Helping your student develop critical reflection skills

What do we mean by critical reflection and how can we assist students to develop this skill and way of practicing?

Critical reflection is core to social work practice, just as with articulating a robust practice framework, the ability for all social workers to engage in truly critically reflective practice is essential for accountable, ethical and quality practice. But how do you ‘teach’ your student to be a critically reflective practitioner? Student placements are a crucial training ground where supervisors and field education agencies, along with the university, have a key role in facilitating students’ development in being able to understand the importance of critical reflection and how to actually critically reflect.

So why is critical reflection important? "As Gibbons (2002) reminds us, social work is rarely involved in areas in which answers are black and white. Social workers deal with information, values and perspectives from diverse areas. Critical thinking aims to challenge our own and other people’s values, beliefs and assumptions and ensure that there is rigor in the way we think about our work. Gibbons (2002) provides a useful summary of critical thinking and its application to social work:

  • Critical thinking is more than a step-by-step problem-solving process;
  • It applies reflective skills to concrete situations. It can only be learnt and refined through practice - through doing and reflecting on what we have done and why we did it that way;
  • Critical thinking involves creative and lateral thinking as well as analytical thinking;
  • It allows for shades of grey, strives for depth, acknowledges ambiguity, complexity versus black and white;
  • It focuses on process versus content;
  • Critical thinking encourages an holistic/integrated perspective rather than simple uni-disciplinary/linear approaches;
  • It values original/insightful thought versus ‘second hand’ thinking;
  • It suspends closure/neat and packaged solutions rather than strives for closure;
  • It is exploring and probing rather than being dogmatic or avoiding"

Critical thinking for social work challenges values, assumptions, beliefs underlying knowledge, theories, practice and research questions and makes judgments about the relevance and validity of information. It is the basis of good clinical decisions and is required for ethical reasoning. It is needed for practice in organisations if social workers are to retain their professional integrity in the face of pressure to become organisational apparatchiks. It is also fundamental to our defence against becoming agents of social control versus agents of social change" (Agglias et al., 2010, pp. 56 -57).

"A critically reflective approach ...relies upon knowledge which is generated both empirically and self reflectively, and in a process of interaction, in order to analyse, resist and change constructed power relations, structures and ways of thinking" (Fook, 1999, p. 202, cited in Osmond & Darlington, 2005, p. 3).

Students will need guidance and assistance in developing their ability to think critically, and supervision both formal and informal, is a time to assist students in doing so. Providing students with some structure around how to think reflectively and critically in important, and challenging the students to be able to articulate how they practice critical reflection is also important. This then addresses students who may say, "but I always critically reflect" without being able to demonstrate how, what they have learnt etc.

Here are some useful questions or prompts for critical reflection:

  • How does what happened in my incident compare with what I intended to do or what I assumed I was doing
  • Was the theory I claimed to be using different from what was implied in my actions and interpretations?
  • Did my actions fit my theory?
  • What needs to be changed about my assumptions, theory, actions, interpretations, skills, as a result of these reflections?
  • How do you understand or explain the incident/issue/situation
  • Where do you think you have generated your ideas and explanations from? (Fook et al., 2000, p. 233, cited in Osmond & Darlington, 2005, p. 5).

Some further questions you may ask your student:

Before seeing a client: After seeing the client:

What are your thoughts before seeing this client?

What are your feelings before seeing this client?

Do you have any plans or purposes for this interview?

What are your thoughts now?

What did you make of that?

How do you understand this client situation or issue?

What does this interview, report etc suggest about what was influencing your understandings/practice?

Were you having any internal thoughts, feelings, or reactions during the interview that you did not share with the client? What were they?

What are you basing your conclusions/assessment/decisions about the client situation on?

What would you have liked to have seen happen? Why did you think that did not happen?

How do you think the client reacted and responded to you? Why? (Osmond & Darlington, 2005, p.7).

Because we believe that effective learning is not possible without reflection (Boud, Keogh & Walker, 1985), we expect that students’ reflections will replicate the steps of Kolb’s Learning Cycle (Kolb 1984) (Table 1). This cycle is dynamic and that one aspect feeds into the next (i.e. once you have tried out a new perspective that informs the next concrete experience). We also believe that the steps ‘set the stage’ for continued reflection.

Kolb’s learning cycle and the practice centred experience

Reflective Cycle Kolb’s Learning Cycle Practice-Centred Experience
Report Concrete Experience
Something that has happened to you or you have done
Concrete Experience
Meeting with your client, learning about their experiences
Relate Reflection
Reviewing the event or experience; exploring your and others’ feelings about it
Reviewing the client’s experiences; exploring those in the context of your own values and experiences
Reason Abstract Conceptualisation
Developing new ideas, seek more information from other sources, from new ideas
Abstract Conceptualisation
Sharing your reflections with peers Conceptualising a representation that incorporates experiences and feelings
Reconstruct Active Experimentation
Trying out new ideas based on earlier experience and reflection
Active Experimentation
Bringing new perspective and ideas to discussion and to the relationships with future clients

Steps therefore include:

  • Noticing/describing
  • Making sense
  • Making meaning
  • Working with meaning
  • Transformative (Cleak & Wilson, 2013).

This provides a further useful tool to assist students to develop a model for critically reflecting on their practice.


Agglias, K., Bowles, W., Cassano, B., Collingridge, M., Dawood, A., Irwin, J., Lukic, M., Maywald, S., McKinnon, J., Noble, C., O’Sullivan, J., Wexler, J., & Zubrzycki, J. (2010). A guide to supervision in social work field. Australian Learning and Teaching Council: Canberra.

Boud, D., Keogh, R., & Walker, D. (1985). Reflection: Turning experience into learning. London: Kogan Page.

Cleak, H., & Wilson, J. (2013). Making the most of field placement. Southbank, Vic.: Thomson Learning.

Kolb, D.A. (1984). Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Osmond, J., & Darlington, Y. (2005). Reflective analysis: Techniques for facilitating reflection. Australian Social Work, 58(1), 3-14.