Skip to main content

Investigating STEM Pathway Students' Perceptions of Reflective Practice


Investigating STEM pathway students’ perceptions of reflective practice: A case study

Margaret Boswell
Centre for Academic Language and Development, University of Bristol, Bristol UK



This paper explores the perceptions and attitudes held by a group of international Foundation students enrolled in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics towards reflective practice. Thirteen students participated in an initial survey and three students participated in follow up focus groups and one to one interviews. The findings reveal that while students perceive reflective practice to be positive in the long run, increasing confidence, self-knowledge and enhancing transferability to their subject units, they experience initial uncertainty towards it. They felt there should be enhanced measures to reflect student accountability; desired more motivational and engaging in-class activities as well as greater specificity with regards reflective tasks that foster and reflect meaningful learning outcomes. There were intimations that some students sensed a feeling of being forced to practice reflection and were often unmotivated to undertake it of their own volition. The paper concludes that while participants view reflective practice as useful, STEM pathway students may become more motivated, and initial attitude may be less sceptical, if the teaching of written reflective practice is pedagogically scaffolded and forms part of an accountable process in which educators can support learner engagement through mutual participation.


KEYWORDS: Motivation, Reflection-in-Action, Reflective Practice, Scaffolding, STEM



Reflective practice (Dewey, 1933) is an established pedagogical process emerging from educational philosophy. It is embedded throughout Higher Education (HE) and sits comfortably within the humanities and social sciences, as well as nursing and scientific pedagogy (Macfarlane and Gourlay, 2009; Schön, 2017). Reflecting this trend, reflective practice is embedded into both course design and assessment, of an accelerated English Language Unit designed for students entering with proficient levels of English on an International Foundation Programme (IFP) of one UK Higher Education Institution (HEI). The programme incorporates multiple pathways including Arts and Humanities, Social Sciences and Law and Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). All students are required to develop written reflective practice skills through logs that aid explanation of how their individual academic literacy learning evolves across a twenty-four-week programme. STEM students attend bi-weekly laboratory practice sessions, after which they are required to submit a post-practicum reflective comment to their instructors.

Specifically, the accelerated English Language unit is designed with regular personalised written reflective practice activities embedded at the end of each workshop, and the assessment includes formatively assessed e-portfolio submissions. This culminates in a 60% weighted summative assessment in the form of a final oral presentation that requires learners to rationalise, substantiate and articulate their academic literacy development based on critical self-analysis of their development against the unit intended learning outcomes (ILOs), (see Appendix I). Students are assessed on their reflective presentation that discusses evolution of their skills, with one objective being that the unit helps shape students towards becoming practiced reflective individuals in the context of Higher Education. Yet, embracing written reflective practice does not always come second nature to STEM pathway learners. This is reflected in how the end products can on occasion seem formulaic, and performative (Macfarlane and Goulay, 2009).

The significance of reflective practice in STEM subjects is clear (Blockley, 1992; Dias and Blockley 2995; Prudhomme, Boujut, and Brissaud, 2003). Not only is it a highly regarded attribute for employment preparation, but it is also a vital attribute which evolved STEM practitioners utilize in both academia and in occupational contexts. However, scepticism towards reflective practice as a non-scientific form of learning exists (Hains-Wesson and Young, 2017). Indeed, based on the researchers own experience, initial attitudes towards reflective practice can be hesitant amongst some IFP STEM pathway students. Hitherto, the explicit relationship of reflective practice to STEM pathway learners studying an English Language unit on an IFP has been uncharted, and to date the views and attitudes of STEM pathway students towards reflective practice have not been articulated.

While reflective practice is essentially grounded in humanities and social sciences (Macfarlane and Gourlay, 2009), there is clear value of strengthening STEM pathway student engagement in its practice. Prudhomme, Boujut and Brissaud (2003) maintain, STEM students are expected to evolve as reflective practitioners. This is related to the capacity and skills necessary for critical analysis of engineering and engineer design past failures, as well as being thoroughly prepared for the world of work (Hains-Wesson and Young, 2017). Thus, introducing critical incident analysis and problem- solving activities that foster critical engagement with varying viewpoints, followed by critical reflective practice, could further strengthen reflective practice engagement and deepen practice and sustain motivation.

This small-scale case study (Stake, 2000) begins with an exploration of the literature surrounding reflective practice depicting what is already known about it and the varying cultural perspectives towards it. Further, the literature exploration examines reflection in STEM disciplines and reflection- in-action, assessment of reflection and student perceptions of reflective practice. Next, there is an account of how the study was carried out and the methods adopted. This is followed by a discussion of the case study findings and includes extracts of participant contributions. The study finally concludes that scaffolded support with initial and accountable engagement in discursive reflective practice could be implemented and suggests that initial scaffolded educator as participant reflective practice, with regular ‘interludes’ (Hibbert, 2013), could enhance STEM pathway student engagement with its practice.



The emergence of reflective practice (Dewey, 1933) and its integration in curriculum design and role as an assessment of learning tool in academia, is well documented in the literature across wide-ranging disciplines (Ash, Clayton and Atkinson, 2005; Ash and Clayton, 2009; Fook, 2015; Fullana et al. 2016; Hibbert, 2013; Hughes, 2018; Molee et al. 2011; Pais Marden and Herrington, 2022; Pitts and Ruggirello, 2012; Turner, 2006). Despite this, there has been some recognition that the term ‘reflection’ may not only be hard to distinguish from systematic thinking, but it is also difficult to assess something with nebulous definition (Rodgers, 2002). Furthermore, reflection is not perceived as desirable by all in higher education, with some authors who note that teaching reflection does not come without difficulties (Leigh, 2016; Russel, 2005; Smith 2011), and others who challenge the ‘merits of imposing this form of assessment on students’ (Macfarlane and Goulay 2009, p.457).

Crucially, the internationalisation of Higher Education in recent decades brings together diversity and wide-ranging education systems of varied heritage origins, yet what is expected in reflective practice can be difficult to apply in practice (Ash and Clayton, 2004). Indeed, ‘reflective practice’ and ‘critical reflection’ can often substitute each other (Fook, 2015, p.440), and due to language and varying cultural and discipline perspectives, some international students might find the idea of reflection a concept hard to grasp (Tan, 2021). Ultimately, students from different cultures come with misconceptions and uncertainties about the meaning of critical thinking and other thinking practices, some students view reflectivity as part of critical thinking (Manalo et al. 2015).

What is also striking is that even when students develop an understanding of what it takes to write reflectively, the reflections can emerge as superficial and descriptive (Moon, 2004). Furthermore, motivation to undertake reflective practice does not come easily (Fullana et al. 2016). In addition, some students need longer than one semester to assimilate written reflective skills and according to studies, real deep thinking critical reflection skills take years to develop (Andrade and Du, 2007; Fullana et al. 2016; Molee et al. 2011). In the case of students’ perspectives of reflective practice, little research has explored the effect reflection has on ‘deeper self-knowledge and better learning’ (Wong, 2016, p.1) nor notably, why STEM pathway students might be reluctant to practice reflection.

It is important to note that written reflective practice is embedded into humanities and social science discipline curricula. It is also integrated into STEM subject curriculum. As such it is a pre- requisite for students progressing to STEM subjects to evolve as reflective successful problem solvers and collaborators (Blockley, 1992; Dias and Blockley, 1995; Prudhomme, Boujut, and Brissaud, 2003). Indeed, engineer design necessitates the analysis of past failures, such as within civil engineering projects where bridge design projects may form curriculum. In this scenario, practitioners are engaged in reflection-on-practice (Schön, 2017), rather than reflection-in-practice (Schön, 2017), the latter involving focussed critical analysis during problem-solving activities. Nonetheless, reflective practice skills are often not scaffolded nor taught (Ryan, 2013; Ryan and Ryan, 2013), yet cultivating the ability to reflect-in-action (Schön, 2017), as a way of developing skills of improvisation and applying theory of experiential learning (Kolb, 1984), in practice, is both necessary and highly regarded in STEM learning scenarios. Reflective practice is regarded as a strength within STEM subjects and its development necessary as a continuous process (Embo et al. 2014; Vivekananda- Schmidt et al. 2011). As such it ought to be perceived and conveyed as highly regarded and a highly transferable skill.

Engineers tend to rely on improvisation (Schön, 2017), a skill developed through experiential learning (Kolb, 1984). Drawing firstly on learned formulaic comprehension and internalised knowledge or ‘technical rationality’ (Schön, 2017, p.169), engineers reflect-in-action by mapping their technical knowledge to the problem, leading to experiential improvisation. This is of particular relevance to the transferability to real-world industrial problem solving and in mechanical engineering, the construction of knowledge (Li et al. 2019). Reflective practice to construct knowledge could further enhance engagement with STEM subjects, yet for those students schooled to write in ‘a more formal and technical manner’ (Macfarlane and Gaulay, 2009, p.458), being required to conform to a restricted set of values to fit ‘notions of the contemporary citizen’ (Macfarlane, 2016, p.92) and the need to be ‘personal and self-revelatory’ (Macfarlane and Gaulay, 2009, p.458) may be unfamiliar territory. This means that clear ILOs expectations in tangent with greater scaffolding could help reduce learner uncertainty.

Despite reflective pedagogy being regularly included in assessment requirements, it is often lacking ‘necessary scaffolding’ or ‘clear expectations’ (Ryan, 2013, p.255) for students. Moreover, students are often not taught ‘how to reflect’ (Ryan and Ryan, 2013, p.145) nor how to best communicate their disciplinary knowledge through reflection. To ensure assessment of reflection is not merely an evaluative tool, and one which learners perceive merely as a way to conform and perform or jump through hoops (Leigh, 2016; Macfarlane and Gourlay, 2009), reflective practice requires critical analysis of what reflection is (Leigh, 2016). Yet, students might not always write reflective journals when not assessed (Cathro et al., 2017), and those new to the reflection process demonstrate less deep learning or critical thinking in their writing, suggesting the need for several rewrites with tutor feedback, peer-led reflection sessions, and tutorials to help learners document and ‘deepen their learning’ (Molee et al., 2017, p.252). Hence, the need for increased classroom-based practice could support and strengthen students’ capacity for deepened learning.

Students’ perceptions of authentic reflective practice can be enhanced through the construction of STEM discipline identity and scaffolded reflective practice (Ryan and Ryan, 2013). In this way, reflection-on-practice through the lens of the STEM subject reinforces discipline identity, helps form ‘professional identity’ (Trede and Smith, 2012, p.625) and develops agency (Archer, 2002). In turn, such specific focus can stimulate motivation to learn (Fullana et al., 2016). and learning by means of educator participation (Trede and Smith, 2012). Creating a ‘safe space’ (Zizka, McGunagle and Clark, 2020) might not only enhance students’ perceptions of authentic practice but also constitute trust-building. However, researchers observe that while some students do engage with reflective practice enthusiastically, some merely conform and the product can be just as much prone to inauthenticity as an essay written without respect to academic integrity (Macfarlane and Goulay, 2009).

Nonetheless, a clear line of argument about reflective practice within the learning environment is formed with many researchers arguing for greater facilitator participation in the practice of reflection within the learning context and greater learner support in understanding how to reflect (Hibbert, 2013; Ryan, 2013; Ryan and Ryan, 2013; Trede and Smith, 2012). These arguments point towards the value of developing a community feel of reflective practice that in turn builds trust (Zizka, McGunagle and Clark, 2020), and where class activities forge conversation and foster a collaborative environment, so that ideally ‘theory is developed, rather than delivered’ (Hibbert, 2013, p.808).

This ideal contributes to a shared sense of purpose and learner evolution. Here, the argument for a teaching process that approaches reflexivity through critical reflection, includes the necessity of clear preparation for teaching reflection and that prepares students to engage with reflective practice, should be embedded into the curriculum. This should be followed by critical dialogue to engage with diversity and power dynamics within the group and ‘foreground power’ (Hibbert, 2013, p.820), followed by discussions aimed at unsettling familiar viewpoints that consequentially lead to developing new perspectives. This is essential where learners exhibit resistance to engagement towards reflective practice, because it could instigate educator-learner power dynamics, impinging upon the mutually shared learning environment.

Research Questions
The study’s purpose was to investigate STEM pathway students’ perceptions of reflective practice, as such the following questions guided the enquiry: What are the attitudes of IFP STEM pathway students towards reflective practice? What is the cause of the initial hesitance towards it? What implications for education development are there?



A three-phase triangulated qualitative research method was adopted, within a grounded theory approach. The case study was framed as a heuristic (George and Benett, 2005), being designed to capture students’ views and advance understanding of causal features of reluctance towards reflective practice. For the first phase, electronic survey software was used. The second phase captured and recorded participant voices using a mini-focus group. This was followed by recording one-to-one semi-structured interviews with these same participants.

Setting, participants and limitations
To recruit participants, an invitation to take part in the three phased qualitative study had been extended across an International Foundation Programme (IFP) STEM pathway cohort. The cohort, enrolled on this IFP do not only study language but also STEM subjects related to their conjected pathway. Thirteen participants responded and were recruited. From the original thirteen, three participants indicated interest in participating in a mini-focus group and subsequent semi-structured interviews, which limited the potential data. The participants each had experience of practicing reflection as part of the construction of an e-portfolio of course work and were pro-topic. To meet ethical requirements, informed consent was attained from each participant, one of whom was known to the researcher.

Data collection
Qualitative methods were chosen for the study. The reasons for this were that qualitative research methodology offers researchers the opportunity to enquire into the beliefs, assumptions, values, and practices of individuals (Braun, Clarke, and Clarke, 2013). Definitions of qualitative research methodology vary (Hatch, 2002), though essentially, qualitative research methodology gathers meaning through the words of research participants which subsequently constitutes data (Braun, Clarke, and Clarke, 2013). Data collection through, questionnaires, focus groups and semi structured one-to-one interviews offer an effective way of capturing opinions and deepening discussion of earlier responses during interviews, reflecting case study methodology (Yin, 2002).

Crucially, the data captured in this study seeks to draw out and communicate relative perceptions and understand more deeply participants’ reflective practice actions and behaviours in relation to the learning context. Given their living experience of reflective practice in the context of their course, it was possible to focus on the participant’s narrative as the expert informants (Auerbach and Silverstein, 2003).

Initial questionnaire survey questions (see Appendix II) were designed to capture participants’ understandings and previous experience of reflective practice and how it might have supported their academic development. Further questions attempted to capture the participants expectations and views of their current contextual reflective practice and its implications for transferability to their STEM pathway subject and future practice. The participants’ responses in the survey were then examined and provided a base upon which to construct key questions for the mini-focus group interviews. These were then conducted using video call technology. The objective was to capture deepened responses to gauge participants’ perceptions of their reflective practice on the course, further, to ascertain how participants connect its relevance to their STEM pathway subject and future studies (see Appendix III). The initial data analysis provided possibility to delve further during the phase three one-to-one interviews with participants. These interviews again took place using video call technology. The questions (see Appendix IV), sought to examine in still greater depth the participants’ perceptions, attitudes, and sense of value towards reflective practice, to glean what might be at the core of any initial reluctance to practice it.

Inductive thematic analysis
Inductive thematic analysis (Clarke, Braun, and Hayfield, 2015) provided a framework to code the data. By collecting, reading and re-reading the data, the aim was to stay as close as possible to the meanings therein, and for it to become familiar and to notice themes. The themes were identified and became categories for coding (Fereday and Muir-Cochrane, 2006) and organising nascent patterns (Xu and Zammit, 2020). Codes enabled the possibility to interpret, explain and conclude resultant implications from the contextualised data, and compare with similar codes from previous studies (Tan, 2021). This strengthened impartiality.

Codes generated
The procedure for code generation were both ‘data-derived’ and ‘researcher-derived’ (Clarke, Braun and Braun, 2015, p.276). Table 1 provides a clear thematic structure of the identified themes and sub-themes.

Themes Sub-themes
  Attitude towards reflection Improvement
Increased confidence  
Identified transferability
  Value of reflection Self-knowledge
Enhanced integration  
  Perception of how reflection supports STEM subject learning Initial uncertainty  
Lack of self-motivation in STEM units
Feeling forced
Table 1. Thematic structure

Each phase of the data collection constituted researcher questions and the participant responses for thematic analysis, these responses were grouped accordingly providing further thematic groupings where sub-themes were teased out. To illustrate this, Table 2 shows researcher questions, samples of data and related codes identified. The process of data analysis and code generation was used iteratively for all three phases of the study and aimed for the codes to be as ‘concise as possible’ (ibid.).

Phase 1 Survey Questions Response Codes
If you did practice reflection in your previous institution, did it help you develop academically? It was mainly talking about where we could improve improvement
  Looking at the feedback on homework or exams or quizzes. evaluation
  Which area I am weak in, and so I could put more effort there. focused effort
During your course, do you think you have deepened your reflective practice? Not really, I haven’t really had time or have the chance to reflect on my progress. no improvement
  Yes, because I seldom did that before improvement
Do you feel your reflective practice on the English Unit develops you academically for your STEM pathway discipline in higher education? We will write a reflection .. we also need it at the end of the course transferability
In the future, do you think you will continue to develop your reflective practice as part of your STEM subject academic studies? If so, could you say  
for STEM, I do look at my work/ when I work through questions, I take note of the topics that I struggle with and supplement it with extra reading or practise  improvement
Phase 2 mini-focus group  
Response Codes
During your IFP English Language Unit, do you think you have developed your reflective practice? If so, how have you developed?     making sure we're actually applying what we're learning… so it's not like I know we're learning new skills or it was about just reinforcing them’ reinforce
How do you think reflective practice might be valuable in your STEM subject?   So I think reflecting would be really helpful, like learning techniques, if you're doing it actively passively seeing what works best for your personal preferences   self-knowledge
Phase 3 one-to-one interviews  
Response Codes
Based on your performance during the IFP, how do you perceive reflective practice supports your STEM subject learning?     It's a skill that you can use unrelated to what subject are using it like you can learn anything. transferability
‘Based on your performance during the IFP, how do you perceive reflective practice will support your potential achievement in your STEM subject? it doesn't matter which STEM subject, it could help if you do it for yourself. But again, students aren't really motivated just by themselves     unmotivated
  the things we can identify when looking at others, we can't see them looking at ourselves and, in that sense, reflective practice would be valuable   valuable
Now you’ve talked about reflective practice in more depth, how would you summarise your attitudes and perceptions of reflective practice? it's just feels a bit forceful because then I have to create some sort of like superficial connection forced
  looking back on those notes that I wrote after doing every assignment and looking at my teacher’s feedback and relooking at the assignment, it really gives me a different perspective…. after the whole year, I think that's really useful. useful
Table 2. Tabulation of codes identified from sample data responses.

From these themes sub-themes were identified, which are discussed in the main findings below. The value of such detailed methodological process ensured response to the research questions.



While the data suggests that the participants learn to value and appreciate the process of practicing reflection, it revealed as previously mentioned, some initial participant scepticism towards reflective practice and uncertainty as to what is expected and how to approach it. The study participants view regular classroom activities that provide reflective practice, at the very start of classroom learning, rather than at the session end, to be potentially preferable. Further, there is a perception that participation in reflective practice felt sometimes forced on participants. Although participants are more likely to engage in the process when it is rationalised through theoretical underpinnings and literature, the STEM pathway case study participants are unlikely to be motivated to devote time formally to practice reflection outside of classroom learning environments. Overall, reflective practice activities are viewed as positive, yet participants perceive these to be lacking in their lived experience of learning environments.

The themes emerged inductively from the data set. The sub-themes were identified according to the terminology within participant comments and correspondingly grouped. Below, the themes and sub-themes are presented with anonymised extracts from the data to illustrate the findings.

Phase 1: Theme - Attitude towards reflection
Survey participants attitude towards reflective practice in phase 1 illuminated skills improvement, increased confidence and recognised the transferability of reflective practice. As such these were identified as sub-themes of attitudes towards reflection.

Sub-theme - Improvement
One participant commented that at the end of each term for each subject, they reviewed and evaluated their learning progress, not only reflecting academically but on their ‘personal development’. Another participant responded that they had practiced reflection while studying film as a diploma, and while it was ‘mainly just for marks’, the focus had required students to identify where they could improve. Another participant commented that: ‘It helped me become more independent and improve my skills on my own’. Essentially, among participants who took the survey, one common feature was that reflective practice helped them improve.

Sub-theme - Increased confidence
Participants identified that reflective practice led to increased confidence and in turn might help students develop academically, with one participant responding:

'I don’t believe reflecting on previous work could help someone academically, but I do believe it can boost one’s confidence in their writing as they can see their progress throughout the portfolio.'

Another noting it had helped them cover ‘gaps in knowledge’ and see how much they had developed.

Sub-theme - Transferability
When asked whether participants felt reflective practice on the English Unit develops them academically for their STEM pathway discipline in HE participants could see the connection with their future studies with one respondent commenting that: ‘¡Reflective practice allows me to review the academic knowledge that I have gained, preparing me for future learning in my pathway’.

In sum, the phase 1 participant responses and attitudes towards reflection opened some interesting sub-themes which align with student development in general, such as self-improvement, boosted self-confidence and transferability to future studies. As such these sub-themes allowed exploration in greater depth, and to seek to understand how participants value reflective practice.

Phase 2: Theme - Value of reflection
In the phase 2 mini-focus groups, the emerging overarching theme was the value of reflection. Transferability to STEM pathway subjects was explored and participants commented that ‘self- knowledge develops’, being identified as a sub-theme. Participants felt how reflective practice is ‘integrated’ into sessions could be better managed, and that an increase in ‘accountability is needed’, subsequently identified as sub-themes of how participants view the value of reflection.

Sub-theme - Self-knowledge
When asked how they think reflective practice might be valuable in their STEM subject, one participant reported that it strengthened a deepened understanding of personal preferences and as such, their self-knowledge:

'So, it doesn't depend on the subject you're studying, because it's more about yourself because you are an instrument of your learning. Your mind is an instrument of your learning, and so reflection is about getting acquainted with it.'

With the development of self-knowledge, reflective practice can support independence development, potentially contribute to enhanced self-confidence, and reinforce agency (Archer, 2002).

Sub-theme - Enhanced Integration
One participant felt more regular practice, better integration into sessions, and some process of reward for undertaking reflection could further stimulate engagement and motivation:

'Maybe we could do it more often, also in a more entertaining way. But sometimes, I don't really have motivation to do it - like a bonus point - I think that would be helpful. Anything more entertaining than it is would make it more appealing.'

And another participant felt that developing an embedded, regulated approach, with a central storage of reflective accounts responding to more specific questions could make it more achievable:

'We were supposed to do the reflection in the end of each week, but we sometimes skipped it in class because sometimes short on time. I think we would benefit from having a certain place which records our reflection and that we can go back to and see how it was changing throughout the course.'

This participant also felt more specific questions would be helpful:

'I feel it's sometimes daunting for people to have a very broad question like, reflect on your learning or tell us what you have learned from this week because it's very broad and you sometimes don't know what to think about, and so maybe something more specific is needed.'

Another participant felt that the time to reflect would be better at the start of sessions, to reduce the lack of engagement with reflective practice when left to individual motivation:

'Maybe, it could be at the beginning, and then we can reflect and then we'll go on with the class - something to make it more time constrictive too 'cause if it's at the end, it's just open, whenever you want to do it, and nobody is really going to set the time just to answer 3 questions.'

This participant also felt strongly that the reflective questions should be specific and that would cause less uncertainty: ‘Sometimes I'm just like, so what do I do now? You know, I read the question, but I'm not sure what it's exactly asking’. The ambiguity and lack of direction of the reflective practice questions is something participants view as significant and illuminates where superficial, descriptive formulaic and performative reflections tend to arise (Moon, 2004; Macfarlane and Gourlay, 2009; Macfarlane, 2016).

Sub-theme - Accountability
There was also a position that there should be enhanced accountability that would require a more open shared space:

'Having for example, a padlet or like very specific place, a shared place to add our reflection and or ideas. It can be private sometimes of course, like OneNote as in our private little folder, but I think it's just because it is like very private there. You don't feel like there's accountability. So, it's just for you, so if you don't want to do it, you just don't do it. But if you do, it is helpful.'

Overall, findings in the phase 2 mini-focus group offered bountiful responses and identify the value of reflection from the participants standpoint. Nonetheless, the findings also reveal a need for greater question clarity, purposeful time put aside at the start of a session to engage with reflective practice, and that there should be accountability so that the students feel a sense of motivation to practice reflection.

Phase 3: Theme - Perception of how reflection supports STEM subject learning
The focus in phase 3 sought to explore in more depth initial attitudes towards reflective practice and the STEM pathway student’s perceptions of how reflective practice supports STEM subject learning. The findings show that participants vocalised initial uncertainty, lack of self-motivation in STEM units and feeling forced.

Sub-theme - Initial Uncertainty
When asked about their initial attitude towards reflective practice, one participant responded: ‘Honestly, I felt like it might be pointless. I don't really see how it would help at the beginning, but then when we did, it showed me that it could be helpful’. Another participant initially viewed reflective practice as artificial:

'Well, in the beginning I didn't like it that much because it felt artificial like a task that is intended to make you reflect, but it doesn't make it properly and so it's just like unnecessary, and I didn't like it at all.'

Sub-theme - Lack of self-motivation in STEM units
When asked to consider their STEM subject units, the participants were asked to think about how they thought the units might provide greater opportunity to practice reflection, one participant felt that were it not obligatory when leaving laboratory practice, students would lack the motivation to practice:

'You can't even leave [the lab] without showing the instructor your comments so you really don't have an option. So eventually everybody does it, but if it's just up to students, then people won't really do it.'

The lack of incentive to complete reflective practice is an interesting thread in the data, since this offers educators the opportunity to align reflective practice as a way to strengthen students’ motivation to learn (Andrade and Du, 2007; Fullana et al. 2015).

Sub-theme - Feeling forced
When asked how they would summarise their attitudes and perceptions of reflective practice, referring to the accelerated English Language unit, participants saw the use of reflective practice but also the opportunity to allow more flexibility in the reflection process: ‘It just feels a bit forceful because then I have to create some superficial connection between what I actually really feel I truly learned, and you know the guidelines’.

The data suggests that to foster practice of reflection, which is more natural and less rigid or forced, more authentic reflective practice activities should be designed as a way to meet the aims of the study.



The study is distinctive in its context since it has primarily explored the views and attitudes of International Foundation Programme STEM pathway students towards reflective practice. The findings indicate that participants in this case study do perceive reflective practice leads to improvement, supports development of self-knowledge and independence. These views are positive and illuminate opportunity for further development. However, participants also initially view reflective practice with uncertainty and scepticism, which was further explained by the desire to receive accountable class-time opportunities to practice reflection to enhance engagement. Even though participants see the value and transferability of reflective practice in general, and to STEM subjects, there is an attitude of initial reluctance and lack of motivation and engagement. Moreover, the requirement to align individual development against ILOs, is perceived as essentially restricting expression of the natural authenticity of the personal learning experience, creating a negative viewpoint and attitude towards the final reflective assessment. By positioning this small-scale case study in the current discourse about reflection in HE, several illuminations emerge that resonate with the literature and support the view that learners require reinforcement in understanding how to start to reflect (Hibbert, 2013; Ryan, 2013; Ryan and Ryan, 2013; Trede and Smith, 2012; Tan, 2021).

The secondary aim is to understand what might cause initial reluctance towards reflective practice. The hesitation towards reflective practice, seems in part due to participants viewing reflective practice as being artificial and forced on them. This could stem from the fact that reflective practice is unfamiliar for STEM pathway students arriving to study in Higher Education from schooling which Macfarlane and Goulay (2009, p.458), argue might be more ‘formal and technical’. In fact, prior to commencing the IFP, for roughly a third of the phase 1 participants, practicing reflection on the English Language Unit was a first experience. However, for those who had had previous experience of reflective practice, it had not been embedded into their daily or weekly coursework, but rather, in a range of different experiences. For example, one participant had been required to practice reflection in one of their research subjects. They were instructed to keep a first draft of every piece of work they had to do in a development portfolio to ‘reflect on it later on’. Importantly, most learners arriving from their secondary education, having regularly achieved good grades for STEM subjects, are unlikely to have been required to produce written reflective accounts of English language learning. Ash and Clayton (2009) point out that reflection is often ‘associated with “touchy- feely” introspection’, that it is too subjective to evaluate and ‘lacking in the rigor required for substantive academic work’ (p.27). This could give rise to some students questioning the efficacy of the summative reflective presentation of development claim, causing reluctance towards participating in the process of reflective practice and completion of the final assessment.

As reinforced by Leigh (2016), reflective practice is likely to be uncompleted unless it is assessed. This echoes participants acknowledgment of the tendency to ‘skip’ completing final reflective practice questions at the end of class, and could also explain initial reluctance and ongoing lack of self-motivation. Additionally, the reflective questions at the end of class are perceived as vague and lacking in specificity, and participants are uncertain about how to convey their reflections on the class-based learning activities. As such, this might also be a contributing factor for uncertainty.

Uncertainty regarding how to practice authentic critical reflection about development of their written work or knowledge construction for assessment is a further consequence and relates to the subsequent lack of motivation and risks production of formulaic reflective assessment responses.

This reinforces arguments maintained by Macfarlane and Goulay (2009), who refer to assessment of reflection as ‘behavioural conformism’ (p.457), and that rather than assessment of reflective practice being only deemed effective if it creates change (ibid.), instead what might engage learners more could be ‘critical engagement with a range of perspectives’ (ibid.), the focus of which could be analysis of varying perspectives on critical reflective practice. As such, both the participant attitudes and the causes for reluctance towards reflective practice, have some implications for education development and assessment.

Assessment of reflective practice could support how learners develop greater awareness of what matters most to them as their STEM subject identity emerges and the importance of adapting to professional practice in their chosen discipline. Thus, to enhance transparency, reimagining ILOs in part to include specific focus on subject related critical reflection as a key outcome (Ash and Clayton, 2004), could enhance trust and vindicate the purpose of reflective practice, making assessment more meaningful. Ash and Clayton (2004) argue that it is insufficient to depend on student testimonials and self-reports to assess the ‘quality of their learning’ and ‘the meeting of learning objectives’ (p.138). Hence, measures asking students to demonstrate how they have developed greater understanding, ability to apply knowledge, problem-solving skills and cognitive development would enrich the assessment process (Eyler, 2000). Were this to be in tandem with STEM subject incidents, students could be better empowered to make the connection to their STEM pathway units, while enriching the process of reflection and deepening learning.

The third aim of the study is to determine implications for educational development. Firstly, there is a call for teaching students how to reflect (Ryan and Ryan, 2013). Hibbert (2013) suggests structured or semi-structured tools such as ‘guided journals’ (p.808), while sentence starters as aids to start written reflection would provide a structured and scaffolded primer to reflective practice and could help empower learners with a way into the process, reducing uncertainty. This support may enhance and sustain learner intrinsic motivation to practice reflection of their own volition. Additionally, introducing accountable classroom learning activities might enhance regular and perhaps spontaneous engagement in reflective practice and motivate students to take responsibility further. Besides this, practicing reflection as a collective (Trede and Smith, 2012), could cultivate a sense of duty, thus engaging learners in a mutually trusted environment (Fook, 2015). Andrade and Du (2007) propose that creating engaging activities could enhance learner motivation in reflective practice.

While critical reflective pedagogy already underpins activities in teaching materials used in the context for this study, engaging learners in critical reflective practice from the outset could strengthen the lived experience. Secondly, refashioned ILOs that invite the potential for more creative assessment and steers away from risking formulaic and potentially performative (Macfarlane and Goulay, 2009), assessment responses could inspire learners to deepen practice. This means that if ILOs and assessment were more specific and less ‘rigid’, and also considered STEM subject learning, students might view reflective practice of English development with greater enthusiasm and inspire deepened practice. Significantly, participants indicate that reflective questions lack specificity creating uncertainty. Consequently, devoting class time and embedding regular ‘interludes’ (Hibbert, 2013, p.808) at the start of class could enhance motivation and engagement, help shape learner agency (Archer, 2002) and foster identity as emergent reflective practitioners. Regular ‘interludes’ could provide space for reflection that allow students time to critically reflect and critically question their learning. Critical incidents can be the pivot upon which the ‘interludes’ provide thinking, discussion and written reflection to take place. Furthermore, Ryan and Ryan’s (2013) premise that for successful reflection, dynamic resources and ‘explicit and strategic pedagogic intervention’ (p.255) is necessary, thus introducing some tangible implications in terms of making space for both individual and group reflection work.

Trede and Smith (2012) argue for better empowerment of students through educator participation in group reflective practice with students, allowing greater meaning to emerge from the process of reflective practice through the foci of their shared professional identity. For example, mutual involvement between educator and student in regular group reflection, perhaps monthly at the start of class and providing formative feedback on reflective writing could help reduce uncertainty and foster self-belief as well as reduce early scepticism.

Finally, there is opportunity to enhance motivation by embedding clearly planned rationalised reflective practice activities into classroom learning at the start of the academic programme. Hibbert (2013) argues that when learners fail to participate, the neutrality and mutually supportive environment of a community that constitutes shared values is impinged upon. Hence, introduction to reflective practice should be scaffolded, be at the start of class and regularly embedded in activities which are accountable and engaging and transparent in terms of expectation. Fook (2015) proposes ‘ground rules’ (p.448), which includes creating a confidential and respectful environment that fosters acceptance and non-judgementalism and separates the reflective analysis from the need to ‘make changes or take action’ (p.448). Similarly, Hibbert (2013) suggests ‘learning contract’ (p.808), and as Trede and Smith (2012) state, by building a strong classroom rapport, mutual trust will manifest. Doing this from the outset could help reduce classroom power dynamics and is likely to strengthen students desire to participate in reflective practice in a deepened more meaningful and authentic way. What is clear is that offering regular critical reflection practice as pedagogy, opens possibility for greater intercultural exchange within the classroom learning environment, though for STEM students it could be more authentic and meaningful if it were reflection-on- practice of their scientific subject.



While the study was limited by participant numbers, the interpretations presented in this case study have exposed that although participants view reflective practice at first with scepticism and uncertainty, learners recognise the potential benefits. In turn there are potential educational developments which could help strengthen learner engagement with written reflective practice.

These involve the need for STEM pathway students to become adept in reflective practice within their subjects, evolve with enhanced self-knowledge as this makes reflective practice especially valuable for these learners. Therefore, reflective practice can be introduced early and regularly with educator involvement and with a view to empower individuals. There is opportunity to potentially integrate regular reflective practice moments or ‘interludes’ (Hibbert, 2013) with facilitator participation and create authentic reflection as part of STEM pathway student learning. However, without accountability, students are less likely to engage in reflective practice independently.

Therefore, designing problem solving engaging activities at the start of class with mutual educator involvement and reflective activities, could support learner engagement. Further research is needed to understand the extent to which these recommendations can contribute more to learner engagement in reflective practice.

Address for correspondence:



Apraiz, K. and Evans, G. 2018. Building a Strong Foundation: Using a Shared Elementary Field Experience for Preservice STEM Educators. Interdisciplinary STEM Teaching & Learning Conference 2012-2019. 18.

Ash, S.L. and Clayton, P.H. 2004. The articulated learning: An approach to guided reflection and assessment. Innovative Higher Education. 29(2), pp.137-154.

Ash, S.L. Clayton, P.H. and Atkinson, M.P. 2005. Integrating reflection and assessment to capture and improve student learning. Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning- 11(2), pp.49-60.

Ash, S.L. and Clayton, P.H. 2009. Generating, deepening, and documenting learning: The power of critical reflection in applied learning. Journal of Applied Learning in Higher Education. 1(1), pp.25-48.

Archer, M. 2002. Realism and the problem of agency. Alethia. 5(1), pp.11-20.

Auerbach, C.F. and Silverstein, L.B. 2003. Qualitative Data: An Introduction to Coding and Analysis. New York: New York University Press.

Blockley, D.I. 1992. Engineering from reflective practice. Research in Engineering Design, 4(1), pp.13- 22.

Braun, V. and Clarke, V. 2013. Successful qualitative research: a practical guide for beginners. London: SAGE.

Cathro, V., O'Kane, P. and Gilbertson, D. 2017. Assessing Reflection: Understanding Skill Development through Reflective Learning Journals. Education and Training. 59(4), pp.427-442.

Clarke, V., Braun, V. and Hayfield, N. 2015. Thematic analysis. Qualitative psychology: A practical guide to research methods. In: Smith, J.A. ed. Qualitative Psychology: A Practical Guide to Research Methods. London: Sage, pp.222-248.

Dewey, J. 1933. How We Think. A Restatement of the Relation of Reflective Thinking to the Educative Process. Boston: D.C. Heath and Company.

Dias, W.P.S. and Blockley, D.I. 1995. Reflective Practice in Engineering Design. Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers-Civil Engineering. 108(4), pp.160-168.

ElSayary, A. 2021. Using a Reflective Practice Model to Teach STEM Education in a Blended Learning Environment. Eurasia Journal of Mathematics, Science and Technology Education, 17(2).

Embo, M.P.C., Driessen, E., Valcke, M. and Van Der Vleuten, C.P. 2014. Scaffolding reflective learning in clinical practice: a comparison of two types of reflective activities. Medical teacher. 36(7), pp.602- 607.

Eyler, J. 2000. What do we most need to know about the impact of service-learning on student learning?. Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning. Special Issue Strategic Directions for Service-Learning Research, pp.11-17.

Fook, J. 2015. Reflective practice and critical reflection. In: Lishman, J. ed.  Handbook for practice learning in social work and social care: Knowledge and theory. London and Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley Publishers, pp.363-375.

Fereday, J. and Muir-Cochrane, E. 2006. Demonstrating rigor using thematic analysis: A hybrid approach of inductive and deductive coding and theme development. International Journal of Qualitative Methods. 5(1), pp.80-92.

Fullana, J., Pallisera, M., Colomer, J., Fernández Peña, R. and Pérez-Burriel, M. 2016. Reflective learning in higher education: A qualitative study on students’ perceptions. Studies in Higher Education. 41(6), pp.1008-1022.

George, A.L. and Benett, A. 2005. Case Studies and Theory Development in the Social Science. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Hains-Wesson, R. and Young, K. 2017. A collaborative autoethnography study to inform the teaching of reflective practice in STEM. Higher Education Research & Development. 36(2), pp.297-310.

Hatch, J.A. 2002. Doing qualitative research in education settings. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Hughes, B.H. 2018. An exploration of business students’ experiences of reflection in learning. Ph.D. Thesis, University of Glasgow.

Hibbert, P. 2013. Approaching reflexivity through reflection: Issues for critical management education. Journal of Management Education. 37(6), pp.803-827.

Leigh, J. 2016. An embodied perspective on judgements of written reflective practice for professional development in higher education. Reflective Practice. 17(1), pp.72-85.

Li, H., Öchsner, A. and Hall, W. 2019. Application of experiential learning to improve student engagement and experience in a mechanical engineering course. European Journal of Engineering Education. 44(3), pp.283-293.

Kolb, D.A. 1984. Experiential learning: experience as the source of learning and development. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall.

Macfarlane, B. and Gourlay, L. 2009. The reflection game: Enacting the penitent self. Teaching in Higher Education. 14(4), pp.455-459.

Macfarlane, B. 2016. Freedom to learn: The threat to student academic freedom and why it needs to be reclaimed. London: Taylor & Francis.

McCarthy, M. 2016. Experiential learning theory: From theory to practice. Journal of Business & Economics Research. 14(3), pp.91-100.

Manalo, E., Kusumi, T., Koyasu, M., Michita, Y., and Tanaka, Y. 2015. Do students from different cultures think differently about critical and other thinking skills?. In: Davies, M. and Barnett. eds.  The Palgrave handbook of critical thinking in higher education. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, pp.299-316.

Molee, L.M., Henry, M.E., Sessa, V.I. and McKinney-Prupis, E.R. 2011. Assessing learning in service- learning courses through critical reflection. Journal of Experiential Education. 33(3), pp.239-257.

Moon, J.A. 2004. A handbook of reflective and experiential learning: theory and practice. London: Routledge.

Pais Marden, M. and Herrington, J. 2022. Encouraging reflective practice through learning portfolios in an authentic online foreign language learning environment. Reflective Practice. 23(2), pp.177-189.

Pitts, W. and Ruggirello, R. 2012. Using the e-Portfolio to Document and Evaluate Growth in Reflective Practice: The Development and Application of a Conceptual Framework. International Journal of ePortfolio. 2(1), pp.49-74.

Prudhomme, G., Boujut, J.F. and Brissaud, D. 2003. Toward reflective practice in engineering design education. International Journal of Engineering Education. 19(2), pp.328-337.

Rodgers, C. 2002. Defining reflection: Another look at John Dewey and reflective thinking. Teachers’ College Record. 104(4), pp.842-866.

Russell, T. (2005). Can reflective practice be taught? Reflective Practice: International and Multidisciplinary Perspectives. 6, pp.199-204.

Ryan, M. 2013. The pedagogical balancing act: Teaching reflection in higher education. Teaching in Higher Education. 18(2), pp.144-155.

Ryan, M. and Ryan, M. 2013. Theorising a model for teaching and assessing reflective learning in higher education. Higher Education Research & Development. 32(2), pp.244-257.

Schön, D.A. 2017. The reflective practitioner: How professionals think in action. London: Routledge.

Smith, E. 2011. Teaching critical reflection. Teaching in higher education. 16(2), pp.211-223.

Stake, R.E. 2000. Case studies. In: Denzin, N.K. and Lincoln, Y.S. eds. The SAGE handbook of qualitative research. Thousand Oaks: Sage, pp.435-454.

Tan, S.Y. 2021. Reflective learning? Understanding the student perspective in higher education. Educational Research. 63(2), pp.229-243.

Trede, F. and Smith, M. 2012. Teaching reflective practice in practice settings: students’ perceptions of their clinical educators. Teaching in higher education. 17(5), pp.615-627.

Turner, Y. 2006. Chinese students in a UK business school: Hearing the student voice in reflective teaching and learning practice. Higher Education Quarterly. 60(1), pp.27-51.

Vivekananda-Schmidt, P., Marshall, M., Stark, P., Mckendree, J., Sandars, J. and Smithson, S. 2011. Lessons from medical students’ perceptions of learning reflective skills: a multi-institutional study. Medical teacher. 33(10), pp.846-850.

Wong, A.C.K. 2016. Considering Reflection from the Student Perspective in Higher Education. SAGE Open. 6(1).

Xu, W. and Zammit, K. 2020. Applying thematic analysis to education: A hybrid approach to interpreting data in practitioner research. International Journal of Qualitative Methods. 19, pp.1-9.

Yin, R.K. 2002. Case study research: Design and methods. Thousand Oaks: SAGE.

Zizka, L., McGunagle, D.M. and Clark, P.J. 2020. Responsible STEM Graduates: Developing the Awareness-Reflection-Engagement (ARE) Model for Sustainability. In: Proceedings of the BAM2020 Conference In The Cloud (Virtual Conference). 2-4 September 2020.



Appendix I

English Language Unit Intended Learning Outcomes (ILOs)

By the end of the English Language Unit, you will be able to:
1. Research a topic by reading linguistically complex academic texts
2. Critically evaluate the effectiveness of a linguistically complex written text
3. Synthesise information from two or more academic texts
4. Use appropriate tone and register when writing academic texts
5. Give a presentation on an academic topic in their field of specialisation, using linguistically complex language  
6. Critically evaluate the effectiveness and appropriateness of a presentation


Appendix II

Phase 1 Survey questions

1 In your own words - what do you understand by reflection?
2 In your previous educational institution, did you practice reflection? If so, can you give an example?
3 If you did practice reflection in your previous institution, did it help you develop academically? Could you explain how?
4 Now, think about your current IFP English Unit studies.  
1 = lowest
10 = highest:
To what extent do you agree or disagree with the following statement:
‘My expectations of the English Unit was that I would develop my reflective practice’
5 How often did you expect reflection to be incorporated into your English unit?
Daily/ Weekly/ Monthly/ Once per teaching block/ Not at all
6 Do you feel your reflective practice on the English Unit develops you academically for your STEM pathway discipline in higher education? Could you explain how it does/doesn't?
7 Have you used reflective practice on the IFP English Unit to make any particular academic developmental changes in your STEM subject unit, if so what?
8 During your IFP English Unit, do you think you have deepened your reflective practice? If so, how?
9 In future, do you think you will continue to develop your reflective practice as part of your STEM subject academic studies? If so, could you say how?


Appendix III

Phase 2- Mini-focus group interview questions

1 (OQ1) What comes to mind when I say, ‘reflective practice’? What sort of things does that make you think about?
2 What makes you think that? Can you give me an example? / In terms of your academic development around reflective practice.
3 (KQ1) During your English Unit, do you think you have developed your reflective practice? If so, how have you developed?
4 Do you think reflective practice is valuable on the English Unit?
5 What makes you think that it's valuable?
6 Are there activities that you think would have been valuable in helping you develop your reflective practice but that you weren’t offered?
7 Do you feel you received enough guidance for developing your reflective practice on the English Unit?
8 How do you think reflective practice might be valuable in your STEM subject
9 Do you think your reflective practice on the English Unit is valuable in developing you for being reflective in your STEM pathway discipline?
10 Have you used reflective practice in your STEM subject unit, if so how?
11 Do you think there are differences between reflective practice on the English Unit and on your STEM subject, in terms of the sort of things, you will need to do in the future?
12 Do you think any development should be made to the IFP English Unit in terms of developing IFP STEM pathway students in reflective practice?
13 What makes you think that? Can you give me an example?
14 Now you’ve heard other participants’ views, have your views changed at all?


Appendix IV

Phase 3 – One-to-One interview questions

1 So, in the focus group discussion last week we talked about reflective practice. And I’m interested to investigate in more depth what your initial attitude was to reflection when you started the IFP and what and why that might have changed. So, what was your initial attitude towards reflection?
2 OK. And so, based on your initial attitude toward reflective practice, what has changed? And what do you think formed your new view of it?
3 Did you value it? What made what made you feel that or think that?
4 What do you think formed your view of how you value it, how you practice reflection and how you value it differently?
5 Based on your performance during the IFP so far, do you think you now value reflective practice differently? How do you value it differently? How?
6 How do you perceive reflective practice supports your STEM subject learning?
7 How do you perceive reflective practice will support your potential achievement in your STEM subject?
8 Thinking lastly about your IFP STEM subjects, how do you think the units might offer greater opportunity to practice reflection?