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Tutorial 9: Reflecting on Actions and Outcomes

Tutorial 9: Resources

A. The Difference between Descriptive and Reflective Writing









Descriptive writing aims to be low inference. For example, writing "the students were excited and did an excellent job on their projects" is drawing an inference from observation. A lower inference description of the same event by an action researcher might read, "The students spent most of the period focused on their projects with relatively few distractions. They did not want to leave at the end of the period. The teacher assessed each of the projects as meeting all of the objectives set for the activity."

Reflective writing can and often does contain descriptions of events—but the goal of the writing is very different. The focus is not on what happened, but why you think it happened the way it did. In reflective writing, you examine how what happened connects to past events and ideas, and possible futures that such events might herald. The reflection mirrors the mind—providing an inside view of one's thinking about these connections. So while a reflection may begin by describing an action or a consequence of an action, it quickly leaves the details of what happened and uses some aspect of the situation as a springboard for exploring the researcher's analysis and synthesis of actions or consequences, and why and how they are connected. For example, the researcher might have noticed something about the way people work, some problem might serve as a metaphor for something that occurs frequently, or an event might trigger relationships to situations that were similar or different in the work of others or in the researcher's own past experiences. Another possibility is that the connections might trigger some change in the way the researcher comes to see the events, some shift in perspective, or the development of a new individual or group skill might alter the way people interact with one another. The reflection might dwell on those relationships. Something learned about the people involved in the action research might lead the researcher to question the way they think about an issue. For reflective writing, the mirror shows what cannot be seen with the eyes—the thinking that the researcher is doing about the action and consequences of the actions for now and for the future.

Both descriptive and reflective writing are important in documenting your action research for yourself and others. Memory is reconstructive. It uses bits of evidence to reconstruct scenes and events. Rich description can preserve one's time-sensitive way of seeing a set of actions and reactions. Without careful note-taking throughout the process of action research, it is very difficult to remember the conditions as the memories tend to reconstruct with the benefit of evolving knowledge. In any process of change, it is important to keep a research log—notes that describe what is seen and heard and your thoughts about it. A good researcher is always aware that their point-of-view is not the only one that defines reality. The more evidence of the perceptions of others that are collected, the deeper the researcher's understanding will be of the multiple perspectives on the same actions. 

B. The Reflection Spirals

1) Reflection Spiral 1: Deepening your understanding of the context--
Start by placing action and reaction in the center of a circle...

  • Ask "Why did things happen the way they did?"

  • "What were the critical factors?"

  • Keep asking "Why?" until you have exhausted every angle.

Reflection Spiral 2) Examining Action and Identity --

Think about the whole of the actions and reactions ask yourself these questions:

  • "What did this process do to me?"

  • Looking back and projecting forward, think about your identity. "How has it changed who I am or how I act?"

  • "Are you the same person now, and if not how have you changed?"

  • "What has changed about your actions?"

  • "If you act in different ways does this cause you to see yourself in a different way?"

  • "Do you think that others see you in a different way?"

  • "What is the relationship between action and identity?"

Reflection Spiral 3: Shifting Conceptual Frames --

Now as you spiral out one more time, ask yourself  these questions:

  • "How has this action and reactions affected the way I think?"

  • "What are the conceptual changes that come from reading ideas, and then working with them?"

  • "What ideas have changed and what is the consequence of this shift in ways that I organize my thinking?"

  • "Have my values shifted or become more complex?"

  • "Have there been any changes to my educational philosophy?"

C. Reflection Questions and Frameworks

As you work on writing your reflection here are some

other reflection questions or frameworks that different

writers have suggested:

Coghlan and Brannick (2005, p42)* list the following advice on reflection from
Kolb's (1994) suggest a four-part sequence experiential learning cycle:


  1. Concrete experience: Taking a single event bounded by time provide a clinically neutral explanation of what happened, what was said, and the consequences of the actions were.

  2. Reflection: This is a personal reflection on how the actions affected the person. It is an examination of how the person viewed their actions including feelings, reactions, observations, and judgments.

  3. Conceptualizations: This is looking at what happened through the lens of prior research or theoretical work. It is also explicitly linking the outcomes to the theory of action that was held at the beginning.

  4. Experimentation: The final part of this reflective process looks to what new ideas the researchers have for applying, testing, or extending what was learned in the process of reflection. It is establishing specific and concrete behavioral goals for action in similar situations.

Another strategy for reflection similar to this one comes from Schein (1999, cited in Coghlan and Brannick 2005, ) who suggests an observation, reaction, judgment, and intervention model.


  1. Observation: Describe what happened.

  2. Reaction: Explore emotional reactions to what has been observed working out how the events affected the players in the situation.

  3. Judgment: Analyze, process and make judgments based on the observations and feelings with a goal of figuring out what is based on feeling and what is based on analysis of what happened.

  4. Intervention: Plan what the next approach will be to make something happen

           *Coghlan, D., Brannick, T. (2005), Doing Action Research in Your Own Organization, 2nd ed., Sage, London.



E. Alana James* offers the following advice on reflection, or how not to fool yourself. 


Any person using action research to improve their personal, professional or family life, will go through regular cycles of reflection. In other articles, I have stressed the need for this to be done as a protocol and as a regular practice, done in the same way each week so that outcomes can be compared over time. It is hoped that reflection aids us in keeping our objectivity. The danger is that it might actually cause the opposite and that you can end up chasing your tail, or in other words reflecting on your reflections. This article becomes a reflection on the ups and downs of reflective practice and is spurred on by a number of thoughts experienced and discuss at the Collaborative Action Research Network conference, 2010, in Cambridge

The consideration that Dr. Stern pointed out was that reflection can put a candy coating of success over a cycle of activities, or as Richard Feynman, Nobel Prize winner was cited as saying, "Science is a way of trying not to fool yourself.... and you are the easiest person to fool." Stern suggested that we ask the question, "What am I turning a blind eye to? How am I fooling myself?


Perhaps the most obvious way we fool ourselves is through selective observation....We also fool ourselves by not asking the right questions... 


I would suggest the following:

  1. Start the first session of the participatory group with a discussion of how we see things and how our beliefs influence what we notice, and then, from an understanding of our underlying assumptions, we can build our work 

  2. Start every subsequent session with a conversation about what is being experienced that is surprising or, whether or not anything has happened that might challenge our initial beliefs? 

  3. Probe after each discussion that comes to seeming consensus: "What might we be missing here? Is there anything we have not seen? What if we look at it through the eyes of someone very different than us, what would they see?"

           * James, E. A. (2010) Action Research: Enhancing Reflective Practice. Accessed online on May 10, 2018. 
                  (for more articles on both action research and writing a dissertation see this listing of James  articles.)

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