealt with directly. Reflective practice, whether named as such or not, is already an important dimension of
- participatory and qualitative research
- gender and power analysis
- social constructivism and feminist standpoint theory
- methods of facilitation and community development work
- monitoring and evaluation
- organisational learning and change, and capacity development
- attention to power and relationships in aid.
Methods for reflective practice
Keeping a reflective journal – sometimes also called a learning journal – is a way to reflect through documenting ideas, feelings, observations and visions. It can be done on paper or on a computer. Keeping a reflective journal can help you to
- focus your thoughts and develop your ideas
- develop your voice and gain confidence
- experiment with ideas and ask questions
- organise your thinking through exploring and mapping complex issues
- develop your conceptual and analytical skills
- reflect upon and make sense of experiences and the processes behind them
- express your feelings and emotional responses
- become aware of your actions and strategies
- develop your writing style and skills, and explore different styles of writing
- develop a conversation with others.
When keeping a reflective journal, these tips may be useful:
- write for yourself, and write every day
- be informal, using language you are comfortable with
- write by hand if you prefer
- write in your own language
- be relaxed and comfortable
- try sitting in different places and positions
- use diagrams and drawings
- record not just events but reflection on process
- ask questions and challenge assumptions
- connect personal and professional experiences to concepts and theories.
More details on these and other tips can be found in Jenny Moon’s 2004 book A Handbook of Reflective and Experiential Learning.
Peer groups and Co-operative Inquiry
A group of peers who meet on a regular basis to learn and reflect together can be a powerful supporting element of individual reflective practice. The group, which decides together how to use and organize its time, may discuss work-related issues, share learning journal excerpts or try out a form of collective reflective practice.
Co-operative Inquiry is a reflective practice method for groups which was initially developed by John Heron to support the reflective practice of participatory researchers. Heron, a pioneer in the development of participatory methods in the social sciences, describes the theory and practice of the method in his 1996 book, Co-operative Inquiry: research into the human condition. It involves a group working through a structured, four-stage cycle of action and reflection, through which group members move towards developing new ways of acting.
Methods from research and other fields
Reflective practice, reflexivity and first person inquiry are used in research to explore issues of power and positionality and to make the role and assumptions of researchers more explicit and integral to their analysis. There are many approaches to this, which include methods from qualitative ethnographic and anthropological research, participatory and action research, and feminist research.
There are also many different reflective practice methods and approaches from management science, experiential and transformational learning, and organisational learning and change. Several of these are reviewed in the 2010 IDS Bulletin Reflecting Collectively on Capacities for Change.
Within development and action research, the field of embodied learning and reflection is growing. Many practices in this field are based on the pioneering work of Brazilian director and activist Augusto Boal, who developed Theatre of the Oppressed in the 1970s. They include methods for bodywork and movement, and approaches such as Forum Theatre and Theatre for Development.