Gibbs’ Reflective Cycle is one of the most well known cyclical models used in professional reflective practice.
It guides practitioners through an experience in six stages: description, feelings, evaluation, analysis, conclusion, and action plan.
Gibbs Reflective Cycle was originally developed for use in higher education as a way for teachers and learners to link theoretical learning to experiential practice to reinforce the knowledge they have acquired through the use of real-world examples. It has numerous applications, but it is predominantly used in the fields of teaching and health and social care. As Gibbs’ argues:
It is not sufficient simply to have an experience in order to learn. Without reflecting upon this experience it may quickly be forgotten or its learning potential lost. It is from the feelings and thoughts emerging from this reflection that generalisations or concepts can be generated. And it is generalisations which enable new situations to be tackled effectively….It is not enough just to do, and neither is it enough just to think. Nor is it enough simply to do and think. Learning from experience must involve links between the doing and the thinking.
In this article, we will be discussing this cycle, its pros and cons, along with a worked example of its use in practice and some alternatives to the Gibbs Reflective Cycle.
About Graham Gibbs
The reputation for excellent teaching at Oxford Brookes University is in large part due to the work done by Professor Graham Gibbs. He was Head of the Center for Staff and Learning Development and later Director of the Oxford Learning Institute at Oxford University, where he helped many students develop strong fundamentals that would help them to succeed beyond academia.
Graham’s career has been dedicated to improving university teaching and student learning. He founded the International Consortium for Educational Development in Higher Education and the Improving Student Learning Symposium while also receiving Honorary Doctorates from Sheffield Hallam University and the University of Utrecht.
He retired in 2007 after a long and distinguished career.
Gibbs’ Model Of Reflection
The purpose of Gibbs’ Model of Reflection is to provide a structured approach to self-reflection or ‘structured debriefings’ as Gibbs himself describes them. He argues that problems relating to discussions following an experience include:
– they often lurch from superficial descriptions of what happened to premature conclusions about what to do next, without adequate reflection or analysis;
– if the experience has been especially powerful then discussion may never get further than a description of what happened or of the feelings associated with the experience;
– if description and feelings are not dealt with adequately, learners may return to these at a later stage when they should be considering implications and action plans.
These issues may be avoided if a structured approach is used because there is less likelihood of deviation that could inhibit the learning experience. Gibbs proposed the following cyclical process for reflective practice:
Stage 1: Description
The first stage involves making a factual account of what happened during the experience. This should be an objective description and we should try to avoid recording thoughts and feelings or performing analysis as this will come later. Some things to consider at this stage include:
- When and where did the experience happen?
- Is there any relevant background information that influenced the experience?
- Who was present?
- What happened?
- What did each person do?
Stage 2: Feelings
In stage 2, we should record the feelings and emotions of ourselves and others. Again, we should not try to carry out any analysis yet, simply make a truthful account of how we felt at each stage of the experience. Questions to consider include:
- How did I feel prior to the experience?
- How did I feel during the experience?
- How did I feel after the experience?
- What were the feelings of other people that were involved?
Stage 3: Evaluation
Here, we make value judgments about the positive and negative aspects of the experience. Our evaluations should be as objective as possible. Questions to ask include:
- What went well?
- What did not go well?
- What was positive/negative about the experience?
- Were my contributions positive/negative?
- Were the contributions of others positive/negative?
Stage 4: Analysis
In the fourth stage, we critically analyse the experience using the information that we collated in the previous section along with knowledge from other sources, such as theory, research, standards and the perspectives of others. By bringing all the information together, we can begin to make sense of the experience. Questions you may ask include:
- Why was the experience positive?
- Why was the experience negative?
- Did the perspectives of others align with your own? If not, why not?
- Which literature is relevant to the experience?
- How did the experience align with the theory?
- How did the experience align with standards?
Stage 5: Conclusions
Gibbs splits this stage into general conclusions and specific conclusions.
General conclusions are broad deductions that can be derived from the experience. Specific conclusions relate to our own personal experiences, practice and development. Examples of questions that may be asked at this stage include:
- What have I learned from this experience?
- How might I have performed better?
- What would I do differently if a similar situation occurred in the future?
- What learning and development opportunities may strengthen this area of my practice?
Stage 6: Action Plan
Finally, we develop an action plan for addressing areas of our practice that we may wish to develop, based on our findings from the reflective process. This could be undergoing further training, gaining additional knowledge, practising a procedure or another similar activity. The action plan should contain objectives and timescales (SMART targets are useful here). Pertinent questions include:
- What will I do differently next time?
- What training will I undergo?
- How will I gain further knowledge or experience?
Gibbs advocated for his reflective cycle to be used in situations practitioners find themselves in often. This is primarily because practitioners who reflect on the same set of experiences are more likely to build up a bank of knowledge and expertise pertaining to that situation.
However, the stages of the Gibbs model can be used in single, isolated experiences. This means that elements of the reflective cycle, the action plan aspect, for example, will likely be more generalised and ultimately less practical when considering the applications of the reflective cycle process.
Advantages And Disadvantages Of Gibbs Reflective Cycle
As with all reflective practices, there are advantages and disadvantages of using Gibbs’ reflective cycle.
These advantages and disadvantages are somewhat subjective, as not every method of reflective practice works for all practitioners in every situation.
- Gibbs’ reflective cycle underpins many other models of reflective practice
- It provides a structured approach to experiential learning
- It is a relatively simple model that is a good introduction for individuals that are new to self-reflection
- It was developed as a generalised approach to reflective practice within a teaching setting and so does not focus on specialised practice, such as nursing or social care
Alternatives To Gibbs Reflective Cycle
Kolb’s (1984) model is a more simplified model based on a set of theories around how people learn – in fact, Gibbs’ model was based on Kolb’s research. It revolves around four key stages: Concrete Experience, Reflective Observation, Abstract Conceptualization, and Active Experimentation.
Schon’s model of reflection builds on the idea that reflection can be performed both after an experience (reflection-on-action) as well as during an experience (reflection-in-action).
An Example Of Gibbs Reflective Cycle
Now that we have established the stages of Gibbs’ Reflective Cycle, we’ll now walk through an example. Following is a self-reflection from a care worker.
Description – Stage One
I was working with two individuals with learning disabilities in a supported living environment. Each of the individuals was supposed to be receiving one-on-one support but due to staff absences, I was supporting them both. We all had an enjoyable day but when I came to administer one of the individual’s medication (1mg Risperidone) at 6PM, I realised that I’d forgotten to give him his morning dose earlier in the day.
I called the pharmacy for advice. They advised that I should continue with the evening medication as usual and to call NHS 111 if the individual experienced any side effects or changes in behaviour. I informed the client of what had happened and apologised as well as wrote up the appropriate medication administration error form, made a record on the MAR sheet and informed my manager.
My manager thanked me for letting her know and said not to worry about it too much as it can happen from time to time. She also recommended that I reflect upon the experience when I had time.
Feelings – Stage Two
When I first came onto shift I was feeling a little nervous about working on my own with two clients and a bit overwhelmed by all the information that I was being given during the handover. As I’d only worked with the clients a few times, when the previous shift worker left I felt my priority was to get to know them and make them feel at ease with me. It was during this time that I should have administered the medication but completely forgot.
When I realised my mistake in the evening I felt instant dread and was worried about my error causing harm to the individual as well as getting into trouble with my manager and organisation. I also felt guilty and disappointed in myself. After a few moments, I regained my composure and followed company protocols by calling for advice from a medical professional.
When the pharmacy told me that the missed medication shouldn’t affect the individual’s health very much, I felt relieved but still felt a little scared that my employer would be angry or disappointed. However, I did feel better about it once I had spoken to my manager.
Evaluation – Stage Three
The thing that did not go well in this experience was that I forgot to administer an individual’s medication. However, there were also positive elements such as knowing what to do when a medication error occurs and owning up to the mistake. I fulfilled my duty of care by seeking immediate support from a medical professional and my duty of candour by apologising to the individual and being transparent in my explanation of what had happened.
Analysis – Stage Four
Although the missed medication was not a major issue on this occasion, I work with individuals that could have much more serious consequences if they miss a dose of their medication – for example, individuals that have epilepsy and heart conditions.
In addition, being overloaded with information about two different clients, it was perhaps inevitable that something would be forgotten.
Conclusions – Stage Five
Through this experience, I have learned that I can keep a level head in unexpected situations and that I have a thorough understanding of my responsibilities as a care worker and the standards that I must meet as well as my employer’s policies and procedures.
However, I think that I need to have a system in place to remember medication administration because it is so important to my role – although other aspects of my job role are important, medication administration can quite literally be life-or-death.
Action Plan – Stage Six
Going forward, I want to ensure that I do not forget to administer medication to my clients. I will do this by ensuring that I check the medication schedules for all the individuals that I am responsible for as soon as I come on to shift and setting a reminder on my phone.
- Gibbs: Learning by Doing (1988)