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The power of reflective diaries as an evaluation tool

11 Apr 2023 | Dr Hannah Griffin-James Dr Hannah Griffin-James says, "reflective practice is an essential part of professional training, as it facilitates the linking between theory and practice and empowers learners to seek reasons behind their practices and beliefs"

The popularity of reflective practice is growing, with the use of mentoring, workshops and diaries becoming commonplace.

Reflection is used to promote learning and greater independence in learning by bringing learning itself to consciousness and making it explicit (Watkins, 2001).

Reflection is a core part of teaching and learning, and can be used to make the learner more aware of their professional knowledge and how they use that knowledge. Historically reflective practice has been embedded in courses that are typically considered practical, like professional degrees in nursing or initial teacher training. As it has been embedded in different disciplines, reflective practice has various interpretations and intellectual traditions depending on the subject discipline (Fook et al, 2006). Broadly, within Higher Education reflective practice is commonly defined as learning through and from experience towards gaining new insights of self and practice (Finlay, 2008). Indeed, reflective practice is often used to evidence professional development (General Medical Council, 2009).

In terms of Advance HE Fellowship, for example, it is important that individuals reflect on their practice when they are writing an application, especially to draw out their effectiveness. We often hear that some individuals don’t like the term ‘reflection’ or say they can’t ‘reflect’ or there are certain disciplines that don’t reflect and even some languages where reflection can’t easily be translated.  In the guidance for applicants, therefore, we explain a simple reflective model to help them develop their narrative:

  • What you did (specific examples drawn from your practice)
  • Why you did it in this way (your approach and your choices and decisions)
  • How you carried out this approach (e.g. including any specific challenges or practical issues you had to overcome)
  • How you evaluated the effectiveness of what you did (the kinds of ‘information’ you used to review and evaluate your work including the impact this had on your learners’ learning)
  • What changes you made as a result of evaluating your effectiveness (for example, you might have modified a session in response to learner/ peer feedback and then evaluated the effectiveness of the change you implemented).

This simple model is means of supporting individuals to ‘think’ about their practice in a structured way as opposed to just describing what they do. This model enables applicants to draw out their effectiveness which is key in the new PSF. This process will also support how individuals apply one of the dimensions criteria (critical evaluation) as a basis for effective practice.

A tool to support reflection is reflective diaries.

What does a reflective diary look like?

As part of a training programme, attendees would be asked to reflect weekly on their learning and actions that week. A common misunderstanding about reflection is that it is simply sharing feelings or voicing opinions. Honestly, poor reflection can fit this description. To avoid this, prompts are used to guide the learners through the reflection process, which will support them in producing high-quality reflections. Prompts can be structured around: 1) the content; 2) the learning process; and 3) the value of their learning. Two prompts I like to use to encourage learners to think about the value of their learning are:

Do I feel that my time on this week has been well spent? If not, how could I have used my time more sensibly? Or should this week have been designed differently? Which parts of the week represent the time best spent? Which parts could be thought of as time wasted?

Overall, how has the training helped (or hindered) my motivation this week to learn more about [the topic]? Has it encouraged me, or disillusioned me?

With such broad and open prompts, learners may write or speak at length, therefore I advise putting a suggested word count or duration alongside each prompt.

Why should reflective diaries be used as an evaluation tool?

Reflective diaries can be a great tool to evaluate a teaching and learning initiative. Diaries can be written or spoken, and their efficacy has been well-established in research. Diaries provide longitudinal, real-time data that can be hard to access through other methods, like a one-off interview. Diary entries can provide a clear picture of learners’ activities and their experiences of those activities. Similarly, researchers’ reflective diaries are also commonly used to add an additional data point on the researchers’ positionality. However, as evaluation has a strong quantitative element, reflective diaries are underutilized.

The key benefit of using reflective diaries to evaluate learning and teaching is that by embedding the evaluation within the learning, the evaluation task is purposeful for the learner, whilst sharing valuable information about their learning with the evaluator. Thus reducing the burden of the evaluation on the learner.

This approach is particularly useful when evaluating a programme or activity that:

  • Involves fewer individuals (small n).
  • Is likely have an indirect impact on a longer-term goal through other factors (e.g. building confidence to improve career progression).
  • requires multiple strands of evaluation data to be pulled together, or to complement other evaluation activities.

Also by using reflective diaries as an evaluation tool the act of reflecting may consequently increase learner’s confidence in their learning. As reflective practice is strongly linked with increasing learners’ confidence in the material (McMahon & Hevey, 2017; Lestander et al., 2016), this is ideal if one of the learning objectives is to increase confidence.

Before I continue, it is important to note that consent from learners must be obtained to use learners’ reflective diaries as an evaluation tool.

How can a reflective diary be used in evaluation?

Reflective diaries can be used in several different parts of an evaluation. For example, entries can:

  • Illustrate the short-term (and implied long-term) impact of the training programme on the learner.
  • Provide a detailed account of the learner’s experience of the learning activities. This can form part of the process evaluation, about what went well in implementing or delivering the learning activities and what can be improved.
  • Inform the programme delivery team of what went well in the programme, where further support can be offered, and which areas of the programme could be improved.
  • Provide a narrative to support data on the effectiveness of the programme.
  • Illuminate the programme provider about whether learning strategies were implemented as planned.
  • Provide evidence of independent learning, and what provoked and inspired learners to further explore a topic.

In summary, reflective practice is an essential part of professional training, as it facilitates the linking between theory and practice and empowers learners to seek reasons behind their practices and beliefs. The insights that can be generated from reflective diaries are numerous, and importantly reflective diaries can be a pivotal tool in an evaluation of a training programme.

Learn more about how individuals have used the PSF to reflect on and improve their teaching practice.


Finlay, L (2008) Reflecting on ‘Reflective practice’. Practice-based Professional Learning Paper 52, The Open University.

Fook, J, White, S and Gardner, F (2006) Critical reflection: a review of contemporary literature and understandings. In White, S, Fook, J, and Gardner, F (eds.) Critical reflection in health and social care. Maidenhead, Berks: Open University Press.

General Medical Council (2009) Tomorrow’s Doctors. GMC: London.

Lestander, O, Lehto, N and Engstrom, A (2016) Nursing students' perceptions of learning after high fidelity simulation: effects of a three-step post-simulation reflection model. Nurse Education Today, 40: 219–24.

McMahon, A, and Hevey, D (2017) "it has taken me a long time to get to this point of quiet confidence": what contributes to therapeutic confidence for clinical psychologists? Clinical Psychology, 21: 195–205.

Watkins, C. (2001). Learning about learning enhances performance. London, UK: Institute of Education School Improvement Network.


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